By Cristina Schreil
Talk about international relations. Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46, was composed by German-born Max Bruch, inspired by Scottish folk tunes, dedicated to a Spanish virtuoso, and performed by Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen in Washington, DC. The fusion at the heart of the Scottish Fantasy seemed fully in the spotlight at an early March performance.
The performance also served as Chen’s National Symphony Orchestra debut, and in true Ray Chen style, he Instagrammed a selfie just hours before. Most fans know him to pepper his feed with zany content, but this time, Chen stared ahead with a steely calm.
He seemed to emerge onstage with that same seriousness. At the ready in a crisp tux, he assumed something like a boxer’s nimble stance, legs evenly planted. As the orchestra came alive, painting a somber tone in the work’s Introduction, Chen’s bow arm seemed loaded; it was taut and waiting. This warrior-readiness is a smart move. Bruch’s Fantasy demands an acrobatic degree of virtuosic showmanship. It also requires sensitivity. Bruch had not even been to Scotland at the time he composed the work, but was evidently so stirred by the writings of Sir Walter Scott that he sought to channel a similar beauty.
Its original title is Fantasie for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish folk melodies. Sharp ears can pick out the songs used as a springboard: “Through the Wood Laddie,” “The Dusty Miller,” “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie,” and “Scots Wha Hae.” Scottish listeners were apparently woebegone to hear what had happened to their music. But Bruch stressed it was more about feelings than accuracy. Chen, winner of the Queen Elisabeth and Yehudi Menuhin competitions, displayed both emotional expression and technical prowess in his first performance for Washington audiences.
The work is a staple in soloist repertoire and indeed, it felt like Chen had lived with it. His tone in the most engaging moments was silky, lyrical, and immensely gorgeous. Especially in brisker passages demanding fireworks, every note stuck and sailed around the concert hall. And, from that first upbow in the Introduction—a supple, steady crescendo via dexterous right-hand control—Chen also proved he’s simply fun to watch. When trading off to the orchestra, he’d slowly move his bow in retreat in a sweeping arc, spinning the sound upward. The Scherzo second movement began with bagpipe-like rumbles from the lower strings, and Chen’s hair bounced along. At one point he rocked his head, as if shredding an electric guitar.
Animated conductor Christoph Eschenbach was also amusing to behold. At times he seemed to tickle certain sections alive with subtle fingers. At one point, he employed what delightfully looked something like jazz hands.
Throughout, NSO principal harpist Adriana Horne was just behind Chen’s right shoulder. Other concerts of the Fantasy have shoved the instrument more into the orchestra, but here Horne’s light-colored harp, gleaming like a big blanched almond, was not to be missed. NSO’s program indicated it was important to feature the instrument—key in early Scottish music—as a central voice. In the Adagio cantabile, where the violin plays the “Through the Wood Laddie” melody with sumptuous double-stops, Horne’s harp sparkled.
The overall performance had effective transitions between contrasting moods. A good example is between the third and last movements. Marked Andante sostenuto, the third draws from the tender song, “I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie.” Many say it’s the Fantasy’s emotional heart. Moving into the finale, with its piquant and warlike Allegro-guierriero vibe, was a welcome jolt, however, into more vitalizing material. In tackling those beloved fast passages, Chen reached a climactic brightness and lightness. His left hand skated as if on ice. His bow bristled along, punching through to the end of a spellbinding performance.
Ray Chen, violin; National Symphony Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, cond.
Bruch: Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46. John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC: March 2016