For Sarah Chang, her 1717 Guarneri del Gesù isn’t simply her go-to for concerts. It’s also a warm reminder of her “musical godfather” Isaac Stern. You might have heard the astonishing tale: When Chang was about 14, it was time to graduate to a full-size violin. As one does, she turned to Isaac Stern, her longtime coach and mentor, for guidance. Stern made a few phone calls and within a couple of days, at least 12 Stradivaris and four del Gesùs arrived from far-off corners of the globe: London, Switzerland, Tokyo, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and beyond. Before the two violinists made their way to Carnegie Hall to take the mega-watt collection for a test drive, Chang remembers that Stern had a sudden thought.
“Just as we were leaving he said, ‘You know what? I have this del Gesù in my safe and it might be a really good fit for you,’” Chang recalls. Then, with one of the many buoyant laughs she sprinkles throughout this interview, she adds, “To this day I have never seen such an amazing safe. It was essentially like a James Bond movie, where you have to fingerprint yourself to go in.”
After an afternoon of blind-testing, she whittled it down to one—the violin from Stern’s safe. Chang’s tone takes on just a glimmer of guilt as she concedes that amid all the instruments flown in from abroad, her match was under her nose the whole time. They struck a deal, and the rest is history.
“Every day I get to play on it, it’s a reminder of him and the time I had with him,” she says, adding it was an affirmation of their bond. “It made me really happy and really secure knowing that he knew me . . . he was playing match maker.”
“If you play it just right, if you hit the right overtones, you can literally feel the gut of the instrument reverberating. It does something magical to you.”
What drew you to this instrument?
It has an incredibly powerful and dramatic sound. It has that classic del Gesù deep, throaty, dark register, but I love that it also has a sort of Strad-like, very feminine, very beautiful high register that a lot of del Gesùs don’t have. I love that it has the contrast. I also love the fact that it has that capability of a G string [that]—if you play it just right, if you hit the right overtones—you can literally feel the gut of the instrument reverberating. It does something magical to you.
I don’t have to sacrifice either the bottom or top register. People always say, “Oh, del Gesùs have a great lower register and the Strads have the great higher register,” as if you can’t get both. And if you’re really lucky and if you can really coax that sort of sound out of the instrument and if you have a good technician to sort of adjust the violin to the way that hopefully you want, then it is like magic.
What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
It seems to have infinite colors, which I love. Since I’ve been playing on it for so many years, I feel that I know its secrets now. It probably took me a good two years at the beginning to figure out what it could and couldn’t do for me. We would all make this pilgrimage to go see [luthier] René A. Morel. Unfortunately, he passed away [and] we all suffered. There’s nobody like him. There was a period where literally I went to him maybe twice a week just to see what the violin could and couldn’t do for me. He would put a new soundpost in, change the bridge, change the adjustment, try this and try that. We tinkered with it for a bit.
As a lot of del Gesùs do, it had that obligatory wolf on the high C on the G string. When I first got the instrument, it had it. After René worked his magic on it, about a year or two into it, it disappeared. I love that he made that wolf disappear and I do not know how he did it. It’s unheard of, because everybody always says, “Oh, the sign of a great del Gesù is you’ve got to have that horrific wolf on the high C on the G string” and it’s not true! René worked day and night to get rid of it for me and I love him until the end of time. [Laughs.]
What do you know about its history?
I know that it was made in 1717, so it’s an early del Gesù. I know that, aside from the Mr. Stern connection. It’s in incredibly good condition because he took care of it, and I feel responsible that I should also make sure that whoever gets to play it when I’m gone also inherits it in the phenomenal condition that he gave it to me in.
What’s your violin’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
Yeah, some past boyfriends! [Laughs.] You know sometimes when a friend wants to talk about things, you need to just nudge a little bit so the waterfalls come gushing out? And sometimes you just need to sense, “Oh, they want to think about it and sleep on it and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” Depending on what mood they’re in, you need to be able to gauge it. I think it’s sort of an intuition that you need to feel with the instrument.
What are the violin’s strengths and limitations?
Because it is a del Gesù, anything that requires a really strong, full, dark register [is a strength]. Anything that’s dramatic and needs a lot of guts and emotion and a lot of soul, especially on the G string, this [violin] has a way of pulling on your heart strings [with] this amazingly lush sound and sparkling timbre. It has the capability of doing it if you pull the string just right. Because of that, anything that has that really romantic, lush quality—any Tchaikovsky or Brahms, Shostakovich to an extent—and that has a lot of meat is when the violin really shines.
It took me a while to get to know the instrument and what it can and can’t do for me, depending on the climates. I have to plan very differently if I’m in Verbier or Aspen or in a higher climate. And then when it rains I also need to adjust; it’s less happy when it’s very humid and it’s very unhappy when it’s very dry. I know how far I can push it and I also feel like I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can coax it a little bit more—that comes with just treating it like a friend and understanding each other.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
It would probably say to me, “You play scales every day, and why don’t they get better?” [Laughs.] “Every day, every day with the scales! Regardless of whether you have 20 minutes to play that day, or eight hours to play that day, you start with scales. Literally been doing it since you were four. Don’t you have it by now?”
You collect bows; could you elaborate?
I have several Dominique Peccattes—those are my favorites. Those are my go-to standard-for-big-concerto bows. They’re very reliable. Very sturdy. I have a few by Eugène Sartory, which have a little bit more edge to them; I think Peccattes sound rounder. I use Peccattes for Brahms and Beethoven and then I use the Sartorys for stuff like Shostakovich and Prokofiev: anything where I want it to have a sharper edge. And then of course I’ve got some of the French bows, by François Xavier Tourte and Étienne Pajeot. Those I bring out for slightly lighter concertos, like Mozart or Vivaldi, where you want a sweeter sound rather than big bombastic volume.