Former child wonder here to show classical music is alive and kicking

When she takes the stage, the first impression is of a slight, charming young woman from South Korea, but as soon as she takes up her cello she is transformed. Watching the expressions that cross her face, the passion and the pain, one gets the impression that she and her cello are one, that she is lost in the passion she engenders. A former child wonder, 26-year-old Han-Na Chang continues to amaze, and will no doubt do so tonight at the Athens Concert Hall in her recital of works by Vivaldi. Discovered by the great Mstislav Rostropovich, who conducted her recordings of Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens and Faure, Chang has worked with other great names such as Giuseppe Sinopoli and Lorin Maazel. She has an exclusive contract with EMI and her interpretation of Prokofiev’s «Sinfonia Concertante» has won major international prizes. Since 2001 she has been studying philosophy at Harvard, a subject she chose because of her longstanding interest in «the endless flow of human thought.» «It is amazing how philosophy has influenced human life, even though our way of life has changed so much. The questions raised by the philosophers have not changed so much, yet they act upon us, they change us. As Maestro Sinopoli told me, music is the most important thing in the life of a musician, but it should not be the only thing. If you are an artist, the world of art is so large that it is impossible to ignore it. A musician has to share so many thoughts and feelings with his public that after every life performance he has to recharge his mind. The true greats, like Gould, Kleiber and Bernstein, teach us that music is an unceasing search for the deeper self and that moment of deeper truth on stage.» The fact that in recent years the Far East has produced a new generation of exceptional interpreters of Western music «shows that music is ecumenical. Nationality is not so important, since music appeals to the most basic elements in man.» Chang may have been a wunderkind, but she has moved on since then. «The cello was a present from my parents when I started school. I am an only child and my parents wanted music to accompany me throughout my life. When I began to make progress, I became more serious about the sounds I was making and wanted to play better. That was an incentive for me to continue to practice and improve. Then in 1994 I took part in the Rostropovich competition in Paris, which is held every four years. We played in front of Rostropovich, who awarded me the first prize. That is how my career began. I was very lucky because I had teachers like Rostropovich, Mischa Maisky, Sinopoli and Maazel, who are all musicians and artists… not just machines that give concerts. So my years as a ‘wunderkind’ were spent working with great artists and at the same time going to school like all the other children of my age.» Her first meeting with Rostropovich was at the age of 10. «He wanted me to know that I was the only cellist whom he himself had conducted on a recording. It is only today that I realize how lucky I am and at the same time how important it was for him. My best memory from the recording of that album was when ‘Slava’ had a sip of my hot chocolate to make sure it didn’t have any vodka in it!» For Chang, Vivaldi represents the «liveliness of harmony and rhythm.» «It is in the colors and forms that he creates. Also, the small orchestra needed for a Vivaldi concerto – a small ensemble of strings and harpsichord that improvises during the solo – creates an immediacy between the cello and the orchestra. Each concerto lasts about 10 minutes, so we will perform three of them.» Chang is not at all pessimistic about the future of classical music. «I have heard people say that classical music is dying. Still, it has survived for the past 300 years and continues to move people, even though there have been huge changes in thought, politics, our mentality and way of life and that is no coincidence, I think. What is important is that my generation of musicians touches our public, and that we don’t just appear when the spotlight is on us, showing us as inaccessible. I truly believe that an artist has a social role to play, to offer the world experiences that under normal circumstances are not part of daily life. That is precisely why, at this stage of my life, I am organizing televised concerts for Korean children, introducing them to Beethoven’s nine symphonies to make them realize that classical music is something exciting, that it has passion. I think that if we can find out how people can enjoy classical music more, then it will become more popular.» Han-Na Chang is to perform three concertos for violoncello by Antonio Vivaldi today at the Athens Concert Hall at 8.30 p.m. Accompanied by the Camerata Orchestra of the Friends of Music conducted by Christopher Warren-Green. Also on the program is Michael Tippett’s «Little Music» and Charles Hubert Parry’s «An English Suite.» Athens Concert Hall, 1 Kokkali & Vas. Sofias, tel 210.728.2333.