How does one begin to explain the exquisite magic of Sarah Chang?
The prodigious violinist enthralled the audience Saturday, Sept. 10, at Emerson Concert Hall in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts as part of Emory University’s Candler Concert Series.
Chang debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the age of eight and graduated from the esteemed Juilliard School. She is a renowned artist who is often recognized as one of the best active violinists today.
For those unenthusiastic about listening to two hours of “boring” classical music, there are two incorrect assumptions in play. First, the repertoire came from the 19th and 20th centuries, so the pieces were much more approachable than many earlier works. During this time, composers had more structural freedom and could incorporate a wider range of ideas in their pieces than classical era composers, so music from this time broke traditional rules of counterpoint and explored new genres, such as neoclassicism and jazz-influenced composition. Second, Chang does not simply perform. Her art is her life, and she exposes her emotions not because it is her job, but because facing the audience genuinely comes naturally for her.
Contrast, or using one type of sound to emphasize its opposite, was the most prominent source of Chang’s success. She drew attention to the changes in her style, but those changes went beyond the categorizations of forte, piano, allegro and adagio. She pulled her bow using only the gentle weight of gravity to produce atmospheric, haunting harmonics. The next measure, she would grit a few inches of her bow near the frog against the strings, briskly scrubbing the deeper, earthly notes. Even for people experiencing Chang’s interpretations of Bela Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in D minor and Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A major for the first time, Chang’s performance convinced the audience of her creative approach to music.
Chang’s brilliance and success are unsurprising. Due to Chang’s education and international experience, the audience expected perfection, and she delivered. While performers must play beyond what is simply written in the sheet music, Chang’s perfect balance between following a composer’s instructions and interpreting the score as a guideline is unique. For example, in Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, Chang often used rubato just slow enough to attract the audience’s attention, causing its members to hang on to each and every note. Chang’s music is perfection because the depth of her interpretation impacts each listener differently.
Pianist Julio Elizalde accompanied Chang, succeeding in accenting Chang’s performance by mirroring her freedom in expression. In a short speech, Elizalde explained that he and Chang worked and performed together as equals. This was emphasized in the performance, as Chang and Elizalde remained perfectly synchronized as they played.
The Brahms and Franck pieces of the program featured several contrasting movements, each of which explored a set of techniques and emotions. Chang brilliantly balanced keeping the sections of the Brahm’s Sonata distinct yet connected by consistency in bow stroke, careful phrasing and a healthy knowledge of the timbre of the violin throughout. The movements’ independent melodies stood as the composer intended, but Chang’s robust legato and punctuating staccato returned in almost every movement.
The abundance of styles did not faze the audience; rather, listeners were impressed by Chang’s cohesion. She created characters in her music that the audience followed on an adventure. Her uncommon ability to smoothly link movements together is phenomenal — Chang precisely played between movements like chapters of a book, with different plots (notes) but the same characters (techniques).
Chang’s presence was almost too grand for the venue; at times the energy practically bursted out of the auditorium in an explosion of hypnotic sound waves. Every time she seemed to hit her peak performance, she continued further into musical bliss, creating sonic novels that transported the audience into another world devoid of their own worries. What Chang accomplishes with her violin cannot simply be put into words — the magic can only be truly understood when you are right there in the auditorium.