Sunday, March 26, 2006

Star Power

Richter said: “People either make music, or they don’t.” It is true that when listening to the great Russian pianist, I have always being lead to his inner world. However in my mind, music exists in a condition of being, not becoming.

And the night with Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is a night of music of being.

The concert was titled “Star Power” which was justified by attracting so many Koreans in the town who, even though never show up in Heinz Hall before, just came to see Sarah Chang, the brilliant American born violinist. Heinz Hall was so packed that some even sat in the cramped last row.

Every prodigy has such an embarrassing period when he tries to keep his publicity and get rid of his identity as a talented child at the same time. With her first performance at the age of 8 with Zubin Mehta (How many times this conductor has been in the position of collaborating with a promising star?), Sarah, now at age of 26, has still been remembered by her marvelous playing a violin of ¼ of real size.

I always have a mix feeling of those prodigy musicians. Techniques may come fast but musicality develops slowly. For Sarah Chang, who knew how to play Sibelius at the age of 6 and may have played it so many times, how can she still appreciate and explore it after numerous repetitions? Sarah once said “when other kids played outside, I was practicing”. That’s about the real life of most of prodigies. While those talented like Midori come across some melodramatic public crisis when entering their young adulthood, Sarah Chang is almost immune and lives a glamorous life as she matures.

Sarah, wearing a skirt of delicate green with pink strips, showed her maturity of womanhood. She nevertheless possesses powerful muscle in her arms. She has a round flat face. Her eyes are high and widely separated. When she bowed to the audience, all Koreans were looking at her aghast.

Sarah is famous for her boldness and passion. Unlike Midori, another prodigy who plays with deliberation and calculation, she doesn’t micro-manage the piece and instills her playing with spontaneity and inspiration. She said she hates analyzing stuff, that explained enough that she plays music in a more intuitive way. For her, music is more about being than becoming. It is true that most of the musicians may excel in some type of repertoire, however her statement means it is more important for her to find the right piece to sparkle her talent. I love her interpretation of Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. When the cyclic theme reappears in the third movement, its pianissimo sounds a recall from past, miraculous and touching.

However, there was definitely a character discrepancy between Sibelius and Sarah Chang. Sibelius composes with his instinct of darkness and depth, his fondness of mystery of forests and water. He is one of the very few composers whose music can be emotional stirring but calm and weighty at the same time. Sarah Chang was dauntless in this fiddler-dominating-all piece: She thrilled the bow hard enough to speed the tempo, chose different tones to color sections and competed the whole orchestra in loudness. For a while in the passionate first movement, I was worried that Sarah was going to destroy her beloved 300-year-old violin. There were some calm and noble sections too in this movement, but Sarah couldn’t refrain her bursting emotion and passed them in a harsh timbre.

It was the third movement that showed Sarah’s breathtaking skills. It was called “polonaise for polar bears. Under Sarah’s bow, the dance of polar bears was elegance and energetic. When she finished the last sentence, she held her violin in the air and smiled immediately.

After re-listening to performance by Oistrakh and Heifetz, I realized that how difficult it was to play the concerto in the concert. Heifetz’ EMI recording in 1935 is still my favorite with fire burst under control. And his unique silky cold metallic tonality fits the mix of ice and steel feeling of Silelius perfectly. But Sarah, on the night called “Star Power”, preferred overwhelm sensation to controlled emotion, and left the audience satisfied and shocked, but unmoved.

Maybe Richter was right.

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