Having evolved over centuries — indeed, millennia — the formal elegance and sonic beauty of stringed instruments continue to inspire their players toward ever-greater heights of virtuosity. But of course, the attainment of virtuosity itself doesn’t come easy, and whatever altitude you reach, you’ll still be dogged by some of the same problems you were as a novice. What violinist, for instance, could ever fully put out of their mind the possibility of a string’s breaking as they play, whether at home or in Carnegie Hall? Not celebrity player Ray Chen, surely, given that it’s happened to him at least twice in the past five years.
Being a Youtuber as well, Chen has turned these onstage misfortunes to his advantage. Just last week he put up “Violinist string BREAKS during Tchaikovsky,” a video that captures his latest such experience while playing with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Far from grinding to a halt, the performance continues with only a minor hitch.
After making a valiant attempt to soldier on short an E string, Chen switches to what appears to be the backup plan. Without the option of singing the blues while changing the string himself, as B.B. King did at Farm Aid, he swaps his instrument with that of the concertmaster, who passes it down the line. Unfazed, Chen continues playing right where he left off.
Chen followed a similar procedure after a string break in 2017, while playing in Brussels with the Taiwan Philharmonic. Then, as now, he uploaded the footage to his Youtube channel, where it has racked up more than 1.6 million views. The brief clip also captures his final toss onto the floor of the spare pack of strings he’d had the good sense to place in his pocket beforehand. The accolades posted in the comments below bring to mind the story of 19th-century violinist Carl Herman Unthan. Born without arms, Unthan became a virtuoso by playing instead with his feet — which he also used to change a string that broke on him in concert. This proved astonishing enough that he’s said later to have deliberately weakened strings in order to repeat the spectacle for other audiences. Just imagine if he’d had Youtube.
via Laughing Squid
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
I saw this same situation many years ago in Valladolid, my hometown. The soloist was Felix Ayo, a Spanish violin player who has been a member and soloist of I Musici; when he was playing I can’t remember what with the Symphonic Orchestra of Castille-Leon, a string in his violing broke. Then, very quickly, the concertmaster (Violeta Zabek) lent him her violin and took his, and gave Ayo’s instrument to the assistant concertmaster (Krzysztof Wisniewski) and took his (so Ayo kept playing with the concertino’s violin while she played with Wisniewski’s). When Wisniewski (who, by the way, was Zabek’s husband) had repaired the broken string with a box of spare strings he had in his pocket, and after having tuned the violin) he exchanged violins with her, and she exchanged violins with Ayo. All was as seamless as though it had been prepared beforehand. Sorry I can’t remember who the conductor was. And in those days (perhaps 1991 or 1992) there were no mobile phones to record this kind of situations.
Great recollection, thanks for sharing!
Perhaps it’s because it happened long enough ago, but in 1985 14 year old Midori broke 2 strings within 2 minutes while playing with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Boston So in a performance of his Serenade. She didn’t miss a beat. Also noteworthy, her violin was not full sized and she was able to play the concert master’s violin and the replacement without a problem.
You can find this online.