Classical music

How violinist Sarah Chang fell back in love with Bruch concerto, which she'll play in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 March, 2015, 6:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 May, 2015, 11:21am

When Korean-American Sarah Chang takes the stage with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong on April 4, she will be performing a piece she learned as child.

But Chang was no ordinary child - the piece is Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No 1, and she learned that at the age of five in order to audition for the renowned Julliard School in New York.

"It has a very, very special place in my heart," says the 34-year-old Korean American, now recognised as one of the world's leading violinists.

"I put it away for probably a good 15 years. When I brought it back out one day, I just fell in love with it all over again."

So hard did she fall, the piece is on her latest CD, paired with the Brahms Violin Concerto, for which she worked with conductor Kurt Masur and the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra.

Her 2009 recording of the Bruch was voted by Gramophone magazine as one of the top 250 recordings of all time.

Of course, that recorded interpretation is very different to the one played for Juilliard's audition panel by a tiny girl.

"I was using a 1/16 size violin when I played it because I was so small," says Chang, whose father is a violinist and mother a composer. "So I literally had to relearn the concerto, re-fingering it." Chang made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of eight and a year later became the youngest violinist ever to record.

But even works that Chang dubs her "bread-and-butter" - Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn - never become boring to her. For while she has her own interpretations, they change according to the orchestra, conductor and even the venue, she says. Although each concert programme is a matter of negotiation, what does not change are the requests for her to play audience favourites, rather than the new works she also enjoys. After all, orchestra managements want to sell tickets.

"My love for the violin repertoire really does centre around the great romantic concertos, it is sort of what I was brought up on," Chang says. "I have done commission pieces, worked with hot young composers, had concertos written for me, I do enjoy that process where you can be part of it and get your hands dirty.

"What I have noticed is that once you premiere a new piece that people will always want the tried and true staples: Tchaikovsky, Brooke, Brahms, Mendelssohn. It takes a little more encouragement for them to try a new piece. As a soloist you feel a responsibility to try new things. You try to mix it up a bit but do it in a way that does not scare people."

Chang says she is extremely picky about her concert repertoire selection: "I try to do it responsibly and hope that the audience will trust me. People could be going to the movies, to dinner, staying at home and watching reality TV. I am grateful and want them to have an enjoyable evening. If I do something new I really want to make sure it is something from the heart."

The acclaimed violinist has appeared with most of the world's major orchestras and has been showered with honours including a Harvard University leadership award and running with the Olympic torch in New York in 2004.

She now spends most of her life away from her large home in Philadelphia, where each member of her family and her assistant all have rooms of their own and where her new beagle puppy Chewie patiently awaits her return. She is receiving daily updates - mostly about which shoes he has eaten.

Despite scaling back her concert commitments from 120 a year to 100 because she "had zero life", she still lives mostly out of a suitcase.

At least it's one packed with her favourite beautiful gowns.

I want the audience to have a feast, not just for their ears
Sarah Chang

"I love fashion and I take it quite seriously," says Chang, who was a regular visitor to Hong Kong when her younger brother worked in the city and can't wait to hit the shops again.

"To me, it is more than just a pretty dress I am going to wear to the concert," she continues. "I feel that as a soloist I am there first and foremost to serve the composer - and the audience. The dress should reflect on the composer. Many times I have the dress custom-made.

"I want glamorous, beautiful and elegant. The last thing you want is people to leave thinking, 'Oh my god, what was that dress?' I want them to have a feast, not just for their ears."

So what will Hong Kong audiences feast on? Chang has eight dresses with her and her mother is bringing more to the city.

"I love colour, especially when the orchestra is always in black, a pop of colour is nice to see," she says.

The concert venue's colours also play a part in determining her fashion choice - as does how she feels. "Part of it is just being a girl and waking up on the day and if you were planning to wear red and don't feel like wearing red."

Chang will do something in Hong Kong this April she rarely does anywhere else: conduct a violin masterclass.

She says she resisted doing a class for years because of a bad experience taking one when she was 16. For 12 years after that she stayed away from taking or holding masterclasses, until she held one as a favour for a friend in London a few years ago.

"I felt like I had a little bit more control. I got my feet wet slowly. I feel I am still learning but I feel more comfortable," she says.

"Once you introduce an audience to it, it is not really a lesson," she says.

The logistics are also tricky - if 2,000 people buy tickets, it is necessary to use a microphone and a violinist has no free hand for one.

But she has been hugely encouraged by her work as a US Embassy artistic ambassador for the past three years, working with children and educational programmes in war-torn areas, visiting Bosnia, Africa and South America.

"I went to a school where the kids had been given instruments, but the school could not afford music. They had to learn by memory. I was just blown away by that."

Sarah Chang with the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, Apr 4, 8pm, City Hall Concert Hall, Central, HK$200-HK$480. Chang will conduct a masterclass at 2pm on Apr 5 backstage at the Cultural Centre Concert Hall, TST, HK$200. Inquiries: 2864 2156