Jan. 11 2017 11:53 AM

Sarah Chang and Andrew von Oeyen bring star power to Prague Philharmonia tour

Violinist Sarah Chang (left) and Andrew von Oeyen, piano, supply the star power for the Prague Philharmonia’s visit to the Wharton Center next week.
Left: Photo courtesy of EMI Right: Courtesy photo

The rare pairing of two major soloists on the Prague Philharmonia’s Jan. 18 concert at the Wharton Center makes you wonder: Have the classical poobahs resorted to throwing multiple stars on the same bill to rake in extra bucks, à la “Batman v Superman”?

Judging by the way the night’s star attraction, violinist Sarah Chang, gushes about her colleagues, no unseemly battles are in the offing. This 10-stop tour is more like a love fest.

Chang and the tour’s other featured soloist, Paris-based pianist Andrew von Oeyen, are old friends going back to their days at the Juilliard School. They have even eaten bear meat together.

“We’ve done several recital tours together and we have a blast,” Chang said. “I’m looking forward to this tour, because it’s not just work.”

Chang will play Antonín Dvorák’s epic violin concerto, one of the biggest and grandest in the repertoire, while von Oeyen tears into Felix Mendelssohn’s live-wire, razzledazzle piano concerto. The conductor, Emmanuel Villaume, has worked with both artists (and is a “riot” to hang out with, according to Chang).

Chang credits von Oeyen with pulling her off the airport-to-concert hall-to-hotel room hamster wheel touring musicians easily fall into. On a recent stop in Moscow, von Oeyen coaxed her out of her hotel room into the Russian winter.

“It was so cold, it was painful to go outside,” Chang said. “The wind was excruciating.”

He dragged her to a restaurant where they served bear meat.

“You’re in Russia, you gotta do it,” he told her.

(It’s earthy, tangy, and reminiscent of yak, according to Holly Heyser of The Atlantic magazine.)

“I would have ordered room service, but he goes out there and tries new things,” Chang said.

After marinating in high culture on the stage, Chang prefers to chill out with a Hollywood blockbuster like “Iron Man 2” when she gets the chance — but not von Oeyen.

“He’d take me to French movies with subtitles,” Chang said. “He encourages you to think harder, and he’s just such a cool friend to have.”

One night, after an exhausting day of rehearsing, having seen quite a bit of von Oeyen already, Chang went back to the hotel room and saw that “The Shawshank Redemption” was on TV.

“We both love this movie,” Chang said. They got back together and watched it. “You end up spending more time together, because he’s such great company.”

Chang, 36, has come a long way since her early years as a famous, if not notorious, child prodigy. She auditioned at Juilliard at age 6, performing the Max Bruch concerto.

By the time she made her symphonic debut at age 10, critics were ready to pounce on the next insufferable child virtuoso, but they had to swallow their bile. Chang had more than technique — a luminous tone like the purple edge of a cloudbank at sunset. As the years passed, she wove that tone into darker and deeper tapestries, drawing the audience closer along the way.

In recent years, Chang has opened a new chapter in her career, traveling to Serbia, the Ukraine and South Africa as an artistic ambassador, designated by the U.S. State Department.

“Not everything we do as soloists is in a beautiful, glossy hall with crystal chandeliers and velvet seats,” she said. Chang visits rural schools in backwater towns, plays for kids and answers their questions.

“I firmly believe that music in any form has a healing effect,” Chang said. “The first time I deeply felt this was when I went to North Korea.”

In 2010, Chang played a momentous concert in Pyongyang, with a double orchestra of North and South Korean musicians. It was an profound experience for her. Chang is American, but her parents are from South Korea. Her grandparents grew up in a unified Korea “and then overnight a border was there,” Chang said.

“The concert was making a statement, not in a violent and messy way, but in a musical way, in the most poetic and most graceful way you could think of,” she said.

Although Chang has worked with nearly every major orchestra and classical artist in the world, she cherishes the few colleagues, including von Oeyen and Villaume, that she never tires of working and hanging with.

“It’s not a big circle,” she said. “You’d be amazed. You don’t find that nice balance with lot of people. But Andrew definitely has it and Emmanuel definitely has it. Emmanuel is such a rock star.”

Not to be out-gushed, von Oeyen joined the love fest, speaking from his apartment in Paris with a spectacular view of Montmartre and the basilica of Sacré-Cur. The American pianist splits his time between Paris and Southern California, where his family lives.

Von Oeyen called Chang “a dear friend and an amazing performer and Villaume “a soloist’s dream to work with.”

“He doesn’t just accompany, he’s making great music with you,” von Oeyen said. “Just last week in Jerusalem we did the Rachmaninoff Second (piano concerto) together and it was really a thrill.”

Von Oeyen, 37, is an athletic, restless performer with bracing clarity and flow, even in stormy finger-busters like the Mendelssohn concerto.

“You have to approach it with a sense of fun,” he said. “It’s a mistake to take it too seriously.”

It’s bravura stuff, but von Oeyen has played it enough times to toy with it.

“You can add a little improvisatory humor in the moment of the performance,” he said. “It’s exhilarating.” The concerto begins and ends in spumes of fireworks, with a calm idyll in the middle.

“Fortunately, the second movement allows you to show some poetry and gives you a rest,” von Oeyen said. “It’s about mood and color; it’s kind of dreamy. You can show quite a lot in 20 minutes.”

The concerto relies heavy on the strings, “and the Prague Philharmonia has an outstanding string section,” von Oeyen said. He ought to know. He made his most recent recording, concertos by Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Gershwin, with the same conductor and orchestra.

“They will have no problem finding the right color, texture and drama in Mendelssohn,” he said. “They are made to play that repertoire.”


Prague Philharmonia

With Sarah Chang, violin, and Andrew von Oeyen, piano
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18
Tickets start at $22/$18 students
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com