It’s March 8, 2018 — the day after a powerful Nor’easter complete with thundersnow knocked out power lines and left Morristown, NJ, with over a foot of snow!
Making our way through the doors of Morristown’s gem of a theater — the Mayo Performing Arts Center — we immediately forget about the wintery conditions outside and enjoy the warmth of the venue’s glittering lobby, complete with bar, concessions, and a display recounting the history of this state-of-the-art performance space.
Originally, the Mayo PAC was one of over 40 Walter Reade movie theaters built throughout the Garden State in the 1930s during the “golden age” of Hollywood. Known then as the Community Theatre, the venue opened in 1937, and quickly became “the” place to see a Hollywood film — a fashionable movie house where men were actually required to wear ties to gain admission!
Left in disrepair during the 1980s, the structure was ultimately restored and, in 1994, reopened as a concert venue. Following multiple improvements over the years, in July 2016, the Mayo PAC earned the distinction of being named an Outstanding Historic Theatre by the League of Historic American Theatres.
These days, Mayo PAC presents over 200 performances to over 200,000 patrons each year, providing the best in culture and entertainment including everything from rock to Bach. Tonight’s program is no exception; it’s a program entitled Viva Piazzolla starring classical music violin sensation Sarah Chang.
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Sarah Chang was born in Philadelphia and raised in Cherry Hill and Voorhees Township, NJ. She is the daughter of a composer and a violinist/music teacher who came to the United States from South Korea.
Chang’s mother taught Sarah to play one-finger melodies on the piano at the age of three and, at four, she began to study the violin. By the time she was five, Sarah had already started performing with orchestras in the Philadelphia area, and at six, started studying privately with Isaac Stern, continuously visiting his studio over the years to learn new pieces with him.
When she was eight, Chang auditioned for conductors including Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti, which led to engagements with organizations including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. At the age of ten, she recorded her first album, Debut, for EMI Classics, a recording which climbed the Billboard chart of classical best-sellers.
Chang went on to study at Julliard and eventually became recognized as one of the most captivating young artists in the classical music universe. In 2006, Newsweek magazine ranked her as one of the Top Eight Achieving Females in the United States, an honor which prompted her to remark, “I think having a career at such an early age kept me focused. I felt so grounded and so grateful to already know what it was that I wanted to do with my life.”
Excited about the prospect of getting to hear Chang in this top-drawer recital hall, we enter the auditorium doors and we are immediately struck by the maroon velvet draperies with gold fringe and tassels that adorn the walls, in addition to the gold columns and gold accents that line the ceiling. We also notice the matching maroon seats — every one of which offers an unobstructed view of the spacious stage in this beautifully restored performance space.
Soon, the lights dim and Sarah Chang takes center stage, looking stunning in her deep green gown as a quintet of young musicians including Adam Millstein and Brandon Garbot on violin, Xinyi Xu on viola, Christine Lamprea on cello, and Nathan Farrington on bass — take their places around her.
Opening with “Chaconne” by Vitali, the music flows from the talented fingers and bows of Sarah Chang and this extraordinary sextet of musicians.
Gentle pizzicato plucking of the strings accompanies the intricate runs so exquisitely played by Chang on her violin. The musicians move with their instruments to the dynamic lull and swell of their strings. Each instrumentalist plays his or her own part, either echoing a collegues’ part melodically or rhythmically, playing together synchronistically, or playing one of several independent lines that come together to support Chang’s magnificent lead.
By the end of the piece, the audience erupts in applause and the musicians break out into enormous smiles, clearly expressing joy and pride on a job well done!
As the audience continues to clap, Chang leaves the stage and reenters smiling, taking the microphone to greet this crowd of all ages.
“Thank you so much for braving the storm,” exclaims Chang, acknowledging, “We, too, braved the storm! Half of the musicians came here from Philadelphia yesterday — taking nine hours to travel what should have taken two hours,” before joking, “We watched a lot of Netflix!”
At this point, Chang introduces her young musical colleagues, several of whom are current or former students at Philadelphia’s revered Curtis Institute of Music. Then, together, Chang and the sextet perform several excerpts from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”
With violins sweetly singing like birds, the musicians conjure images of spring, playing light as air. Then, creating a storm sound, bows fly as Chang’s expressive face is illuminated by the sound.
Soon, the music changes mood to a soft floating melody which is underscored by Xinyi Xu’s viola. Chang arches her back as she plays, her violin subtly leading her body with the music.
Tremelo bows saw frantically yet effortlessly — the musicians’ hair flying as they perform notes so quickly that ears can barely discern them, even though each one is distinct and important!
During a pause between movements, the musicians take a moment to catch their breaths and prepare for the next segment, suggesting how each movement of this well-known piece can provide its own technical challenges for a group to masterfully execute.
