By Laurence Vittes
Choong-Jin Chang–CJ for short–became principal viola of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006 after originally joining the orchestra in 1994. In 2013 CJ planned the Bach and Hindemith Project performed in four recitals over a year at the Kuhmo Arts Hall in Seoul. As a chamber musician, he performs with the world’s greatest musicians at prestigious festivals throughout the United States and Asia. He currently serves as the viola professor at John Hopkins University’s Peabody Conservatory of Music.
As a principal viola CJ is one of those unsung heroes of every orchestra whose section always comes last in solo opportunities among the strings, just before the double-bass. And yet when he steps out next February 14-16 to play Bartok’s glorious Viola Concerto, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, he will play another role, “dramatic and free-wheeling” as a Seoul arts station called him during an interview recently in which he played Bach and Hindemith with supreme force and controlled abandon.
As a founding member of the Johannes Quartet, CJ has another connection to Salonen: The composer wrote Homunculus for the group in 2007. I emailed CJ while he was getting ready to open Philadelphia’s season.
Regarding your performances of the Bartok concerto next February with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, what is your timetable for getting it ready, working with the conductor, and then the orchestra?
I normally start working on a piece from scratch if it was performed more than five years prior to an upcoming concert. Since I played the Bartok Viola Concerto about ten years ago, I have started looking at the clean part and score to make new musical decisions.
I am planning to practice the Bartok exclusively during the orchestra’s break in December and January. Then I will get together with Esa-Pekka Salonen on the week of the performances, before starting the rehearsals with the orchestra.
Do you know if Esa-Pekka has ever conducted it before?
I am sure he has conducted it before. He has even written a solo viola piece called Pentatonic Etude based on the pentatonic black-key scale passage directly from the first movement of Bartok’s Viola Concerto.
You must feel tremendous pride championing your instrument in such a great piece.
Absolutely! It is a real honor to perform this monumental work with a great conductor and the fabulous Philadelphians.
What makes it such a great piece?
It’s a work by one of the greatest geniuses in music history. Although it is an unfinished work, this concerto has beautiful folk themes, exciting folk dances, and a chapel-like religious movement interrupted by bird calls.
What edition will you use?
It will be based on the Serly/Primrose version; I will also look into the recent restoration by the Hungarian violist Csaba Erdélyi for some other corrections.
How often have you played the Concerto?
I think I am destined to play this piece with an orchestra once every decade. I believe I played it with the KBS Symphony Orchestra in Seoul in 1997 and with the Philadelphia Orchestra during the 2008/09 season.
What is the audience reaction usually like?
I think they really appreciate it. Obviously the performer has to serve it well in order for them to understand it.
For young violists what are the most difficult technical and musical moments?
Bartok’s Viola Concerto is one of the most challenging viola pieces for all violists. Technically, there are awkward passages, virtuosic passages, and pitch difficulties throughout the piece, but it is even more difficult musically to communicate with the audience all the musical details as well as the big picture.
What gear will you use?
I will be playing on my two-year-old Samuel Zygmuntowicz viola with my three-month-old Benoit Rolland bow.
How do you feel when cellists like Yo-Yo Ma and Janos Starker play the Viola Concerto?
I feel flattered that these great cellists are willing to discover and perform a piece from of our repertoire. I have no reservation about that because the violists borrow cello repertoire all the time.
What other viola concertos flying under the radar should we be aware of?
I met the composer/violist Brett Dean recently and I am a fan of his music, especially his Viola Concerto.