The leaderless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and veteran violinist Sarah Chang, who, at 27, has logged 18 years of public performance, bring a program consisting of music based on nature to the State Theater in New Brunswick on Thursday, May 8, and at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, May 10. Antonio Vivaldi’s set of violin concertos, “The Four Seasons,” with Chang as soloist, surveys the unfolding year; Ottorino Respighi’s “The Birds” takes us outdoors; and Charles Wuourinen’s “Synaxis,” an Orpheus commission, turns to the four elements which once were thought to make up the world. Conductor/composer Raymond Wojcik gives a free pre-concert lecture at New Brunswick’s United Methodist Church on George Street in New Brunswick at 7 p.m.
In a telephone interview from her Philadelphia home, Chang says, “At first, I was terrified about having no conductor. I sat on my first Orpheus project for months; I didn’t think I could play without a conductor. But I fell in love with Orpheus.
“Our rehearsals were amazing,” she continues. “I’ve never had such special rehearsals. We’re all equals. We try things. There’s a camaraderie, a chamber music feel. In many orchestras people are always watching the clock at rehearsals. They’re not quite done, but they have to end because time is up. It’s extremely aggravating for people like me. Orpheus goes by American musicians’ union rules, but puts the music above the rules.”
Chang first performed with Orpheus in February, 2004. “Orpheus is one of the few orchestras that I’ve worked with where when you get on stage to perform, you don’t have to worry about anything. No two concerts are alike with Orpheus,” says Chang. “There’s ongoing exploration. It’s spontaneous.”
In the fall of 2007, after a gap of more than six years, Orpheus released its first disc, a recording of “The Four Seasons” with Sarah Chang. The recording was on the EMI label, with whom Chang records exclusively. Its lightness, clarity, and verve are extraordinary.
“EMI has been pursuing me since I was nine,” Chang says. “I’m very fortunate. In the CD industry there are a lot of horror stories. I was not affected because I was working with the right people. They never pushed me to do pop CDs or crossover CDs. They realize what my strengths are. I feel I have artistic control.
“I’ve recorded every major violin concerto and show-piece for them. I’ve gotten to record works that I feel passionate about. There’s not a single fluffy disc in the lot. Every few months we compare wish lists. We share ideas about repertoire, orchestras, and conductor selection. It’s a two-way street. Ultimately, it’s my fingers and my heart.”
“‘The Four Seasons’ was on EMI’s wish list since I was about 15,” Chang continues. “It crept up at every single meeting. I brushed them off because I wanted to feel ready and I wanted to do it with the right group. Everybody and their grandmother records ‘The Four Seasons.’ In preparation for recording, I spent several months playing ‘The Four Seasons’ with different groups, of various sizes. One was a very small chamber music setting. There were six people on stage, one person to a part. It was so nice, but I missed the oomph you get from having an orchestra with you. I’ve grown up with orchestras.” Finally, Chang chose Orpheus. “We did a massive tour, with many concerts before we made the recording.”
Behaving typically, Orpheus and Chang surprised the producer, Chang says. She remembers that he blurted out, “You guys just did a whole bunch of concerts and you’re still discussing things!”
“I was touched by recording with Orpheus,” Chang says. “During recording sessions you get very small, designated breaks. Most musicians go out and get coffee because they’ve been playing for hours. I like to listen to the recording. When we were recording ‘The Four Seasons’ the entire Orpheus orchestra crammed into the control room with me. We had to keep the door open. Everybody wanted to listen to what we had done and to what we could do better. The producer was astounded.”
Chang was born in 1980 in Philadelphia. Her father, Min-Soo Chang, a violinist, moved from Korea with his wife, Myoung Jun Chang, a composer, to study at Temple University in 1979. Chang speaks fluent Korean. Her younger brother, Michael, is in Princeton’s class of 2010.
At age three Sarah Chang was picking out melodies on the piano. At four she started playing a one-sixteenth-size violin. At six she auditioned for New York’s Juilliard School playing the Max Bruch violin concerto. Dorothy DeLay, who taught Chang’s father, along with a host of eminent performing violinists, was one of Sarah’s principal teachers at Juilliard.
Chang made her debut at eight with the New York Philharmonic, and at nine with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “I was small,” Chang says. “At nine I was using a quarter-size violin. Most nine-year olds use a half-size violin. When your arms are long enough and your hands big enough you switch to a larger instrument. A good teacher will realize before the student does when it’s time to switch. Students want a big sound and may move to a big instrument too soon. Miss Delay was very cautious. She knew about the damage that too big an instrument can do.”
