The first of the Bowdoin International Music Festival’s Friday night concerts at Crooker Theater had something for almost every musical taste – the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-flat (BWV 1051), the Debussy String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, and a virtuoso performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major (Op. 35) by Ray Chen and the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra under Lewis Kaplan.

Chen, winner of the International Queen Elizabeth Competition and the Yehudi Menuhin Competition, took as many liberties with the score as Vladimir Horowitz did with the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, but they usually worked. He is a master of the upper register, including “the emperor’s new clothes” notes, so called because they are so high that half the audience has to pretend to hear them. He also has a beautiful, high-volume, open strings sound and a melodic gift.

Chen’s interpretation, while quirky, was generally exciting, although his cadenzas did tend to get a bit lengthy.

The big surprise was the Bowdoin Festival Orchestra, composed almost entirely of students. While not quite as nuanced as the Vienna Philharmonic, it was together, precise and in control, with a full range of dynamics, even at the breakneck tempo of the final movement.

The woodwinds, especially the flutes, were even able to establish a dialog among equals with the young violinist. If aspiring artists can form a scratch orchestra this good, one could start a fine instant philharmonic anywhere.

The capacity audience gave Chen a long standing ovation, but no encore could have competed with what they had just heard.

The Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, which opened the program, was also performed by a pick-up orchestra, this time of faculty members, whose ensemble playing belied the few rehearsals they must have had. It is always a treat to hear one of these masterpieces live, and all six will be performed during the festival. The only objection is that in a large hall, like Crooker Theater, one cannot hear the harpsichord.

The high point of the evening was the Ying Quartet’s performance of the Debussy String Quartet, which raised another masterpiece into the realm of the sublime. Technically, the playing was perfect, with incredibly precise entrances, ensemble pizzicati that seemed to come from a single instrument and intervals accurate to the microtone.

What made this reading so definitive, however, was its musicality. The quartet seemed somehow to have discovered Debussy’s deepest intent and set out to realize it perfectly. Sometimes, as the composer said, his intent was simply pleasure, and hearing his quartet played so sensitively was certainly that. We can only hope that the Ying Quartet records the Debussy soon, because it should be heard again and again.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]