Sarah Chang in Manchester: October 2012- An Interview with Michael Cookson
I met renowned American violinist Sarah Chang in her dressing room at the Bridgewater HaS0ll, Manchester prior to her concert with the touring Dresden Philharmonic. Later on that evening Sarah would be playing the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, conducted by Michael Sanderling (review).
Incredibly Chang made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of eight. At Christmas 2001 I was given a release titled ‘Fire & Ice’ – ‘Works for Violin and Orchestra’ played by Sarah Chang with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Placido Domingo on the EMI Classics label. I rather dismissed the CD as the usual mainly frivolous violin encore works. I could not have been more wrong as the release came across as a serious collection of much loved violin works gloriously played by Chang, giving performances of real integrity. At times the playing was of such an elevated level it sent a shiver down my spine. This is the standard of playing that the charismatic Sarah Chang strives to achieve night after night on the concert platform.
MC: Hello, Sarah. Welcome to Manchester.
SC: I’m delighted to be here in Manchester at the wonderful Bridgewater Hall.
MC: You are playing the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto tonight and I noticed that you played it last night in Edinburgh. Have you played the concerto many times before?
SC: Well I played it last night in Edinburgh at the Usher Hall. It’s fairly new to me but not totally new. It’s so much fun though. It’s a really beautiful work. The maestro [Michael Sanderling] was saying that it was new to him and also fairly new for the orchestra. But it’s a fresh, glorious concerto and it’s a lot of fun to play.
MC: I would think that the Barber concerto along with Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto are probably the most played of the more recently written concertos. That decade from the late 1930s certainly produced some marvellous violin concertos. From the same year as the Barber there are also wonderful violin concertos by Walton and Britten but they’re not played too often; the Britten being especially neglected. In my view they all deserve to be heard far more than they are.
SC: I agree! I went to the Juilliard School in New York and we studied all the regular concertos: the Beethoven; the Tchaikovsky; the Brahms but the Barber seemed to slip through the cracks and I didn’t learn it as a student. So the Barber is a work that I only picked up fairly recently and I had to learn it on my own. I think when you learn things at an older age you appreciate things differently and also approach the work from a very different angle. For the Barber concerto I started off by looking at the full score first, learning it from the score. Then came the violin part and then learning the actual notes because, first of all, it was a nightmare to put together. Orchestrally it’s very complicated and I thought it was more important to know the orchestration and the whole structure of the piece. I thought that the solo violin part should come later. So I approached it in a different way than I would have learned something twenty years ago as a student. It was really very interesting to learn it that way. Of course it gives you a whole new appreciation for the piece because it opens your eyes by being able to see things from a completely different angle. It’s a monster, a monster of a concerto and it’s so much fun to play.
MC: How hard it is to play?
SC: It’s a fiendishly difficult piece to play, and not only to play, but to put together, because it’s very tricky orchestrally and also ensemble-wise. It’s a piece that if just one person goes wrong, be it the timpanist, the oboist or any player, it just screws up everything. It’s one of those pieces where you need to know every part; every part in your head, you need to know who’s doing what at what time. Yes it’s very, very tricky to put together. But it’s glorious, really lyrical and at the same time a very technical work. It’s a lot of fun to play and I’m having a lot of fun with it.
MC: It was said for many years and it still states in many reference books that the third movement of the Barber concerto was too difficult for the young Odessa-born émigré Iso Briselli for whom the score had been commissioned. However, it seems that Briselli felt dissatisfied with the third movement, feeling it was not substantial enough; not that it was too difficult. Barber was not inclined to rewrite it and Briselli declined to première the score.
SC: Yes, I’ve read all sorts of different stories about the Barber concerto. The final movement is very difficult, it’s very technical, and all perpetuum mobile; there isn’t a single second where the violinist can rest. The first two movements are incredible, really wonderful and the third is all-out war. It’s a lot of work but at the same if you are on the same wavelength as the orchestra it is so much fun. It can be exhilarating to play.
MC: I’m certainly looking forward to your performance tonight. I’d like to talk about English violin concertos. I know your list of recordings pretty well but not your concert repertoire. Do you have any English concertos in your regular repertoire?
SC: Well, not besides the Elgar concerto.
MC: Is that a work you play a lot?
SC: Not so much. We get a lot of requests for it in the U.K. but not so much elsewhere. Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending is another piece I play and have recorded. But it’s very short and when an orchestra programme it they always want something else to go with it.
MC: What about the Britten and the Walton concertos?
SC: The Walton concerto I learned and the Britten I do not know but I believe it’s a beautiful concerto. I do occasionally get to play the Elgar but far less requests to play the Walton concerto.
