A major fiddle
Already the complete musician by nine, Sarah Chang has blossomed into a vivacious, photogenic performer. Derek Lim meets her as she prepares to tackle the great Sibelius concerto
Sarah Chang makes us ordinary folk look bad. The 27-year-old Korean- American violinist has, unbelievably, already been performing for 19 years. She made her debut to great acclaim at just eight years old, playing Paganini with no less an orchestra than the New York Philharmonic – and on one day’s notice. Without rehearsing. She’s played thousands of concerts over the years, recorded 17 albums and garnered awards as well as throngs of admirers for her innate musicality. The legendary Yehudi Menuhin himself declared when the Philadelphia-born Chang was just nine: ‘Sarah is the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most ideal violinist I have ever heard.’
Years later, her playing has only matured. Her willingness to be spontaneous and take risks to express her musical message, coupled with an overpowering vivacity on stage, have ensured she’s remained one of the most exciting violinists of her generation. That she’s also grown into a very attractive lady certainly doesn’t hurt. This month, she’ll return to the Esplanade to perform the Sibelius concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
‘It’s one of those pieces that I’ve been playing constantly,’ Chang says over the phone from New York, of the Nordic masterpiece she learned as a Juilliard student at age eight. ‘You know, there are those concertos that you play and then you put away, because you get tired of them. But for the Sibelius, it’s been very, very consistent and extremely constant throughout the past several years. I’m thrilled that we’re doing it on tour.’
Perhaps the greatest 20th-century violin concerto, the Sibelius often eludes violinists. It’s very technically challenging, but its true difficulty lies in the first movement’s rhapsodic nature. The composer brings the listener to a dark and brooding, half-lit Finnish nightscape. ‘It’s very rhythmical, very orchestral and quite tricky to put together, but really very structured,’ says Chang. Of the soulful middle movement, she gushes, ‘It’s really lush and has a gorgeous melody, and so much love and romanticism. I love music like that.’ The last movement, wryly described as ‘a polonaise for polar bears’ by the noted writer Donald Francis Tovey, is the concerto’s explosive finale. If the first movement represents a night scene, then this evokes a roaring, glorious sunrise. It features finger acrobatics that Jean Sibelius took pride in torturing violinists with (he was also a talented fiddler). Not surprisingly, Chang revels in it.
But when Chang was first discovered, there were fears her career path would never justify the early superlatives lavished on her by Menuhin. The road from ‘child prodigism’ (to use violinist Jascha Heifetz’s term) to adulthood is littered with talents that came asunder under the crushing pressure and stunted personal development associated with a life that revolves solely around music. Then there was the small matter of cultural assimilation. Born into an Asian family, Chang felt acutely the differences between herself and her peers. ‘I appreciate my Korean heritage more now than in the past,’ she says. ‘It’s not easy being brought up in a mixed cultural setting, but my parents were fantastic. They were good about trying to keep a Korean culture in the home. For example, we spoke not a word of English at home, only Korean. Once we were outside of the house, at school or with friends, they were all American or European, so it was a good balance.
‘My parents are quite strict and old-fashioned about certain things, especially being a girl and their first-born,’ she says with a laugh. ‘But they’re cool, really cool. I appreciate their discipline and their support, because I think it’s really carved me into being a more well-rounded person, and because I realise that my life is not normal, however you might want to describe it. It’s crazy and I’m always on the road, always travelling and living out of hotels and airports. It’s a very abnormal lifestyle, so I appreciate having that kind of very hardcore family base.’
Outside of her jet-setting professional ambit, Chang tries to lead the average American lifestyle. Nights off are often spent enjoying a sushi dinner, or catching up on the latest movies. ‘I’m more a movie nut than anything,’ she explains. ‘I go to the theatres every spare second that I have, really, in any city – doesn’t matter what language it’s in.’ Chang’s also a huge fan of serials, and loves Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. And when not playing classical music, she loves ‘anything with a Latin flavour’ – Christina Aguilera, Santana. She even takes salsa-dancing lessons, and Singapore was one of the few places where she’s shown off her skills ‘many, many years ago’. ‘I did the opening concert with the Singapore Symphony [at the Esplanade],’ she says, ‘and the very next day I did a concert with the London Philharmonic and Kurt Masur. After that concert a whole group of us from the London Phil went to a salsa bar – we walked from the Mandarin Hotel and it was gorgeous! We spent the entire night dancing and I just thought, this is so cool – we’re in this gorgeous city, just opened this sensational concert hall, we’ve got great music playing and I’m surrounded by friends. It’s just one of those nights that you remember ten years down the line.’
And with a little help from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic, that’s exactly what Singapore can expect, too.