Looking back, Robert Chen still marvels at being hired as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster in 1999. At that point, the future leader of the CSO had only two years of orchestral experience, and he had never served as concertmaster in any professional capacity. “It was a sharp learning curve,” he said. “I had to learn a lot of music very quickly on the job.”
At 49, Chen ranks among the top concertmasters in the world. It is clear that the confidence that Daniel Barenboim, former CSO music director, placed in him was justified. Chicago audiences will get an up-close look at this now familiar leader when he is featured as soloist in concerts March 15-17 in Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante (with guest violist Paul Neubauer).
“I was trained to be a soloist,” Chen said. “This was my focus growing up. In a lot of ways, playing a concerto is my natural state as a musician.”
A native of Taiwan, Chen began his musical studies at age 7 when his parents signed him up for violin lessons. His older sisters were both studying the piano, so he suspects that his parents chose the violin for him because there was no room in their home for another piano. He did not immediately take to the instrument. His preferences were to play ball or go to the nearby public pool — boyish pursuits that did not require him to be stuck indoors practicing the violin.
Everything changed three years later when he emigrated with his family to the United States. Once there, he continued his violin studies with the highly respected pedagogue Robert Lipsett. “He was a pivotal influence in my life,” Chen said. “He instilled in me the value of determination and persistence. He not only taught me everything I know about violin playing, but he also showed me that this is something I could devote my life to doing. I owe a lot to him.”
By the time Chen left Los Angeles to attend the prestigious Juilliard School in 1986, he had amassed an impressive resumé of solo appearances, including engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. While at Juilliard, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees as a student of Masao Kawasaki and the legendary Dorothy DeLay.
All along, Chen’s training had been focused on a solo career, and he was on the star-studded artist roster of the Columbia Artists Management. In 1994, he was the winner at the Hannover International Violin Competition. This lead to many opportunities in Europe as well as a chance to record Tchaikovsky’s violin music for the Berlin Klassics label. In 1997, his life of being a soloist and playing chamber music with his peers at Marlboro soon took an unexpected turn when a friend from the Philadelphia Orchestra encouraged him to try out for a position with the revered ensemble. “At the time, orchestral playing was not in my field of vision,” he said. “I am very glad I took that path.”
After two years of invaluable experience with the Philadelphians, Chen received a call from Chicago Symphony to audition for the concertmaster post. After an initial audition for Barenboim, Chen played for the audition committee of CSO musicians, and the rest is history.
Still relatively new to the orchestra, Chen realized that taking over this prominent leadership position posed a monumental challenge. The concertmaster has a highly visible role, walking out at the beginning of the concert for the ceremonial bow, overseeing the tuning of the orchestra and performing all the major violin solos. In addition, the concertmaster serves a conduit between the orchestra and the conductor, who relies on the concertmaster to produce and communicate the sound he or she is seeking. “The less said the better,” Chen said. “You lead by example. You always play your best and you never bring anything less than that. This is infectious on your colleagues. This is what being a leader is about.”
Reflecting on his early tenure, Chen is grateful for the support and encouragement of Barenboim and his CSO colleagues. He also applauds the CSO Library for its “tireless dedication and extraordinary helpfulness at every turn.”
In 2010, Riccardo Muti took over as the CSO’s music director, and Chen praises Muti’s leadership of the orchestra. “Maestro Muti has the unusual combination of charisma, temperament and intellect,” Chen said. “When he stands in front of the orchestra, there is no question who is in charge. He has the power of focusing the energy of 100 people and projecting it in laser-like intensity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, he is a devoted student of music, faithful to the text and architecture of a composition. When you work with him, you always know that he is going to point you in the direction that you need to go. It is an incredibly exhilarating experience.”
Chen believes he lives a most blessed life. When he is not working, he spends his time with his wife, Laura, and their two children, Beatrice and Noah. When he goes to work, he has the best job in the world, leading the CSO, a top-flight orchestra, and having the opportunity to solo with his colleagues. “It is an honor. It is a privilege,” he said. “As a young man studying music and aspiring for a solo career, I dreamt about playing with the greatest orchestras in the world. I am living that dream.”
Note: This is an updated version of a previously published interview on Sounds & Stories.
TOP: Concertmaster Robert Chen smiles at his CSO colleagues as he begins the tuning process before a performance. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography