AN INTERVIEW WITH VIOLINIST SARAH CHANG
Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang is one of the most distinguished and loved violinists now before us. Admitted to Julliard School of Music before she was 6, and debuting with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the London Symphony Orchestra all by age 11, she has performed and recorded with the world’s greatest orchestras for almost two decades. She was the winner of the coveted Avery Fisher Prize in 1999. Lord Yehudi Mehuhin declared her to be ‘the most wonderful, the most perfect, and the most ideal violinist I have ever heard’. She records exclusively for EMI Classics and her over 20 CD’s provide a truly inspired guide to the violin concerto repertory.
1. I WAS VERY LUCKY TO SEE ONE OF YOUR EARLY BARBICAN (LONDON) CONCERTS IN 1995 OF THE TCHAIKOVSKY CONCERTO UNDER SIR COLIN DAVIS AND THE LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA. DO YOU STILL HAVE FOND MEMORIES OF THESE CONCERTS WHEN YOU WERE SO YOUNG?
Yes, certainly, it was the beginning of a long relationship. In fact, I have returned to the Barbican almost every year since my London debut in 1992. I do remember how supportive and what a gentlemen Sir Colin was and how great it was to play with the LSO. The Barbican now truly feels like one of my ‘homes’. When you perform in so many different cities, you need performing environments that you know really well and can just relax in. I find the same thing of course in Philadelphia, where I grew up and presently live, and also in Los Angeles and Berlin.
2. ARE YOU STILL ON YOUR EXHAUSTING SCHEDULE OF OVER 100 CONCERTS A YEAR? WHEN DO YOU REST AND WHEN DO YOU HAVE TIME TO LEARN NEW WORKS?
I don’t really rest. I now take Christmas off, decorating the tree with my family, and so on, but this is recent. After the regular concert season, the summer festivals are so important to me since I can play many different and new works and can play chamber music regularly. I really need to play chamber music as a break from concertos. Sometimes I fly between three different festivals in a week. But it is true that this type of a schedule means that you have to learn new works while playing old ones. Right now, I am trying to learn a very modern, newly-composed work at the same time as I am playing the Brahms.
3. YOU HAVE PLAYED CONCERTOS LIKE THE BRAHMS, BRUCH, AND TCHAIKOVSKY SO MANY TIMES NOW WITH SO MANY DIFFERENT CONDUCTORS AND ORCHESTRAS. DO YOU FIND YOUR INTERPRETATION CHANGES MUCH IN THESE DIFFERENT SETTINGS?
I do have a definite set interpretation of each of these works, but you have to try to fit it with the conductor you are working with. Sometimes, you can have some fundamentally poor matches where things will not really work. But this is not like the old days where either the conductor or soloist can dictate the interpretation of the other. I would never tell a conductor I did not like his interpretation, and he would not tell me likewise. There is a cooperative ethic today: everyone tries as hard as they can to achieve something together. What is particularly interestingly is that the greatest conductors can take your interpretation even farther than you imagined. At this point, I know the conductors I love working with, so I try to perform with them very frequently.
4. YOU SEEM TO ALWAYS FIND A FRESHNESS AND SPONTANEITY IN THESE FAMILIAR CONCERTOS AFTER ALL THESE YEARS? WHAT IS YOUR SECRET?
First, I only perform works I really love. I also think that playing a work with many different orchestras is a key ingredient: the performances and concert environments are never exactly the same, so this keeps you from operating on automatic pilot. Playing chamber music is also important, since there is an element of rediscovery when you go back to concertos.
5. A FEW YEARS AGO, I SAW A PERFORMANCE OF YOURS WITH THE VSO AND I REMARKED TO A FRIEND THAT WHAT MADE YOU DIFFERENT THAN OTHER YOUNG VIOLINISTS IS THAT YOU DID NOT SIMPLY CONCENTRATE ON TECHNICAL BEAUTY, THAT YOU HAD AN UNCOMMON STRUCTURAL AWARENESS THAT REMINDS ME A BIT OF THE LEGENDARY DAVID OISTRAKH. DID YOU EVER THINK ABOUT THAT? DID YOU EVER RUN INTO THE EARLY PERFORMANCE OF OISTRAKH AND KLEMPERER PLAYING THE BRAHMS CONCERTO?
