Sarah Chang and a Gesù String the Sun Across Cultures

Jeff Kaliss on February 26, 2013
Sarah Chang
Sarah Chang

Celebrated since childhood for the gifted mastery of the violin she displayed in orchestra collaborations and on recordings, Sarah Chang has made a mission of sharing her musical inspiration across generational and international boundaries. Fluent in English, German, and Korean, Chang was raised in New Jersey as the daughter of expatriate Korean musicians, and trained at the Juilliard School. She was a featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic and also toured the world, while continuing to record in orchestral and chamber settings for the EMI label. Now 32, and ranked as one of the Top Eight Achieving U.S. Females by Newsweek, Chang has been appointed to President Obama’s Commission on Russian Relations and as a State Department Special Cultural Envoy. On tour in Asia, before heading back for performances at the Mondavi Center, Davis (March 7) and Chamber Music San Francisco (March 9-11), the violinist engaged in an animated, personable, and wide-ranging conversation with SFCV.

I Googled this phone number and discovered that it’s Korean.

It’s my assistant’s. I have assistants all over the place: one in Korea, one in New York, one in London, and one at home. They help me run my life [chuckles] because I’m so hopeless at it. It’s wonderful that I have such an amazing team who takes care of all the details so I can just focus on playing. I get to do the fun stuff, and they have to do the legwork [chuckles].

Well, maybe they actually like their stuff, too, or at least they like you.

Aw, that’s very nice of you! I hope so, because I adore them, and I’m very happy and proud of the fact that I’m still with the same team I started out with when I was 8 years old. The same management, the same record label. I’m big on loyalty and big on keeping the team as it is, if it’s working.

What does it take to be a member of Team Chang?

Wow, that’s a great question! It’s very hard to work with somebody if you don’t genuinely like them and feel like they’re part of the family, and every single person on the team I trust as a friend.

Where are you right now?

I’m in Hong Kong, then China, then Korea.

You’ve stated that Korea is where your roots are.

I was born and brought up in the U.S., but when we were at home, our parents were quite traditional and they insisted on having a Korean household. I fought that, tooth and nail; when you’re growing up, you just want to blend. But as I grew older, I really started to appreciate all the customs and traditions. There’s a huge amount of respect that goes into the parental role, and also the language thing, which is kind of like German: There are terms you use for your friends, and it’s completely different for anyone who’s older than you. And when I go back to South Korea now, even though I’ve never lived there, my grandparents have sort of adopted me.

What do they think about your career choice?

Classical music is such a huge part of any family’s life in South Korea, it’s quite astonishing. Almost every child is given a violin or cello or put on the piano. It’s astonishing how good the music education system is. It’s partly cultural, because in the U.S. everyone rallies around sports. In Asia, they regard classical music in that sort of way.

Does that have anything to do with the respect for elders you spoke about?

That’s a very good question. I don’t know if it’s like this in many Asian countries, but I know so many [Korean] families that live with both parents and grandparents. There’s more people in the house, so there’s more human contact.

Since there was nothing [in South Korea] like China’s Cultural Revolution, was there no repression of Western classical music, as there was in China?

No, no repression. I think [classical] music was always something of a release. People in my grandfather’s generation grew up under the Japanese occupation [approximately 1910–1945], and my grandfather said that when he’d go to work during the occupation, release for him was coming home to the piano and listening to old vinyl. I think that sort of trickled down, for generations.

You’ve been quoted as feeling that your trip to North Korea in 2002 was both “frightening” and “exhilarating.” How was it different from the South?

It’s one of the last societies that are completely closed off. There’s no airline which is FAA-approved, and when you get to the airport, they search your bags and confiscate your cell phones and laptops and anything that has to do with communicating with the outside world. Then you go into a hotel, and they had an armed soldier with me at all times — not for my protection, but to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything wrong and was always where they wanted me to be.

But they’d wanted you to come and perform Western classical music.

I’d been told that the concert would be open to the public, and that I would get to speak with students, and I thought I’d get to experience their country. But it was apparent they had no intention of doing so. The concert ended up being an invitation-only event for their government officials. But at the end of the day, it was an astonishing experience. I really felt for the first time that being a musician isn’t just about going on stage and giving a concert. You’re being utilized as a soft political tool, but at the same time, this can only be a good thing.

How did the select audience react to your performance?

They were very appreciative. It seemed like they were so hungry and thirsty for culture. But it’s a society that’s going to need time and a lot of help.

And you’re helping out elsewhere.

I go around, not just in the U.S. but internationally, and work with kids, give master classes, and go into schools and play. Some of these kids have never seen an instrument! I’ve gone everywhere from Serbia to Buenos Aires; it’s been unbelievably rewarding and one of the things I’m most proud of. Usually, they try to time it for when I’m on tour and have a concert in that country.

Are you a parent yourself?

Oh, God, no. I’d love to be, but I’m not.

There’s time for that.

I hope so! It’s a dismay to my mother that I’m not married yet.

I want to get back to your own childhood. I took note that you auditioned for Juilliard, as a kid, with the Bruch Violin Concerto, and that you were, at least as of a couple of years ago, still featuring the Bruch. What’s changed and stayed the same with that part of your repertoire?

