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Cmusic.tvC Music TV talks exclusively with violin superstar Sarah Chang
about being a child prodigy, performing with great artists and why
music is her world
C Music TV’s Studios, London, England, Tuesday April 19th 2011 Interview transcribed by Claire Thomas at C Music TV C Music TV, Mark Forrest: Sarah Chang, great to see you. Welcome to C Music TV. I know that your
background was very musical but can I take you right back to when you were at home with your
parents. Can you recall your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memories were not actually on the violin, I remember watching cartoons and going over to the piano and trying to play the cartoon theme by ear. I hadn’t learned how to read music by then, I was only about 3. Then my mum got me some lessons and then I was the one who asked for the violin. Why did you want to learn violin rather than piano? I wanted a smaller instrument; there was nothing more to it than that. I wanted to be able to carry it and also my dad played so that encouraged me. When I started I was about 4 or 4 and a half. Who was it that first recognised your musical talent? My progression was fairly quick, I started with my dad for about 2 years then he passed me on to his teacher who was at Julliard. So at 6 I auditioned for Julliard and was accepted and started going there as a student, which was much better than studying with a parent! My parents were aware that I loved music but at the same time I’m their first kid so they didn’t have a basis for comparison. At the time they didn’t think what I was doing was anything out of the ordinary. When I finally went to Julliard and I was struck by the fact that I was 6 and everyone else was 15 and 16 – the age difference bothered me, I didn’t understand why I had to be so much younger than everyone else. C Music Entertainment Ltd 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED That would translate onto the stage later when I would be working with maestros and orchestral musicians who were so much older than I was, for the longest time that bothered me but now it’s actually quite fun! How difficult was it at the time at 6 years old, because you weren’t based in New York so was it quite disruptive at such an early age? I was born in Philadelphia and I still live in Philadelphia so I’m very much of a Philly girl, Julliard is based in New York so it was always a juggle. I went to a normal school in Philadelphia Monday to Friday and then on Saturdays and over the weekend we would go to New York and do my classes. Occasional y if I had a big concert coming up or a recording I would go up an extra day during the week. It was a bit of a juggle being at the normal school with kids my own age then at Julliard with these incredibly astronomically gifted talented musicians and going away and travelling, doing tours so it was two very separate lives. I had to learn very quickly how to differentiate the two. You said you found it quite difficult being the youngest person in the class, how did the older students respond to this very young girl? I was really lucky, the musicians that I worked with ranging from the maestros to the orchestral musicians were always very kind but fair, and tough. Age didn’t real y seem to matter to anyone; they didn’t cut me any slack for being younger so when I was on stage and we were at rehearsals I was the soloist that week and it didn’t matter if I was 6 or 16 or 26. They expected the best, it’s a professional relationship. When it did sort of come into play was more so when we’d be going out after concerts and they’d realise that I can’t drink because I’m underage. So I’d have to go back and finish my homework to send to my professors. What many people probably won’t realise is you were extraordinarily young when you got a record contract. How did that come about? I gave my big New York Philharmonic debut when I was 8. That’s real y what put me on the map and kick-started my career, that’s when I started travelling and doing major concerts. I can remember 3 different record labels contacting my parents in the same week, this was probably less than 2 weeks after my New York Philharmonic debut. I was a bit too young to understand what was going on. My parents met with a variety of executives and they went with the company that they thought would suit my character best and also understand that I was very young and needed time to grow. So here I am 20 years later with the same record label that I started out with, I’m still with EMI and it’s been a wonderful fruitful – sometimes a rollercoaster ride but it’s always been so much fun and I genuinely believe they have the best team . They’re a team of truly remarkable individuals working at EMI all over the world and I do feel like they’re part of the family. To sign up with an international record company like that at that age is going to be an extraordinary life changing experience. How involved were you in the decisions? When I was 8 making concert decisions and managerial decisions was down to my parents and they very quickly realised that they were in over their heads and they didn’t have the know how to handle a fully fledged career. I feel incredibly lucky that from the age of 8 I’ve had an incredibly understanding team of agents, managers, assistants, record company executives, producers. It’s not about doing the most amounts of concerts or making the most amounts of records or money, but C Music Entertainment Ltd 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED we’re in this for the long run and it’s about longevity and doing the right repertoire and giving myself the time and space to grow as a musician. A lot of very talented youngsters emerge every year, especially on the violin but clearly not all of them will get to do what you do. Clearly talent is important, what else do you think has helped you to get where you are today? I think it real y is a combination to succeed in this business of a lot of hard work and also having good people around you. Not just having a good head on your shoulders but also a good team to advise you and to take care of the detail so you can focus on the music. The one thing that nobody real y told me about when I got into the music world was the massive amount of administration involved in it. I thought naively that it would be al practising with other musicians, playing chamber music and going on stage, doing concertos I just thought it would be that which is what I love. Nobody actually told me that it was