I Came for Copland. I Will Remember Ray Chen


Appalachian Spring

Seattle Symphony

Benaroya Hall, Seattle

There's a decent chance I just witnessed the most incredible live performance by a violinist I will be privileged to experience in my lifetime. Ray Chen has a reputation for the intense passion that precedes him, but any hype was dimmed by the supernova burst of hearing him live.

This was my favorite of many memorable evenings spent with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall. Beginning with a dynamic modern composition by Dorothy Chang titled "Northern Star," the fuse was lit for a night of explosive energy. Chang masterfully wields the loud-quiet-loud with a contrast that offers a more extraordinary richness to both ends of that spectrum. This fuse beautifully burned its way to the readied dynamite of Erich Korngold's "Violin Concerto in D major" and Ray Chen's waiting violin.

Chen breathes intensity through the bridge, strings, and bow. He speaks directly through his violin as an extension of himself. If there is a division between the two, it is difficult to see and nearly impossible to hear. He reads the language of Korngold's music, knows it, and shares it as his own with the deepest feeling due to each note. His vibrato resonates through his arm, wrist, and fingers. His double stops sing with a choral unison. His bowing seems endlessly seamless, stretching onward into a continued infinity. His joy and love are ever present, and we in the audience were graciously lavished with wave after wave of passion, playfulness, and pure celebration. If there is something exceptional about being human, moments like these best make a better argument.

Also exceptional was the work of conductor Xian Zhang. Of the many conductors I have seen lead the Seattle Symphony, Zhang coaxes a new level of intensity, bringing this body of musicians closest to dancing on the razor's edge. Aside from having the mastery to answer Zhang's call, the members of the Seattle Symphony should be credited for the adaptability of maintaining their consistent level of play while rotating through so many conductors. Since I began attending their performance in December of last year, I don't believe I've seen the same hand lift the baton twice, but these musicians make that flexibility look effortless.

Closing out the program were the soothing sounds of Aaron Copland. If America were ever to live up to the purity of its professed ideals and intentions, it might sound something like Copland's Appalachian Spring. This is a piece that has brought me to joyful tears many times, and it was this offering that drew me to Benaroya Hall last Saturday night. What a perfect way to wrap up a program of forceful fireworks. The calm after the storm… and how wonderful it was. My heart is cradled in these bars—the quiet which gently builds. The strings work double-time, and the brass supports with sustained notes from below. There is such hope. Such yearning. Such a desire for better. Maybe, like the films of Frank Capra, it's an idealism that stretches too far and sees not so clearly. Still, I have fallen for Copland ever since I first heard what he had to say and getting to listen to his Appalachian Spring played so wonderfully live was a gift, the warmth of which still gives me a little smile.

Add new comment