Violinist Sarah Chang is back where it all started

Former child prodigy Sarah Chang first performed with Boulder Philharmonic at age 8

Sarah Chang

Sarah Chang is happy to be back in Boulder.

The violinist appears Saturday, Jan. 12, with the Boulder Philharmonic and conductor Michael Butterman, performing the warmly lyrical violin concerto of American composer Samuel Barber.

The Boulder Philharmonic holds special meaning for Chang because it was the first professional orchestra she performed with, shortly before her career-making debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 8.

“I have such a fond place in my heart for Boulder,” she says. “The orchestra and the audience gave me an opportunity when I was ridiculously young and before I had made my name in the music industry. It’s easy to book an artist when she’s already established, has made recordings, and has performed with the world’s top orchestras. Boulder gave me a chance before all that other stuff happened for me, so I am eternally grateful to the city.”

After that Boulder concert and her New York Philharmonic debut, Chang seems to have sailed smoothly into a professional career.

“It’s been seamless,” Butterman observes. “Her presence on the scene has not waned at all.”

In that respect, Chang is very different from the child prodigies who get an early start but stumble on the way to a grownup career. “I feel very fortunate that I made that child-prodigy-to-adult-professional transition as painlessly as I could have hoped,” she says.

“I have always loved being a musician, and I love that the classical music industry is a very honest and fair profession. You don’t lip sync, you don’t have smoke machines or lighting effects. There’s only so much that great marketing can do for a classical musician, you can try to fluff it up and do provocative photo shoots, but it all comes down to whether or not you can deliver when you’re on stage.”

On Saturday, Chang will aim to deliver one of the more unusual concertos in the violinist’s repertoire.

“I think the Barber Concerto comes off as two pieces,” Butterman says. “It comes off as the first two movements, which are rather lyrical, harmonically pretty lush and basically neo-Romantic. And then you’ve got the last movement, which is almost like an appendix.

“It’s just relentless. Right from the start it goes, and it keeps the same tempo, boom, all the way to the end.”

One piece or two, Chang has no reservations. “It’s such a beautiful concerto. It’s fairly new for me; I’m absolutely in love with the concerto.”

The rest of the program is taken by a single piece, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4. A late Romantic composer about a generation ahead of Mahler, Bruckner was a disciple of Wagner, who wrote symphonies known for long melodic lines, powerful rhythmic drive and a big orchestral sound.

Butterman says he has long wanted to perform a Bruckner symphony, but they don’t always fit into the orchestra’s programs. “The last time the orchestra played Bruckner was probably in the late ’80s,” he says, adding with a chuckle, “so it comes along a little more often than Halley’s comet.

“I’m hopeful that there will be a fair bit of curiosity — not that Bruckner’s an unknown composer — just because one doesn’t hear it played all that often.”

Butterman has some pointers for anyone who has not heard a Bruckner symphony since the ’80s — more recent than Halley’s comet, for sure, but still quite a while. For one thing, Bruckner’s music does not move at what he calls the “rapid, short-attention-span pace that marks so much of modern culture.” Instead “it unfolds as it unfolds, which is to say, somewhat slowly, somewhat hesitatingly.

“People have to suspend their frantic brainwave patterns that we get tuned into, and kind of go into a different rhythm for an hour or so.”

The second point is that Bruckner was an organist by training, and he wrote for the orchestra like a large organ — with sudden and distinct changes from one group of sounds to another, like changing stops on the organ.

“You really hear the instrumental families segregated, the reeds and the brasses and the strings operating independently,” Butterman explains.

“Another thing is the abrupt dynamic changes, as if you have the whole [organ sounding], and then you lift up off the pedal and you’re just on [the softer stops of the organ].”

Butterman expects the audience will be happy to welcome Bruckner back to Boulder. “All of his music is approachable,” he says. “There’s a lot of things to hang your hat on.”

And even though he’s not here to tell us, I’m guessing that Bruckner — just like Sarah Chang — is equally happy to be back in Boulder.

The Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra and violinist Sarah Chang will perform Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 (“Romantic”) at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 12 in Macky Auditorium on the CU campus. See


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