Living with the 'prodigy' tag


Violinist Sarah Chang, who had played with major orchestras and made her first recording by age 10, tells Michael Dervanhow she came through the difficult transition to adulthood

SARAH CHANG’S biography is the stuff of dreams. When the late, great Yehudi Menuhin called her “the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most ideal violinist I have ever heard”, she had already played Paganini with the New York Philharmonic, had appeared as soloist with numerous other first-league orchestras and been in studio to record her first CD. Yet she was still only 10, and that recording debut had been made using a quarter-size violin. Now, at 28, she’s comfortably at the top of her profession, entirely comfortable in her skin, and a voluble, easy-going conversationalist.

“Once you start out so insanely early . . . I think it’s inevitable that some sort of label is put on you. And as far as labels go, prodigy is not all that bad. At the beginning, especially when you’re starting out, you’re very grateful for it. You don’t quite realise that little label’s going to stick around your entire life. Had I known, I probably wouldn’t have been so flattered at the beginning.”

Strange as it may seem, she was rather oblivious to the fact that what she was doing was so exceptional. “When you’re that young, and everything’s so new, it’s fun and exciting, you don’t realise the effect of your New York Philharmonic debut, or Carnegie Hall debut or Berlin Philharmonic debut. You don’t realise that this is stuff that’s going to carry on and follow you for the rest of your career. The debut recording that I made, that’s still being sold. I’m still hearing about it.”

SHE STUDIED AT Juilliard under the legendary Dorothy DeLay (whose long list of distinguished pupils includes the likes of Nigel Kennedy and Midori) and says it was “a very motivational system to grow up in. Everybody there is so driven, and so talented. Anybody who is at Juilliard has basically decided that’s what they want to do with their life.”

DeLay seems to have taken an unusually hands-off approach, even when the repertoire was somewhat off-mainstream. “I would go in for a lesson, genuinely wanting to learn. She would listen to me run through, then close the music and say, ‘You know what you need to work on’, and just send me home. She did tell me once that I was never going to be like one of the normal students, where I was there every single week and having regular lessons. There were times when I would go on tour and come back after seven or eight weeks for one lesson and go out again for two months. She was saying, ‘you really need to learn how to listen to yourself, and force yourself to listen not just to your line, but what’s going on around you’. She really focused on that a lot.”

Those early years as a child prodigy were “probably the most painless and the easiest period of my career so far”. Getting away from being a prodigy is the hard bit. “That whole transition phase comes along, and that takes forever. That’s not easy. It’s not easy growing up anyway, when you’re just a normal kid going to school and trying to grow up and dealing with friends and relationships and society and the whole shebang. To have the career on top of it, it takes up the majority of your time. That’s not easy.”

She feels that she was pretty well protected from pitfalls. “I have heard all these horror stories of all these prodigies who didn’t make it. It’s a tough business. It’s something that does take over the majority of your life, and you’ve got to be really careful to balance it with a bit of normalcy, and hopefully with good parents or at least a good support system to keep you grounded. It is a pretty hectic and crazy and unusual lifestyle. You do need somebody to reel you in sometimes.

“Having said that, I think the most important thing is to actually have that genuine passion and love of being on stage. You can learn everything else. But that particular moment when you’re on stage, you’re alone. Nobody can help you during those 30 or 40 minutes. I also really like the honesty in this profession. I think it’s one of the few last remaining very honest professions, where, if you take away all the fluff and all the glamour, it really boils down to the core of, can you play or can you not play when you’re on stage. You either deliver or you don’t.”

Although her mother, Myoung Jun, is a composer, and her father, Min Soo, plays the violin, they never behaved as pushy music parents. Even recently, when she premiered a new violin concerto by Christopher Theofanidis, her mother left her to her own devices, and she doesn’t compose music for Sarah to play.

“I think it’s really good to keep that out of the family. Mom is always mom. She was surprisingly unhelpful when it came to this project. I was thinking, she’s a composer, maybe she can help me with this. She’s always been really, really good about being, first and foremost, mom, and when it comes to the career, just letting me do my thing. She knows that I’ve got a great team of probably the best people in the industry looking after me. She trusts me with the music-making.

“The first thing she said to me during this project was, do you realise how much work this is going to be for you? And during the process she didn’t say a single thing. And on the day of the concert, she couldn’t be there, but I talked to her on the phone. She knows the tone of my voice and what’s going on, and right before the concert she told me that at that particular moment in time there was nobody in the world who knew the piece better than I did, except for Chris, the composer, and the conductor. ‘Be confident, and play with your heart, and just try to do the piece justice.’ I really love that coming from her, because it really is about that at the end of the day.”

DIFFICULT AS THE transition to adulthood may have been, she seems to have come through unscathed. And now, she says, she’s “having fun again”. “I’m in a place where I’ve got a fairly comfortable position in my career. I’ve got my tight circle of friends, in the business, who I’ve grown up with for the past 20 years, and I trust and are a good team with me. Things are really comfortable. I’ve done everything on that checklist that needs to be done. Now it’s more about projects that I’m passionate about, and people that I want to be working with, and records that I want to be making, not just slamming out a record a year, just for the sake of slamming it out.”

Given her continuing delight in the experience of being on stage, it’s hardly surprising that she has chosen to make so many recordings in concert rather than in the studio, including the one she’s most proud of, Shostakovich’s First Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. “My next record, the Brahms and the Bruch, will not be.” Those works will be done in studio in Dresden, with Kurt Masur conducting. “That was a deliberate decision. There’s a certain calmness and serenity that you need for Brahms, and we wanted to be in a studio for that.”

Musically, she likes pressure to push her out of her comfort zone and she welcomes strong personality in a conductor. “The ideal conductor, for me, is someone who inspires me, who challenges me in a way that forces me to think. Even if I’ve done the Brahms 600 times, I still want him to inspire me to approach things differently, to think of things from a different perspective, and open my eyes to a different way of thinking. And many do give you that challenge, which is wonderful. At the same time, as a soloist, it is important to have someone who is very sensitive, who is flexible, who allows you that sort of freedom, and gives you the space that you need, is on their toes and realises that every night there’s going to be something that little bit different, every night you’re going to be trying new things and taking slight risks, someone who’s happy to go along that journey with you. It’s a really, really delicate balance.”

The biggest musical challenge, she says, “probably comes week by week going to different orchestras and conductors. You only get two rehearsals, you get one working rehearsal and one dress rehearsal, where you just basically run through. It’s one orchestral rehearsal to get to know each other, to bond with their sound, to hopefully click on a chemistry level so that it will come together for the concert. It’s a very, very small amount of time.”

SHE DOESN’T LIKE airports and flights, but is so used to living out of suitcases that she doesn’t mind that aspect. “I actually like going from city to city, I like being in new environments.” The challenges are elsewhere. “I’m not very good when I’m home. I’m not good at the everyday things. Frankly, I’m lousy at them. I’m no good around the kitchen. I can’t fend for myself. It was very funny, the Christmas before last, for the very first time I was trying to send out Christmas presents to my friends, and I was used to doing it on the road, basically, going to the hotel concierge, and saying, can you help me. I was used to doing that year after year after year. I finally got home one Christmas and I realised, where do I go, where do I go to get all my gifts sent out? I looked at my mom, and she said, ‘Most people go to the post office’. I looked at her blankly and said, ‘I don’t even know where the post office is’.”

Sarah Chang plays the Brahms Violin Concerto with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under Giordano Bellincampi at the National Concert Hall tomorrow