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Q&A: Sarah Chang

Acclaimed violinist returns to Walnut Creek

I always jump at the chance to interview people at the top of their game; whether their game is athletics, music, or movies.

When Daniel Levenstein, founder of the outstanding Chamber Music SF series that frequents Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, asked if I wanted to interview violin virtuoso Sarah Chang, I jumped at the chance.

Chang is the ultimate wunderkind: She auditioned for Juilliard at age five, and was accepted. At age seven, she performed her first major concert—with the California Symphony in Walnut Creek—then played with the New York Philharmonic at age eight.

Now 32, Chang has performed everywhere from the great concert halls of Europe to a rare performance in North Korea. She travels the globe with her nearly 300-year-old violin, dazzling classical music fans with her breathtaking talent. I called Chang at her home in Philadelphia on her rare day off.

PC: So nice to speak with you. I wanted to ask first about the concert you played in north Kore in 2002, because I’ve been reading about that country quite a bit lately. How was that arranged, and what was your experience like over there?

SC: That was a joint concert between North and South Korean orchestras. They flew in about 100 members from the South Korean orchestra, and they all performed on one stage in Pyongyang, with two conductors.

North Korea was fascinating to go because it is so closed off. There is no other airline except their airline. Just to get in there, I had to register with the State Department.

It is such a controlled society that they confiscated all cell phones and laptops as soon as we arrived and held them at airport customs. You could not contact anyone in the US while you were there. They book you in a hotel, they tell you where you will stay.

They have a TV in the room with one channel, showing Kim Jong Il’s grandson on it all day giving speeches. Same thing on the radio. And, there was a phone but it had no cord, and wasn’t attached to anything. So it was just a prop, and it did not work. I could not call the front desk to say that I needed something.

There was an armed soldier with me at all times. They made it very clear that I could not just got take a walk and look around. I was just there for three or four days total, and was so happy to leave. I was happy to do the concert and even happier to come back home. It was unlike anyone else that I had ever done before. We are so used to freedom and the wonderful things that we are able to do here and that experience was an eye opener to really appreciate what we have.

PC: It must be pretty cool to have such a special talent that you can go anywhere in the world, perform, and people get it, they appreciate it.
SC: It is about the integrity of the music. I like that pure black and whiteness…you either deliver or you don’t. It is one of those things, we go on stage and we play. We can not lip synch. There are no smoke machines.

PC: Do you love getting to travel all over the world, perform in these great cities?
SC: As a soloist, every week you are booked at a different city— and the traveling can wear your body down. After awhile it becomes: Airport, hotel, rehearsal, performance. When I was younger, I would travel with my mom and dad, and we would go out to see whatever city we were in. I definitely still have my favorite places to go in different places, but I love being home. I like to putter around in my own house.

PC: I write a movie blog, so I always like to ask some film-related questions. I read on Twitter that you said you just watched the Star Wars films and did not understand why Yoda wasn’t in Episode IV.

SC: (Laughs) A friend of mine said it wasn’t acceptable that I had not seen Star Wars, so we started watching from Episode I, and we got to IV, which I guess is actually the first one, and I was like, “Where’s Yoda? I thought Yoda was Star Wars?”

PC: What’s your favorite use of classical music in a movie?
SC: Oh, good question. There is this old movie, in French, with Juliette Bincohe. The Unbearable Lightness of Beingthey used music that is so unique and so beautiful. Wonderful movie.

And I liked how Black Swan used Tchaikovsky. I loved that film, not just for the music, but because they showed so many shots of Lincoln Center. I spent so many years going to school there.

PC: Let me ask about Juilliard. How strange was it to be in that acclaimed program at age six?
SC: It is such a wonderful school, there is so much talent. It’s a huge motivator to be in the company of that talent, as a student.

They did not cut me any slack for being any younger than the other students. I did spend the first few years at Juilliard wondering why everyone was so much older. After classes, the other students would go out into New York, and I would go home.

PC: You mentioned that the cities you play in now can blend together. You’ll be back here in March for a Chamber Music SF concert. Do you have any fond memories of previous visits to Walnut Creek?

SC: Oh yes! When I was at Julliard, I was seven years old and the California Symphony invited me to play there, and I had so much fun. I always have a fondness for going back there.

I have played with the California Symphony a few times—I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity they gave me. The California Symphony really took a chance on this seven-year-old kid, that really was my first big concert. The next year I went and played with New York Philharmonic, and the year after that I recorded my first CD.

PC: What’s in your iPod these days?
Almost all pop music—Beyonce and Lady Gaga and Rihanna.  Old U2 and Bon Jovi. I guess I have only pop music in there, actually. I’m pretty old fashioned with classical music—I listen to CDs.

PC: Finally, I wanted to ask about your instrument. You play a 1717 Guarneri del Gesu violin that you got from the late Isaac Stern. Can you tell me about the history of that instrument?
SC: Yes, I was so lucky to be able to buy it from him. These instruments are so rare—most violins are snatched up by investors or corporations as investments, and only sometimes loaned out—they often don’t get used. So, when one like mine did come onto the market, not only was it available, but it was used by Isaac Stern!

I think the instrument has a historic life. My instrument is almost 300 years old, and I often think about who has played it. It is my responsibility to take care of it and enjoy my time with it.

For information about tickets for Sarah Chang’s March 10, 2013 concert at the Lesher Center for the Arts, call (925) 943-7469 or click here.