The next segment features interplay between Chang’s violin and Christine Lamprea’s cello. Chang conducts the group with her bow as she plays, the musicians watching and following her lead — whether it includes a slight lift of her bow before an attack, or listening to her dynamic level and appropriately matching it. Playing with emotion, Chang artfully executes the precision fingerings and runs the piece requires with ease and grace, her fingers dancing all over and around the fingerboard.
Even though it’s not the conclusion of the number, some in the audience start to applaud anyway!
After commencing the next movement, the group abruptly stops and Chang jokes to the crowd, “This is the most popular ‘mother of the bride walk-down-the-aisle piece,’ so Adam is a little excited.”
Here, with a laugh, violinist Adam Millstein apologizes for starting a little early, and the group begins again.
As they play, one cannot help but thinking that even though Sarah Chang is one of the world’s preeminent violinists, she is such a warm and down-to-earth person, she makes classical music easy for anyone to love. Her grace, poise, and talent flow effortlessly through her instrument and out to the audience in the form of consistent world-class musical performances.
Notes hanging in the air, Chang turns to communicate silently with her stagemates as their music dances its way through to the conclusion of the piece.
The musicians smile and hug as the audience rises to its feet. Then, they take leave of the stage with their instruments before returning for a bow.
Following a short intermission, Chang returns in a stunning magenta strapless gown. Accompanied by her quintet, she and the musicians launch into an exciting and rhythmic piece by Piazzolla entitled “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.”
Starting off with Nathan Farrington’s slapping and sliding on the strings of his bass, Chang joins in sliding dissonantly on her violin.
In contrast to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Piazzolla’s rhythms of South America shine through in this piece.
As the musicians play, the viola and accompanying violinists take turns sliding on the strings, emulating the eerie sound of a theremin under Chang’s slipping and sliding. Chang also scratches on her strings to create unique abrasive sounds as Farrington plucks and bows his bass.
Christine Lamprea is featured on a solo in which she appears to bend the sound of her cello until Farrington reenters plucking his bass. The other instrumentalists listen and watch until it is their turn to add to the layers of sound. Eventually, the music takes off in another direction, each musician’s individual contribution mesmerizing for this audience to hear and appreciate.
Alternating between a Latin and jazz-influenced feel, Farrington slides on his strings and taps his bass while Chang’s gorgeous violin tone wafts above. Sometimes Chang softly appears to sing along as she plays, her expressive face looking sad when the music turns mournful and intent when it turns intense, always communicating with her fellow musicians and the audience through her facial expressions in addition to her posture.
Expertly executing the quick pizzicato, Chang becomes one with the music. Knowing how her part compliments the other parts, she leads the group to a captivating conclusion!
The audience members on their feet applauding, Chang again hugs her musical collegues before accepting a gift of a large bouquet of flowers from an appreciative fan in the crowd!
As we make our way out of the auditorium and back into the Mayo PAC lobby, we chat with several members of the crowd who comment on tonight’s Viva Piazzolla performance by Sarah Chang.
States Louis from Staten Island, “I loved this concert. It was beautiful,” before noting, “and Sarah Chang really seemed to enjoy herself, too!”
Comments Ken from Denville, “I’m so glad that, despite the weather, Sarah Chang persevered and came to perform for us. It was wonderful to see her here in New Jersey,” recalling, “This is my third time seeing her! My wife and I even brought our two daughters with us tonight and they loved it, too.”
Ken’s wife, Janice, a string teacher, says, “This concert was outstanding — Sarah Chang is just phenomenal! I’ve seen her play many times, and her sound has matured over the years,” before concluding, “Her playing is just divine!”
Carrie, a teenager from Rockaway comments, “This concert was fantastic. I loved watching Sarah play! She’s so beautiful when she performs, and I was so impressed that she played the entire concert from memory.”
Carrie’s friend, Anne from Parsippany, remarks, “Sarah Chang was awesome! I love how she moves when she plays — her face is so expressive — it really made the music come alive.”
Marie from Morristown, agrees, adding, “I loved Sarah Chang’s concert tonight. It really amazes me how she and the other young musicians can play off one another the way they do. To me, there’s nothing like experiencing great music live — especially when getting a chance to enjoy it in a venue as exquisite as Mayo PAC!”
Lastly, Marie’s husband, Michael, says, “Sarah Chang and her colleagues were just great tonight. I loved the Piazzolla piece — I hope that Sarah will record it! And I also loved that the audience was composed of people of all different ages. I’m especially happy to see so many parents bringing their children to a classical music concert. For me, it reinforces the fact that quality classical music can truly appeal to everyone!”
For more information on Sarah Chang, please go to sarahchang.com. To learn more about upcoming concerts at Mayo PAC — including the New Jersey Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel on March 25, the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra on April 7, Itzhak Perlman on April 21, and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra presents Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto featuring Nina Feng, violin on May 6 — please go to mayoarts.org.Photos by Love Imagery
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