MC: They are all wonderful works and I wish they could be heard more. I have a great admiration for the recording of the Walton concerto played by Yehudi Menuhin with Walton himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. I was wondering if you get asked to play the same few standard repertoire concertos over and over again?
SC: It’s not just one or two concertos. At the end of the day I get to decide what to play. The concert organisers might say we are having a Tchaikovsky festival or this is an all-Brahms programme, can you play the Brahms concerto? Or they may say we heard that you have just recorded the Brahms concerto and we really would like you to play Brahms. They may say things like that and if I’m playing Brahms during that period then I’m very happy to do it. But if it doesn’t fit in the calendar I will have to say sorry but that idea is not going to work. So usually they will take another concerto. But if they really want me to play the Brahms or the Tchaikovsky then we will find another time, maybe two years down the line. I won’t say no outright as these are orchestras that I love to work with; but the repertoire has to work for me. We all plan about two years in advance anyway. So if something came in today, say they wanted Brahms in November 2014 but I’m not doing Brahms then, I’m doing the Shostakovich and the Barber concertos that week and I don’t want to be adding another concerto. Then I might say I’d love to play the Brahms but we shall have to place it in 2015.
MC: So that way you ensure that you will fully prepared for what you are to play? [SC: That’s right] I want to check with you which concertos you are asked to play the most?
SC: Well the bread and butter of what I do is the Brahms, the Beethoven, the Tchaikovsky, the Mendelssohn, the Bruch and the Shostakovich.
MC: How do you keep fresh your frequent playing of this relatively small group of concertos?
SC: Well each time I perform them there will be a different conductor and different group of players. Every hall is different too so I will have to approach the work differently. If I’m in a hall that is very reverberant with a lot of acoustics it can feel as if I am playing in a swimming pool with a lot of reverb. I will have to play things shorter, more crisply; you certainly have to play differently. The next night you may be in a hall that is very dry and you need to help it by playing longer strokes, and everything needs to be a little more elongated. Every night is different. [MC: As the conditions and surroundings change so much.] That’s exactly right. Likewise with different conductors and orchestras everyone plays so differently so your approach from the first note to the last is quite different every single night. So there really isn’t time to rest on your laurels. You cannot get used to anything as conditions alter from one evening to another. Also if I play, say, the Brahms it’s not as if I’m playing Brahms for a dozen concerts in a row. Usually it’s just two concerts with Brahms, and then two concerts of Beethoven, and then I’ll switch over to the Shostakovich First concerto. So it’s in your own hands but its not continuous programmes of fifty concerts of the same work.
MC: You mentioned Shostakovich’s First concerto. I was wondering if the Second Violin Concerto is in your repertory?
SC: I learned the Shostakovich Second concerto as a student but have never performed it. Everyone asks for the First concerto; I don’t know why? [MC: They are both wonderful works]. They are. If I was asked to play the Second I would. As I say I learned it as a student and I’m always looking for a reason to play it but if they want Shostakovich they always want the First concerto.
MC: Would you describe yourself as an analytical player or an intuitive player?
SC: As a player I’m much more intuitive than analytical. You plan what you want to do in your head but the second you are on stage it all goes out of the window. You must have an idea in your head of what you want to accomplish; that is the plan. But the second that you set your foot on stage with the audience there and the energy there and the conductor starts with the downbeat and if the atmosphere is different than the plans you made go out of the window. At that stage you plan and you work and try to achieve everything that you did at the rehearsal and then the concert should be the time when you let go. You go with the flow and you are spontaneous and you can feel the whole atmosphere of having a live audience and that special electricity that is in the air. [MC: You can feel it?] Oh yeah, you can certainly feel it from the stage. O yeah, every night is so different but having a live audience there is something really special about that. It’s in the air, you cannot really describe it. It gets you going and when you step on the stage you can really feel it. So you can’t plan that, there is no way that can be premeditated.
MC: I want to ask you about the more challenging works in the repertoire such as atonal works like the Berg concerto.
SC: Yes, I play the Berg concerto a lot. It’s one of my favourite concertos.
MC: What about the less accessible concertos in the repertoire – and I’m thinking about works such as the Schoenberg concerto?
SC: I think audiences take quite a bit of coaxing to accept the Berg. I think that musicians appreciate the piece as it’s very much a musician’s concerto. I’ve found that our orchestra managers and marketing people, if they had the choice between the Berg concerto, say, and the Tchaikovsky concerto, will always take the Tchaikovsky. So if I want to play the Berg it always takes a little bit more coaxing and telling them just how much I love that concerto and how much I want to play the concerto. Yes, it takes a little bit more effort.
