Conductor Han-Na Chang discusses the major influence of great artists such as Mischa Maisky, Mstislav Rostropvich and Giuseppe Sinopoli, and passes on her own advice to the next generation of musicians
What support do young artists need from the people around them at a young age?
For me, having wonderful mentors was particularly great during my childhood and youth. They each had different advice to give, but it all came down to taking the time to grow and mature, being curious about – and studying broadly – the humanities, and not missing out on my childhood. To the young artists of today – especially as the pace of sharing content has become even faster with social media – I would say they need the people around them to acknowledge their need for the space and time to develop and grow at their own pace, to find their own individual voice.
Obviously, an artist never stops learning and growing, but as one gets older, it becomes clearer and easier to prioritise your various goals. A career in music is not a race and music is never merely a career. Music is a whole life – your life – and it is important that you continue to fulfil your own potential and dreams to the maximum. That said, everyone has a different idea of an ‘ideal’ life as a musician, so at the end of the day, as long as you are happy, then everything is probably going right!
What have been the most important moments of your career?
My parents decided to move as a family from South Korea to the US when I turned ten so that I could continue my musical studies at the pre-college division of Juilliard, and also have more experience of the classical music world. Without a doubt, their commitment to furthering my musical studies changed my life entirely.
Meeting Mischa Maisky was one of the best things that happened to me. I was ten at the time and was very fortunate to study with him in Siena for three summers, as well as in Verbier and privately, on numerous occasions. He was so generous with his time, and sincere in caring for my talent. This period is etched on my mind as the most intensive and happy learning phase of my entire life. Mischa was the first teacher to ingrain in me the essential importance of the composer and the score – in the end, how you interpret is up to you, but everything must start from the composer and the score. I may not have understood everything he was teaching me when I was ten, but it continues to feed me to this day.
Following two summers with Mischa, I went to play at the Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris in 1994. Naturally, my childhood dream was to meet and play for the great Rostropovich, whose recordings always inspired me so much, and in order to meet him I had to participate in his competition – he was so busy and there was no other way of approaching him. He awarded me first prize and my life completely changed, with management, concerts and a recording contract, but what I cherish most about studying with Slava is his indomitable passion for life and music. Everything he did, he did with conviction, all of his being and his tremendously palpable love for music.
The experience that changed the course of my life was during my late teenage years, just before and during university, while I was studying the scores of great symphonies – Beethoven, Mahler and Bruckner in particular. The last two featured frequently in the second halves of my concerts with Giuseppe Sinopoli, and after having played a concerto in the first half, I would sit in the audience during the symphony, simply awestruck.
I had ‘known’ (or so I thought) the music of Beethoven’s nine symphonies since my childhood, through listening to recordings, but one day, when I was steeped in his scores, my ears and eyes suddenly opened to this miraculous and greatest music. Suddenly, it spoke directly to me in such a powerful and personal way. It was an awakening. This music was simply the most important thing that could happen in my life. This led to me emailing James DePreist, who at the time was the Conducting Chair at Juilliard, and I started studying conducting with him. That was the beginning of my new life as a conductor.
How useful has your Philosophy degree been to your music? Should musicians study academic subjects?
Slava Rostropovich was the first person to tell me that I should go to a normal school, have normal friends who did not study music, and never perform more than four concerts a month. I still have the sheet of paper on which he wrote down all the things he thought were important for me to follow (along with the scale and arpeggio exercises with three different fingering options for each major and minor mode, to be practised every morning, like ‘brushing your teeth’). He said he didn’t want me to repeat the mistakes he had made. At the time, I took it as normal that he should tell me such things, but in hindsight I realise how fortunate I was that such a great artist took such a warm interest in helping to guide my growth as a musician. After the competition, from time to time, he would call me out of the blue, and tell me where to come for how many days, to play which pieces for him. This took me all over the world, including to Moscow, St Petersburg, Washington, DC, and London.
The decision to go to a normal liberal arts university was influenced by one of my great mentors, Giuseppe Sinopoli. As an academic himself, he took an interest in my academic studies, and he gave me volumes of Chinese poetry and Japanese paintings (to help me ‘not forget my oriental background’, he wrote on the first page) and huge books of essays on German Romanticism (‘to help prepare for Schumann Cello Concerto’), that are among my greatest treasures. They always remind me that music encompasses all of humanity, the arts, and ultimately life itself.
What advice do you give to young musicians?
Don’t forget the first love you had for music – let music alone be your guiding force, always. I try to share with them everything that I learnt from my mentors – sometimes specifics but other times the big gist of it. What most moved me in my childhood was the love and care, and the deep interest that I felt my mentors had in my growth as a musician. I find that as a conductor, it’s too easy to be buried under so many scores and not have time for anything else, but a musician is a thinker, dreamer, visionary, historian, philosopher. All of life is in music. So I try to share with young musicians how I feel about music.