Introducing Jessica Chang!

Photo by Pete Checchia.

What’s your name?

Jessica T. Chang. The “T” always surprises people because the use of middle initials can seem extraneous, but growing up, I knew at least five people named “”Jessica Chang.”” At visits to the dentist and optometrist, there would always be multiple files for the same name, which gets confusing. That’s why I usually include my middle initial.

Where are you from?

I’m Taiwanese-American– my parents are natives of Taipei, Taiwan, and I grew up in sunny Saratoga, California, about an hour south of San Francisco. As a kid, I spent many summers in Taiwan with my family, cousins, and relatives, and consequently, I speak fluent Mandarin Chinese. Since moving to the East Coast in 2004, I’ve been on the hunt for adequate supplies of sunshine and greenery to feed my inner Californian. It’s always been my dream to live in California, but I’ve loved living in New Haven, Philadelphia, and presently, New York City.

How did you come to the viola?

I can trace my musical interests back to my mom’s love for music. As a college student in Taiwan, my mom played the pipa in an orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments. Sadly, her pipa was destroyed en route while immigrating to the States in the 1980s. When my family settled in the California, my mom began lessons on the guzheng, or Chinese harp. I was a very jealous six-year old, and probably too small to be such a large instrument, but I really wanted to learn how to play! I began learning alongside my mom by picking out notes by ear. Soon, I began private lessons, and would continue to play through high school. A few years later, my older sister began lessons on the cello. I was fascinated by the sound, and even more so by its depth and richness after my sister bought me a CD from the local record store. It was Nobuko Imai’s album “Viola Bouquet”. I was pretty misinformed– I didn’t know how to properly pronounce “viola” (I thought it was “vai-oh-lah”), but I knew I loved the sound! I would fall asleep every night listening to the CD, which must have driven my family crazy. I began to study privately, and joined my middle school orchestra. From there, I played in youth orchestra and with my high school orchestra until I matriculated at Yale for my undergraduate studies. Playing chamber music only reinforced my love of the viola, its sound, and its role within an ensemble. If I didn’t play viola, I probably wouldn’t be a musician at all, so that’s a pretty deep love for alto clef!

Are you a Juilliard student?  Were you?  Or do you now work as part of the studio?

I’m in my first year of the MM program at Juilliard. It’s a wonderful privilege to be studying with Ms. Castleman and Mr. Tenenbom.

Tell us about one of your favorite performances?

One of my favorite performances was performing Schoenberg’s “Verklaerte Nacht” at the Perlman Music Program Chamber Music Workshop in August 2011. I was excited to be performing with incredibly inspiring colleagues, but little did we know that there would be a torrential downpour over the performance tent when the concert began. As we began playing, the combination of the unrelenting rain and Shelter Island crickets transported me into Richard Dehmel’s poem itself. The remainder of the performance was incredibly special for me—by the time we reached the hallowed, starry ending, the rainstorm had cleared. I don’t think I will forget the transformational effect that music and nature created that night.

If you could perform any viola piece, what would it be?

If I could perform any viola piece, I’d be excited to work on the viola transcriptions of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

If you could play any non-viola piece, what would it be?

If I could play any non-viola piece, I’d play the Copland Clarinet Concerto—one of my favorites for many years for its atmosphere, spirit, and heart.

Who made your viola and how did you get to be the one playing it?

I play a 15.75” viola by Tetsuo Matsuda (Barrington, IL) that was completed in December 2010. I was fortunate to purchase the instrument from Mr. Matsuda himself. I’m the first person to have owned the instrument. There are days that my viola and I get along, and then there are days where we fight— I feel like we still have a long way to grow together!

Do you have any secret skills?

I make a mean strawberry-mango smoothie (so good that I’ve broken five blenders in recent memory…)

You are forced by the United States Government to not practice for a day.  What do you do with yourself?

I would tackle the first three things on my free-time-wish-list: 1) visit the Bronx Zoo; 2) paint (acrylics/oils); and 3) bake a cake.

Do you have a website?


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