SHAUN LEE CHEN: A SHORT AND WINDING ROAD
Audrey Journal journalist Harriet Cunningham interviewed 3 classical musicians who will be performing at Riverside during Spring. In this 3 part blog series, we find out a little about each musician, part 3 features Shaun Lee Chen, who is performing in The Four Seasons this November.
As a teenager at high school, Shaun Lee Chen only had two priorities: basketball and rap music.
“I was terrible. I never practised,” admits the concertmaster of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and soloist in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, coming to the Riverside in November.
Shaun was brought up in Perth in a musical family and learned violin from a young age, but by his own reckoning, he wasn’t an easy student to teach. He remembers one of his first teachers, the legendary Hungarian violinist Pal Eder, with affection and gratitude.
“He tried to set me straight but he couldn’t. But he probably doesn’t know how influenced I was by him and how much I admired him, even though I never showed it because I was, y’know, too cool.”
Despite this rocky start, Shaun graduated from the University of Western Australia with a first class degree and went straight to the Australian National Academy of Music. Then he again hit a bumpy stretch when he was forced to stop playing the violin for 18 months.
“It was an injury and a bit of a burn out situation as well. It was nobody’s fault. I think I just got a little bit too enthusiastic.”
“It was a scary time,” he recalls. “I was teaching a bit, not able to play much, enough to demonstrate. I gradually rehabilitated myself with the help of physios.”
Then two unexpected things happened. First, a job in the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) came up and he was asked to audition. He did, and they offered him the gig. Second, he entered the ABC Young Performers Competition and, much to his surprise, he won.
“To be honest, I never had any sort of aspirations to win competitions. I did the competition as part of my rehabilitation.”
In the year following his win he juggled the WASO job with his Young Performer obligations, which included a number of solo appearances.
“It was a bit difficult because I had a job in the orchestra and it wasn’t the right time to leave, but what path I wanted to pursue with the instrument was still up in the air…”
“[WASO] were so good to me. They let me go out and do things. They were really supportive of my career outside the orchestra. I was even a 50 per cent employee for a while, which is very rare in Australian orchestras.”
And then, out of the blue, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (ABO) came calling.
“They approached me and said, ‘We know you play baroque violin. Would you like to come and play with us?’ So I did.”
From there it all happened very fast. Artistic director Paul Dyer was so impressed by Shaun that he asked him to play a concerto with the orchestra. After a successful tour as soloist in the fiendishly tricky first concerto by baroque virtuoso Pietro Locatelli, he was invited to record with the ABO, then to become concertmaster.
Which is how he has ended up here, at Riverside, leading the ABO and performing the four concertos which make up Vivaldi’s evergreen favourite, The Four Seasons. He can’t wait.
“In terms of my career, I see myself as very lucky. You can work your butt off but you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. But in the same way, if you do work your butt off you will be in the right place at the right time.
“It’s been an interesting ride. Looking back, it’s been a weird, short ride.”
The Four Seasons is playing at Riverside on November 4.