Playing with the classics

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“Music is never stagnant. Everything is allowed to evolve, and that’s what I try to do,” said Ray Chen. Photo: UCSB Arts & Lectures

“All the notes are already there, so if I mess up, I can’t blame my instrument,” classical musician Ray Chen said about his violin, which was built by Antonio Stradivari in 1715. It turns 300 years old this year.

“It’s unnerving to think about all the hands that have played it,” he said.

Chen might have a classic violin, sleek clothes (he’s an Armani model on the side) and professional demeanor on stage, but offstage he’s trying to take the stuffy reputation out of classical music.

“We are normal people, and I try to show that as much as I can on social media,” said Chen. Throughout his Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages, Chen’s playful take on a typically stiff profession is an attempt to make classical music feel more approachable and less intimidating.

The typical mindset for classical music is it’s for rich, old people,” he said. “We have this notion that people need to be educated about classical music in order to enjoy it, but I’ve seen firsthand that people will enjoy it regardless.”

He may only be 26 years old, but Ray Chen has already played at the Olympics, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and even the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day. Tonight, he’ll play at the Music Academy of the West’s 300-seat Hahn Hall, alongside pianist and Music Academy alum, Julio Elizalde.

“It’s a much more personal experience,” he said, compared to the bigger venues he’s performed at. “You don’t need big screens. You’re breathing the same air. That’s what this music was written for. If you’re going to be a real purist, Hahn Hall is the place to play.”