Though pop music always grabs the headlines, soloist Sarah Chang says she doesn’t believe classical music is dying a slow death.
“You know what,” she confides, “people say that, but I don’t feel it. I usually see full houses,” she says, simply stating a fact rather than crowing about having been at the top of the classical music pyramid for 20 years now – and she’s still only 29. “Classical music reaches a different target audience and people come to concerts for a proper evening out – unless it’s the Hollywood bowl – and they tend to make an occasion of it. So it’s a very different sort of environment. But on the flip side, you’re accused of being elitist, so you can’t win either way.”
She is in the UAE this week, performing at the Emirates Palace on Monday as part of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival. With the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Karel Mark Chichon, she brings her virtuosity to the much-recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which, rather helpfully, she has just tackled on CD, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – a collaboration that made the Top 10. “I kept on holding it off,” she has said of the album, where, like most of her work, she puts her own stamp firmly on the pieces. “I was very aware of the fact everybody and their grandmother had recorded it, so I really wanted to be completely ready before committing it to tape.”
That attitude seems typical of the Korean American violinist. While she is friendly and chatty during our interview, she understands exactly what her creative limits are. She knows her strengths, is focused on her art, and won’t do anything at odds with it.
Talk about crossover albums, for instance, to help make classical music more accessible to pop audiences (or even to push up record sales), and, despite listening to Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, she is clear and direct: “The only thing I’ve done is the Andrew Lloyd Webber CD [Phantasia], and I did that after 10 years of refusing to do any of the pop and crossover stuff [her record label] EMI sent me. And the only reason I said yes to it was because the fundamental basis was classical, and because I had enough creative control to be able to put my fingerprints on it,” she tells Emirates Business. Chang seems unequivocally in control of her career and the only force shaping that career is what she wants to do, not sales, not image, not what they’re saying in the galleries. “I have no idea how that did, really. I don’t even know if it went on the charts,” she says of the Lloyd Webber CD.
Perhaps that attitude comes from the nature of her art: a classical musician, she says, must be disciplined; like an athlete, she must practise every single day. “As an art form, it relies on integrity and actual performance, you can’t fluff it and get by on packaging.” That discipline is what helps her stay focused, preventing her from going off the rails like Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse. “With classical, the fan base is more loyal than with pop, where singers are there one week and gone the next, but the bottomline is you have to deliver on stage. That overrides everything else.”
It makes sense that music is the dominant force in her life. One of the most remarkable prodigies of any generation, Philadelphia-born Chang began her violin studies at the age of four, and was promptly enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Within a year, she had performed with several orchestras in the city, and by the age of eight, she was auditioning for Zubin Mehta, who declared “she must have learned it all in a previous life”, and immediately engaged her to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Her first album, Debut, recorded when she was nine, hit Billboard’s classical charts when it was released and she has since put out 17 albums.
While she only attended Juillard on Saturdays, thanks to musician parents who insisted she “go to normal school”, she can’t think of a life outside music. “I’ve devoted so much of my life to music, I can’t imagine not being involved with it. Even if I wasn’t a violinist, I would be doing something with music.”
Ask about money, though, and she’s on less steady ground – despite endorsing the likes of Movado watches. “I eyeball it, but that’s about all. Once you’re too involved in your finances, it takes away from what you’ve got to say. So I’ve just handed full control to my mother,” she says, in this sense no different from millions of young Asian professionals who trust their families to do the best for them. It also helps, she says, that credit card companies have someone to call. On a tour recently, Sarah swiped her credit card in Paris, London and Venezuela in the course of 24 hours, prompting the bank to make a verification call. “It’s nice to have someone like Mum holding down the reins,” she says.
And she’s heard about the UAE’s malls. “I’ve been warned about it,” she jokes, telling me how excited the entire United States is by the UAE, and Dubai in particular. “I’ve seen fantastic pieces about it on TV, it’s been called paradise on earth and I’ve got friends investing in property off plan, which is a little weird, because wouldn’t you want to see the place first? But from where I am now, on the [US] east coast in the winter, Dubai – and the sun – are looking amazing.”