going to be hours and hours of phone calls and emails and meetings which I don’t understand. I go to a meeting and there are 12 people in the room and I think I don’t need to be here, you’re al here because I don’t have to be here! It’s quite astonishing because to make the whole big picture work – the concerts, the recordings, and the touring – it does take a lot of team work and I’m very grateful to my team. Also it’s really important to recognise who your musical mentors are at a very early age. I started out with Miss DeLay at Julliard she unfortunately passed away when I was in my late teens so from that point on I relied heavily on the conductors that I worked with. Some have taken on like a musical godfather role for me – Kurt Masur is one of them, Isaac Stern was one of them until he passed away/ I’m actually using one of his old violins which is great because everyday it’s a wonderful warm memory of him. Let’s talk a little bit about the music and repertoire; you play all sorts of music but there will be certain concertos that you are regularly asked to play again. Which of those do you think mean the most to you? I love the Brahms concerto, the Shostakovich one and the big romantics - Bruch, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky. These are my personal favourites, they’re the bread and butter of what I do and it’s what I grew up with. I love contemporary works – I love working with new composers I recently premiered a new concerto by Christopher Theofanidis who’s this American hot young Greek American composer so he wrote a concerto for me which was hugely exciting. This whole new wave of working with living composers is really interesting and genuinely fascinating watching the work in progress so I definitely hope to do more of that. And when you’re wanting to plan a year and play some of the big warhorses, new music, chamber music – how far ahead to you have to sit with a diary to try and work out what you’re going to do? We book about 2 years ahead the big tours and projects sometimes 3 years ahead but I think the norm in this industry is about 2 years ahead. Recording projects are usually set way in advance because it means not only blocking off that period in my schedule but it also means blocking off the orchestra’s schedule and the conductor’s schedule, as wel as the marketing. Of course whatever repertoire you’re playing you want to get under your fingers and get under your skin so a lot of the concerts preceding a recording will be in preparation for that. C Music Entertainment Ltd 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED It sounds like a most exciting life but of course there must be things about it that you don’t like so much. What would you change about the life of an international recording artist? I hate airports! I hate airports with a passion, I waste so many hours and days of my life waiting around in airport lounges and aircrafts. I’m not going to sugar coat it, airports are no fun and you can try and fluff it up and spruce it up with massage tables but by and large airports are no fun. Being a soloist it means that every week you’re in a new city, new country because if you’re not playing every week it means you’re not working. So right now I’m in London next week is Washington, then L.A then after that I’m in Germany – so it goes on and on. The team make sure that things are done in a geographical way so I’m not bouncing back and forth the Atlantic and the Pacific like a yoyo and that the body fatigue is at a minimum. But everyone is human, the jetlag, the time differences sometimes get to you and all those self health books that tell you to avoid caffeine and go to bed in the new time zone – I don’t do any of that. I go by my own body clock, if it’s 2.30 in the morning and I want breakfast I’ll call room service and I’ll order breakfast. If it’s 4pm and I’m just so tired that I real y need to sleep I’l just go and have a nap. The only time that I real y need to be on and 120% focused is usual y in the evening – 8 o clock or 8.30 when I’m onstage and doing my concerto. For those 45 minutes I need to be absolutely on. Other than that if I’m stretched out backstage on a sofa in the dressing room, taking a nap – that’s fine! How important is the relationship that you have as a soloist with the conductor? The relationship between a soloist and a conductor is probably one of the most important on stage – obviously you want a good rapport with the orchestra, it helps if you know the musicians when you make it more of a chamber music concert. It doesn’t always have to be violin concerto – solo violinist and orchestra – it’s more of a chamber music experience; I really look at concertos like that. Conductors and soloists that real y gels things together, you have to be on the page and if you’re not you can make the experience quite miserable. But when it is on it can be really magical and a regular concert can be lifted to something so stratospheric and so poetic and so exciting that it actually creates goose bumps and you’re on this musical high. There are a few people like that in the industry – a few conductors who I look to for that extra body experience. Those are the conductors who you go on stage with and they fly they bring that spark that extra drama to the podium and as a soloist it’s astonishing to see and a huge pleasure to work with. You talked about Kurt Musar, name some others that ‘fly’ when you work with them. . Gustavo Dudamel – he’s like hot chilli. It’s pretty amazing he literally sparks excitement from the podium. Kurt Musar is somebody that I grew up with whom I regard as a musical godfather. My latest CD – the Brahms and the Bruch concerto was with Kurt Musar and when I was in talks with EMI about which conductor and which orchestra I would want to the do the Brahms with there real y was nobody else. I learned the Brahms from maestro Musar when I was a student and he is the epitome of Brahms. Zubin Mehta is someone who is so astonishing, you look at him and you just have to shake your head, he’s just out of this world. I do concerts with maestro Mehta and this is the only time when I play and I can keep my eyes closed and even turn towards the first violins and really enjoy the whole chamber music feel and almost have my back to the maestro. I don’t worry because there’s that amount of trust because you know that his eyes are on you, his ears and sometimes he almost sort of anticipates what you’re going to do before you actual y do it yourself. C Music Entertainment Ltd 