Currently, Chang plays a 1717 Guarneri del Gesu. “It’s spectacular,” she says. “Isaac Stern helped me get it when I was 14 or 15. He put out the word that I needed a larger violin, and got together a collection of Strads and Guarneris. We met at Carnegie Hall and each of us went on stage and played them. We weren’t always in agreement. We’re both stubborn. But we both agreed about this instrument. It suits my character, and suits my sound. It’s very masculine-deep, throaty, powerful, and dramatic.”
I question Chang about the political correctness of calling an instrument’s sound “masculine,” and she assures me that the terms “masculine” and “feminine” are the terminology of the musical world, and that there are no political implications. “Strads are described as feminine,” she says. “Their sound is sweet, light, and pure. Guarneris are throatier.
“At the Verbier Festival last summer there was a question and answer forum, and the moderator asked Joshua Bell, Leonidas Kavakos, and me to bring our instruments. The guys were using Strads, and I had a Guarneri. Nobody could explain it.
“The bow is at least as personal as the instrument,” Chang says. “I have four that I travel with. One is for heavy concertos — Brahms and Tchaikovsky. I use a lighter bow for Bach and Mozart. ‘The Four Seasons’ is a bit of a feminine piece.”
As a teenager, Chang wanted to attend a conventional college, but her career interfered. “The ball had already started rolling, and I had concerts scheduled two or three years ahead,” she says. “The only way was to go to Juilliard. My dad and Miss DeLay made the decision. It was a really good call on their part.”
Chang saw college life from the outside when she played the Brahms violin concerto at Princeton’s Richardson Hall with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in October, 2006, and her brother Michael, then a freshman, attended. “Mike had football practice,” she says, “and mom put the fear of God in him. She said, ‘You can’t be late. I’ll bring your suit; you can use the shower in the dressing room, and change clothes.’ He arrived five minutes before I had to play. The rest of the team stayed in football jerseys. From the stage I saw the row of orange jerseys in the orchestra. It was the first concert for some of them. They asked Michael, ‘If we want to meet your sister, do we go at half time?’ We all went to a diner together afterward and ordered breakfast at 11 at night. It was memorable. Even if you give 100 concerts, you remember some because they’re special to you.”
Acutely conscious of the fact that concertizing is not a complete life, Chang accepts non-musical opportunities. She carried the Olympic Torch in New York in 2004. Her account of the episode bears her personal imprint of breezy frankness and self-knowledge. “There was none of that Tibet stuff yet,” she says. “I flew in from London the day before. When I was at Heathrow, someone phoned and asked, ‘What size are you?’ My management picked up the uniform. It was white with blue. As soon as I landed in New York, I changed into the uniform. It was a little big. I had to run six blocks. I wondered how fast I would have to run and was told it would be OK to take my time. I knew that getting off the flight I couldn’t have sprinted. So I jogged.”
Chang says she visits gyms when she is on tour. “Being on stage is a workout.” When she is in Philadelphia she works out at home, rather than at a gym. “I like to cut driving to a minimum,” she says. “I suck at driving. I’m lousy. I got my license at 17, like all the other kids, but I’m never home and I never get a chance to drive. I’ve been behind the wheel about five times. It’s one of the things I haven’t had time for.”
Chang tries to catch up on what she has missed. “Usually I have Christmas and New Year’s Eve concerts,” she says. “So I wrap my presents, go down in the elevator, and ask the concierge to take care of them. Last year, I spent the holidays at home. I wrapped presents, and then wondered what to do next. So I asked my mom. She said, ‘Go to the post office.’ But I didn’t know where it was. Every time I come home, I try to catch up on normal things.”
The shift from Wunderkind to adult artist came gradually, says the breezy Chang, rather than in a Eureka moment. “I was always the youngest person in the room, on stage, or at receptions,” she says. “I was always reading reviews that started with ‘prodigy.’ When you’re starting out you can do no wrong. It’s all fun. But the fun part wears off very quickly. There was a point at which it bothered me.
“When I was in my teens and already on the concert circuit for a number of years, I wanted to peel off the labels. The people I performed with didn’t cut me any slack. They always expected me to be a first class soloist. When I was in my teens and had creative control over projects, I found that it was stabilizing to know that my concert schedule was planned two or three years ahead of time. That provided structure. I learn to live my life around the schedule. I’m still learning.”
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Sarah Chang, Thursday, May 8, 8 p.m. State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Concert includes Respighi’s “Gli Uccelli,” Wuorinen’s “Synaxis,” and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” featuring Sarah Chang on violin. Pre-performance insight at 7 p.m. included. $55 to $75. 732-246-7469