Violinist Chang: Prodigy to pro, bypassing crack-up

Thu Mar 1, 2012 7:32am EST
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - The closest violinist Sarah Chang, who made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at age eight, can recall having needed a break from it all came when she was 16 -- but even then she had to wait two years to get it.

"The only time I just literally sat down and said, 'Okay, I need a break' was when I was about 16, and I actually said this to my parents and they immediately got on the phone with my manager to say I needed a sabbatical," Chang told Reuters in an interview in London before heading off to China on tour with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Valery Gergiev.

"This was a time of SATs (American scholastic tests) and college applications and the prom and you're like starting to get interested in boys and lots of things, so you need a little bit of normalcy, right?"

She got it, but with strings attached. Given that violin soloists are booked into concert halls years in advance, Chang, now 30, didn't get her break until she was 18 -- but she did get it, and loved every minute of it.

"It ended up being like a month and half but it was a month and a half of just unbelievable pleasure, like I did nothing, it was so great. I watched lots of bad TV, I ate everything in sight, I didn't have to worry about fitting into a dress the next evening -- and this was just when reality TV shows were starting off. That was fun."

So Chang found her way out of the pressure-cooker life that is the world of the child prodigy, and which throughout history has left a legacy of broken careers and deep emotional scars (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may even have symbolically killed off his dad Leopold in his opera "Don Giovanni" to get back at his pushy and controlling papa).

As a person of Korean-American heritage, Chang has gone on to do regular tours in Korea, including one to North Korea in 2002 that left a lasting impression, particularly when she managed to stay behind at the hotel, against all the rules, and was taking a shower when the electricity and the water were both switched off -- because there was not supposed to be anyone in the hotel.

"I went over to the bed where there's a phone to call reception, but there's no line connecting it -- it's like a prop, it's like a toy, a prop," she said, still seemingly stunned by the chicanery of it all -- though luckily her father was in the adjoining room to rush down to the desk and get the water switched back on.   Continued...