The one and only Sarah Chang! (I feel that you can only say this with an exclamation point) had time to talk to me. Is my life changing??
The violinist was getting ready to do a concert with the LA Phil, and a very generous member of the orchestra let Sarah borrow her laptop to do this interview on Skype, so, naturally I’m inclined to be more nervous than she is, considering she’s the one about to do a big show, but I was relatively cool throughout.
CM: Before you called in, I was just watching the clip of you at 10 years old playing Paganini’s Concerto #1!
Sarah: Oh, God!
CM: [laughs] Why, you don’t think it was good? It looked great to me!
Sarah: No, it was one of those things, you know, I’m proud of all of the work and the stuff I’ve done in the past, but it’s like when your parents show people little baby pictures of yourself, and you sort of cringe? And for me, unfortunately, all that stuff is kind of on the internet, so I can’t really hide from it!
CM: I don’t know–Some people would say you haven’t changed that much!
CM: Can you talk about this piece you are playing on this program tonight, the West Side Story Suite, arranged by David Newman for violin and orchestra?
Sarah: Yeah–it’s so exciting for me, because West Side Story has always, always been one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, and it’s one of those iconic movies where the soundtrack as well as the movie leaves such a strong impression in your mind, and I still remember the first time when I watched that movie, who I was with, where I went to go see it, what I was wearing–I remember all these things because it was such a pivotal moment, so, that’s always been one of my favorite soundtracks of all time! I’ve always been such a huge Bernstein fan, but there really isn’t a violin-and-orchestra arrangement of the actual piece, so I asked a Hollywood composer friend of mine named David Newman, and he’s from the really famous Newman composer family. His father, his brother, his cousin, everybody in the family composes! He was brought up in that world!
Anyway, I asked him to write this version for me! He’s actually coming to the rehearsal tonight, and I’m so happy about that, and I’m so glad that he could make it here, but then I said “Don’t make any changes, because I only have 24 hours until the concert tomorrow!” [laughs] It’s one of those things though, because you have such a genuine love for a piece, and then you get to have this added bonus of working with a composer-arranger that custom-makes the piece for you, and he’s been a friend of the family, and he’s worked on it with me for, I’d say a good 6 months. It’s one of those things where you talk over the phone, you have meetings, you play through certain drafts, and then he’d scratch things off and start all over again–Just to be a part of that work in progress was so fascinating! Because it’s not something you get to experience every day, like playing Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Shostakovich essentially means you’re playing what’s on a sheet of paper, and that’s been there for hundreds of years. I’ve had a lot of fun with this piece, I really have!
CM: I’m sure you bring a lot to it because you’re already familiar with the music, so, obviously playing it must be a breeze to begin with, and then there are things you work with, and you can sort of add your own character to the piece.
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely because he’s trying to keep it as close to the Bernstein version as possible (the orchestral parts are the same), but because it’s a violinistic piece, he’s made it very virtuosic, you know, and he’s made it technically exciting.
With Bernstein still being a very modern composer, there’s still the Bernstein estate that one needs to go through whenever you’re doing anything with any of his pieces. So it was one of those very unusual situations where David would work and work and work, and create something that he was happy with, and then everything would have to be approved by the Bernstein estate because they still own the pieces.
Obviously, you go onstage, you enjoy your job and what it is that you do, but you are playing a piece that is so much fun, it just makes the entire process enjoyable!
CM: When you play this, you don’t start breaking out into the choreography, do you? [laughs]
Sarah: You’re so funny! But yes, there are moments where you almost feel like you want to dance! And then you’re thinking “Oh my God, the sound guy is going to kill me if I start moving around and dancing!”–I’m in heels, and once the heels start tapping and the sound guy starts scowling at you… [laughs]
CM: I didn’t know the sound guy scrutinized the soloists!
Sarah: Oh, believe me, they do! There are times after rehearsal, and you’re dancing around a little too much, or wearing heels and they’re especially loud, they’ll come up to you and say “Can you wear different shoes tonight or something?” [laughs]
CM: Is there going to be a released recording of the suite?
