Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Sarah Chang

Sarah Chang is the classic child prodigy, beginning to play the violin at the age of four, performing with major orchestras by the age of eight. While most violinists have barely reached grade one by that stage, Chang was learning concertos at the Juilliard school, mentored by Isaac Stern. It’s to one oft hose concertos that she has returned for a tour of the US with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Having just arrived in the UK to rehearse, she’s barely out of the airport but cheerily greeting me. She gets straight into a recent tour with Kurt Masur. “We were doing Brahms together, and then it was a quick switch and we were doing Sibelius already! It’s pretty crazy but it’s all good, really good.”

She seems satisfied with the Brahms performances.”They went so well, I mean I’ve waited for ages to do this with him, I’ve been playing with him since I was about nine or 10 but for some reason it was always Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, you name it, everything but the Brahms, and I’ve been whining and nagging at him to do for ever and ever! I don’t know if he was waiting for me to grow up a bit, or if he just thought it was not a great thing for a 12-year-old to be doing! I was just thrilled about two years ago when the Leipzig date came in and he said ‘You know what, I think we should do Brahms now’. I was just floored, I was so happy!”

We turn to the piece she’s touring, the Sibelius concerto. It clearly has a place high in her affections. “I learnt that when I was eight, I was a student at Juilliard and I started playing it immediately all over the place. I recorded it as well when I was about 15 or 16 with Berlin, so it’s been a part of my repertoire for a very very longtime, but the great thing about things like that is you keep on rediscovering them and they never get old. With some pieces you go through a love/hate phase, you know, it goes up and down, and with the Sibelius for some reason it’s always been constant for me, I’ve always loved that piece.”

Technically, it’s very challenging, as even a player of Chang’s ability agrees. “It’s got a lot in there! I mean, everything you could ever ask of a violinist, like scales, arpeggios, double stops, triple stops, you name it, it’s in there!” She goes onto recount a visit to the composer’s house in Finland. “It’s amazing, it’s about an hour or so from Helsinki and it’s so cold! I went there in the middle of winter, and they looked at me as if I’d been asked to be taken to the moon!

“It’s usually closed in the winter because it’s so cold but I insisted, and they took me which was real sweet of them. It really was in the middle of the woods, it looked like a winter wonderland. There’s nothing there except this one little house, it’s so isolated and so peaceful and absolutely gorgeous! But you realise how private the man was because there’s nothing near there. Apparently he valued his privacy and the silence so much that he wouldn’t let them have running water, he had to send one of his daughters to the well every morning. I’m so glad I wasn’t his daughter! But in any case it shows how much he valued something when he was working on it, in a way slightly obsessive but it created masterpieces!”

Chang’s recording career to date has alternated between concertos and chamber music, and it’s clear this approach reaps benefits for her. “I started my career out extremely early, and everything was so concerto based that I think I missed out on the whole chamber music experience, so when I hit my teens I made this really conscious effort to play as much chamber music as I could and go to as many chamber festivals during the summer. I had these companions, you know, and just started repeatedly playing year after year with them and for some reason the Berlin Philharmonic members clicked on such an amazing level that we just continued to work together and do tours, even when there were no recording projects. The chamber music repertoire is so massive, it’s actually quite daunting, and you learn so much and you only realise it’s the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t pick an easy instrument!”

In 2006 Chang recorded concertos by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, the well received disc conducted by one of her top conductors. “To see it come to fruition, and to see it actually happen with not just Berlin but with Simon Rattle who I’ve always loved working with, was so exciting. It was completely live, which I knew was a huge risk, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way. That’s a recording I’m really proud of. And after that we’re actually doing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which will be fun! Unlike a lot of the pieces I play, which I learnt when I was barely out of like toddler years, Vivaldi is something I did not even touch until last year, which is a little unusual because I know it’s so popular and everybody plays it! There’s a lot of freedom with Vivaldi and I’m having a lot of fun with that right now.”

As Chang agrees, there are several ways to approach Vivaldi. “You’re absolutely right, there are people who stay very true to the score and don’t embellish very much, and there are those who just say well the score’s there as an outline but have freedom to put ornamentations, scales and runs in and just go crazy!”

With Sarah just having arrived on a plane from New York, it seems appropriate to raise the problems of baggage restrictions. This is met with outright laughter! “You’ve tapped into a topic that I think 110% of musicians are moaning about right now! It’s pretty horrendous but I think all we can do is understand that everybody’s just trying to do their job, and safety comes first, first and foremost. You know I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had some people pretty unhappy about the strings, and I’ve had my mute confiscated, but Yo-Yo Ma was telling me they made him check in his end pin on his cello, he had togo from the X-ray point to go back and check it in! It hasn’t been too much fun but you learn to work with it I guess.”

This last exchange is indicative of Chang’s whole attitude, very much upbeat and focused on enjoying the music. Watching her play live, this attitude is clear in her performances, as she remains at the top of her game.

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Interview: Sarah Chang