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED How easy it is then with certain repertoire to take the decision to play without a conductor? Playing without a conductor is not easy, I’ve done it a few times – I’ll do it with a handful of pieces – Vivaldi Four Seasons because I look at it as a chamber music piece, I’ve done Bruch without a conductor, I’ve done Mendelssohn without a conductor. But it’s tricky! I know a lot of my col eagues whom I respect so much violinists, cel ists, pianists turn towards conducting and I have a lot of respect for that. But I’m not one of them conducting is not my forte. I think I’m pretty good at the violin so I’m going to stick with that. I like having the companionship of a conductor. I like the fact that there is somebody there as the backbone, it’s real y good when you’re not the pilot. Let’s talk about some of the things away from music that you do to fill your time. You’re a tweeter aren’t you? Yes I do tweet; it’s a fairly recent thing for me. I joined quite begrudgingly, although I do email and I’m addicted to my Blackberry but I’m not on facebook and I don’t do myspace. So when the publicity team said ‘You’re probably one of the last remaining people on earth who’s not doing anything social media wise – can you pick something that you’re happy to do?’ Someone on the team even offered because they were so frustrated with me but I didn’t real y like that idea so I thought if it’s going to happen I’d like to do it myself. So now I do tweet and I’ve been told sometimes that I share too much. A lot of it happens in airports when I’m frustrated or when I’m shopping and I’ve found a great new hot dress. Of course I’ll also tweet about musical experiences so it really is all across the board and it really is my personality tweeting. I’ve actually grown to really enjoy it. I think it’s brought the entire, especial y the music world a lot closer. I get feedback from people through email or they tweet back and they everything from ‘I didn’t like your dress last night’ to ‘when are you next in town’ or ‘I just heard this new concerto you’ve got to check it out’ which I love. I love tips like that. I remember when I went to Charlie Sheen’s show not too long ago in New York and I was real y excited about being in the audience. It’s fun to share both musical experiences and regular life. Was your reluctance then about your fear of removing that barrier between public and private life? There were 2 major reasons why I was so hesitant to sort of make that leap into the social media. I was having some issues with a few wackos. By and large the music world is full of wonderful, loyal, very loving and truly exceptional fans. But of course there are a few cuckoos out there and I was having a little bit of trouble with a few of them so I was hesitant to put myself out and tell everyone where I am al the time. But then again it’s a double edged sword because I’m in a business where you’re doing interviews, you’re asking people to come to your concerts and to listen to your new CD. So you real y can’t have it one way and not the other. The second reason was that I didn’t real y understand the concept of tweeting until someone sat me down and explained it to me. I thought if I wanted to let someone know what I was doing I could just email them why would I want to put it online for the entire world to see. Now I realise it’s a narrow minded way of thinking, now I realise it’s incredibly warm and open, it astonishes me that people follow. There are many young musicians watching you now who aspire to have a career like yours, what advice can you offer them? C Music Entertainment Ltd 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED I think music is probably one of the most rewarding professions out there so if you’re lucky enough to realise that this is what you want to do and that music can be your life, that you love performing, being on stage – there is no profession that is more humbling and more rewarding. Having said that this is a profession that demands a lot of time, you have to practise every day without fail. There are no weekends; we have concerts practical y every Friday, Saturday and Sunday so you’re not going to get a regular 9-5 sort of job. And if you’re going into the soloist world you have to be prepared to have very little time with your family and you have to be ok with travelling and flying. All of that aside, the fact that you need the love for it, the team to help – if the genuine love for being on stage and being a performer isn’t there then you should real y find something else to do because that’s something you can’t learn. What do you think of C Music TV and particularly its aim of bringing classical music to new international audiences? I think C Music TV is awesome, I think it’s fantastic, it’s really one of a kind – there’s nothing like it out there. I think it’s wonderful that there’s a channel for classical and crossover music with really beautiful, classy music videos. I love the fact that there are no commercials, I found myself in many hotel rooms and stopping immediately when it comes to C Music TV because I’m so engrossed with these beautiful videos. It’s got great quality and I love the fact that there’s finally a channel like this. Music is my life; I’ve dedicated my entire life to it. I also think that music is probably the one and only universal language out there. I’ve felt this very strongly twice in my life- I was invited to perform in North Korea about 10 years ago a very very closed society. My parents are South Korean but I was born in the States so I have an American passport but obviously I look Korean and we were brought up in a fairly traditional household so I speak English, Korean and a bit of German. To go to North Korea which is this very closed society and to be performing on stage was the first time that I realised that politicians and law makers sometimes utilise musicians and concerts as a sort of soft approach to opening doors and getting talks started. It was a really big honour to be a small part of that. Earlier this year the US Embassy named me an Artistic Ambassador and this comes with the responsibility of bringing music to kids. So in whichever country or city I’m in I work with local schools and make sure that kids are there – I do master classes, Q & As, give them exposure to this music. C Music Entertainment Ltd 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED C Music Entertainment Ltd 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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