Ji-hye Chang: a piano virtuoso who speaks to the heart

Mar 13, 2007 at 9:42 pm

“When something speaks to your heart, that’s great music,” said Korean-born pianist Ji-hye Chang, who performs a program of piano scores by Grawemeyer Award-winning composers at U of L’s Comstock Recital Hall Tuesday night.

    And for Chang, great music comes from every era. As a 4-year-old child growing up in a small Korean town, she lived next door to a piano teacher — and fell in love with the sound of Beethoven. Although no one in her family played any sort of music, her mother cultivated her musical interests because “she thought it would be good for my intellectual development,” recalled Chang. By the time she was 7, her teacher recognized a special gift, and by the time she was in fifth grade, she was winning local competitions. Her mother moved with her to Seoul, where she attended arts-oriented middle and high schools, and, eventually, Seoul National University, where she graduated summa cum laude. Then she was off to Indiana University, where she earned a master’s and a doctorate in piano performance.

    Until 2003, like most performers, her repertoire focused on the great composers at the center of Western music: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin. But a composer named Garrett Byrnes — a friend of Chang’s husband, violinist Benjamin Sung — was desperately seeking someone to perform a new set of piano etudes.

    “It was a big success,” Chang  said in a telephone interview from her current base in Montgomery, Ala., where her husband is a violin fellow with the symphony orchestra. “And I discovered that it was fun. I really enjoy learning new things, and I found that playing these contemporary pieces really helped me understand the conventional stuff in a new way. When I play the contemporary pieces, I can actually talk to the composers and see what they’re really thinking and trying to accomplish. With music, you have to read so much into the score, and sometimes composers don’t quite express everything they want to hear through the score alone. So discussing things with composers gives me new ways of thinking about the other parts of my repertoire.”

    Chang didn’t set out to build a career as a specialist in contemporary music. Her commercial recordings include CDs with comforting titles like Piano for Easy Listening (Sony Korea) and Classics for Children (Seoul). And she doesn’t consider herself a specialist. But Chang’s command of contemporary vernaculars has given her opportunities to work with some of the most significant living composers, including people like George Perle (she performed Perle’s piano etudes at the Tanglewood Music Center) and John Harbison. She performed the U.S. premiere of Grawemeyer laureate Unsuk Chin’s Double Concerto for Piano and Percussion. And as a member of the Arsenal Trio, she had the rare opportunity to play six world premieres in a single evening at the 2006 University of Louisville New Music Festival. “I can’t say enough good things about the University of Louisville School of Music and Steve Rouse,” Chang said. “They make such a commitment to contemporary music. There’s great music coming from there, and as a performer I’ve been so lucky that they’ve given me some wonderful opportunities to perform.”

    But her interest in contemporary music isn’t really about building her career, she said. “It’s fun. It’s something that I find I do well. And I think it’s really important to play new music — especially good new music — so that people have an opportunity to hear and appreciate it.”

    Her all-Grawemeyer program includes works by six Grawemeyer laureates and reflects both the global reach of the award and the extraordinary range of contemporary writing for piano.

    The program includes “The Rain Tree Sketch II,” by Japanese composer Toru Takemtisu, a composer she described as “heavily influenced by French impressionism and the works of Olivier Messiaen. It’s possible to hear a lot of Zen-like space in the music, and a sensitivity that evokes Asian art — but it would be stretching it to describe this music as ‘Asian.’ This piece was written the year Messiaen passed away, and it has joyous quality that comes out in some very Messiaen-like rhythmic patterns.”

    The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho won her Grawemeyer in 2003. Her “Ballade” is very much in the 19th-century ballade tradition established by Chopin and Brahms. “Saariaho wrote this piece for Emanuel Ax, who has a wonderful recording of the earlier ballades,” said Chang. “It has a very singing feel — a fine short piece based on very simple material.”

     From a multivolume collection called “Jatekok” (“Games”) by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag, Chang plays a selection that includes titles like “Five finger quarrel” and “Tumblebunny.” Of Kurtag, she said, “I had hoped to pick some that Kurtag had recorded, so that I could get some ideas. But it turns out to be more fun this way. He gives very ambiguous directions, like ‘don’t take it seriously — but then do take it seriously.’ The pieces truly are games — though many of them, especially from the later volumes, are quite serious. Some of the scores have a sort of code, and you have to figure out things with elbows, palms, glissandi, that are a quite fun to play.”

    At the center of the program is John Corigliano’s “Etude Fantasy,” a piece that Allan Kozinn once described in The New York Times as “a powerhouse work full of demonic Lisztian thunder and daredevil technical tricks.”
    After that display of virtuosity come etudes by two of the most challenging — one might say fearsome, at least for performers — composers of the contemporary era, Unsuk Chin, a Korean who has lived in Central Europe for the last 20 years, and Gyorgy Ligeti — Chin’s teacher, and a towering figure in the world of contemporary composition.  

    “Etudes have to have one technical concern that they’re focused on,” said Chang. And that’s true in this case as well — but both these composers fuse the technical issue with very imaginative compositional ideas. There are technical challenges everywhere, but with the Ligeti, once you learn the technical issues, they become clear. But Chin is a different matter. This etude deals with scales, but she develops it into something that goes far more complicated and interesting than that. It’s certainly the most difficult piece on the program.”

    But the important thing, she reiterated, is that no matter how difficult the music, “it has to speak to the heart. That’s the same whether you’re playing Haydn or Chin. Some part of musical repertoire has always been about virtuosity and the joy of confronting physical challenges, but finding ways to speak to the heart is what all composers want to do — the composers of the past, and the composers of the present. And it’s what pianists want to do as well.”  
Contact the writer at [email protected]