Between her second and sixth year in the world, violinist Sarah Chang cultivated a musicianship that left listeners utterly astonished. Chang may define the term “child prodigy” as she enrolled in the Juilliard School at age five, debuted with the New York Philharmonic at eight, and recorded her first solo album at ten.
Though she displayed staggering technique, the sharpest eyes and keenest ears for true virtuosity recognized it in the emotional depth of Chang's playing from a very young age.
While so many wunderkinder flare out into obscurity, Chang's brilliant spark struck true and has burned fiercely, but steadily.
When Chang makes her first visit to Sarasota (to perform with Sarasota Orchestra in a four-concert run spanning January 30 to February 2), she'll have crested the third decade of a music career that has crisscrossed the globe and produced 20 albums. Chang's catalog is dominated by Romantic-era masterworks for solo violin that showcase the full-faceted prowess marking her as one of the foremost violinists of our time.
Where her earliest playing focused on conquering the challenges of these demanding works, Chang's approach to performance has turned to the bigger picture of a given composition: its place in history, the composer's intentions, and the polyphonic layers of the orchestral instruments supporting her solo violin. She's also harnessed her star power to examine a bigger picture in the way her music relates to the world at large as a bridge-builder and positive change-maker.
In 2002, Chang (who identifies strongly with her Korean-American heritage) made international headlines when she performed in North Korea's capital, backed by an orchestra comprised of North and South Korean musicians.
Looking back at the concert nearly ten years later, Chang told music journalist Geoffrey Newman, "I am not really a political person; I will always be a musician first and foremost. But there comes a time when music, and art in general, can serve as a universal bond to lessen political differences."
Chang's profile as a musical ambassador grew as she ran the Olympic torch in 2004, took a spot in Newsweek's "20 Top Women on Leadership" in 2006, and was honored as a 2008 Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum for her professional achievements, commitment to society, and potential for shaping the world's future. In 2011, the U.S. Department of State formalized her cultural ambassadorship by naming her an official Artistic Ambassador.
At her fastest and most furious, Chang has been known to keep a concert calendar exceeding 100 performances per year. Lately, however, she has become more selective about where and how she expends her electrifying energy. About five years ago, Chang met a beagle named Chewie who has lent a gentle and sweetly grounding influence on her jet-setter lifestyle. Pictures of Chewie, rather than her precious three-centuries-old violin, dominate Chang’s Twitter feed, and she will sometimes chart pretzel-esque flight itineraries to spend a long layover with her pup between shows.
In her Sarasota Orchestra debut, Chang will share a shining example of the Romantic violin concerti that she loves best. Antonín Dvořák composed just a single violin concerto, and it's a favorite of Chang's, one that she feels is often overshadowed by the concerti of Dvořák's Romantic contemporaries. As she navigates the concerto's fiery opening themes, its lush and lyrical adagio movement, and the joyful dance of its finale, audiences at Chang Plays Dvořák will feel warmed by a virtuosity that, for all its maturity, is no less arresting at this point in Chang's astounding career.
[This story was originally featured in the January 2020 issue of West Coast Woman.]