Along with performing with the great orchestras and in the great concert halls of the world, violinist Ray Chen makes the internet his stage, via a series of engaging videos on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. He’s followed by more than 2 million fans on SoundCloud.

Though he’s a major success at the young age of 28, he did not grow up in a musical family. “My parents are not musicians, but they love music,” said Chen, who will be the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under James Conlon, on July 28 at the Ravinia Festival. (Also on the program, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with soprano Marisol Montalvo, and Mozart’s “L’amerò, sarò costante” for soprano and violin from the opera Il rè pastore.) “My father’s a businessman — he’s actually completely tone-deaf — and my mom plays a little bit of piano. I’d say that she’s where my musical talent stems from. She used to play piano as a child, but couldn’t continue because of the financial constraints on her family. She poured all that energy and enthusiasm into me!”

Born in Taiwan, Chen grew up in Australia, where he began his violin studies at age 4. “Brisbane is not exactly the musical center of the world,” he said. “But I think that had a positive influence on me because in Brisbane, competition wasn’t everything. Later, I went to [the] Curtis [Institute in Philadelphia], where things were much more cutthroat, but by that time I was certain that playing the violin was exactly what I wanted to do. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to all that competition had I experienced it at an early age.”

Chen travels constantly, piling up scads of frequent-flyer miles while hopping from continent to continent. The week before his Ravinia appearance, he’s in back in Brisbane, performing Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Only a few days after his Ravinia date, where he’s making his CSO debut, he’ll be in Amsterdam playing the same piece, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. “I remember the moment I first heard it,” Chen said. “For me, this piece was everything. I loved it from the start and played it in competitions, in auditions and now in performances. It’s one of the pieces Mendelssohn wrote when he was older. I think he was 34. It’s a much more mature piece than his other violin concerto, the D minor one.

“Each time I play it — doesn’t matter where — it has that excitement, that freshness. I remember constantly listening to Maxim Vengerov’s recording of it. I definitely wore that one out.”

This is an excerpt of an article published in the Ravinia magazine; to read the complete version, click here. 

TOP: Ray Chen in an impromptu performance. | Photo: Uwe Arens