Sarah Chang: The rare flower of virtuosity
To follow her career from gifted child prodigy to charismatic international executive musician, one is reminded of the exotic flower that blooms once in a generation. ‘Her exquisite playing, steeped in precision, power and deep wells of passion is at once tender as it is masterful.
TAE: You blazed onto the public gaze at the tender age of 8 with the New York Philharmonic under the batonship of Maestro Zubin Mahta and later at only 13, you made your debut at Carnegie Hall. How much of these experiences have stayed with you?
SC: I do remember my Carnegie debut quite clearly. More-so, because it seemed to be such a big deal for my parents [laughs]. As you said, at that point already I had made my New York Phil debut and my Berlin Phil debut so I had this whole list of debuts under my belt but I could just sense from my parents and my teacher and the people taking care of my life from my management and everybody in the record industry that this was something very, very special. Because of that, I felt the influence that this was not just another concert, it was something really special. Carnegie Hall comes with so much history when it comes to American cultural life so to stand there at any age is a pretty big deal, and for me, it was even more-so because I had worked with Isaac Stern from the time I was six years old. He was one of my teachers and one of my biggest mentors for my entire life and since Carnegie Hall was essentially his baby, I mean it’s now actually called The Isaac Stern Auditorium, so to stand on a stage that has your mentor’s name on it is pretty special.
TAE: You have expressed for the public record, your great fondness and respect for your mentor, the late Isaac Stern. There is a mirror in some respect of the emotional journey he took the audience of his generation with each of his performances as you do with yours. There is the infusion of feeling, sensitivity, self-awareness and originality in all of your performances that is life affirming. Can you share with us about that connection?
SC: The thing about Mr Stern was that first of all I had so much respect for him as a fellow musician. He wasn’t one of those teachers – and I mean this with the greatest amount of respect – that would just ‘teach’ in a classroom. He was one of those people who had been on stage and was a true performer. He was very instrumental in helping me find something that’s truly unique and personal – a musical soul that is able to really open up your heart and to share every emotional journey that you’re going through when you’re on stage, and to be able to share that with an audience – a room full of strangers. There were times when he seemed mean, but it was more the fact that he always demanded perfection from his students and he had very little patience for anything that wasn’t at his level of expectance. There are many times where two strong personalities can butt heads but from beginning to end, I had nothing but the highest amount of respect for that man.
TAE: You play with a 1717 Guarneri del Gesu that was given to you by Isaac Stern. Can you describe the relationship you have with the instrument and how the kind of sonic wizadry you can elicit from it makes it your favoured choice of instrument?
SC: It is a very powerful, very dramatic instrument. It has got an incredibly dark and some would say terrifying lower register. Its capability is immense. If you’re in the right hall and this instrument is happy with what you’re doing with it, it has this ability to reach a depth in its lower strings that literally makes the bottom of the stage rumble. The upper strings have this incredible, almost feminine quality that is like a Stradivarius in a way. It has this ability to be really sweet and very feminine, which is similar to that of a Stradivarius, and I love that sort of unique and rare contrast. The Guarneri del Gesu is just under 300 years old. To think of where it came from and to know that Isaac Stern used it and now it’s my time to use it, I look at my time with this instrument as my responsibility to take care of it and to maintain it in the great condition that it is right now. I want to preserve it in a way that the next generation can also enjoy it and what it can do.
TAE: You have performed with so many great musical luminaries over your career. Pinchas Zukerman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yo-Yo Ma and Placido Domingo to name but a few. What common thread unites each of great musicians that you have personally experienced?
SC: They are such unbelievable musicians that they somehow lift the ability of every last person on stage and coax you to play even better than you prepared for or even thought that you could. It doesn’t matter what piece you’re doing or whether you’ve done it twice or two hundred times on stage, they have this incredible ability to lift everyone and to really make a concert magical. For me, it is like being in a candy shop each time I have a concert experience like that.
TAE: You have journeyed to North Korea and performed with both the North and South Korean orchestras during a trying political time. You described the experience as ‘overwhelming’. Could you share that feeling with us?
SC: The North Korea trip was very meaningful for me on a personal level. My parents hail from South Korea and I was born in the US but I’d been raised in a very traditional household where my parents were adamant that we keep the language and customs at home. The trip was a joint concert between the North Korean and South Korean orchestras and the whole idea was to have a concert with both orchestras on stage at the same time with a North Korean conductor and a South Korean soloist, being myself. Over 100 South Korean musicians were flown into North Korea for the performance. Being a US citizen meant that the red tape for visa clearance was just about impossible and then once you arrived, the atmosphere from the security-checks to the armed soldiers guarding at our hotel was very shocking at times. ‘Getting passed all that, doing the concert and being on stage, it really struck me at that moment more than any other moment in my whole career that being a musician is truly exceptional. The concert was during a time when talks between politicians from the US, South Korea, North Korea and the law-makers had just stopped. It was a case where politicians utilized music as a soft tool to get the talks started again. I thought that was a very cool thing for me to be a tiny little part of and I felt so immensely privileged and so happy to be a musician and to be able to be in a situation like that.
TAE: It seems from the excitement in your voice in describing the experience that a career might await you in international diplomatic relations?
SC: [Laughing]. Not at all! I applaude those musicians like Daniel Barenboim and Bono from U2 who use their stage to express their political views. My calling is just to be a musician. I am not entirely comfortable with using my talent for political outcomes. Under my title as US Artistic Ambassador, I am very passionate about promoting musical education. I think the most useful way to use my talents is to bring kids closer to classical music and try to expose kids who might not have the privilege of learning an instrument or hearing high school concerts. I want to be able to go into their school and to play for them, or to hold question and answer sessions with young students who are trying to decide if they want to pursue music or not.
TAE: We are always fascinated by executives of Asian descent who occupy a duality of identity. Your parents are South Korean and yet you have enjoyed a rich and full American formal education and upbringing. Do you see yourself as an American or a Korean?
SC: That’s a great question. ‘I’m not really quite sure. I’m still trying to figure that one out. I think the influence that your parents have on you is enormous and, in my case, and also my brother’s case, we were brought up in a very Asian household, with Asian customs. My parents were very strict about keeping Korean as the main language at home. They figured, oh well, you’ll speak English with your school so we want to focus on you keeping your Korean in shape when you’re at home. So they wouldn’t answer us if we spoke English to them. With our parents, my brother and I still speak Korean all the time, and with each other, my brother and I speak English. We just mix it up. Also with the customs, we have very traditional grandparents who we go to see every year and I’m very grateful to our parents for instilling those customs in us because we don’t want to be strangers to our grandparents. ‘We want them to realise that, regardless of where we live, we are their grandchildren and we respect them and their culture and the way that we were brought up. Having said that, I think we live in a country that is very much a melting pot. Everybody in the US is from somewhere. Their parents are from somewhere. It really is an ideal place to grow up into a mixture of cultures with your best friends. ‘My best friends growing up were Italian, Jewish and Greek and just all over the map and it really was the sort of UN of all as I was growing up. So, to have that, I think is just such a luxury, as I grow older, I value the Asian traditions a lot more now than I used to.
Sarah Chang agent: imgartists.com/roster/sarah-chang