Interview: Sarah Chang on Shostakovich, The Four Seasons and loving London

'I want to be playing until my seventies... as long as the fingers still work and the heart's willing, there's no reason why I shouldn't be'

27 January 2008

Sarah Chang (Photo: Cliff Watts/EMI Classics)In a world seemingly awash with outstanding young violinists, one stands out of the crowd. Still some distance off her thirtieth birthday, Sarah Chang has almost two decades of a top flight career behind her already. She also has an extensive discography on EMI, a label she has recorded exclusively with since her 'Debut' album, on which the nine year-old violinist tossed off virtuoso show-pieces on a quarter size instrument. Although technically this was impressive enough for her age, seasoned critics heard more than just the performances of an outstanding prodigy: they heard a real musician.

Her greatest triumph is not the fact that she was so accomplished that at age nine Yehudi Menhuin could call her 'the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most ideal violinist I have ever heard' but that she should have made the transition from prodigy to fully-fledged virtuoso with such apparent ease. When I speak to her over the phone, she is at her home in Philadelphia, sounding relaxed and more than pleased to talk.

First I ask her about her forthcoming visit to London when, on 21 February, she'll be performing Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No.1 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Leif Segerstam. I mention a previous interview where she said that she related particularly to Shostakovich at the moment, being 'young and temperamental'. She laughs: 'That's the problem with interviews, they always print stuff you can't really remember saying'. But does she identify with the First Concerto?

'It has to be one of the most well-rounded concertos,' she tells me.  'It's so dramatic and so powerful; very masculine and very serious. It has gorgeous, lyrical melodies contrasted with very angry and virtuosic music. For me, it's the stuff of pure genius. It's very complicated structurally and calls for pinpoint accuracy with the ensemble, and you're pitted against a big orchestra – all that brass and percussion. It's completely different to the Brahms and Beethoven concertos, which of course I love, but you need to be in a serene place to do those pieces justice. The Shostakovich is a piece where you can't hold anything back.'

It's a work she's had in her repertoire for a long time, having recorded it live a couple of years ago in Berlin with Simon Rattle. The time spent with Rattle and his orchestra on this work and its Prokofiev coupling she describes as 'the most musically satisfying musical weeks of my life'. And what was behind the decision to record them live? 'We'd talked about making a studio recording but then decided that it would be better to do it live where we'd be on stage and more alert, to keep it edgy and risky.'

Picking up on the way she emphasises the work's 'masculinity', I ask whether she sees herself as bringing any innate femininity to her interpretation. She admits that it is actually the more lyrical, less aggressive sections in the third movement – the heart of the work – that show what a musician is made of. 'There are plenty of people who can play the virtuosic passages but this is what calls for real musicianship. In any case, I actually see myself as a very masculine player; my violin [a 1717 Guarneri del Gesu] is a throaty, dark instrument and one that is perfectly suited to my style.'

She received help in choosing her violin from Isaac Stern and when I mention the great violinist, an extra note of fondness enters her voice: 'Yes, I'm very grateful to him. When my hands were eventually big enough for a full size violin, Isaac got together a selection of six or seven instruments for me and took me over to Carnegie Hall to try them out – he could pull some strings there. He played on them, then I played on them, but as soon as I played the first note on the Del Gesu I fell in love with it straight away. It suited my character best. It's just like me: it's temperamental, and if it's unhappy it will let you know. I've managed to mould it to my character and style and only now am I finding its hidden secrets, finding out exactly what it can and can't do.'

Chang's latest recording for EMI is of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Listening to the disc one can detect a real awareness of 'authentic' performance but there's still the trademark richness of tone and temperament. I ask whether she was tempted at any stage to swap her beloved Del Gesu for a Baroque instrument when making this recording. Initially she's at pains to point out that the decision to add yet another recording of this favourite wasn't one that was taken lightly.

'When we decided to do a recording of The Four Seasons, I kept on holding it off. I was very much aware of the fact that everybody and their grandmother had recorded it, so I really wanted to be completely ready before committing it to tape. And I did try Baroque bows and gut strings and spoke to several of my friends who play in this way, but at the end of the day I wanted to focus on the music. I didn't want to have to perform out of my comfort zone using a type of instrument and way of playing that was different to the way I'd trained.

She must have learnt quite a lot from having a go on the baroque instruments though?

'Oh yes, you learn a lot from just trying these things and adopting that style of playing. Vivaldi is very pure and almost childlike; many sections of it are extremely feminine. Performing them I needed to keep it all light and playful. When you're on stage it's much more natural to give everything you have but in these works you need to keep yourself in check, it's a very different way of playing. I also had a great time with the freedom that the Baroque repertoire gives you in terms of ornamentation. Before recording the work I wanted to feel Sarah Chang (Photo: Cliff Watts/EMI Classics)really secure and gave so many concerts in different structures. I did them with a conductor and with me leading, with a chamber orchestra or with full orchestra, and wanted to find a configuration that would work best for my character.'

