Classic FM Meets Sarah Chang

Sarah Chang is tells Classic FM why she's just as passionate about clothes as she is her music.

Classic FM is chatting with Sarah Chang. She’s young and she’s a world-class violinist, but what do you think we’re talking about? Clothes, of course! 

“A friend texted me to say she’d read a concert review that said my dress looked like something Posh Spice would wear. But I wasn’t sure quite which one Posh Spice was!” 

And when you found out, Classic FM asks? 

“Well, I wasn’t quite sure what I thought!” 

She should be careful. Posh’s dress sense stirs up strong emotions in many but it’s doubtful this young lady really gives a hoot. 

“I need lots and lots and lots of dresses. I get most of them made by two sisters – Polish designers Liliana and Dana Kruszynska – who have a shop in Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge, London. They have a mannequin of me, and churn them out. My management keeps a log of what I wear and when, as I can’t wear the same thing in front of the same audience.” 

Crikey, it’s amazing what you find out about the nuts and bolts of being a musician on the road – keeping a log of which tux was worn when didn’t come up when Classic FM was chatting to another talented fiddler friend of Sarah’s, Renaud Capuçon. But we’re fascinated and she’s on a roll. 

“They’re great but they don’t always get it right. There was this one time they beaded a strap on both sides to make it look more sparkly, but it was agony – there was no way I could play in it!” 

Sarah Chang is a phenomenon. She may natter away like a normal American college kid, but you can’t ignore the fact that she’s been performing professionally since she was eight. Mention the phrase “child prodigy” at your peril though. 

“Ah yes, the child prodigy tag. I wasn’t aware of that until later. It stayed with me for the longest time. Of course, the important people didn’t take any notice of my age. Conductors treat you as the soloist, end of story. But the press gets excited about an eight-year-old in a pink frilly dress walking on to the stage.” 

And nowadays? 

“Well I’m delighted to have passed that label on to others. Very happy indeed. They’re welcome to it.” 

Sarah was born in Philadelphia to Korean parents. With a composer mother and violin teacher father, it was always likely she would be musical, but she doesn’t think her parents really had any clue how good she was at the beginning. 

“I started the violin when I was four. I was always scolded for putting it in the toy box and not looking after it! It was a one-sixteenth size. Mum had started me on a piano at three. I remember always wanting to play violin, to be like the big kids in my music class who played violin. But I was their first child; they had no one to compare me to.” 

Not surprisingly, her father taught her at first but early on he decided to hand her over to the legendary teacher Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School in New York. Both he and Sarah’s mother insisted that she also attended a regular school at home in Philadelphia though – no mean feat when you’re on the concert circuit well before junior high. 

“Obviously I missed some school. But we tried to organise it so that if I was going to Europe, for example, I’d go for one long trip rather than several short ones. I had tutors at first, but it’s tricky, always moving around. Fax and email helped – in fact I wouldn’t have finished school without email! 

“I did most of my school work on planes. There was a phase when it seemed like concert, dinner, reception, then hurry home to homework. That wasn’t great, on reflection. The teachers at my school were pretty understanding, though it was their first experience of dealing with someone like me so we kind of learned as we went along.” 

And friends? 

“Well, of course I had a regular group of non-musician friends. I don’t know, it could be tough. I had a few moments at 16 or 17 when I rebelled. I guess I wasn’t so together, though I was never late for rehearsals! I maybe had two seconds of envy for “normal” friends going off to college and so on, but then I figured, at least my choice is made. I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to major in, what I want to do.” 

Sarah Chang is a very approachable, chatty girl, who goes to great lengths to mention the ordinary, normal things in her life. Her lessons every Saturday morning as a kid at the Juilliard, for example, were treated by her and her mother as something of a shopping trip to town; they’d make the journey to New York from Philadelphia, Sarah would have her lesson, and her mum would hit Saks Fifth Avenue. So far, so balanced. But there are hints that Sarah’s life has evolved into something that you or I simply wouldn’t recognise. Take her description of home, for example. 

“Home is Philadelphia, it’s where my folks are, and where I keep my music and my dresses. It’s where the stationary things are in my life! I love the travel, though. In fact, when I’m home I’m lost at looking after myself. If I have to drive myself to find a post office, do stuff without the help of a good concierge, I’m pretty useless!” 

It’s all said with great, self-deprecating good humour, but it does strike Classic FM as rather sad that a 24-year-old needs a concierge to post a letter. But our job isn’t to judge and certainly she adores her family. 

“Oh they’re great. My mother is a composer, but is mostly busy with my 17-year-old brother Michael. Oh man, he just doesn’t get time zones! He’s just got his driving licence and called me at 2am this morning. He’s also a musician; he plays the cello. He’s principal cello of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, but he’s balanced. He’s actually more of a tennis player, really.” 

Classic FM wonders if it detects a note of envy in her voice as she says this, especially as she goes on to describe being a professional musician as being like an athlete: “you dedicate your life to it.” 

But as musicians’ lives go, it’s a pretty exciting one for Sarah at the moment. She’s got her usual programme of playing with the big five orchestras in the States but she also recorded a new orchestral version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera. When Classic FM meets her, they were in the final stages of preparation. 

“I’m playing with Julian Lloyd Webber and I guess my part on the violin is the same as the one Sarah Brightman sang. Until now, all crossover projects didn’t feel right – they were too cheesy. But this, well, I have so much respect for Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I love the musical – in fact it was the first one I ever saw here in London.” 

She’s also thoroughly excited to be working on a project with the composer himself.

“It’s fantastic to actually work with someone on the music. But the down side is that he keeps changing things! He’s taking so much care but new pages keep on being faxed through! I think the fact the two brothers are working together makes it special but there are lots of people involved. It’s his company Really Useful, EMI, the three of us musicians... it makes it complicated. I keep on getting stuff from the lawyers!” 

Does she worry at all about her credibility being compromised by this project? 

“No, I’ve got great people around me. I don’t think it distracts from my discography. After all, my entire calendar is booked with pure classical so there’s no doubt what kind of musician I am.” 

Does she feel any rivalry with Vanessa-Mae, the undisputed queen of crossover violin? Sarah seems to be bothered not one jot. 

“Vanessa-Mae is very different from me. It’s a big market, there’s plenty of room. She’s always done crossover. I remember when I saw her first record cover – I thought it was amazing. There she was with her electric violin, up to her knees in the sea; I guess I was about nine at the time, and all I could think was, why is she not electrocuted?!” 

Classic FM doesn’t think there’s any danger of Sarah Chang being considered lightweight. When she’s not performing, she has lessons with some of the biggest names in the business: Kurt Masur, or Maestro Masur, as she calls him, and Colin Davis. 

She is also enjoying playing and recording more chamber music: her collaborations have included acclaimed discs of DvorĖ‡ák’s Quintet in A (with Leif Ove Andsnes) and the same composer’s String Sextet, where Sarah was first violin with a quintet of players from the Berlin Philharmonic who go back years. 

Despite her initial nerves, it was a happy experience for all concerned. It’s going to be a busy year, no question, but it seems that despite the occasional wistful glance at the more regular lives of her brother and her friends, that’s the way Sarah likes it.

 “I asked for a sabbatical once, when I was 18. I slept for a week, but then I got restless, and had to work again.” 

Her music is more than a calling; it’s almost an addiction. 

Which is lucky for us.