Glamorous, graceful violinist Sarah Chang wows audience as St. Cecilia Music Center's Great Artist

Sarah Chang
Grand Rapids Press

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk

GRAND RAPIDS – When someone has compiled a quarter century in business, you normally say they're about half way through their career.

Violinist Sarah Chang has been in the limelight for more than 22 years, and when she steps on stage, you'd swear she doesn't look a day over 30.

You'd be right, too.The Korean-American violinist, who made her debut at age 8 with the New York Philharmonic, is just 30 years old.

Though when you hear Chang play, you start wondering if she's as young as she looks.

Chang was in Grand Rapids on Thursday for St. Cecilia Music Center's Great Artist Series gala, a series that has brought the most notable of names in music to town.

Many of the artists – pianist Earl Wilde, singer Sherrill Milnes, crooner Tony Bennett -- have been at the apex of their careers, if not beyond.

Chang, the second youngest-ever St. Cecilia Great Artist, remains an A-list player who wowed an audience of some 500 with pianist Andrew Von Oeyen plus music by Johannes Brahms and Cesar Franck.

Chang is a complete package as a player -- technically assured, colorfully expansive, subtly probing, boldly commanding. Von Oeyen has a Lisztian heft at the piano.

Coincidentally, Von Oeyen appeared here in October 2005 and Chang the following month, both with the Grand Rapids Symphony in DeVos Hall.

In some respects, two great artists were on stage in St. Cecilia Music Center's Royce Auditorium.

Recitals are supposed to be shared ventures, collaborations between equals, a meeting of minds in music, an ideal not always achieved.

Classmates at The Juilliard School, only a year apart in age, Chang and Von Oeyen couldn't look more different. She appeared in two exquisite gowns, one teal and shirred, one gold, black and sparkly. He in some semblance of a dark coat and slacks, no tie, rumpled hair, cordovan shoes matching nothing.

But the performed precisely, passionately, and, most importantly, authoritatively, not so much as two people, but as both halves of a brain or two sides of the heart, working together, knowing nothing else.

Their program of two works by Brahms, a sonata by Franck and a Fantasy by contemporary composer Christopher Theofanidis, is one they have been playing for a couple of seasons now.

It's hard to say what connects these works other than they like playing them.

The pair have the contrapuntal nuances of Brahms' youthful Sonatensatz and his mature Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108, honed precisely.

Von Oeyen played with the lid fully open on the Steinway, and Chang easily was powerful enough to match his volume.

Theofanidis' Fantasy is an arrangement of the middle movement of his Violin Concerto commissioned and written specifically for Chang.

The composer's loving attention to detail is evident in the eclectic blend of romanticism, impressionism and modernism. Chang in turn plays it with ringing, triumphant joy, supported by Von Oeyen's resolute accompaniment.

The cyclical give and take of Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano, unmatched fluency and fluidity, led to an unprecedented outburst of applause by the audience at the end of the second movement with two more yet to come. As enthusiastic as that was, the reaction following the fourth and final movement was greater yet.

Chang and Von Oeyen gave back what they got with not one, but two encores. First an elegant reading of Edward Elgar's Salut d'Amour, followed by Carlos Gardel's sizzling tango, “Por una Cabeza.”

Only one other musician – violinist Itzhak Perlman -- has made two appearances as St. Cecilia's Great Artist. Chang has plenty of time left to become the second.