In the end, the recording was made without a conductor, Chang leading the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra from the violin. When I ask if it's given her a taste for conducting her answer is typical of someone who, throughout the interview, seems totally secure in their talent, with little desire than to develop that speciality. 'To be honest, I've worked with so many incredible Maestros for whom I have so much respect and admiration, and I know I wouldn't be anywhere near as good as them. I know my limits and personally I think there's enough repertoire for the violin and enough new challenges to keep me busy. I'm very content as I am.'

Chang's discography, as well as containing many of the old war-horse concertos, also extends to some works that are a little off the beaten track – concertos by Richard Strauss and, to a slightly lesser extent, Dvorak. Does she have any other works that she wants to try and bring back into the public consciousness?

'I'm always looking. I'm always buying music and people send me scores. My mum is a composer and I think that's where I get my curiosity from. I actually perform a lot of new music now. I've been playing a new work by Richard Danielpour and am due to be performing a new concerto by Christopher Theofanidis in October 2008.' She speaks enthusiastically about having a work written for her. 'I love the whole process of being involved from the first draft and it's fascinating to watch how a composer's mind works. The only problem is when you spend hours learning a particularly difficult passage and he then just goes and scratches it out and rewrites it! Although the big, standard concertos are always going to be my meat and vegetables, I'm really excited about performing all this new music too.'

Another area that's important to her is chamber music; when I ask why this is, her answer is simple. 'Because I love it! It's such a challenging from of music. It's the most difficult to learn for me, as well, since I've been playing the big concertos now for many years. It gives me the opportunity to work with some amazing musicians and learn from their experience.' And does it inform the way she plays as a soloist? 'Yes, definitely. It forces you to think about the music differently, to look at a score vertically rather than horizontally. I'd always thought of the Brahms concerto, for example, as just that, concentrating mainly on my part. Coming back to it after playing lots of chamber music, though, I realized that it's just a symphony that Brahms has been nice enough to include a solo violin part in. Chamber music is just another way that I try and keep myself challenged.'

Before Christmas, she had come to London as part of her tour playing The Four Seasons and she's back there with the LSO in February. Does she feels she has a special relationship with the LSO and the London itself?

Sarah Chang (Photo: David Thompson)'I spend a lot of time in London now, it's a city I adore. It's got so much culture, so many amazing places, wonderful restaurants. I've got lots of friends there and we always go for great nights out… some which I remember better than others! It's a city that just draws you in. And the LSO really is a phenomenal orchestra. I first recorded with them when, I think, I was eleven, when we did the Tchaikovsky concerto. It's an orchestra that's made up of some of the best, really first class musicians in the world. And although I think I've now made a couple more recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic than with the LSO, it's an orchestra that's always top of my list to work with when we're planning new recordings.'

The way she nonchalantly mentions recording the Tchaikovsky concerto aged eleven makes me ask about how she now feels about her past as a prodigy. In her answer she focuses on how she see things now as having improved: 'When I started out, there were too many people in the picture with record companies, parents and agents. I really love it now that I have more say when picking projects, you become a whole creature by yourself and I'm just having more fun.' Does she ever worry that she's always going to be seen as the 'former-prodigy', rather than as a mature musician on her own terms? 'I think there are people who don't realise that I'm not in my teens anymore and it's always going to be a point of discussion, but you just have to put up with that. You realise you're in a really fortunate position and that's what makes you happiest and you've got all these great conductors and orchestras out there to keep you motivated.'

In many ways, Chang seems to be a paradox. Despite her youth, throughout our conversation she makes it clear that she sees herself, unapologetically, as a Romantic violinist of the old school. Although she always tries to tie in educational work whenever she visits a city, she's dubious about gimmicks to bring in young audiences. 'I feel all these ideas detract from the old-world glamour of concerts. Performances usually take place in these amazing, ornate buildings and I always feel that the performers getting dressed up – me wearing a beautiful dress – is all part of the experience. You wouldn't go to the theatre and have people perform without any props, so I think musicians should have that same sort of respect.'

Having so triumphantly overcome all the pitfalls associated with the transition from child prodigy to successful, well-adjusted virtuoso, Chang is simply brimming with anticipation of the career that she still sees as only just beginning. 'I'm so much happier now when I look back but am excited that there's still so much to do. I'm still one of the youngest out there and I want to be playing until my seventies, like Oistrakh, Milstein and Heifetz all did. And as long as the fingers still work and the heart's willing, there's no reason why I shouldn't be.'

By Hugo Shirley

Sarah Chang performs Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto with the LSO on 21st February at the Barbican. Tickets available from the Barbican box office (020 7638 8891).