MUSIC / A talent with no strings attached: Yehudi Menuhin has called Sarah Chang 'the most wonderful, perfect, ideal violinist that I have ever heard'. She is 13. Now she's moved up to a full-size violin and the pressure is on

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There has to be something behind the predatory energy and precision with which she dances over mountains of notes. Perhaps it's due to the toy violin on which - with her doll-like hands - she played and made 20,000 jaws drop at the Hollywood Bowl.

That was a couple of years ago. Now she appears in a fuchsia-pink party dress and fluffy slippers. But then you remember how Solomon, Britain's great prodigy pianist, was let loose on stage with a tricycle. Like him, Sarah Chang - fresh from her 13th birthday - seems headed for a lifetime of progressively greater achievement.

Today, faced with the gruelling prospect of a day's photocalls and press interviews, she surmounts it all with charm - part of a survival-sense which needs to be wise beyond its years in a girl who is happiest with her school-friends, yet has to fax homework from an airliner.

The Barbie dolls were packed away last year, but she plays a mean game of Nintendo: 'I started three years ago,' she reveals, 'so I'm quite an expert - two or three hours a day.' Her conductors include James Levine, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Kurt Masur; her tours take her from Chicago to Tokyo. She was voted Newcomer of the Year in the 1994 International Classical Music Awards. And Yehudi Menuhin has called her 'the most wonderful, perfect, ideal violinist that I have ever heard'.

Her manager says, 'Anyone who thinks a prodigy is a hot-house iris has never met Sarah.' Still, her story is typical: a few happy accidents before the unshakeable momentum of talent was unleashed, under the careful tutelage of musical parents. Genetics? Possibly. Her brother Michael plays the piano.

Sarah can't remember a time when she couldn't play. 'My family tells me that when I was two I used to watch Tom and Jerry and then rush to the piano to tap out the tunes. But my father's a violinist.' Dr Min Soo Chang was principal with the National Symphony Orchestra of Korea, having himself discovered a fiddle at a cousin's house at the age of four. 'Before I was three,' Chang says, 'I was trying to play his violin. But it's very expensive and he didn't want me breaking it. So he got me my own, 1 32 nd size. First it was just a hobby.'

Audiences rated it differently. The leader of the local orchestra (it happened to be the Philadelphia) heard her and fixed for her to make her debut with them, aged five. Three years later she arrived in New York with Paganini's First Concerto, that confection of manic pirouettes and bravura runs which, in other hands, sounds like stratospherically drilled teeth, yet in which she found dazzling fire and zest. All the more remarkable given that she only auditioned for Zubin Mehta 48 hours before and gave the concert without any rehearsal.

Hearing of her planned Carnegie Hall debut next year, I mention the thing that terrorised Rubinstein and Horowitz: the longest walk in the world across its podium. But Chang insists she's never had stage-fright: 'It's because I enjoy myself. You know, it's fun seeing 3,000 people - and in some festivals seven times that - and it's great.' And her first time in Hollywood? 'I stood on stage and I was in awe. I'd never seen so many faces . . . And my fingers worked.'

That they did, Chang owes largely to the advocacy and protection of her mentor at Juilliard for the past seven years, the legendary Dorothy DeLay. But it isn't just against the outside world that Chang has looked to DeLay for protection. 'The Juilliard mothers are amazingly aggressive,' she says. 'And my friends there are so edgy and catty towards each other.'

It was also DeLay who gave Chang the three-quarter size violin upon which she has so far built her career. 'Ms DeLay found it in her attic, where it had been lying for 45 years.' Since then, the youngster has been swamped by offers of priceless instruments from across the world. 'At one point we had five Del Gesus in our house - and the amount of money that adds up to is scary. I've kept them all, except the ones we needed to return, and they have a room of their own. Violins are like a friend you can't bear to part with. But more special, because you spend so much time with them, and it's thanks to them that music happens.'

Her new recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto is her first on a full-size ('The Guarneri's worth millions. I can't say more'). You'd think she had played the piece for a lifetime. Yet she clearly doesn't suffer from artistic tunnel-vision. After two hours' homework, she says, she's out with her friends from Junior High, playing volleyball, soccer and roller-blading (it's a blade with wheels - 'more dangerous than a rollerskate, and more fun').

Yet one fears for any prodigy coming of age. Chang's first television appearance was as a gymnast, but sport will become forbidden territory as her hands become more valuable. 'The violin is a very good life,' she says, 'but it can't be everything.' She is already all too aware of the friends she doesn't see and the social life she is missing out on - 'the parties I can't join'. Her future recreation seems likelier to be in the role of Little Miss, performing centre-stage for grown-ups at dinner-parties. 'They can be fun. I meet very interesting people, and in that sense I'm luckier than my friends because I get two worlds.' Yet she yearns to try a motorbike - the bigger the better - 'but mom and dad are really not for that'. Here, as in her choice of concert wear, or the imminent balance of studies and boyfriends, she's still very much in parental hands.

Where she can follow her own lights is in her music-making. Critics have noted her supple changes of mood, but that's the easy bit. Aligned to this capacity to seize the moment is the sophisticated diction and finish of it all, an almost aristocratic poise that reminds one of Oscar Shumsky. Technical refinement is not an end, only a beginning; and while the notes fly past like bullets when they need to, her maturity lies in the intensity she can bring to absolute repose as much as the cohesion and sense of discovery she finds in everything she does. In a word: she lets it breathe.

'Music has its own style. It comes naturally - that's the best way. Sometimes I'm not sure when I'm starting afresh and then I listen to records. Milstein and Heifetz opened my eyes more than anyone: pure and simple, the way music should be. They're my role-models. Some artists these days, they don't use music to get popular - they use punk or whatever - and being a musician isn't really about that.'

I remark upon the stream of CDs coming from young virtuosos, each of whose machine-guns fire twice as fast as the one before. 'Anybody can become technically perfect,' she says, 'if they work hard. But being musical? That's going to be the problem of the next 10 years. Ms DeLay has always told me to play as my heart tells me.'

What about the risk of burn-out? What happens when she's played all the concertos, won all the awards? 'Well, I might find time to take the day off.' And what about being labelled a genius? 'I don't think I am. Everybody has a gift, but I worked at the violin. Even at the top you can always develop: you play with different orchestras, different conductors, and you learn from them all. Maybe in 20 years that won't be enough but for now, I'm happy.'

Sarah Chang plays the Mendelssohn Concerto: Friday 7.30pm Barbican Hall (071-638 8891), broadcast live on Radio 3

(Photograph omitted)

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