Music News & Reviews

Violin virtuoso Sarah Chang to perform with UK Symphony

On Saturday night, Sarah Chang will do something she does not do often: She'll play with an orchestra that she hasn't played with before.

The Philadelphia native is only 29, but the number of orchestras and conductors with whom she has not played has become rather small.

"At this point in my career, I don't do a lot of firsts," Chang said Tuesday afternoon from Philadelphia. "Most of the projects that I choose are mostly based on partners that I know and I trust and I love to work with.

"At this point in the business, I have my circle of musical friends. I know which orchestras I get along with, which I don't, which conductors I love, and which, frankly, it doesn't work with onstage.

"Having said that, it's still very, very exciting to go to a new city for the first time."

This week, she is coming to Kentucky for the first time, to perform with conductor John Nardolillo and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.

Chang is the latest classical music star to come to UK and perform with the orchestra, following cellist Lynn Harrell in 2008, and violinists Gil Shaham and Mark O'Connor last year. Chang, Harrell and Shaham were booked as part of the Singletary Center for the Arts Signature Series and were paired with the orchestra, giving the student players the thrill of working with a bona fide star.

"We're really excited, and it will be a real motivator — especially to the violin section — to have someone of that caliber here and having that collaboration," UK Symphony concertmaster Jessica Miskelly said.

The town and orchestra will be new, but Chang will perform an exceedingly familiar piece.

Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor was one of the pieces she played to audition for The Juilliard School — when she was 5.

She doesn't necessarily take credit for choosing the piece — "You're not making huge decisions on your own at 51/2," Chang said. But she liked the piece, and it has endured with her over the years.

She made it into Juilliard, and at age 8 was a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra. By 10, she had recorded her first album for EMI Classics. Over the years, she figures that she has recorded almost every major violin concerto, but she just recently tackled the Bruch for posterity.

"I played it at that insanely early age, and then for some reason, I put it away," Chang said. "After my Juilliard audition, I didn't touch it for 10 or 15 years, which is very unusual. Then I went back to it and just fell in love with it all over again."

She cites its lush beauty and accessibility, even for people who are generally not classical music fans. But she also, 24 years after that audition, appreciates the challenge.

"It's not a walk in the park," Chang said. "Many people assume that because it's a concerto many students do play — and it's one of the first five concertos most students learn — there's this misconception that it's a simple concerto to learn. In fact, to make it beautiful and to make it sound brilliant and virtuosic, there are challenges. And once you have lived with it and played it so long, the challenge is to keep it fresh."

When Chang started putting together her latest album, Bruch, Brahms Violin Concertos, she was searching for a concerto to pair with Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto. She was surprised to realize that in 18 years with her label, EMI Classics, she had never recorded the Bruch.

Adding to the Bruch concerto's ubiquity, virtually every violinist of any consequence in the recorded era has recorded the piece. Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra concertmaster Daniel Mason said that makes it a challenge for artists to put their own mark on it, and Chang concurs.

"With a piece that's so popular and so well known ... you want to make sure your version has something to say," Chang said. "It has to be your true version and a genuine portrayal of your character."

In working with Maestro Kurt Masur and the Dresden Philharmonic, Chang said, she discovered "how much give and take and how much of a chamber music piece it can be.

"Five years ago, I thought it was just a violin piece and there was a violin solo and an orchestra, and I was absolutely wrong," she said. "When you really study the score, you realize how much give and take is there and how many units and passages there are and how much the piece really opens up when you approach it from a chamber-music aspect."

Chang is getting into that collaborative spirit this week with the UK Symphony. And although she doesn't work with a lot of student orchestras, she's excited about the opportunity.

"I'm always extremely interested in working with universities and colleges," Chang said. "It wasn't that long ago that I was in school myself."

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