Bow­ing with bel­liger­ence

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Reviews -

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

Sarah Chang

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