Music and Beyond: Sarah Chang has so much more to do on her journey with the violin

Sarah Chang, with Julio Elizade on piano, will open Music & Beyond July 4. Photo: Colin Bell

Sarah Chang, the striking, supremely talented violin virtuoso has done a lot in her career. She is considered a true child prodigy. She attended the Juilliard School of Music at age six. She has worked with Isaac Stern, recorded 20 plus CDs, performed with Placido Domingo on the baton, toured around the world and played with all the great orchestras.

What hasn’t she done?

“I need to learn how to cook,” she said with a peel of laughter. “I sort of forgot the real life stuff.  I’ve been living out of suitcases and in hotels since I can remember. So when you do finally get home you can feel a little lost. You have to fend for yourself. I got this house (in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area) 10 years ago and it’s the first time in long time that I have spent an extended period of time here.”

Driving is another task. So her family has stepped in and enrolled her in driving lessons and cooking classes.

Chang hasn’t ruled out having children some day, but until that decision is taken, she has a new dog in her life, a feisty little Beagle named Chewie. She’s even taken him on two short tours in the U.S.

“A lot of my friends are having babies and sending pictures to me. I’m doing the same thing with my dog.”

Chang is pleased that Chewie is doing well in in Grade 2 at dog school. He comes by his name honestly, so she is careful not to let the little near her valuable 1717 Guarneri del Gesu violin.

Chang is headed to where her recital with pianist and close friend Julio Elizade will open the 2017 Music & Beyond festival on July 4.

“We have been playing together for four years.”

Before they had joined forces, Chang had been looking for a recital partner.

“His name came up. Someone said ‘Didn’t you guys go to school together?’

“I did know of him,” she said. It seemed like a natural step to give it a try.

“We did one concert together to feel each other out.” And it all clicked. “He’s fantastic. He’s an amazing musician. He is so well versed in life and politics and books. He’s just amazing human being.

“He’s also an incredible partner on stage. I love the fact that he’s not an accompanist.”

Chang doesn’t do many recitals. Her calendar is, she says, 95 per cent orchestral dates. One of the reasons for that is she had been looking for a partner she could get along with musically as well as off stage, travelling together and eating together.

“On some of these tours, we spend a month together on the road. It’s really hard to find that balance. If you don’t like each other it can be excruciating.”

One of the musicians she has worked with, and admired, is the former music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman. Maestro Zukerman is a conductor as well as a masterful violin and viola player. Give the breadth of her talent and musical understand, one wonders: Has she ever had any ambition to conduct?

“It’s something I would have considered until I played with Zukerman. If that’s how it’s supposed to be done, I won’t be doing that.

“There are violinists who try conducting and some are quite good at it but most of them should stick to the violin. Somehow Zukerman has the ability to be good on the violin, on the viola and on the podium.

“I don’t feel that I’m done with the violin. If I were getting to the point where I felt I had done enough or I was getting bored and wanted a change, then maybe I’d try something else. But I don’t feel that I am there yet. There’s so much of the violin that I still want to learn and more repertoire that I haven’t even touched.”

On the list is Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D and Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) by Leonard Bernstein.

In addition to scouting out older works to play, Chang is also an active commissioner of new music.

Among the composers she has sought out are Christopher Theofanidis who has written a concerto for her and Richard Danielpour who has penned a sonata.

“I love the process of working together on a commission. … I love to be hands on and be part of each draft. I did that with Chris and he was so welcoming. That was the first violin piece he ever did.”

Chang says she doesn’t really want to be handed a final version of a piece she has commissioned without having any input.

“I want the piece to continue. I want to give it exposure and hopefully others will play it too and make it part of the standard repertoire.

“I’ve been on the circuit long enough that I would hope that I won’t put my name on a concert or a programme or a piece that isn’t up to standard. I feel that … if I commissioned something or that I put my name on something that people would believe that it’s good music. And they would think that there’s a future for that piece.”

She knows that she is someone who is in a chain of great violinists and musicians, starting with Isaac Stern.

“I’m incredibly grateful to him. … I went to see him for the first time when I was six years old. My teacher at the time (Dorothy DeLay) took a bunch of her students to play for Mr. Stern.

“We all went in to see him one by one and the girl who went in before me was 17. She was one of the best students and was a beautiful player. She is working now as an orchestra concertmistress. You could hear him yelling and she came out in tears.

“I remember turning to my teacher and my father and saying ‘I don’t want to go in there’. I remember getting my violin and heading to the exit.”

Her teacher calmed her down and Chang played for the great man.

“I went in there and he was wonderful. That’s when I established a working relationship with him. I worked with him until he passed away. I would go whenever I had a new concerto or a big recording coming up. He was really tough and demanding. You have no idea.”

But he gave her advice on performing and also about the business of being a soloist and what to watch out for. He was, she says, an incredible mentor.

One of those bits of wisdom involved caring for her instruments.

She keeps her violins and bows in a special room that is “fireproof, waterproof, everything proof.” One of the first things she did when bought her home was to put in that room. Stern had told her to do this whenever she got her own place. He had one.

Speaking of bows, Chang has a passion for them and has accumulated dozens and dozens of them. How many exactly, she could not say.

“I find it really fascinating that each bow can create a unique sound. I use one bow from Brahms. I use a different bow for Bartok. I love the subtle differences that each brings.

She has bows that she depends on for big concerto performances. And she will switch bows at intermission.

“I love having that option.”

Sarah Chang and Julio Elizade

Music & Beyond Festival

Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church

When: July 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.