Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
There are few classical violinists whose arrival on the platform occasions the sort of popstar reception that greeted Ray Chen on Saturday evening. The Taiwanese-Australian appeared gratified but not much surprised.
With a reputation built via YouTube and social media, partnerships with Sony Electronics, games companies and fashion houses, a Decca recording deal and his own app that makes instrumental practice a community endeavour online, the RSNO’s guest soloist also has an impeccable coiffeur to match his international fame.
In January the orchestra tours Europe with him and a programme including the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a virtuoso work played and recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Chen plays a Strad once owned by Heifetz and it was another work from the 20th century virtuoso’s 1950s fame on stage and in the studio, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, that he performed in this week’s concerts in the RSNO season.
Although the soloist’s first flashy cadenza comes half-way through the long opening movement, the main fireworks in the Sibelius come later, particularly in the devilish dance of the final movement. Chen, however, was chewing the scenery from the start as he stared down the fingerboard: his facial expressions and athletic eyebrows almost outdid his lightning-speed playing.
The 34-year-old has impressive technique, but his opening gambit was not really what Sibelius wrote in terms of dynamic and timbre. And when we arrived at the closing Allegro over 20 minutes later, Chen’s phrasing of the opening bars there might most kindly be described as idiosyncratic. The fast music always looked intense and exciting, but the best of Chen’s playing came in the slow second movement with a much lighter touch at the start and real delicacy in the final bars, all bolstered by a richness of tone from the RSNO strings.
Without the spotlight on their young guest-star, the orchestra had a superb evening. The opening work was the Scottish premiere of Finnish composer Lotta Wennakoski’s Om fotspar och ljus (Of Footprints and Light), a brilliantly orchestrated piece that is part of a series of commissions by the Helsinki Philharmonic. Its origins are an interesting slice of Finnish musical heritage, but heard on its own purely musical terms it was a fascinating ten minutes or so, demanding an array of operations from the percussion section and extended noise-generating techniques from strings and winds.
Swells of sound appeared from the orchestral sections in turn but it was the tiny details, on harp and in the basses and brass, that constantly caught the ear – and the closing bars from the front desk fiddles were quite magical.
Conductor Thomas Sondergard was as particular in the details of Dvorak’s Symphony No 6, which followed the interval. This is the work in which the composer first fully integrates Czech folk melodies into a sumptuously-orchestrated symphony, and it built his reputation across Europe. If it is sometimes overshadowed by the composer’s later works, Sondergard made an eloquent case for its equal status with a lightness of touch, a wide range of dynamic variation, and that meticulous attention to every nuance of the scoring. The rhythm of the Scherzo, a specific Slavonic dance meter, was a joyful delight and the Finale built to a spirited climax that was as fulfilling as it was pin-sharp and exactly as stipulated.