Thank you so much. Ever since I was young, David Oistrakh was one of my most esteemed models for how the violin should be played. I do know the performance you mention. It is truly wonderful!
6. I KNOW YOU LOVE THE SOUND THAT YOUR GUARNERI DEL GUSU VIOLIN MAKES. HOW DID YOU FIRST COME ACROSS IT?
I bought it about 10 years ago. I mentioned to violinist Issac Stern, who had helped me early on, that I was looking for a new instrument. He contacted many dealers and suddenly I had 12 or 15 Guarneri’s and Stradivarius’ sitting in front of me. I would play each of these on the Carnegie Hall stage while he patiently listened in the audience, until we finally agreed on the current instrument. I am forever grateful that this incredibly busy man would take so much time to go through this process with me: I regard him as my ‘godfather’!
7. I ALSO HAVE HEARD THAT YOU HAVE FOUR DISTINGUISHED 'BOWS' THAT YOU USE.
I always carry four bows with me when I perform, but I have many more than that. I am truly a bow collector. Some people buy property and art work, I gravitate towards bows.
8. AS A KOREAN, DO YOU FEEL ANY AFFINITY WITH TRADITIONALLY-CELEBRATED KOREAN ARTISTS SUCH AS VIOLINISTS KHUNG-WHA CHUNG AND KUNG-WOO PAIK?
I was awed by them. Khung-Wha Chung really started it all for us in the late 1960’s; when I grew up, she was an icon. Kung-Woo Paik now lives in Paris. I met him a long time ago with my mother. I remember him as a most distinguished and elegant artist with an extraordinarily beautiful wife.
9. YOU CERTAINLY MADE A STATEMENT WHEN YOU PERFORMED IN NORTH KOREA IN 2002. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THAT CONCERT IN RETROSPECT?
I am very Korean but I am not really a political person; I will always be a musician first and foremost. But there comes a time when music, and art in general, can serve as a universal bond to lessen political differences. It was so difficult to bring this concert off. We had to combine musicians from North Korea with the (South Korean) KBS orchestra, and we rescheduled three times. The fourth time worked.
10. DO YOU HAVE ANY FEELINGS AS TO THE PROGRESSIVE DEVELOPMENT OF MUSIC PROGRAMS AND TRAINING WITHIN KOREA NOW?
I typically go back to South Korea once a year, but I have little direct evidence on the quality of music education that takes place. As it is normally the case that the best young instrumentalists want to receive education abroad, what I have observed are the large number of young Korean artists who audition for the Julliard School. So many of them have skills that vastly exceed basic Juilliard standards that there has to be a great number of stunning teachers in Korea producing them.
11. WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF THE ASIAN EXPLOSION IN THE ARTS?
Asian cultures of course place a great emphasis on education in all fields. As Asian countries develop, more and more people get opportunities – and that is what we are seeing. For example, when I was very young, my parents ensured that my education was non-stop. I practiced the piano, then practiced the violin, then practiced gymnastics, and so on. I really had no idea that I would turn out as a violinist. But, as far as the top violinists go, I am sure that things go in waves. First, it was the Russians that set the standard, then the Israelis, now perhaps it is the Asians. In the long run, everyone seems to get their turn.
12. YOU ARE NOW A VETERAN OF ALMOST TWENTY YEARS OF INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE, AND YOU HAVE MATURED REMARKABLY OVER THIS TIME. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE SINGLE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE IN THE WAY YOU APPROACH A WORK NOW AS COMPARED WITH THE PAST.
When I was younger, I focused on the violin part alone, and tried simply to conquer it. Now I look at the entire orchestral score, to get a picture of what everyone is doing. Many young artists these days would like to be both soloist and conductor, but that is not for me. I just want to examine everything in the work so I can play it completely.
© Geoffrey Newman 2011