Main Image

A Pure Yet Political Art: Interview with Sarah Chang

The following conversation belongs to a series of interviews with Asian artists with international upbringings who have traveled across continents to share their art with audiences in both the East and the West, and sought to bridge the divide between identities and artforms. Their works have served as a powerful testament to Asian representation across the world.

Myself a Korean-Canadian, I sit down with these artists to ask about their lives as eager students and inspiring mentors, travelers finding their way around roadblocks, creators of art.


***


Violinist Sarah Chang has long astounded audiences around the world with her now-signature Romantic flair, technical precision, and full-arm bow flourishes. At the age of six, Chang started lessons at the Juilliard School, from when the title of ‘child prodigy’ followed her to her debut with the New York Philharmonic at age eight and her first album recording, Debut, at age ten. 

Unlike many other child prodigies who tend to grow out of music, Chang sailed through that “confusing” phase of her life, finding value in music beyond the ritzy stage: she delivered handcrafted violins to children in impoverished and war-torn regions as America’s cultural ambassador, proudly bore New York’s 2004 Olympic torch, and travelled to one of the most secluded places in the world—Pyongyang, North Korea—for a concert aimed at peace and reunification. It was this last experience that taught her that living as a musician is far more than “just jetting around the world and playing concerts.” 

Dialing in from suburban Philadelphia with her dog Chewie barking in the background, Sarah Chang talked about her most memorable concert venues and repertoire, her philosophy of interpreting classical music, the difficulties that come with her overwhelming travel schedule, and the venerable allure of her three-hundred-year-old violin.



What got you started as a violinist?


Being stereotypical Asian parents, my parents stuck me on a piano when I was about three. They made me go to piano lessons, swim lessons, ballet lessons, tennis lessons—almost everything. But when I turned four, I was the one who asked for the violin instead. The piano is a great introductory instrument, but I didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t my own. If I’d practiced on one piano at home, I’d play on a different piano for a lesson. Then if I had to perform somewhere else, there was, yet again, a different piano. I wanted an instrument that I could own.



What has changed in your approach to music since you started?


When I was young, I was very bright-eyed, and everything was new and exciting. When I debuted at Carnegie Hall and played in Berlin and London, I wasn’t really thinking, “What is the impact that this concert will have on my musical journey, and what am I bringing to the audience?” As I grew older, however, playing the violin became gratifying on a musical level. Experiencing life through my own eyes, every concerto becomes about not only note delivery, but delivering my own story behind what the composer asked for, and on top of that, adding my own style and telling the story through my own voice.

I was in my late teens—maybe 20s—when I realized that violin is more than just performing in a city and jetting off to the next venue. The first time I realized that was when I went to North Korea for a concert in Pyongyang, a place that’s still on shaky political grounds. One hundred musicians from South Korea’s KBS orchestra flew over and joined hands with Pyongyang’s own orchestra. The whole idea was for the two Koreas to stand unified on one stage. The event was so much more than just another concert. It was highly political, since it sent a strong message to the rest of the world that music can be used as a multifaceted tool for bringing people together. I think politicians and lawmakers utilize classical music as sort of a gentle, softer approach to get talks started again. That’s what kickstarted my interest in doing more than just jetting around the world and playing concerts.



Any memorable experiences from your travels? 


When it comes to concerts, it’s about being in a beautiful hall with my musical colleagues. Standing in the acoustics of New York’s Carnegie Hall, Berlin, or Vienna, for instance, is always special. Boston City Hall is one of my favorite halls, if not my favorite hall in the entire US. There are certain places that really stand out as jewels when it comes to concert venues. 

When it comes to my outreach as the United States’ artistic ambassador, visiting Ukraine hit me hard because I was there right after the attack at St. Michael’s Square. I went back two years later, and they had completely recovered. As part of outreach, I try to travel around the world and work with kids—not just the really talented students who are already in the academy with a promising future—but those who have experienced war or whose towns have been completely decimated. 

I went to villages in Africa where I’d bring children instruments. Some of the kids, I realized, were walking to school at 6am because they couldn’t bring their instruments back home for fear of being robbed. They would come to practice early in the morning at school without sheet music, learning the pieces by ear. Seeing something so real and raw humbled and encouraged me to do more for the global community.  It was truly so much more rewarding than doing my 10,000th concert. The easy thing that I have been doing for years and years is just doing the contract. But after a while, that becomes self-serving and sort of one-dimensional. Music really has so much more meaning now.



What was it like to work with many different conductors and orchestras?


I view the conductor as someone who can bring a great performance to a magical level. With the right conductor, with the right chemistry, with the right sort of partnership, orchestras can bring what is already a great performance to a once-a-year magical moment—where the concert stays in your soul and brings you back to it even after years and years have passed.

Conducting is more than carrying technique with the baton—providing the downbeat and a handful of important cues in the middle. Rather, conducting is about creating atmosphere and emotional storytelling. A great conductor brings the piece alive with a vision and a fresh interpretation. Frankly, considering the level of orchestras that I typically work with, the musicians know the repertoire inside out and can play it in their sleep. They could play on their own without a conductor and still deliver a first-class performance. But I tend to liken the conductor to a great football coach. For instance, the Patriots are always going to play great, right? But with the right coach, their games really stand out.

As a soloist, spatially, I’m always facing the audience. A hundred musicians are behind me and they cannot see my face, which means that the conductor and the baton is all the more important: we have to breathe and move as one with all the cues and all the nuances.



Any memorable rehearsal moments you’ve had?


Many times. There was this one time when I only had one dress rehearsal on the day of the show. I was flying in that day and the flight was delayed, so we had a 10 minute rehearsal right before the concert. That was a nerve-wracking experience. There’s never enough time for necessary rehearsals. My other memorable moments are when the conductors would get up, leave the baton, and start singing what they want. It’s so much more demonstrative and effective than trying to follow the beat. It’s great when they show by example.



