Violinist Ray Chen is a hit with real and online audiences: a star at concert hall performances, he’s also taking charge of his own social media content. Maria Roberts finds out more about the classical music influencer
Ray Chen is something of a rare find in the classical music industry. Down to earth, yet pristine, he exudes a sophisticated star quality but is also kind, approachable and fun.
You’re as likely to see Chen trussed up in the obligatory shirt, suit and tie as you are to see him in jeans and a T-shirt. In 2017 he made Forbes’ list of the 30 most influential Asians under 30. He plays the 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius violin on loan from Nippon Music Foundation, once owned by Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim. He’s flying high, that’s for sure.
Despite the trappings of success, Chen says he can still relate to what it means to be a young artist trying to get ahead, having picked up first prize at both the Menuhin Competition (2008) and Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition (2009) before he’d even turned 21.
Now the Taiwan-born Australian star, who signed to Decca Classics in 2017, is represented by CAMI Music. He’s played with the greats such as London Philharmonic Orchestra, Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchester, Munich Philharmonic, Filarmonica della Scala, Orchestra Nazionale della Santa Cecilia and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Lofty heights indeed, but Chen still stays close to his young audience on social media, entertaining them with playful content. On his website, you’ll find clips of the violinist running around making ‘hero videos’ about charities that support young musicians. His YouTube channel has 43,000 subscribers and is growing daily, having become a popular platform for his inspirational videos, comedy clips and practise tips.
Seemingly, Chen is as happy to take the low road as he is to take the highfalutin road. His most popular clips are, reassuringly, of serious classical repertoire: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64 has in excess of 740,000 views; a casual three-minute clip, Ray Chen teaches Wrist Vibrato part 1, has 100,000 views; while, appealing to the schadenfreude in all of us, Ray Chen breaks string during performance, has 153,000 views. (By way of contrast, 90s icon Vanessa Mae’s Storm, Vivaldi Techno has 30.2m views – and she’s also an Olympic skier – so Chen still has a lot of catching up to do.)
“We are all using social platforms as a tool,” Chen tells me when I question him. (He is speaking on a press panel at a music festival. Journalists are firing questions at him about his relatability.) “Whether you are an artist, selling a product, or a business like a restaurant, basically the goal is to reach out to people and to communicate. These days if you have a complaint about an airline you tweet about it and get a reply straight back. Classical music can communicate in a similar way by making the same sort of direct contact you get in other industries.
“Outside of the concert hall, artists can communicate in whatever way they want: if other businesses are on Instagram and Facebook, we should be there too – especially young generation artists.”
“Whether you are an artist, selling a product, or a business like a restaurant, basically the goal is to reach out to people and to communicate.”
And he has words of warning for those who don’t follow the in-crowd. “Classical music is already a niche market and it is important to us to stay on top of what we are doing. It is important to us to protect our tradition, but there has to be a balance.”
I ask Chen what he thinks about mobile phone use in concert halls – should guests be able to tweet, Snapchat, Facebook live, Instagram or text? “For those sorts of things I don’t agree [it should be in the concert hall]. I think that the concert itself should remain traditional, though you can have [in house] streaming or whatever.”
“Of course, classical music is steeped in tradition but today there are so many choices. Part of my work as a musician is to perform the works of modern composers. Another important part of my job is presenting what do we do as musicians, to act as an ambassador for music and music education and work with the younger generation.
“Working with young kids is something I enjoy,” adds Chen. (This much is obvious; when I spied him at the breakfast buffet that morning, Chen was patiently helping a young guest figure out how to juice vegetables.) “It feels like it wasn’t so long ago that I was in their shoes and looking for guidance. Maxim Vengerov was a huge inspiration to me when I first met him when I was just 15 years old, and then again in 2008 when I was 19 years old. He was the person to invite me to Russia to play in St Petersburg with the Mariinsky Orchestra. I’m trying to give back these kind of experiences and opportunities to kids.”
His advice to young artists is to get out there and find your fans. “The internet brings with it many possibilities: you’ll find that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people like you. Now any group of people or personality type can find a following on the internet. I’m always trying to encourage people to take that first step: it’s easier than you think. Some people don’t want to leave their comfort zones, but when they do they discover there’s a whole new world out there.”