Sarah: Yeah, we’re planning on it!
CM: I noticed a clip of you playing the Sibelius, and you do something very interesting while you are not playing, and you are moving side to side with your eyes closed, and I just wanted to know, is this the way you are plugged into the piece?
Sarah: Well, the thing is I really do think of the piece from beginning to end, even if the violin isn’t playing. I do think of it as one big breath, from the first note to the last–It’s one big arch, and whether the soloist is playing or not really becomes secondary. I like to think of concertos as symphonies with a violin line, and I think sometimes the bridges are where the soloist isn’t playing–the tuttis (the place where the wind section has their solo or the brass section has their solo), if anything, are even more important, because those are normally the bridges that connect section A from section B, and them creating the right atmosphere, and them creating the right tone and a nice cushion for me to start playing on top of, I think is so crucial, so if they’re playing, even if I’m not, I’m 110 percent involved in what they’re doing.
CM: In other interviews, you talk about wearing the appropriate attire for certain pieces (Brahms Concerto vs. Sarasate Carmen Fantasy, for example). Could you explain this any further?
Sarah: Well, first of all, I’m a girl, so I love fashion! [laughs]
CM: [also laughing] Of course, I can see that!
Sarah: I love any excuse to go shopping, I love dresses, I’m a total complete sort of girly-girl when it comes to that, and I love that whole sort of glamour effect when you go to a concert, and the orchestra’s in beautiful tails, and you’re in this gorgeous venue with crystal chandeliers, and thick carpeting–It’s so beautiful when you step into a concert hall. A soloist should compliment that whole atmosphere, and I think when you’re on stage, ok, yeah, you want your personality to show through, and to show what you’re all about, but I think what’s even more important than that is to portray the composer, and to dress in a sort of composer-appropriate way.
The thing is, when I say that, a lot of people go “huh? what?” But I think when you play Brahms, there’s this very sort of noble aura, from the beginning to the end. He’s a very serious composer who’s full of love and beauty, but there’s a sort of serenity in his pieces. But when you get to [Sarasate’s] Carmen Fantasy, it’s hot and it’s sexy, and there’s a lot of flirtatious innuendo going on, so there you can have a little more license to wear something girly. I think what you’re playing should dictate what you’re wearing. As a responsible soloist, I don’t think you should go up on stage and think “Well, I think I look good in this dress, so, I should wear it”–I believe that’s the wrong way to approach it. I think it should be more about “Okay I’m playing this composer tonight, I want the dress to compliment the music, not distract from it”, and I don’t know if it’s the same thing for guys, but, for a girl, when you put on a pair of heels, you already walk differently. I think that sort of underlying consciousness that goes on should also overflow into the composer. For me, I do try to pay attention to what it is I’m playing, and then decide to choose a dress form that and not the other way around.
CM: You said that you don’t know what it’s like for guys–they’re going to definitely be walking differently if they put heels on! Differently than they ever have before!
Sarah: [laughing] Too funny!
CM: But it is interesting, because Yuja Wang had sort of started a brouhaha when she wore a short dress. I haven’t talked to her yet, but I kind of got from that that she was saying “Why can’t you just wear what you want to wear when you play? Why does it have to be this tradition of long dresses?”. It looked fine to me.
Sarah: I thought she looked great! It looked amazing! I really think that…The thing is, I don’t really know Yuja, I’ve only met her once, and very briefly when she was backstage at Tanglewood a few years ago–Sometimes soloists overlap, I was playing on a Friday and she was playing on Saturday, or something like that. So we just briefly said ‘hello’.
First of all, I think people should leave her alone! I think she should be able to wear what she wants–Number one, she looks great, and number two, she’s young, you know? Let her wear what she wants when she’s young. But, I don’t even know what piece she was playing when that whole brouhaha erupted…
CM: I think a lot of people didn’t know what piece it was, they were so distracted! [both laughing]
Bruch: Violin Concerto #1 (III: Finale: Allegro energico)
Sarah Chang (Official website)