The CSO’s Robert Chen remains in awe of Mozart’s towering artistic brilliance

Robert Chen violin

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Even devotees of Mozart who think they know a thing or two about his violin concertos may be in for a surprise when Robert Chen, concertmaster of Chicago Symphony Orchestra, gets into the cadenzas of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 during concerts May 18-23, led by Music Director Riccardo Muti. 

Many, many solo violinists choose to perform the virtuosic solo turns made famous by the 19th-century Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. But there are other options. Chen has chosen the brilliant, and novel, cadenzas of the Mozart expert, pianist and friend Robert Levin, who is something of a spontaneous artist himself.

“I worked with Robert for the first time more than 30 years ago,” Chen recalled. “He plays the Mozart piano concertos frequently, and I have always been amazed at his ability to just improvise, and to come up with something appropriate for Mozart's time when it comes to the cadenzas — but also highly entertaining and very imaginative, much in the way we think Mozart must have been.

“When I found out that Robert had written a series of violin cadenzas, too, I began looking for an opportunity to try them, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Muti thinks. I’m not sure many people know about them. It will be a surprise.”

Mozart was still a teenager, yet already a celebrity throughout Europe, when he wrote the delightful concerto that the CSO’s concertmaster will play. Chen was a prodigy himself in his youth, and he is the father of musical prodigies, but like so many great musicians, Chen is in awe of Mozart’s towering brilliance.

“You know, he wrote his four violin concertos so quickly, one after another, at age 19,” Chen said. “It is extraordinary for me to experience this piece and to know that it was so facile for him to write on this level — on the one hand so simple, and yet on the other hand encompassing the full range of possibility. I mean, it is really well-drafted, well-sculpted, truly masterful the way that he’s able to take this innocent form and transform it into something that is just wildly amusing, with a lot of cheekiness and humor in it.

“It’s almost like Mozart can turn the music on a dime and go to the complete other end of the spectrum. It’s not even very complicated — although it is very, very sophisticated — in the way he switches the key, for example, and the whole thing just really instantly changes. It always causes me to think of Mozart himself, so very young, yet quite adept as a performer already, a veteran at the royal court. At times his music can seem really old-fashioned, and then it will have these quite novel contrasts.”

Born in Taiwan, Chen at the age of 10 came to the United States with his parents. “I spent most of my teenage years in L.A., and I went to a special high school that had an emphasis on the musical program, so I got to meet a lot of peers who were quite talented. It was an early exposure for me to a lot of music of all different kinds — orchestra and chamber music, too. That really shaped my developing views of music and how to listen. They were the formative years.

“My parents were not musical, but of course I have to remember that they were part of the generation in the Second World War as they grew up. They did not have a whole lot when they were coming of age. My mother is still a music lover. I’m not so sure about my dad, but he did the requisite father things, listening to us in the evening, taking us to our lessons. He always said his children were his investment, not just financially, but in time as well.”

Chen joined the CSO 22 years ago, in the era of Daniel Barenboim, then music director. “It was a very different orchestra when I joined,” he said. “Musicians come and musicians go, but what they leave behind is a sort of collective institutional memory of how we make music here in the Chicago Symphony. I realized this pretty much right away from my joining the orchestra, just in how the orchestra approaches certain repertoire, that it was not just reverential. The orchestra owned certain corners of the repertoire then, and it remains true to this day. Evolution of an orchestra is a part of the natural process, but Bruckner and Wagner remain in the orchestra’s DNA.

“Part of playing in an orchestra like the Chicago Symphony is that you do encounter some of the greatest musicians in the world, and I think I came at a time to Chicago when I was very fortunate to have had relationships with Barenboim, and with [Pierre] Boulez and [Bernard] Haitink. I mean, a lot of musicians don't ever have the opportunity to work with even one or two of these titans.”

During his long tenure here, he has seen the CSO enriched by Boulez with a lot of Debussy and Stravinsky and Bartok. He pointed to Barenboim as a champion of living composers, noting that the conductor was adamant about flexing the orchestra's muscles by playing new music.

“So with each one of these transitions, the orchestra went through an important growth that allowed the next music director to come in and have it progress in a seamless fashion," he said. “I think with Haitink, there was a great deal of refinement and elegance in the sound of the orchestra, a sort of gentleness in the sound that I think remains to this day. Muti has taken us into another vast corner of the repertoire, a new realm entirely. We have done a lot of opera with him and developed another skill that is crucially important for an orchestra’s growth, to be able to be expressive in that genre. The orchestra has developed very greatly under him.”

Musical talent runs in Chen’s family: His son Noah is an accomplished cellist who has performed on the radio program “From the Top.” His daughter Beatrice, a violist, joined the Chicago Symphony last year. At a recent MusicNOW concert, she performed a piece by the composer Betty Olivero that showcased her power and expressivity. Chen's wife is the violinist Laura Park Chen, who has had an extensive career with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Royal Swedish Opera orchestra. She remains active as a teacher and mentor.

Chen’s first memory of the Chicago Symphony was through a recording of Dvorak’s New World Symphony with Fritz Reiner conducting. "I was a fanatic collector of recordings,” he said. “Already from that point on, I was fascinated with the sound of the Chicago Symphony. A little later, I became exposed to the recordings of Solti doing Mahler, and those left a deep impression, especially the Second Symphony with that extra wild energy in the music-making that never let up. So when I learned that the Chicago Symphony was going to come to New York to do Salome, I got one of the last tickets available, all the way up in the nosebleed section, and that was with Barenboim. It made quite an impression on me to hear the Chicago sound in person.

“The beauty of a city like New York, where I was living when I was younger, was that you got to hear all the orchestras that would come into town — Cleveland, Boston, Berlin, Vienna and of course, Philadelphia when Muti was still their music director.

“And I have to say that the Chicago Symphony was another one of those orchestras way up on Mount Olympus, and I thought, ’Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to play with this orchestra at some point in my life?’ And then it happens, and I’m here, concertmaster of arguably the greatest orchestra in the world. It’s very humbling.”

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