Ray Chen set himself a certain challenge with the name of his debut album: "Virtuoso."
"That title was Sony marketing there," he said, laughing. "Honestly, I wasn't so concerned with what was on the album cover as what was on the CD."
Along with Tartini's fiendishly difficult Devil's Trill Sonata, the recording features Bach's monumental D-minor Chaconne and difficult pieces by César Franck and Henryk Wieniawski. "These works are virtuosic," he said. "The word virtuoso seems as if it has a bad connotation, as if it's an empty showman. I think that it doesn't have to be that way. Why does a virtuoso not have to play musically?"
Last year, the 22-year-old Chen signed a deal with Sony Classical, after some spectacular competition wins, including the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin and 2009 Queen Elisabeth international violin competitions.
Chen's musical development started early. He was born in Taiwan and moved to Australia with his family when he was six months old, growing up in Brisbane. At age three he had a toy guitar that he placed under his chin and grabbed a chopstick to use as a bow. His parents signed him up for Suzuki Method violin lessons.
"No tiger mother there, which is something I'm very thankful for," he noted, referring to the strict Asian parenting methods popularized in Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Chen's musical career took off when he won a national competition in Australia, at age 13. Two years later, he was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Aaron Rosand. The Queen Elisabeth win was a major turning point in his short musical career. "It's one of the longest competitions in the world," he explained. "It's a month long. For the final round there are 12 people selected and they lock you up in this 'practice castle.'
Being sequestered with the other contestants for a full week, Chen did almost nothing but practice. "You get all your cell phones and laptops taken away from you for you to learn this new concerto, which was written especially for this final round. Boy, that was hell, that piece -- so difficult to play in terms of technique. And to learn it in a week was ridiculous." Chen also had to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto and a Franck sonata.
Chen's next album is a live recording of the Tchaikovsky and Mendelsssohn Concertos with the Swedish Radio Orchestra led by conductor Daniel Harding. In the meantime, watch this performance from the WQXR Café, featuring Chen, his "MacMillan" Stradivarius and the Prelude from J.S. Bach's E-Major Partita.
Audio: Ray Chen talks about virtuosos
Video: Jen Hsu; Sound: Edward Haber; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon; Text: Brian Wise