In Mid-Career, Sarah Chang Finds Room to Grow

Sarah Chang
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Lou Fancher

Look carefully at award-winning violinist Sarah Chang when she makes her first Bay Area appearance since 2013 in a concert with pianist Julio Elizalde in Chamber Music San Francisco’s series of performances March 12-14.

Why? Because her ears have grown, multidimensionally.

“There’s nothing specifically technical about my playing that has changed lately,” says Chang, “but there’s the whole area of my ears opening up. I’m now looking at a score and looking beyond the violin line to see how a composer phrased his question. To think of a piece in its entirety is something I never looked at when I was younger.”

Chang’s “rocket ride” onto the world stage as a soloist is well known: Child prodigy picks up violin at age 4, debuts with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 8, three years later in 1991 the 11-year-old wows Walnut Creek audiences performing with the California Symphony, and continues on a trajectory that includes performing with the world’s finest conductors and symphonies, earning awards and honors that range from Hollywood Bowl's Hall of Fame award to the Avery Fisher Prize, releasing over 20 albums, and more.

It’s a wonder that Chang has not suffered burnout—or maybe it’s not surprising at all. For if there’s a second “change” Chang has undergone—a practice beyond more exquisite, efficient bowing or honed-to-perfection phrasing—it’s learning how to drive herself at variable speeds.

“I started out so early and it was all about playing the big standard violin concertos. Everything was 100-miles an hour from day one,” she says. Lately, she’s embraced nuance. And—back to the subject of ears—Chang says listening to chamber repertoire in a polyphonic way is her current passion. “It’s helped my solo playing. Now, I hear the whole sound, instead of my ear thinking of the violin line in a horizontal way.”

Intentional zigzag or vertical listening does not mean departure from the lessons learned at Juilliard from her most famous teacher, Dorothy Delay, who died in 2002 at age 84. “Everything she said stays with me. She’d take apart an entire piece and work for hours—a whole day—on one page. But when I went on stage, she’d say forget everything and play from the heart.”

Chang says a person’s temperament essentially remains the same—she has described herself in the past as “turbo charged”—but with maturity, control increases. “You learn to color your performance and shade it in ways that are important for a certain composer. It’s like in your teens, every break-up is a seismic shift. As you get older, it’s a matter of knowing which rep suits you and which pieces are things where you need to check yourself.” Sibelius and Bruch, she says, can be played as if “you wear your heart on your sleeve.” The gorgeous and romantic works of Bach and Beethoven require “controlled drama” and parameters to retain their authenticity.

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