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Review: Sarah Chang in Concert

Sarah Chang
What's on in CapeTown

By Esther Lim

To know that a fellow human being could triumph in such a way was a ground-breaking moment for the ecstatic audience at Sara Chang’s first performance in Africa.

Laying out the groundwork prior to the appearance of Chang, one of the world’s greatest violinists, was the Cape Philharmonic under the direction of the Conductor Theodore Kuchar.  Kuchar’s international career, now bringing him to him 10th collaboration with Chang, is often attributed to his meticulously inspired conducting style.  With the conductor so attentive to every last member, the orchestra was in tiptop shape as they danced through Rossini’s sprightly Overture to “The Italian Girl in Algiers” as well as the celebration of Italy’s picturesque landscape and culture in Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 4 in A major,” Op. 90.  Sibelius’ “Finlandia” proved to be just the right preface to his famously challenging violin concerto, which was the focal piece for the evening.  By the time the orchestra reached the stately and melodic “Finlandia Hymn” in its grandiose double-time, full-volume coda, we were sitting straight in our chairs with our senses heightened, almost to a point of reverence.

It was then that Sarah Chang claimed the stage.  A onetime child prodigy now at age 32 with over two decades of international acclaim to her name, Chang has not stopped being in the limelight since she first debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the age of eight.  She performs regularly as a soloist with the world’s top orchestras—the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Vienna Philharmonic, to name just a few—and is also active as a chamber musician whose collaborations include Yo-Yo Ma and the late Isaac Stern.  With 20 years of well-received recordings interspersed throughout a terrifically packed tour schedule (often prearranged two or three years in advance), Chang has shown no sign of slowing down since her early days.

It seems particularly fitting, then, for her to present the “Violin Concerto in D minor,” Op. 47, which was dedicated by Sibelius to the Hungarian “wunderkind” Ferenc von Vecsey who performed the concerto at age 13.  Lest this detail tempt us to think lightly of the piece, it should be noted here that the work is one of the most technically demanding violin concertos of all time, and Vecsey himself was not able to fully master Sibelius’ score at the time.

Chang, however, not only demonstrated indubitable technical mastery of the piece but also brought a strikingly mature sound to augment its intensity.  As the only concerto that Sibelius wrote, “Concerto in D minor” is comprised of woeful, broad melodies and violently virtuosic solos that reflect the composer’s torment: the violin had been his first love, but his inability to excel at it due to a late start and inadequate tutelage had driven him to give it up altogether.  The piece, in a sense, carries both his gloom as well as the radiance of what could have been, and in the hands of Chang it positively wept with poignancy.

As she unfurled the first movement, it was as though Chang was playing as duet with herself, layering rich golden tones on her del Gesù which by all accounts sounded like two violins playing in tandem.  Bringing the fiery end of the “Allegro Moderato” movement to a close with a flourish—a full-arm swing of the bow here, a stomp of the foot there—she then eased us into the lush notes of her lower register in the lyrical “Adagio di Molto.”  The way she freely utilized the physical space around her was mirrored by Kucher’s traversing the four corners of his podium, the orchestra conveying a fine range of tones as the two led them through the equally-voiced, alternating melodic passages.

Finally, in the cathartic “Allegro” movement we witnessed a battle in which Chang, wielding her instrument like a weapon, gave an explosive presentation of violin acrobatics in a non-stop barrage.  Here, even the orchestra members sat staring, enthralled by her virtuosity, so much so that I feared they would miss their next cues.  As the concerto came to a heart-stopping close, it’s no surprise that the ensuing ovation required no less than seven reappearances on Chang’s part to acknowledge the elated crowd.