What for you is the main difference between playing live and playing in a studio?

 

Recording studios mean that volume is not an issue because you have a mic attached to you. In a concert hall, your sound has to carry through. I love having an audience, feeling their energy, and playing off the electricity I feel in larger music halls. In a recording studio, I don’t have any of that. Instead, I’m playing in an empty room for sound control with only a producer and a sound engineer. There’s a unique adrenaline kick I get from being on stage with an audience, which is really hard to replicate in the studios.

This was part of the reason why so many of my records were actually done in a live concert atmosphere. For my discography, especially a lot of the later ones—for instance, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Lalo—I started asking for live recordings. It’s a lot riskier, but you automatically have an audience in front of you.

When I started, my very first recording came out on a cassette tape. Now nobody’s even with CDs anymore, since everything is downloaded. Music is a lot more accessible, which is great. But on the downside there are people who, instead of being focused on the concert, stick up their iPad interface and just try to record the whole thing.



Tell me more about how you walk through and interpret different classical pieces.


When it comes to the classical composers from the Bach or Beethoven era, the composers basically wrote down everything they had wanted. There’s not much that you need to do except honoring what the composer asked for. But when you get to the Romantic and the contemporary periods—by that I mean anything from Tchaikovsky to Sibelius—you have more license and freedom to put your own personal stamp on things. It’s fun but you also have more responsibility because you’re given more leeway. It depends on how you see yourself: as a storyteller with a distinct voice versus as a messenger of the composer. Throughout the years, I’ve altered my view, where now I feel that my job is more to bring the composer’s wishes to light, portraying their vision as honestly as I can.

There are times when you read back into the composers’ biographies and you realize, “Oh, they were not good human beings.” There are times when you idolize somebody so much in your head because you admire their work and their compositions, but then you read into their life history and you’re really disappointed. Nevertheless, as soloists, we have to take that as a whole and try to give the most beautiful version of the piece possible.



What would you say is your personal signature as an artist?


My strength is centered around the Romantic era. It’s what I grew up with and it’s where I feel the most at home. The Romantic era has a lot of technical stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s unapologetically beautiful writing. I love the Sibelius Concerto [in D minor]. The Brahms Concerto and Shostakovich’s First Concerto are masterpieces that are personal to me. There are other personal favorites—for instance, Swan Lake and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Another part of my signature is that I have a phenomenal instrument. I have a 1717 Guarneri del Gesu which I purchased from Isaac Stern before he passed away, and I am very fortunate to have it. Its lower two strings—the G and the D—are dark, powerful, almost rumbling. The upper two strings—the A and the E strings—have a soprano, a sweet, almost Strad-like sound. It took me a while to learn what it could and could not do for me, but it really is my voice on stage. I am incredibly appreciative that I have an instrument that is able to cut through big halls and a 100-musician orchestra as needed. I love the balance that the instrument has.



What are some of the highs and lows of being a classical musician?


The best part is that I’m always learning. Even if I’ve played concertos a thousand times in the past, I’m always discovering new nuances and dynamics to the pieces. I recently played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with an orchestra in Cremona, Italy, where the music originated. The musicians there barely used sheet music, since Vivaldi is their bread and butter. They played parts that were highly unusual, which would ordinarily make someone raise an eyebrow and say, “That’s not written, what are you doing?” But they brought so much freshness to the piece. It made me respect the fact that the music was written 400 years ago, and yet, here I am, playing the piece I’ve played for decades, but I’m still learning new, eye-opening tweaks and phrases.

The downside is the endless travel. Your body is perpetually tired. The one solid, consistent thing that I always do before a concert is take a nap backstage.



Who are your role models within and beyond the classical musical industry?


David Oistrakh, when it comes to a musician, and Elizabeth Taylor, when it comes to a non-musician. I love the fact that the woman didn’t care what everyone else thought. I love that she made the movies she wanted, married who she wanted, wore the jewels she wanted without caring what anyone else thought. She lived. And I think that’s so awesome.



What advice would you have given to your younger self?


This will be the ride of your life. Be prepared to not be home a lot and miss out on a lot of life, but the happiness that you’ll get at the end will be worth it. The best piece of advice that I wish I had gotten that nobody gave me is that music is a business. I honestly thought it’s just about practicing and performing. But it’s not. It is running a small business of which the product is myself. You have a team of agents and managers and lawyers and assistants and record executives—all on this train of managing your career. Prepare yourself to realize that there is a lot of outside noise and a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with music at all. A concert does not just mean practicing on your own—it means fundraising events for the health of the orchestra, donor events, press events, interviews, appearances. There are things that you didn’t sign up for but are a part of the whole gig.



What does classical music mean for you?


What I really love about the classical music industry is that regardless of your age, gender, race, or nationality, if you play well, then that’s it. As long as you deliver on stage and you have substance, it’s very black and white. You either play well or you don’t. A lot of orchestras hold blind auditions so that the judges can’t see you. There’s a certain amount of fairness in that.

I love Beyonce, I love Lady Gaga, and I go to a lot of pop concerts. I’m totally involved in the entertainment value of going to a pop concert where you have the lasers, the special effects, the dancers, the bands, the catchy music videos. I love all of that. But if I think back on all the concerts I’ve been to in my life, including the Beyonce and Bon Jovi concerts, the ones that have stirred something inside of me, touched my emotional core, and lasted in my soul were classical concerts. Classical music takes you back to an era that is pure and so honest. As classical musicians, we don’t lip sync. We don’t have fancy smoke machines. We’re delivering it live every single night. There’s something really beautiful about that. And optimistically speaking, I do believe in the fact that good, beautiful quality music will always be around.