MC: So here we have the crucial situation of protecting ticket sales?
SC: Well for the concert organisers it is. For me it’s not. But of course I understand just how important ticket sales are. Of course with the economy doing what it is. You know some people ask me if the downturn in the worldwide economy has affected me. It hasn’t affected me personally, apart from the fact that I have had a lot more requests from concert organisers to play the standard mainstream repertory. And this is really the only way that I have felt the change in economic circumstances. Organisers when they book a soloist want a ‘sure thing’. They want a ‘sure fire’ concerto; they want something that people will know. They want me to play the Beethoven, the Tchaikovsky, they want something big.
MC: Clearly organisers wish to programme works that the audience will feel comfortable with, something that they know and love.
SC: That’s exactly right. I’ve played the Berg concerto many, many times; it’s one of my favourite concertos. I do like to play new music. I’ve recently been playing the Christopher Theofanidis Violin Concerto. He’s a Greek/American composer who won a Masterprize some years ago. There is also Richard Danielpour who has written something for me. [Editor: River of Light for violin and piano] And there is also a piece by David Newman, who is a Los Angeles-based composer. They are all living composers, in their forties, writing works commissioned for me. What I must say is that I insist that what is being written for me is still fairly accessible for an audience. OK, the Danielpour work is sort of atonal, but it still has to be accessible as I want the audience to really enjoy the works that I’m playing. I know when people look at their programmes for the season and see the familiar works such as the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos and all of a sudden they see a name that is new to them, a new composer and they go ‘argh!’ So in order to get them over that I have to explain to them that although this is by a new composer this is a really beautiful work and one that I really believe in. I have to make the audience believe that the new work is not one that is too far out there and is one that they can understand and enjoy.
MC: And you have been happy with those new works by Christopher Theofanidis, Richard Danielpour and David Newman?
SC: Absolutely I am. Very pleased.
MC: Tell me have you played the Arnold Schoenberg concerto?
SC: I have played it. It’s a very beautiful concerto.
MC: I heard Hilary Hahn give an interpretation of the score that was as romantic in approach as I’ve heard. Yet it’s an extremely challenging piece and one you don’t play very often I should think.
SC: No it’s not one I play often. If you want to hear it live it has to go through the several steps I outlined before. The promoter needs to ask for it, or needs to agree to it, the orchestral management needs to agree to it and usually you need a conductor who is open to doing such works and learning new pieces. If the conductor and soloist are on board and if you can get the orchestra management on board too then usually it will happen. But if you go to them alone and say I want to do the Schoenberg concerto then you are going to get a lot of knock-backs with that approach.
MC: So it’s a work you would play more often if you had the opportunity?
SC: Definitely I would.
MC: I was wondering if you could nominate a work to me that isn’t played as often as it deserves to be. When I interviewed Anne-Sophie Mutter earlier this year she named Schubert’s Fantasy in C major for violin and piano, D934. Is there anything in particular that you think deserves to be played far more often?
SC: Well I agree that the Schubert Fantasy in C major is a great work and one that’s usually played as an opener to a recital. For me, the Berg concerto deserves to be played more often. Also I recorded the Karl Goldmark Concerto No. 1 in A minor in Cologne, which is not played very often. Believe me, some years ago when I was recording the Goldmark, I looked for other records to listen to but it’s not a piece that has been recorded often.
MC: Funnily enough I heard a movement from a recording of the Goldmark concerto played by Joshua Bell with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last week at my Recorded Music Society. I’m pretty sure that most of the audience members didn’t know it.
SC: Exactly. It’s a beautiful work, a really beautiful work. I did play it quite a bit before I made my recording. I had the recording date set for the Goldmark concerto and obviously you want to play a few concerts with it before making the recording, to get it under your belt, to settle the work a little bit. But no one wanted to take it! They said you want to play the Korngold concerto? I said no, not Korngold it’s the Goldmark concerto I want to play and they said Huh! No thanks! You have to explain that it’s not atonal at all, it’s not one of those incredible long pieces, it’s quite beautiful and actually it’s highly romantic in approach. I think you will love it so let’s programme it. Then normally the conductor will look at the score and say, hey this is really very interesting let’s do it. Then from there the ball will start to roll. I recorded the Goldmark with James Conlon and the Gurzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker.
MC: You mentioned just before the Korngold concerto. [SC: Yes] That’s another fine work that has become very popular certainly in the recording studio. I think Korngold was dismissed for many years as a mere film composer.
SC: But the Korngold is a beautiful work. I don’t see why people can’t enjoy both popular film music and more ‘serious’ music. Some film composers are absolute geniuses. I mean John Williams is one of my favourite musicians; period.
