Review: Ray Chen Performs Mendelssohn with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

February 7, 2023, 7:53 PM · Violinist Ray Chen came to town last week to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Matthias Pintscher, and he brought something special: the 1714 "Dolphin" Stradivarius violin that he started playing last September, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation.

Ray Chen
Violinist Ray Chen. Photo by Farah Sosa at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

Of course, it's special because it's a precious Strad, but beyond that, it is also the instrument once owned by the much-revered violinist Jascha Heifetz. That strikes a chord in Los Angeles, where Heifetz lived during the latter part of his life.

I was reminded of this while sitting at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday. As I was waiting for the concert to begin, I saw a familiar person walking up the steps toward my row - Robert Lipsett, who holds the Jascha Heifetz Distinguished Violin Chair at the Colburn School. In fact, his ticket showed the seat right next to mine, and there he sat.

"Ray came to the Heifetz studio Thursday - on Heifetz's birthday - and played the Heifetz Strad," Lipsett said. "It's stunningly beautiful."

To explain: Heifetz' birthday was last week, on Feb. 2 (he was born in 1901). Lipsett - who has taught some of today's finest violinists (check out this impressive list) teaches at Colburn in the Heifetz studio. The studio was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in the backyard of Heifetz' hilltop home in Los Angeles. Several years after Heifetz' death in 1987, the building was painstakingly re-built inside The Colburn School, on the third floor.

While I missed the Heifetz birthday tribute, as well as a master class that Ray gave earlier in the week, I was looking forward to the Mendelssohn - on that Strad.

Friday evening's concert was part of the LA Phil's "Casual Friday" series - shortened concerts with no intermission, followed by a little after-concert party. This concert was so casual that it started 20 minutes after the designated time!

Fortunately, Ray was the first act of the evening, and he played to nearly full hall, a crowd with a noticeable number of young people.

Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, written in the 19th century for the violinist Ferdinand David, has long been a favorite for both audiences and players, who often study the work as one of their first major concertos.

Ray was clearly on familiar ground with this music, meeting its challenges with a sense of ease and a friendly smile. During the first-movement cadenza he had drawn his audience in, creating that special kind of quiet that happens when all attention is focused on the soloist. Occasionally he would play a virtuoso lick with rock-n-roll stance, making it look mighty cool to be a violinist.

Ray has a very active left hand - a wide and fast vibrato that brought out the beauty in that special Strad. The second movement went at a fairly brisk tempo, with a little more angst than tenderness.

The highlight was the third movement, full of joyous music-making. He seemed happy and at-home, tossing it all off at high speed yet making every articulation speak. He had great timing and rapport with the orchestra, synchronizing his part with little details like bass pizzicati. What a treat!

The LA Phil also played a work I'd not heard before - Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, arranged for orchestra by the 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg. The program notes contained Schoenberg's reasons for creating this arrangement:

  1. "I like the piece
  2. It is seldom played
  3. It is always very badly played because the better the pianist, the louder he plays, and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted to hear everything, and this I achieved."

That reasoning has a kind of humor that permeated the piece: How big of an ensemble can you assemble to play a piece that was originally written for four instruments? This was some robust orchestration: a huge orchestra with full string sections, winds, brass - even tubas, trombones and saxophones. Six people were playing percussion - triangle, cymbals, a marimba, drums big and small.

The LA Phil and conductor Pintscher gave it a committed reading. At times the passagework in the string sections looked like furious work, and the orchestra played it with accuracy and energy. While it sounded like Brahms, it distinctly did not sound like orchestration by Brahms. Occasionally I was reminded of something like Brahms' "Haydn Variations" or a symphony, but dressed in a completely different style of clothes. Much of the time the music created a wall of sound, and I had to giggle every time I heard something like a triangle or tuba - not exactly sounds that would literally emanate from a piano quartet, but clearly it was what Schoenberg heard in this music.

Musical food for thought!

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February 8, 2023 at 11:43 AM · thanks!

February 8, 2023 at 08:05 PM · P.S. Ray Chen launched an app for practicing this week, called Tonic. Here is a link to it!

February 11, 2023 at 08:28 PM · I wonder what kind of violin ol' Fred David played.

(I have the David edition of the Vitali G minor Ciaccona. Inside it is printed "Edited and Fingered by Henry Schradieck" and "Arranged for Violin and Pianoforte by FERD. DAVID" with the capital letters like that. Apparently there was not enough room to write out FERDINAND. I had to do a double-take because initially it looked like "FRED" to me. Now I laugh every time I see that. Good ol' Freddie ...)

I wonder how well Ray's "Tonic" goes with a stiff shot of gin...

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