You’ve touched on a really good point. One of the good things about learning repertoire at such an early age is that it gets embedded; it’s a part of you. For me, what was so great about the Bruch was that I auditioned with it, I got in, and then I put it away for about 15 years.

What happened when you came back to it?

I had to completely relearn it, because I remembered it in my head as a 5-year-old with a 16th-size violin, and when I came back to it, I was on a full-size violin. You try to hold on to some of the nicer memories, but you have to grow with it.

I assume that you’d have found you had more power, especially for that third movement of the Bruch.

Yes, and I was already playing the Guarneri del Gesù [Chang’s current violin]. I noticed this with other pieces, as well, especially the ones like Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn — pieces I’d performed so much when I was 7, 8, 9 years old. When I was finally old enough and big enough to use a full-size violin, it was like the curtains opened and I was seeing the sun for the first time.

You get to know a violin’s personality and it gets to know you, and you figure out its secret, its colors and its sounds and its tones, and what it can and cannot do for you.

You got the del Gesù from Isaac Stern.

Well, I didn’t receive it, I bought it [chuckles]! It was made in 1717, and I was incredibly honored to purchase an instrument that my mentor, Mr. Stern, had used. I started studying with him when I was 6 years old. He didn’t teach at Juilliard, but he was one of those people who would always listen to me, and I would go to his studio and continuously learn new pieces with him. When I was 14 or 15, I was using a three-quarter-size violin and ready to finally switch to full-size, and he put the word out there for me, to New York, London, and Switzerland. And within the next day, I had about 10 Stradivariuses and 8 del Gesùs flown in for me to look at. Because of his connections with Carnegie Hall, Mr. Stern got the hall and we spent a glorious two hours where we put all the instruments on stage and he played every one and I would go out in the hall and listen, and then we would swap. (It’s a very, very big hall when it’s just two people up there.) Then he took out the violin I have now, from his own case, and without hesitation, this is the one I fell in love with. And he felt it was a good fit for me, as well.

I wonder how the violin would feel, having been in the hands of the older master, and then going to the younger virtuoso. It would have to get to know you.

[Chuckles] I really believe that’s what it was doing, for about the first five years. You get to know its personality and it gets to know you, and you figure out its secret, its colors and its sounds and its tones, and what it can and cannot do for you, and that comes with time. It has a very dramatic, very powerful, very opinionated personality. [Chuckles] It also reacts differently under different people’s fingers. Mr. Stern played it, and then nobody had played it for decades. It had its moment in the sun, and then it rested for a while, and it came out, and I’ve been playing it nonstop for the past 10 years. Even in my hands, the sound of the instrument has changed. And the thing is, the instrument is king. It’s been here for 300 years, it’s going to outlive me. I look at my time with the instrument as my responsibility to take care of it, to look after it for the next violinist.

My job is to respect the sound each orchestra has. … In the very small amount of time you have  to rehearse, you have to mesh your styles.

In your Bay Area programs, you’ll be doing four pieces (and who knows how many encores). Will you be changing bows during performance?

Up to four. Depends on how I feel. The violin is a solid, powerful instrument up there, and with the bow you can massage and finesse different qualities in the sound. Something like the Prokofiev [Sonata No. 2 in D Major] needs a very heavy and strong bow. It will probably be one of the Peccates; it’s a French bow, and they’re known for being study and reliable. The West Side Story Suite [Bernstein, arr. Newman] is such a fun piece, it will need a different bow, something quick. David Newman is fabulous; he’s a friend of the family, and I love what he’s done with the Bernstein. Of course, he’s made it very virtuosic for the violin. Each piece has a different personality, and the bow should reflect that.

The Chaconne in G Minor is the piece for which Tomaso Antonio Vitali is best known, but there have been doubts about its authorship because of the wild modulations, unexpected in a Baroque work.

There are several different arrangements; the one I’m doing is by Charlier. I love how one takes something that’s so simple — it’s essentially an eight-measure chord progression that has a gazillion variations written into it and has been taken into the stratosphere and back. I’ve tried it with a pipe organ and with an orchestra, to see which format I’d like better. [On this tour, Chang will be accompanied by Ashley Wass on piano.]

Is the orchestral experience different in different countries?

I do believe there is an American sound, a German sound, a French sound, though I don’t think there’s a distinctly Asian sound. For me as a soloist, I feel my job is to respect the sound each orchestra has. Realistically, a soloist is only given a working rehearsal and a dress rehearsal on the day of the concert, and in the very small amount of time you have, you have to mesh your styles, to produce the most cohesive performance possible.

You performed another sort of international feat, bearing the Olympic torch in 2004.

I don’t know who nominated me. Usually, I’m on stage in a concert gown, performing, and there I was in an Olympic T-shirt and sneakers, in New York City, in 102-degree heat. Seven blocks, with TV cameras in your face — that’s not easy. I’m a very physical performer, and I consider myself a very strong personality. [Laughs] But I am definitely not a runner! [Along with the Prokofiev, the Vitali, and the Bernstein/Newman, Chang’s program will include the Paganini Cantabile in D Major.]

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