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.
Here’s what else Chang had to say about what it’s like making the transition from prodigy to pro, and about the musical scene in the Koreas, north and south:
Q: When and how and why and at what age did you officially stop being the child prodigy whose mom dressed you up in a frilly red dress for the cover of your debut album (Sarah Chang, EMI) and become the adult violinist who tours all over the world and still makes CDs (Bruch, Brahms Violin Concertos, Chang with the Dresdner Philharmonie conducted by Kurt Masur, EMI)?
A: “It changes pretty quickly because people get tired of the child prodigy thing. You see this tiny eight-year-old in a pink puffy dress and mary janes and she’s cute as a button and they go ‘Ahhh’, whatever she plays they go ‘Ahhh’ because she’s so young. But then the whole game of this business that we’re in is that you strive for actual relationships within the musical community. It’s not about going to London once and having a great debut, it’s about longevity and it’s about having relationships with those conductors and those orchestras and going back and really having musical relationships with them. So they invite you the first time and you do your debut and they all love you, but then when they invite you back the next visit has to be better than the previous visit and the tenth visit has to be better than the ninth.”
Q: We’ve all heard quite a lot about the musical scene in China, and about Lang Lang and his inspiring 40 million Chinese children to study piano, but we know less about Korea, north or south. What is the music scene there?
A: I go every year (to South Korea) and the music scene is pretty phenomenal. Almost every child in Korea plays an instrument. It’s a typical Asian thing. They expect you to do well in school and somebody sticks an instrument in your hands at the age of 3 or 4, whether they expect you to become a musician or not....I go and play concerts and there are so many kids in the audience and I get it, the mothers drive them there, but still they’re there.”
Q: And the North? Would you go again?
A: I wanted to talk to some of the North Korean musicians but there was no opportunity. Would I do it again? I would, I think we live in a very privileged sort of world and not just because I am Korean but because I think it’s so easy to get lost in what you do and misconstrue your own career in the big picture. I think there are so many issues out there and exposure is a good thing.”