Sarah Chang is a violin prodigy who wound up with something most prodigies never achieve — a superstar career as an adult. At age 33, she has been a professional musician for a quarter of a century.
Chang is immersed in the classical music world in a way few of us can comprehend. Can you imagine if your memories of what you do for a living were among your earliest?
"It was by no means a normal childhood," says Chang, who joins the Fresno Philharmonic this weekend in a gala celebration of the orchestra's 60th anniversary. "I did start out my career really early. It was unusual, but at the same time I felt my team really did try to limit the concerts and keep an eye on it so I would still have time to go to school. On the road I had a tutor with me. It was one of those things: 'Oh, yeah, you're playing for the queen of England, but you still have to get your homework done.' "
One of her early musical memories is playing the Bruch Violin Concerto. The big, Romantic-era piece is known for its dizzying arpeggios but also its emotional sincerity and "unapologetically beautiful" sensibility, as she puts it. She played it on a tiny, 1/16-size violin for her audition at the Juilliard School at age 5.
Yes, she got in.
She will perform the work in Fresno this weekend.
"The piece has such a special place in my heart," Chang says. "After I played it when I was 5, I put it away for about 12 years. Then, when I came back to it, I completely fell in love with it all over. To go back to it as an adult on a full-size violin, it really made me appreciate the piece even more."
She's speaking on the phone from New York, which is on the road for her. That's where you're likely to find her these days. She rarely manages to get home to her home base of Philadelphia, where she averages only a few days a month.
"You sort of learn to live out of a suitcase," she says.
Yet for Chang, life on the road is a normal, a given. She doesn't know any other way. So, too, is the idea of being in the public view. Ever since she was thrust into the spotlight at age 8 when she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic, she's been interviewed, photographed and celebrated on a regular basis. She made her debut album at age 10. Today, in an era in which the classical recording industry is reeling and it's harder than ever for young musicians to break through, she remains a recognizable name, booking engagement after engagement at the world's leading concert halls.
The American-born daughter of Korean immigrants, she relied on their musical smarts — her father a composer and mother a violinist — to navigate the invigorating but often rocky waters of being a prodigy.
"At the beginning I believed that to be a musician, you played music. Really, though, it is a business. I'm really grateful I had parents who knew the business well enough."
Theodore Kuchar, music director of the Fresno Philharmonic and a frequent collaborator with Chang, says only a handful of childhood music prodigies have gone on to superstar status, and Chang is one of them.
Her musical talent is crucial to her success, of course. But even the most talented player needs a boost.
"If you want to be an artist, it's not enough to have a manager," he says. "You need a publicist. It's all about the PR machine."
It helps that Chang is beautiful, affable, charming with journalists and fashion-forward. ("I do have sort of an addiction for shoes," she says with a laugh. "If you're in Paris you have to shop. Concert dresses and shoes and all that stuff — look, I'm a girl, I love all that stuff.")
Kuchar and Chang were together in July in a tour that included concerts in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
They had three days to kill between concerts.
"Ted did the smart thing and went on a safari," Chang says. "I swear to you I wanted to go. They showed me a picture of the place — it looked wonderful — but told me no cell phone. I wasn't sure if I could survive for three days without my cell phone."
She did manage a quickie one-day safari, but Kuchar made sure she knew what she had missed.
"He came back on the fourth day with loads of photos and videos and asked, 'What did you do?' "
Chang actually did put her free time to good use in South Africa, spending time in her role as a U.S. artistic ambassador, visiting schoolchildren musicians in local villages.
"It's an amazing program to be part of, so humbling," she says. "We went from village to village. I played for them, and some of them played for me. In some places the kids were playing by ear, from memory, because they didn't have money for sheet music."
This will be Chang's second visit to Fresno. She has fond memories of her 2008 concert here and is pleased to offer the Bruch concerto as a 60th birthday present to the orchestra. A gala dinner marking the anniversary will be held before the concert along with a post-concert reception with Chang.
It's a different experience playing the concerto as an adult, of course, starting with the idea in the first place.
"When you're 5 and really not making too many of those decisions for yourself," she says.
The piece sparks lots of memories. For her, the prestigious Juilliard program for young musicians was an excuse to go to New York each weekend, "hang out with some kids," go shopping with her parents. (Later, she would return to Juilliard for her university education.)
"It has everything you can ask for from a violinist," she says of the Bruch concerto. "I love it because it's one of his shorter violin works, with an unusual structure — it's like one big breath."
Sarah Chang with the Fresno Philharmonic, 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St. www.fresnophil.org, (559) 261-0600. $20-$75.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.