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Ray Chen Debuts with BSO

available at Amazon
Mozart, Violin Concertos and Sonata, R. Chen, Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival Orchestra, C. Eschenbach
(Sony, 2014)

available at Amazon
Tchaikovsky / Mendelssohn, Violin Concertos, R. Chen, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, D. Harding
(Sony, 2012)
Reviews of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have become less and less common in these pages, because the programming of their concerts in the last few years has been disappointingly repetitive. Not to rehash this point, made several times in recent posts, but it occurred to me again with the group's latest concert, heard on Saturday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. The combination of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto and Rachmaninov's second symphony did not exactly sweep me off my feet, although it was likely calculated to please the audience, who responded to both pieces as expected. Perhaps not coincidentally, the BSO's program notes have stopped listing the last time that the orchestra played the pieces on their programs, which in most cases is quite recently. What I had forgotten in all the time since the last BSO concert I reviewed -- last September -- was how good this orchestra sounds, section for section smoother and more unified than their colleagues at the Kennedy Center, especially in the violins. What a shame that they are playing classical music's greatest hits with such disappointing frequency.

Ray Chen launched his career with decisive wins at the Menuhin and Queen Elisabeth Competitions, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. For the last few years he has made the rounds of the local recital venues, including Dumbarton Oaks (2013), the Embassy Series (2012), and the Young Concert Artists series at the Kennedy Center (2009). This was his local orchestral debut, although given that he has just released a Mozart CD with Christoph Eschenbach, Chen's appearance on the NSO young artists series (unofficial) is likely around the corner, although not not next season. Alas, he did not quite have the Tchaikovsky concerto fully in his hands, mostly because of some intonation issues and harshness of tone high on the E string (including the crucial flautando notes in the solo part, which were not all there), possibly because he seemed to be trying to squeeze as much sound as he could from the instrument. The husky growl of the G string and overall big, juicy tone on the 1702 "Lord Newlands" Stradivarius, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation, were gorgeous, though, as was his often melting legato, especially in the second theme of the first movement and the Canzonetta. An encore, Paganini's 21st caprice, showed effortless technique.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Rousing Baltimore Symphony concert with conductor Hans Graf, violinist Ray Chen (Baltimore Sun, May 23)

Robert Battey, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra welcomes musicians new and old at Strathmore (Washington Post, May 26)
The real star of the evening was guest conductor Hans Graf, conductor laureate of the Houston Symphony (where he will soon be succeeded by Andrés Orozco-Estrada), who was just as expert and self-effacing as in his previous appearances in the area, with the NSO in 2012 and 2008 and with the BSO. In the Tchaikovsky he helped guide the orchestra in a superlatively sensitive accompaniment of the soloist, with craftsmanship down to the least important parts of the score. Graf also made the best of Rachmaninov's second symphony, the hour-long work on the second half, in which I at least feel every minute of its length. The BSO played it beautifully, with a minimum of soupy rubato, except perhaps in the saccharine third movement, falling short of the last performance in these ears, by Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

Next week's concerts from the BSO will feature Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, with parts of the play performed by actors (May 29 to June 1).

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