Adulthood is offering a new world of opportunities for this former child prodigy
by James Reel
It’s easy enough to earn ovations when you’re an adorable ten-year-old girl who can plant your feet bravely on a stage and play the devil out of Paganini. Well, maybe ’easy’ isn’t the best word to use in a sentence that also contains ’Paganini,’ but the point is that a phenomenally talented preteen violinist equally at ease with bravura and cantilena passages is bound to become an audience and media darling. That’s what happened to Sarah Chang in the early 1990s. At age eight, after only two years of study at Juilliard, during which she still regarded playing the violin as a hobby, she auditioned for Zubin Mehta and Ricardo Muti and bowled them over. Soon she found herself playing Paganini, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius concertos with the world’s greatest orchestras, with an EMI recording contract tucked into her little frock.
But now that Chang has passed her 22nd birthday, she has to pass muster with all the other adult soloists vying for attention. No more half-awed, half-patronizing newspaper articles about how she fits high school, driving lessons, shopping, and casting her first vote in with violin practice and performing. No more automatic goodwill just because she’s a gifted child. Now she must demonstrate that she’s a gifted grown-up.
She seems to be doing it quite well, thank you. Not only does she continue to charm colleagues and journalists with her manner’somehow sparkling and self-effacing at the same time’but she can still play the devil out of whatever she sets her mind to.
And it’s not just a matter of virtuoso fireworks. In the October 2003 issue of Strings, Edith Eisler characterized Chang’s approach well in a review of her new recording of the Dvork Violin Concerto: ’consummate technical ease, a gorgeous, vibrant, flawlessly beautiful tone, and a heartfelt, but unsentimental expressiveness.’
The transition from child prodigy to adult artist, says Chang, ’went as painlessly as it possibly could. The earliest years were the easiest, of course. When you’re making your debut and you’re the new face on the block, everything is fun and exciting and new. In the teenage years it’s hard enough growing up anyway, but I had a great support system, from my parents and my record company.
’The big change for me came on a personal level when I was 15 or 16,’ she adds. ’I had more control over my calendar, and started doing concerts because they were projects I believed in and conductors I wanted to work with. It became much more about the music and not about me. It was never about filling up the calendar, but when you have more say over your calendar, you realize how precious every single date is. Every concert I do now, it is because I adore the orchestra or the city I’m in, or I’m making music with musicians I truly respect.
’I hope it’s like this forever.’
She has noticed a slight change in the way conductors treat her now. ’The conductors I started out with when I was eight and nine saw me grow up, and I love the fact that they’re my musical parents in a way,’ she says. ’We’ve gone through so much repertoire together. In the midteen years you go through that gawky, uncomfortable stage, and then one day you realize, ’I can shop in the women’s department now!’ That’s about when we could go out to dinner and they’d stop making fun of me for not being able to drink. They treat me as an equal partner, for which I’m grateful.’
It’s not uncommon for a prodigy to emerge from childhood feeling a little rattled, or perhaps deprived of the natural delights and horrors of being a kid. Not Chang, who says she is fully satisfied with her offstage life during her childhood and teen years. ’I went to Juilliard, but that was just on Saturdays,’ she points out. ’Monday to Friday I would go to a normal school, and that helped a great deal, because most of my friends to this day are nonmusicians. They are the ones I call when I’m on the road and need to talk to somebody. They are friends I trust completely. It’s wonderful to have a fundamental basis for life like this.’
’I think the fact that she’s so impressive as a total package says a lot about her family life,’ says David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a group with which Chang has often played. ’I think her folks have done a fabulous job in raising this young woman, and there’s a lot to commend on their part. She’s a beautiful person and an important artist; none of that is possible without a support system behind the scenes, and she has obviously had that.’
Chang has devoted a lot of time to certain concertos that aren’t quite standard repertoire but should be, like the Goldmark, Strauss, and Dvorˆ°k. Yet Chang says she isn’t consciously trying to make her mark in music that hasn’t been done to death by a hundred other violinists. ’The problem is I love the concertos that have been done to death! They’ll always be my favorites,’ she says. ’That was the repertoire I learned during my Juilliard years, and to this day I love performing those works on stage. I wasn’t trying to make a point by doing Goldmark or Strauss; I stumbled onto those concertos and thought, ’These are truly beautiful’why don’t people play them?’
’The Goldmark was played during Milstein’s era, but for some reason it was lost after that. And it was difficult to get the music, let me tell you. So this is my way of still learning new things, and I’m commissioning works all over the place. It’s terribly exciting to work with living composers, even though when they tear a piece apart and start from scratch it drives me nuts.’
One composer preparing a piece for her is jazzman Eddie Karam. Chang also has worked with Jack Elliott and Korean-American composer Donald Sur.
’If I go back and relearn something I started playing when I was eight,’ she continues, ’the old ideas and old habits are so stuck in the back of my head. But with something new to me, whether it’s Goldmark or something I’ve commissioned, there is an extra layer of depth and maturity in what I can do now. And I do a lot more research than I ever did before; I read about the composer, and listen to older recordings. There’s a lot more heart to doing something like this.’
