The inner voice of musicians

Gifted cellist Han-Na Chang returns to the Athens Concert Hall tomorrow for a recital featuring works by Bach, Schumann, Shostakovich and Debussy. During her last visit to Athens, the 24-year-old Korean soloist proved that she was not just another child prodigy engineered by the music industry, but an exciting, up-and-coming musician. This was further confirmed during a telephone interview conducted at 7.30 a.m., New York time. Do you always wake up so early? When I’m at home, yes. Soprano Sumi Jo, your compatriot, said recently that the basic difference between herself and her Italian counterparts is that Asians work harder. Do you agree? I think that we should not generalize. I have many friends both in the United States and Europe working as hard as I am, if not harder. How did you get into classical music? My mother studied composition at college and my father is very fond of this kind of music. I was brought up listening to classical music. Later on my parents thought it would be a good idea for me to play an instrument, so I started studying the piano. They offered me a cello when I went to school. How important is classical music in Korea? As far as the middle and the upper classes are concerned, piano lessons are considered the obvious thing to do. That does not mean that all the children who start playing end up loving it, not least because teaching is very strict. I do think, however, that even this obligatory way of learning does produce some good results, as it gives children the opportunity to come into touch with a world that they wouldn’t choose on their own. Some children might even go on to find out how important music is to our intellectual balance. Do lessons suffice in order to get into the spirit of serious Western music? As far as I’m concerned, I was about 10 when I started wondering about composers. Who was this Tchaikovsky, whose music I was playing? I started reading and learning all about his tumultuous life, finding out about the Romantic movement, about the era’s mood. Later on I went in search of period paintings, garments and objects. I discovered where he had lived. This kind of research is a personal matter, it’s not taught at school. To what an extent did this knowledge affect your playing? It’s very important to be aware of historical elements, because they offer both general and specific information. But anyone could get this kind of information, through books and paintings, for example. Every single musician, however, has his or her special, inner voice and so do I: I read a score and I listen to it in my mind. I listen to it in a specific way and I want to interpret it in a specific way. Every artist is born with this «voice,» but he or she has to discover it and develop it to the point of maturity, because they depend on it. What is essential is to balance the knowledge with the personal, inner voice. In this way, every piece of information is digested and becomes part of ourselves. In Athens you will interpret a suite by Bach. Did you ever wish to play it on a historical instrument? No. I believe I’m up to date in terms of the style of historical interpretations, yet what troubles me is that no one is sure about a series of themes. Even musical terms tend to be vague and a matter of interpretation. Therefore, historically accurate readings are one version of what might have been the actual style of the period. I think, however, that complete devotion to this kind of approach is not fair on the works themselves. Especially when it comes to the cello, whose techniques developed rapidly during the 20th century. As far as I’m concerned, I would like to express all that Bach wanted to express through his music, but using all the means of expression that I possess. I don’t want to be restricted. You will also play Shostakovich. Which elements of his music do you feel more attracted to? It’s very powerful music. Shostakovich lived under horrifying circumstances. I’m referring to Stalin, of course, and the conditions imposed on artists at the time. Not just that the fact that works had to get the party’s stamp of approval, but if they didn’t, the artists’ lives as well as those of their families and friends were in danger. Despite all this, Shostakovich went on composing. All this pain and agony runs through his music. How important is recording for your career? It’s the most important part in the life of a musician. Through recordings you can reach even the most remote audience. Instead of the public coming to you, you reach out to them. Everybody has access and you can listen to music whenever and wherever you like. Also, my recordings will be around even after I die. This is why I feel a huge amount of responsibility when I go into the studio and why I don’t do it so often: only five records in the last 11 years. I want to record only when I have something to say and when the conditions are right, when I can work with specific artists. How competitive is the music world today? In the last five years there has been a lot of discussion concerning classical music’s trials and tribulations, such as low attendance at concert halls. This means that artists have to try harder if they want people to go and see them. If you expect people to drop whatever they’re doing to come to you, then you must have something to say. In this sense, the world of classical music is highly competitive. What’s more, there is a tendency to stick to what you already know. Lots of artists are afraid of losing their public and so they don’t move on to something new. How hard is it to travel constantly at such a young age? Though I have been traveling over the last 11 years, in contrast to some of my colleagues, I limit my appearances to 50 a year. Rostropovich advised me to do so. It’s a blessing not to have to go on stage every single night, because in this way I have time to think about what I’m doing, how I’d like to interpret the piece the next time. Time also allows for maturity. Every time you go back to a piece of work you feel you’d like to get to know it better. It’s very important to keep moving, not to rest on your laurels. Athens Concert Hall, 1 Kokkali & Vas. Sofias, tel 210.728.2333. This interview was translated from the Greek text.

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