Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Suddenly Sarah Chang

I was not sure what to expect from a former child prodigy. There are a lot of preconceptions, and I was trying to remember one minutes before meeting Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang at the Conrad Centennial Hotel in Singapore. But my mind was on her track record: starting violin studies at age four; auditioning at age eight for Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti which led to immediate engagements with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra; a recording contract at age nine; notable recital engagements including her Carnegie Hall debut and performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Symphony Hall in Boston, the Barbican Centre in London, the Philharmonie in Berlin and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; an Avery Prize in 1999 as well as other honors; worldwide acclaim; collaborations with giants in classical music, etc.
Chang was in Singapore for the second Singapore Sun Festival, a 10-day extravaganza of art and living well, born out of the Tuscan Sun Festival, which was inspired by the book Under the Tuscan Sun. There were notable chefs preparing signature dinners, writers giving light on their craft, musicians and singers touching the soul, and gurus talking about wellness.
I was not able to catch Chang perform, having flew in late and being busy with sampling a wide array of good food, but I was able to talk to her. She turned out to be effervescent and amiable, almost like a teenager in interest and attitude, dressed almost skimpily. That I did not expect.

RHM: You started very, very young. How was it? It doesn’t seem to be a normal kid’s life.
SC: It’s really not. Within the circumstances, my parents did what they could. They were very supportive. They made sure I went to a normal school so I have friends my own age because when I was working I was always with grownups and people twice my age, three times my age if not older. When I was working, touring, recording, doing concerts, that was one set of my life and then when I went home I was a kid. My mom expected me to do homework. I went to Juilliard on top of that so I would have all the musical training. I feel that it was very structured and categorized in a way that I really did try to get the most, the best of out of both worlds. In theory it works like that. Obviously going to high school that became really, really hard. Because it’s hard enough when you’re just a full time student, but to have a career, as long as it’s a recording career, and then trying to finish school and keep up with school, it’s not fun. It was at a time when email was just starting but not huge so I really did finish high school like that. I really did. It truly saved my sanity. That was the only way that I was able to finish school. I had great teachers, amazing professors, who were willing to work with me, you know, to fax this when I’m working extra in the classroom. They were usually supportive but you know at the end of the day their requirements have to be met. There were a few years of rehearsals, concerts, parties and dinners and all that great stuff and then having to rush back to the hotel to do my homework, and I did. Many years of that. I’m glad it’s over now.

RHM: Is there a chance you will go pop?
SC: No, that’s not where my interest lies. I do listen to a lot of pop music. When I’m relaxing or driving or when I just want to get my mind off work, like anybody else, I love Beyonce, I love Rihanna, I love anything Latin and anything salsa. You know, I love, love that. That’s what I would be listening to. But when it comes to work and what I do onstage, I mean my training is classical music and I think that’s where my strengths are. And I feel that I’ve been very lucky in this career. I have some of the most amazing friends in the music industry who are absolutely the best in what they do. I don’t feel the need to do like crossover things for pop project. If anything comes in my direction and it’s a good project musically then of course I’ll love it. I’m with EMI. I’ve stayed with them since I was nine years old, and it’s probably one of the longest recording relationships out there. Occasionally, they send me projects, you know, that are unique or a little different or slightly more crossover but I think they also know what I do and what my fan base is, the classical field.

RHM: Who are your artistic influences?
SC: I think when it comes to like violinists, I think (David) Oistrakh I love, love Oistrakh. Anything that Oistrakh did I think is just phenomenal. Out of the living, I think Lieberman. I think he’s just unbelievable.

RHM: How different is it performing in the festival in Tuscany from this one in Singapore?
SC: First of all, this is by far the biggest hall and this is the proper hall. This is an actual proper hall. You can bring any orchestra, any conductor, and this is at par with any of the great halls in the world. The one in Tuscany, it’s just small opera hall. It’s beautiful but it is not an opera hall. You can’t fit in a big orchestra. I have played with a reduced chamber orchestra. Of the opera halls in Europe and especially in Italy, they’re like little miniature jewel boxes. They’re very like visually beautiful but capacity-wise they’re smaller, and the number of seats are smaller as well. The stage there is so much smaller. You can’t fit a hundred and twenty on stage, whereas this (the Esplanade) is enormous. There are differences like that. I’ve gone to Cortona a few times. It’s just different because here like after yesterday’s concert we have this big thing at the tent, we all went out to dinner and we had drinks at the Raffles then we went clubbing. It’s really a cosmopolitan big city. There’s so much to do here. Whereas Cortona is rustic. It’s wine country. A lot of green stuff. Really, really beautiful but in a different way like all cobblestones. You don’t wear heels there because you’ll get stuck and stuff like that. It’s one of those places where there’s one strip of shops and that’s basically it. It is like in a lot of little Italian cities and you go there and you get vegetables and stuff, and there were a few shoe stores and clothing stores. I remember I was walking back after one of the rehearsals and there was this little shoe shop which is so cute, so great. The next day I tried to go back and it was closed, and that wasn’t like on a Sunday or anything else. It was just a regular Thursday, four in the afternoon. No big deal. I asked the guy the next day why were you closed, and he said my mom came so we went out, we had company and we had lunch and it sort of got late so I just closed the shop. It’s sort of like that—totally easy-going, slightly disorganized, which is charming in a way. They’re very laidback. It’s different being in small Italian city from being in a big city.

RHM: How is it working with an orchestra?
SC: I have it easy because as a soloist. You’re only there for a few days. You do your normally two rehearsals. You do the concert. Sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s as many as four or five in a city. And then you are out of there. So it’s great if you like the people that you work with. But if you don’t, it’s okay because you’re leaving anyway. I think most of the musicians are contracted for like fourteen to eighteen weeks in an orchestra. They have a validity pack. And orchestra members, you know, it’s their community. It’s their family. And I think everyone gets strong like any family, great relationships and great friends, and some that are aren’t so fantastic. It’s pretty fun. There are a lot of married couples in an orchestra. There are a lot of divorced couples in an orchestra. It’s fun like a soap opera.

RHM: What’s your personal definition of music?
SC: For me, it’s my life. It’s a huge part of my life. It takes over most of my major decisions. In the music industry, we schedule really far in advance. So right now we’re doing my 2011 to 2012 calendar so you know what city you’ll be in, who you’ll be working with on a certain day on 2011. It adds a little bit of stability, which is really good. It’s a challenge just to live the rest of your normal life. With all this extra stuff that goes on and at the end of the day, when you go on stage and actually play and to be with an audience that is so enthusiastic, to be with an orchestra and conductor that you really click with and work really well with, then the chemistry is there, that really makes everything just click, you know. It really all works out.

RHM: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be? What other interests aside from music do you have?
SC: I was at one point really interested in journalism, not just because I do some interviews, but I love to write and all that about me. But if I wasn’t actually a violinist I would hope that I would be somehow involved in the music industry, the promotion side of it, the recording company side of it.

RHM: Who is the biggest source of inspiration in your musical career?
SC: I would say probably my teacher, Miss (Dorothy) DeLay. She passed away several years ago. But she was an incredible teacher who taught like a whole list of really wonderful, wonderful musicians. Her and Isaac Stern probably. He really had a wonderful way of keeping an eye on the next generation of musicians, and was constantly calling and asking what you are working on, when are you going to Europe, and I want to hear you playing. You know, keeping an eye out. That’s pretty impressive, to see somebody of that stature and that important and huge, and he was certainly making that effort.

RHM: Do you have one violin or several?
SC: I travel with one but back home I’ve got a few. I got one that I bring out for photo sessions. I have one sometimes for outdoor concerts. When it’s raining or really hot and humid, it’s not good for the instrument. I got another one for that. [But I have] one main, one main instrument.

RHM: How’s your relationship with your violin? Some artists can be protective of their instruments.
SC: I don’t think I would go that far, but it is pretty special. For me, it’s my life, almost like an extension of your body. You spend a lot of time with it so you get to know it pretty well. They get quite temperamental with the different climates that we’re in. It’s very, very sensitive. Over the years, you need to learn how to make it work for you, realize if you’re in a tropical climate what it will and it cannot do this for you. And if you’re somewhere really high up like in Aspen, Colorado, you realize what amazing things it can do for you. What you want to do you know after the climate but you should just be calm and just learn.

RHM: What’s your main violin?
SC: It’s a Guarneri, del Gesu. It is about 300 years old. I’m pretty lucky to have it.

RHM: Some musicians sort of ascribe gender to their instruments, referring to it as he or she.
SC: I don’t know. I spend so much time with it so I should probably call it a he. Sound-wise it is a very, very masculine instrument. It’s very in a way dark, sort of colored violin. It’s got a really beautiful like caster panel, sort of black. I think it’s got a really good balance.

RHM: Does traveling influence your music?
SC: It does actually. Just being in a different culture, being in a different atmosphere, you can feel it. You do feel that when you’re in a different city, you know. You get the vibe from people and their ways. They kindle the way you work. When being in the hotel all the time, you make an effort to go out and try the local restaurants, and go out and walk around a bit and get the feel. I love doing that. Traveling by itself is not a walk in the park anymore. Traveling is a bit of a pain and especially when…I’m from the States, so coming to Asia is a big flight, and jet lag is no joke…I’m always taking catnaps. Backstage there’s always a sofa usually for like sleeping or like taking a quick nap before the show.

RHM: What are your favorite places?
SC: I love Italy as a country, the architecture and the culture. There’s so much to do and to see and to hear. Germany is amazing just for a musician—great conductors, amazing orchestras. As a musician, it’s a jewel. Obviously, in the States, it’s Philadelphia, a very special place for me, and I started my career in New York.

RHM: How much do you travel?
SC: I’m on the road basically all year long. I do about a hundred, a hundred twenty shows a year. That basically means I’m gone most of the time. My tours are normally all clumped together in big chunks. I never go away for just one day. This whole Asia thing [includes] Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong. It just goes on and on. It’s a certain lifestyle that you need to get used to, that you need to adjust the rest of your life for. With my life right now it totally works because first of all I enjoy doing this. Second, I don’t have my own family so it works. My mom came to see me in Korea. Sometimes I get to see family. And I got friends in most of the cities that I go to. I keep it fun.

RHM: Do you have any traveling tips?
SC: You know what, give up and just take as many bags as you need. For a while, I tried to abide by these expert tips and all these going-away stuff. After a while, you just give up and think that life becomes so much simpler if you just take what you need. Because when you’re on the road, so much of your life is just in your suitcase. And you need your stuff. You need your tons and tons of music, which is really heavy, but you also need your dresses, your shoes and your normal clothes and all your personal items. You need all these stuff. This is a discussion that so many artists have. We all have the same life, and some of us leave sometimes for months, sometimes longer, and how do you pack life in three little suitcases? What I do now is I send stuff home. When I’m finished with a concert and I don’t need this stack of music anymore, I send to my mom. After Japan, I didn’t need my coat anymore, my boots anymore, I sent stuff home.

RHM: What do you dream of doing?
SC: A vacation. Just a little bit of breathing time sometimes. Where I could just have a free day and like actually a free day. With my life right now I don’t know if I actually have a so-called free day. It gets jam-packed with things that my manager puts in without me knowing. At least it’s not complicated. You know what I love doing is when I finally go home like for Christmas, my little brother and I, we usually…because when you travel so much you can’t keep up with your TV shows. There’s no way, right? The weekly TV shows you try to follow like Prison Break, Lost or whatever. You go away for seven days and then like everybody’s dead. You don’t know what happened. And then your friends start telling me, and you don’t want to hear it.
Normally, when I’m home for like a day and then I need to leave again, I barely had enough time to repack. Usually we went out on Christmas and get everything on DVD. My brother and I would just literally like go through all the seasons in one sitting, all day, all night. We don’t even get up for meals. We’re pretty serious about it. I love doing that. I love doing that when you just basically catch up on life.

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