MC: I agree, there are some wonderful composers of serious music who have also written film scores. I’m thinking of Herrmann; Rozsa; Korngold; Waxman and André Previn to name a few. In fact I especially admire the Previn Violin Concerto, subtitled ‘Anne-Sophie’; at times the music reminds me of the Korngold concerto. Both works are relatively undemanding, easy on the ear. I’m a huge admirer of the music of Leonard Bernstein; I was wondering if you play his Serenade ‘after Plato’s Symposium’?
SC: I love the work. I think Bernstein is a genius. Not just his Serenade but his music to West Side Story. In fact I’ve had West Side Story arranged for me by David Newman. West Side Story is such an amazing work. It looks deceptively simple but when you look at the score there are so many layers going on underneath.
MC: Yes it’s a great work with one wonderful melody after another. I was very interested that you have your own arrangement now. Joshua Bell plays a West Side Story Suite prepared by William David Brohn. So your new arrangement is by David Newman?
SC: Yes it is. I’ve seen all these arrangements and there is usually a time limit on them. Josh Bell’s was about ten years ago but I’m sure that anyone can play it now. Josh recorded it and it’s very much his piece now. I wanted my own arrangement, working with someone hand in hand to really create something together. So we started afresh with David Newman’s adaptation of the West Side Story suite and it took about a year.
MC: Have you started playing your West Side Story suite?
SC: Yes I’ve started playing it already and we are planning on recording it. [Editor: It was premièred in July 2011 by Sarah Chang at the Summer Grand Teton Music Festival, Jackson Hole, Wyoming]
MC: I know you’ve played with many, many orchestras. I was wondering if there is one orchestra that you particularly enjoy playing with.
SC: Wow, there are so many. Well I’ve probably recorded the most with the Berlin Philharmonic. Then there is also the Vienna Philharmonic. Back in the United States there is the Philadelphia Orchestra from my home city, which I probably play with each year. Then there is the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic too. The conductors I play with are all first class professionals and I’ve had no problems working with them. The orchestras that I work with, even on a bad day, they are who they are because they sound pretty damn good.
MC: Here in Manchester we have excellent orchestras: the Hallé Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic and the Manchester Camerata. I know from talking to Sir Mark Elder, the music director of the Hallé, that he likes to get his players to try different types of music. Earlier this year Sir Mark took the Hallé into the orchestra pit at the Lowry Theatre, just down the road here in Salford, to play in Bernstein’s musical Wonderful Town.
SC: Yes, I like to mix things up myself and try different types of music. I think you need to in order to grow as a performer. To play the same thing over and over again will not promote growth. But to expose yourself to new genres and not keep playing the same Brahms and Beethoven all the time. To do modern pieces and try new composers, and to expose yourself to works like West Side Story and play music that some people may look down their nose at, such as the Korngold concerto. It’s a dangerous mentality not to expose yourself to different musical experiences that will make you into a much more rounded musician. When you have done with it, then to delve into chamber music, which is a whole new area, which is for me still mystical because I love to play chamber music. [MC: How much do you play?] I don’t do a lot of chamber music at the moment. But during the festivals – summer festivals – I try to play as much as I can. About ninety-five percent of what I do is playing concertos with orchestras. I could go down the route of playing more chamber music if I chose to, yes of course. If I said to my management I don’t want to play any more concertos I want to play chamber music for the next year, yes, I could do that and the management would have to go and schedule that for me. But playing concertos with orchestras is the bread and butter of what I do and what keeps me happy. Playing chamber music is a completely different dynamic.
MC: I know that it’s not a new thing but a lot of violin soloists are conducting orchestras. I can think of several of your contemporaries such as Joshua Bell; Maxim Vengerov; Viktoria Mullova; Nikolaj Znaider and I know that Anne-Sophie Mutter has directed a classical orchestra in Mozart concertos. What about yourself, Sarah, do you have any plans to conduct?
SC: No I don’t conduct. But I have directed from the violin. I’ve directed and recorded the Vivaldi Four Seasons without a conductor. But would I consider actual conducting? No, I wouldn’t because that is not what I do. As you say, a lot of my colleagues have and I admire them for doing it. I have so much respect for conductors and especially the ones that I have worked with. I have managed to start out my career at a time when all these great maestros were around, such as Kurt Masur and Wolfgang Sawallisch, all living legends conducting. Out of my respect for them I could never dare to think that I could conduct. If it’s a small Mozart or Vivaldi piece where you can play and direct from the violin then I would do that.
MC: Time has caught up with us. So thank you very much Sarah for your time.