A Violin Prodigy Sees The World

Sarah Chang is barely 18 and graduated from high school just two months ago, but she is already acclaimed as one of the world's top violin soloists. Born in Philadelphia to Korean parents (her mother is a composer, her father was her first violin teacher), she first earned applause as a child prodigy: the late Yehudi Menuhin, describing his shock after hearing her play for the first time almost a decade ago, called her "the most wonderful, perfect, ideal violinist I had ever heard." Now a recording artist, she has been a soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic. In May, Chang won the Avery Fisher Prize, one of the first women ever to receive the prestigious award. Still a student--she takes lessons from Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School--she speaks Korean at home, German with friends and English at school. She talked with NEWSWEEK's Jeremy Caplan at New York's Avery Fisher Hall. Excerpts:

CAPLAN: The late Yehudi Menuhin was both a fan and a mentor for you. What did you learn from him?
CHANG: Menuhin taught me that the violin is the closest thing to the human voice. He said: "If you listen to a singer reaching for a high note, you'll notice that she's going to slide up to it. That slide should sound the same way on our instrument." He wanted everything to sound natural, like the human voice.

It's often been observed that many of the rising stars in classical music are Asian. Any thoughts on that?
I think it's because there's an ethic in many Asian cultures that emphasizes ideals like discipline, family support and hard work. If you go to countries in Asia, including China, Japan or Korea, you find that eight out of 10 children are learning an instrument. Before they're 10, their parents will put a violin under their chin or sit them at the piano. It wasn't always that way. In Heifetz's generation violinists mostly came from the Russian schools, then Isaac Stern and a Jewish wave arrived. Today if you go to Juilliard, you don't need to speak English because so many of the students are either Korean, Chinese or Japanese. But the next wave might very well be French or German. It goes in cycles.

Is classical music more popular outside the United States?
I think some people in the United States mistakenly have the idea that classical music is stuffy and old, and that its composers are all dead. But elsewhere it's different. The audiences in Asia are considerably younger. You see a lot of kids walking around with little instrument cases, and they come to concerts with their mom. A lot of people in the concert world are screaming that the average age of audiences is shooting up. But in Asia, Europe and sometimes in the U.S. you see kids in the audience, bug-eyed, and it's encouraging.

This summer you're performing chamber music with members of the Vienna Philharmonic. Does the orchestra's record of refusing to admit women concern you?
It's a phenomenal orchestra with a certain tradition that they want to maintain. I'm not sure I agree with the reasons some members have given for wanting to remain an all-male institution, but when it comes to soloists, they are very open-minded. They were willing to play with [me when I was] a 14-year-old Korean girl on tour, and I think that shows they're not closed-minded.

Do you have any interest in composing, or in performing new music?
I've tried to compose my own cadenzas for concertos, but I've usually ended up sticking to what the composer wrote. But I've worked with a lot of living composers recently. It drives me nuts, though, that they like to change things at the last minute. For example, two years ago I played a piece that had been completed only the day before, in front of thousands of people in a huge stadium in Taejon, South Korea. That was nerve-racking.

Do you ever tire of the routine?
If you pick a day in 2001, I'll tell you which hotel I'll be in, at what telephone number and what time rehearsals will be. Everything in my life is planned. It adds stability, but it makes me yearn for something that's not planned, that's spontaneous. Sometimes I wish I could just get in a car with a few friends and drive for a week, without knowing where we're going. But my parents are convinced I'm not home long enough to get a car [laughs]. I just got my license, which was more stressful than any concert. If I had two weeks off, I would spend the first two or three days doing nothing, just vegging out. No phone, no fax. Maybe e-mail, because I'm such a computer nut. Then I would spend some time with my 11-year-old brother and my friends, because I don't see them very much.

What would you do if you couldn't play the violin?
I try not to take my life for granted. I have friends who have tendinitis. That would kill me. A short break from the violin is fine, but if I don't touch it for three or four days, my fingers start to feel funny. I'd like to go to college. And if I couldn't play violin, I would probably be somewhere else in the music business, maybe in the recording industry. But the ultimate high for me is being onstage in front of an audience. Nothing else can compare.