Review: Sarah Chang brings glamour and fury to the opening of Music and Beyond

Sarah Chang. Photo: Colin Bell

The 2017 Music and Beyond Festival opened last night with a display of American fireworks that was à propos for the 4th of July.

Violinist Sarah Chang brought a healthy dose of glamour to the stage of Dominion-Chalmers in a performance that emphasized searing virtuosity and dramatic temperament over subtlety or introspection.

Chang has been known for her intense, fierce and furious approach to music ever since she emerged as a pre-teen prodigy in a poofy dress. Her attire these days is more sophisticated — she favours strapless, fit-and-flare gowns in bright colours, and changes several times a night. But her quirks and kinetic mannerisms remain intact: the backbends, the impatient fidgeting when she isn’t playing (rolling her neck, rotating and shaking her left hand), the scowl, as if she wanted to frighten the music into submission.

After an introductory fanfare from the Governor General’s ceremonial band, and speeches by Korean Ambassador Shin Maeng-ho, Ottawa-Vanier MPP Nathalie Des Rosiers and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, Chang strode on-stage in a ruched, peacock-blue gown. She opened with that workhorse of the violin repertoire, Vitali’s G Minor Chaconne.

With its daring modulations into remote keys, the piece was long thought to not be an authentic Baroque composition. Chang’s playing is driven by theatrical, expressive impulse more than form, and suited the work’s romantic prescience. She has a big, slightly twangy sound, powered by fast, aggressive vibrato: she’s always been one of those violinists who embodies the instrument’s metallic components more than its wooden ones. Pianist Julio Elizalde has enough sweep and power to stand up to Chang’s strong personality, while providing a warmer, more relaxed counterbalance.

Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 did not hold up well under Chang’s unrelenting tension. She turned the mysterious, anxious quality of the first movement into something forceful and blustery. She struggles with the breathing room and patience Brahms’ ample phrases require. The Adagio had a blowsy, ungentle sentimentality; the third and fourth movements felt hurried to the point of panic.

The second half began with a new frock, this one in begonia-pink sequins, and Franck’s A Major Sonata. Franck has a more exuberant soul than Brahms and fared better, although even here the music wanted a lighter, more elastic, more French touch. Chang’s attack is so ferocious that the music often has nowhere to go — she opened the Recitativo-Fantasia movement like a cadenza from the Bruch Concerto. Her devouring need for speed at all costs also left her accompanist vulnerable, especially in the last movement. One felt that partnership was not her prime motivation.

Ravel’s Tzigane is always an showstopping, bow-busting way to end a violin recital. Chang’s version was wild and blazing, but a little rough, considering Augustin Dumay’s unforgettable rendition on the very same stage two years ago.  

Chang responded to the audience’s ovation with an encore of Bach’s Air on the G String, her most restrained offering of the evening, lovely in its unadorned simplicity.





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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.