Review: Ray Chen & RSNO – Sibelius – Usher Hall

Ray Chen - RSNO - Sibelius Violin Concerto - Review at

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Reviewer: Lindsay McMurdo

Though brutally cut short just before the end by the Usher Hall’s fire alarms, the RSNO nonetheless delivered an evening of very welcome warmth and light to a packed house on Friday, much enlivened by the infectious energy of violin superstar Ray Chen.

Contemporary Finnish composer Lotta Wennakoski’s Of Footprints and Light kicked off proceedings in arresting if somewhat amorphous fashion with its ever-changing rhythms, textures and tempi, all deftly handled by the orchestra and its long-standing musical director Thomas Sondergard. Brief snatches of melody and more reflective passages were quickly swept away, making this listener wish for a more fully developed approach, but as an appetiser for the two substantial main courses to follow, it certainly served its purpose.

Taiwanese-born violin prodigy Ray Chen is as well-known online as on the concert platform these days, but it was evident from the opening bars of Sibelius’ much-loved Violin Concerto (the composer’s only work in this form) that his heart remains firmly in his performance career. Confidence personified, he made light work of the first movement’s extreme technical demands and was spell-binding during the movement’s extended cadenza.

The contemplative lyricism of the second movement seemed to challenge him more than the pyrotechnics of the first, with rather overwrought vibrato and a curiously rasping, almost buzzy tone at times. Somewhat stodgy orchestral accompaniment added to the feeling that we were in histrionic, rather than heartfelt, territory.

Safely back in virtuoso mode, Ray Chen swept all before him with a thrillingly rhythmic and driven third movement. His clarity and precision at speed is genuinely astonishing and if his relentless pace threatened to trip up the orchestra on a couple of occasions, everything came together with a magnificent flourish at the end. An ecstatic audience was rewarded with an encore of Paganini, an apt choice for one of the violin world’s greatest technicians.

After the break, Dvorak’s 6th Symphony allowed Sondergard more room to showcase some beautiful playing by the RSNO, especially in the interplay between sections and most especially by the orchestra’s principal flautist and oboist in the second movement. The third movement Scherzo, much influenced by Czech folk music, was delivered with tremendous vigour.

Sadly, both orchestra and audience were deprived of the rousing finale that would surely have been delivered by the venue’s wretched fire alarms. No doubt the Usher Hall will investigate fully to prevent any repetition!

The RSNO’s 2023:24 Season continues with Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No2 which plays Perth, Edinburgh, and Glasgow 9-10 November. For more information, click here.