March 9, 2013

The Flash Is On Sarah Chang

Chamber Music San Francisco
By Niels Swinkels

Sarah ChangOne of the many violin celebrities visiting the Bay Area this spring is American violinist Sarah Chang. Appearing with Chamber Music San Francisco, she returned to Herbst Theatre on Saturday, followed by concerts in Walnut Creek and Palo Alto, with a program that aimed (and succeeded) to please her adoring fans and to show off her considerable charm and musical talents but that felt unfulfilling in the end.

Dressed in a clingy, shiny pink gown, Chang opened the program with Niccolò Paganini’s Cantabile in D Major, MS 109. A piece without any of the composer’s famous technical fireworks, the Cantabile is a gorgeous, elegant Italian melody that Chang initially approached with a fragile tone that gradually became more lush and jammy. And it basically stayed that way for the rest of the very short evening.

Next on the program was the Chaconne in G Minor, which is attributed to Italian Baroque composer Tomaso Antonio Vitali (1663–1745) but which, due to an abundance of post-Baroque elements, probably originates from a later era. The Chaconne — essentially, a series of variations over a repeating bass melody — was a favorite showpiece for famous violinists like Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987) and David Oistrakh (1908–1974).

The variations are different in character, some very lyrical and some pure technique, and it is not easy to shape them into one coherent musical story. Chang did this by attacking the piece with a ferocity that sometimes made you worry about the safety of her Guarneri del Gesù instrument. Her intensity is admirable, but also lacks subtlety; Sarah Chang is always “on” — very “on.”

Chang is an extremely extraverted performer.

Chang is an extremely extraverted performer; she moves forward and backward, stomps her feet to accents in the music, does a back bend that would look decent in yoga practice, momentarily balances on one leg, jumps and kicks, handles her bow like a whip, flourishing it high in the air at the end of a piece. Then, with a perky little nod and that radiant smile, she turns to her audience, which bursts into loud cheers without even a moment of concentrated silence to let it all sink in.

Yet only 20 minutes into the recital, it was already time for the preintermission finale: an arrangement of music from West Side Story, by film composer and conductor David Newman, which Chang premiered last season. Newman (b. 1954) is the son of legendary Hollywood composer Alfred Newman, who wrote the 20th Century Fox Fanfare (David’s brother is Thomas Newman and his cousin is Randy Newman, both also film composers).

Chang explored Prokofiev’s at times lyrical musical finds with a kind of intensity that felt more nuanced.

For his arrangement, David Newman basically took all the hits that Leonard Bernstein wrote for West Side Story, added a furious little coda, and turned it into a suite for solo violin and orchestra, with the violin mostly playing the vocal lines. Other than creating yet another showcase for Chang, which she delivered with impeccable technique, Newman’s version adds nothing to what we already know and love about West Side Story: Bernstein’s musical score and the suite of orchestral music that he created as Symphonic Dances From West Side Story, in 1961.

On top of that, the piano reduction that Ashley Wass played during the recital (most excellently, for that matter) does not do the symphonic orchestral score much justice; it is just not an adequate substitute for Bernstein’s original score. And even in Chang’s hands, it carries little weight.

After the intermission, Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Major, Op. 94a, brought more substance to the program. Clad in a different, less-clingy black dress covered in pink sparkles, Chang explored Prokofiev’s at times lyrical, then bouncy and playful, musical finds with a kind of intensity that felt more nuanced, multidimensional, and appropriate, adding depth instead of “show.”

I would have liked more of that, but two rather fluffy encores later, it was all over.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.