Robert Chen, the longtime concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, steps up to the podium to lead his fellow musicians in an all-Mozart program Nov. 29-30 and Dec. 1 and 4. Along with his conducting duties, he will be the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 (Strassburg).

“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 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 won 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 the CSO to audition for the concertmaster post. After an initial audition for Daniel Barenboim, then the CSO’s music director, Chen played for the CSO audition committee, 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.” 

Chen believes he lives a most blessed life. 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: A version of this interview was previously published on Sounds and Stories.

TOP: Concertmaster Robert Chen smiles at his CSO colleagues as he begins the tuning process before a performance. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography