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Tuesday, October 5,2010

Staying power

Sarah Chang continues a lifelong journey at Wharton

by Lawrence Cosentino
To get into Sarah Chang, you have to get over Sarah Chang.
It seems she has.

Chang, 29, can’t believe her 20th anniversary
disc is due next year.


“That’s kind of shocking, actually,” the violinist said when
reached by phone at a gig in Hong Kong.


At first, people marveled at her, as if she came to Earth
from Alpha Centauri’s accelerated conservatory of music.


Since then, amazement had turned into involvement. The
prodigy of prodigies has taken her listeners on a passionate, lifelong
exploration of sound.


“There’s still a lot more I need to do and want to do on a
musical level — people I want to play with, places I want to go,” she said.


Chang is the soloist Thursday, Oct. 7, when the Detroit
Symphony visits the Wharton Center to play two big works, Max Bruch’s Violin
Concerto and the “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz.


One of Chang’s most frequent collaborators, DSO music
director Leonard Slatkin, will conduct.


Chang has a long history with the sprawling Bruch concerto.


“I learned it very, very young,” she said. “I was...”


The long-distance connection crackled. Did she say 16 or
six? Need you ask?


She put the concerto away for 10 years, until she had the
weathered perspective of a 16-year-old. “I gave it a huge break, and when I
took it up again, I completely re-learned it,” she said.


“I love that fact that it’s so unapologetically romantic.
The melodic lines and harmonies go straight to the heart.”


Born in Philadelphia to Korean parents, Chang was working
with the world’s greatest conductors and orchestras while in her teens.


The Bruch concerto was her audition piece for the Juilliard
School at age 6. The technique was there, of course, but lots of insufferable
kids can play gobs of violin, and who cares? Chang already had more than
technique — a luminous tone like the purple edge of a cloud bank at sunset.


Chang must be the only 29-year-old classical musician with a
separate Web page dubbed “The Early Years.” Her debut album topped the
classical charts in 1991, but there were skeptics.


In his 1996 book “Who Killed Classical Music?” Norman
Lebrecht lumped Chang with other violin prodigies who “had no gripping
individuality to convey in music and all sounded much the same.”


But she kept going, weaving that purple tone into darker and
deeper tapestries, drawing the audience closer along the way.


A recent New York Times review called her “one of the most
consistently satisfying violinists still active” and a “vital, rewarding
artist.”


Last week, Chang and “Lenny” (as she calls Slatkin)
performed one of the most searing 20th-century works for violin and
orchestra, Shostakovich’s first concerto.


“She tackled the concerto head on, with ferocious
determination,” wrote a Los Angeles critic.


“It takes over everything you do,” Chang said of the
concerto. “You eat, sleep and breathe Shostakovich. It’s so monstrous, it
leaves imprints in your head.”


It’s hard not to notice that 14 years after Lebrecht’s book
sounded the death knell for classical music, Chang’s concerts still sell out
all over the world.


“I’m seeing a fresh new wave of younger people coming to the
concerts, a lot of young students,” Chang said.


She said they’re looking for a rush only big symphonic music
can deliver.


“There are times when I go to a concert and hear a piece
like Mahler’s First Symphony, and after the concert, you sit there and you’re
stunned,” she said. “It moves you
to the extent where days after the concert, you still feel it in you. That’s an
experience no pop concert, with all due respect, can ever give.”


Chang has worked with every great maestro in the world, from
Mehta, Maazel and Barenboim to Masur, Muti and Gergiev, but she seems to have a
special rapport with Slatkin.


“He really makes you feel like a colleague,” Chang said.
“Even 10 years ago, when I was starting out, it was the same mutual respect.”


Slatkin sits high in the world’s pantheon of conductors, but
doesn’t fit the clich' of the tempestuous maestro.


“He’s one of the most intelligent maestros I know of,” Chang
said. “He has this uncanny way of knowing what you want to do, sometimes before
you do it.”


With Slatkin, Chang said, even a monster work like the
Shostakovich came off without stress.


“He’s so calm,” Chang said. “He makes everything seem so
easy, so effortless. He also has a lot of great stories.”


With almost 20 years as a pro under her belt, Chang would be
excused an early burnout. On the contrary, it looks like she is digging in for
the long haul.


Her touring schedule is punishing as ever, with a big London
Symphony Orchestra tour on the horizon.


Outside of music, she has time for little else but shopping,
movies — the last one she saw was “Iron Man 2” — and sleep.


“A week’s vacation will be really, really nice,” she said.
“Other than that I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’d like to take it up another
notch, though.”

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