Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Sarah Chang

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column from January 12, 2007

What sort of person would you expect to have such books as John McClaren's Running Rings, The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich and The Guide to Finding the Perfect Handbag on his or her current reading list?

A fashionista? A historian specializing in the history of the Soviet Union? A person with a million frequent flier miles?

What about a concert violinist?

If you guessed the concert violinist, you would be right on target. Although it might seem incredibly unlikely, those are the exact three books that the beautiful, brilliant 26-year-old violinist Sarah Chang is reading — when she isn't spending four or five hours a day practicing her violin; or in a jet en route to some faraway Asian or European city; or on a concert stage happily performing for an audience of two or three thousand.

This week, the lovely Ms. Chang performs Max Bruch's rhapsodic Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall with her good friend Kurt Masur, whom she calls "one of my absolute favorite conductors," at the podium.

Evidently Chang is someone who knows how to manage time very well indeed.

Her 2006-2007 performing season includes such highlights as a European tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Hans Graf; a North American tour with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also with Maestro Masur conducting; as well as appearances with American orchestras from Los Angeles, Houston, Milwaukee and New Jersey, in addition to San Francisco.

The Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic are also on her play list, along with an extensive United States and European recital tour later in the spring, which will include a Cal Performances recital in Berkeley April 7.

Why such a hectic pace? For one reason, she is thoroughly used to it. She already has 20 years of performance experience under her belt.

Two of her first local solo concert appearances were when she was a bright-eyed child back in the mid-1980s with Barry Jekowsky conducting the California Symphony in Walnut Creek. The first of these featured young Sarah playing the daylights out of the daunting Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and a couple of years later, Paganini's showpiece concerto.

The second reason she endures such a demanding performance schedule is that she simply loves being on the concert stage.

"For me, the stage is my home," she said.

She also says she loves the "adrenaline rush" she gets from having a live audience in front of her, as well as the "old-school glamour" of the classical music world with the male performers in tails, the women in beautiful dresses, and the soloist in a gorgeous evening gown.

"Every concert is magical," she says. "The whole art form of being onstage is mysterious and fascinating."

Earlier last month, Chang was chosen by Newsweek Magazine as one of the top eight achieving females in the country.

In the article accompanying the announcement, Chang explained that after traveling to a different city every week for most of the year, the stage itself turns out to be the only really familiar place.

During our telephone chat last week, Chang explained why she's chosen the Bruch Concerto, a piece many consider a weathered, sometimes saccharine, old chestnut to play in San Francisco.

Although she agreed that the piece is almost universally popular, she stressed that "There's a reason why it maintains such an important place in the repertory over the years. It's simply one of the world's very most beautiful, lyrical pieces. I auditioned with it for Juilliard when I was about 5-1/2 years old."

One of her first Juilliard teachers was the great Dorothy DeLay, who also taught Itzhak Perlman. Delay has said that, in many ways, Sarah has always been an adult with regard to her intelligence and maturity.

Another prominent musician who has extravagantly praised Chang was the late Yehudi Menuhin, who once called her "the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most ideal violinist I have ever heard."

Yet during our phone conversation, Chang's voice sounded typically girlish and full of youthful enthusiasm as she named shopping, horseback riding and gliding among her favorite non-musical activities.

"I also love to play tennis with my very athletic 19-year-old brother. He's a freshman at Princeton and the sweetest little kid," she says.

But when the conversation shifted back to music, her voice deepened and took on an immediate maturity.

She said that the Brahms, Sibelius and Shostakovich violin concerti are her current favorites, explaining that, "the Shostakovich, however, is not only one of the most profound, but one of the most punishingly monstrous pieces to play.

While I played through it as a child, I deliberately waited until I was around 21 to tackle it again and just last year, recorded it with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a piece that explores every possible emotion."

When I asked her what she would like to be doing 50 or 60 years from now, she hesitated a few seconds, and then replied, "What I would really love, is to just continue what I'm doing now — not to be labeled as a 'prodigy,' but to be called a 'musicians' musician.' I want not only the audiences, but my colleagues, to enjoy my playing."

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