Bowing with belligerence
Nine months short of her 30th birthday, violinist Sarah Chang is a thoroughly well-seasoned professional, having performed with the New York Philharmonic in 1988, at the age of 8, and recorded her first solo CD when she was 9. Her uningratiating recital at the Lensic Performing Arts Center last Thursday served as a reminder of the pitfalls to which musicians are susceptible when their charmed prodigy phase has ended. Six or seven years ago, Chang went through a tough patch of technical waywardness but then got back on track. Now her musical issues seem not so much technical as emotional.
That’s not to say that I was enamored by certain aspects of her technique, although she obviously possesses commanding facility as a violinist. Her tone was often intense to the point of stridency, particularly on her upper two strings (which even evoked a theremin); and her vibrato, which should provide expressive character, was unvarying and impassive, intensifying the hard edge already imparted by her powerful bowing.
A far more serious defect was that her playing lacked heart. Brahms’ C-Minor Scherzo (WoO 2) and his D-Minor violin sonata were dispatched with confidence but not an ounce of tenderness. The D-Minor is the most fiery of Brahms’ three violin sonatas, to be sure, but not even in its slow movement did Chang adopt a musical attitude that stopped much short of violence.
She was assisted by pianist Andrew von Oeyen, remembered as the laudable soloist in Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto with Santa Fe Concert Association this past New Year’s Eve. He handled Brahms’ fistfuls of notes solidly but often over-pedaled his way into textural quicksand; with the piano lid fully raised, this density may have encouraged Chang’s tendency toward vehemence. A brief, negligible fantasy written for Chang by Christopher Theofanidis merely killed time before the program concluded with Franck’s violin sonata. Here Chang’s bowing was a touch lighter, but the luminous potential of this masterwork eluded both musicians. Her intensity was pungent but not passionate.
As a youngster, Chang always communicated a delight in music making. In this recital she performed with gumption and assurance, but she seemed to bear no affection for the music she played. This reviewer assuredly is not given to quoting the Bible, but by the end of Chang’s concert, one verse was firmly lodged in my mind— one that, by chance, Brahms set in the last song he ever wrote: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Time for a sabbatical, Sarah?
— James M. Keller