Chang is putting her heart into a full schedule this season. She is performing with some of her favorite orchestras: the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and above all the Philadelphia Orchestra. ’That’s my home orchestra,’ she says, ’so when I play there I get to sleep in my own bed, which is really nice.’
Also on the slate are tours with the London Symphony, a swing through Asia, a recording of Shostakovich and Prokofiev concertos with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, the release of a French sonata CD (Franck, Saint-Saens, Ravel) with pianist Lars Vogt, and several more chamber-music projects.
Chamber music is relatively new to Chang, yet it’s something to which she has already become devoted. ’It’s something I’ve insisted on for my musical growth and pleasure,’ she says. ’The wonderful thing about chamber music is that the repertoire is endless. The more you play, the more you realize you’ve just scratched the surface. And I’ve met some amazing colleagues this way.’
One such colleague is pianist Yefim Bronfman, who joined Chang and cellist Lynn Harrell for a performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50. Bronfman and Harrell had played it before, but this was a new experience for Chang.
’It’s a very difficult piece and she played it beautifully,’ Bronfman recalls. ’It was nice to have some fresh ideas from her. She’s a lovely person, very outgoing and fun loving. She makes everybody feel comfortable around her.’ Didn’t Chang seem intimidated working in close quarters with two such seasoned and well-known partners? ’Hopefully only by our size,’ Bronfman says.
David Kim has been accompanying Chang ever since he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra nearly five years ago. Last summer, he invited her to join him in Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins in C major, Op. 56, at the Kingston Chamber Festival, which Kim directs at the University of Rhode Island.
’She’s just as intense, as committed, and as unique in chamber music as when she’s playing a concerto,’ Kim says. ’Her musical voice doesn’t change at all. I was curious what it would be like playing with one of these big stars. I wondered whether she would be inflexible, or in the dark about playing chamber music, and it turns out she is a first-rate chamber musician. She has the ability to work well and easily with others, on a personal and musical level.
’There is something so finished and mature about her entire presence that I find very impressive for such a young person,’ he adds. ’And yet what I love about Sarah is that she’s such a good person; she really is down-to-earth, and she doesn’t have any prima-donna issues. She’s a good egg, and I’m so proud of her as a fellow Korean-American musician.’
Chang sometimes has small doubts about being ’finished and mature.’ That’s why she’s done very little teaching so far. ’I’ve been hesitant to do that because I feel extremely young,’ she says. ’I did my first master class in Singapore last year; I wasn’t fully comfortable that some of the people playing were my age or even older. But it’s not just an age thing. I still feel that I’m growing; I’m learning every day.’
Kim says he notices ’a certain evolution happening in her playing every time I hear her. It’s very, very satisfying to see her continue to develop her own voice.’
Cultivating that voice is the greatest challenge ahead for her, in the opinion of Sir Colin Davis, who is the conductor of Chang’s new recording of Dvorˆ°k’s Violin Concerto, Op. 53, and also a longtime collaborator. ’Sarah is a fantastically gifted musician and I have known her since she was 11 years old,’ he says. ’She is now a grown-up and she is searching for what makes the transition from being a kid to being a grown-up. She has retained her talent throughout all the years and the world is open to her. It’s a question now of how she can develop.’
Her development is not something that worries pianist Bronfman. ’I see room for artistic growth in everybody, myself included,’ he says. ’To be able to play a Beethoven sonata takes the work of a lifetime, so yes, I see growth for her as much as anyone else, and I think she realizes it, too. And when you come to realize that, you have already matured in a certain way.’
Chang counts herself lucky to have been working all these years with musicians the caliber of Bronfman, Davis, Martha Argerich, and Yo-Yo Ma. Those collaborations, she suggests, are the true foundation of her artistic evolution in the years to come.
’I have so much respect for these people,’ she says. ’And I’m so lucky to have so much time ahead of me to work with them, since I am still in the learning process’learning about music and about life.’
WHAT CHANG PLAYS
Sarah Chang plays a 1717 Guarneri del Gesu, one that she babies. Reluctant to take it under hot lights, she usually goes to photo sessions with a stand-in, “a very, very pretty violin that doesn’t sound like anything.”
The Guarneri, she says, is “a dark instrument, with a beautiful, luscious dark tone, but it also has almost a Strad-like brilliance, and at the same time I can coax it into being very sweet. But it’s very temperamental; I think it mirrors my own personality. In the mountains, in Aspen or Switzerland, or somewhere very humid, it will tell me it’s unhappy.”
She alternates among four bows, depending on the music she’s playing. For Mozart and Bach, she prefers her Pajeot; she turns to a Sartory for ’the big-whammy concertos, the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius.’ For everything else, she alternates between two Dominique Peccattes. She also owns a John Norwood Lee bow.
In the strings department, Chang is pickiest about her E strings; she prefers those made by Jargar and Westminster.
All these items contend for space within her violin case with her passport, plane tickets, faxes, a sewing kit, and double-sided tape (in case the straps of her gown fall off), and sometimes even her laptop computer. “I carry my entire life in my case,” she says.