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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Superconductor Interview: Sarah Chang

The violinist on Bernstein, love stories and playing in New Jersey.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sarah Chang and friend. Photo © Sony Classical.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra has made January a good time to be in the Garden State. For January is when the orchestra holds its two week annual orchestral festival, concentrating its concert programming around a single thematic idea or solo artist This year, Shakespeare is the focus of the festival, and the soloist is internationally known virtuoso violinist and New Jersey native Sarah Chang.


"This is a huge opportunity because it's a residency," Ms. Chang said in a telephone interview with Superconductor. "When you're a touring musician, rarely do you get to make a city your home for two solid weeks. You get to know the musicians too."

Ms. Chang will use this residency to offer a work written for her particular skills: a Suite for violin and orchestra from the Leonard Bernstein musical West Side Story. The composer's most famous stage work and a collaboration with librettist Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story transposes the story of Romeo and Juliet to a block of slums in New York, with the warring families becoming two street gangs: the Jets and the Sharks.

"I've been playing with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra pretty consistently, and we've done just about everything...Tchaikovsky, Bruch, Brahms, Vivaldi's Four Seasons--the big romantic concerti for the violin. So Jacques Lacombe and I were backstage and we thought it would be nice to do something a little different."

"I had just asked David Newman to make an arrangement of West Side Story for violin and orchestra and over the next several months it came together. I played it last year at the Hollywood Bowl, and we were happy with it. It's so different--this is totally different. West Side Story is such an iconic American piece and so many know it. So many recognize it."

However, Mr. Newman has since put the work through a grueling series of revisions. "Because it was arranged for me," she said "you feel a certain responsibility. He did a whole bunch of rewrites for these concerts. This week, we are pulling the old parts the orchestra had, and printing new parts.

"Here's what's different about anything that has to do with Bernstein. The Bernstein estate owns everything. You can't just come in and do an arrangement of his music--unless you have the estate's approval. They have to be on board from Day One and they are part of the rewriting process. They want everything to be as close to the original as possible. The Bernstein estate wants it to portray Bernstein in the best way possible."

"In most cases in this piece the violin has the vocal line, but David has made it very virtuosic--keeping it exciting as a violin piece but finding the balance as well." (The Newman version is based more on the stage musical than the film.) "The play has a lot of beautiful songs that are cut out of the movie. There's a ballet section in the play, and I asked David to include that in the Suite because I love it. It really has been sort of personalized to my character."

"What I love about David's writing is that David himself is a violinist. He knows the instrument very well and he comes from a huge Hollywood composing family. He's been immersed in Bernstein, and he's the approved composer-conductor by the Bernstein estate.

"He went all out. I wanted something that was a showstopper: full of fireworks and not just lyrical from beginning to end. He made it into a violinistic piece and that's part of the challenge. I know in my head its a vocal piece but  at the back of your head you still have to remember that  it cant all be about finger work--its a love story."
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.