Sarah Chang and Chloë Hanslip: From one prodigy to another

There may be six years and an ocean between them, but the violin virtuosi Sarah Chang and Chloë Hanslip have much in common, not least their prodigious beginnings. Michael Church meets them and compares notes
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Both were born with a preternatural gift for the violin; both have been driven by fanatically determined parents; and both were blessed by Yehudi Menuhin. There may be six years between them, and their origins may lie far apart, but the impulse to compare the Korean-American Sarah Chang to Britain's Chloë Hanslip is irresistible - particularly since they're performing on adjacent nights this week.

Grabbing her fiddle at two, Hanslip was, by all accounts, faster off the mark, but the accolade that Menuhin bestowed on the nine-year-old Chang is still extraordinary: "Sarah is the most wonderful, the most perfect, the most ideal violinist I have ever heard." The debut album she made at that age included the usual virtuoso stuff by Sarasate and Paganini, but the way she played it was anything but usual. Comparing her sound with vintage recordings of the boy Menuhin, critics were forced to conclude that she really was his successor, with the same authority and purity of tone. Hanslip's debut album also contains Sarasate and Paganini, and it, too, radiates masterly assurance, if of a more Romantic cast.

Moreover, they've both faced the same challenges: to escape from prodigy-land into musical adulthood, and to find a path through showbiz that leaves their artistic integrity intact. The 17-year-old Hanslip has dealt triumphantly with the first of these, but it's too early to say how she'll cope with the second. Having successfully negotiated all the pitfalls to date, the 23-year-old Chang seems armour-plated: I've watched her progress over the past decade, and am still both charmed and mystified.

Chang's parents - both musicians - bought her a one-16th-size fiddle when she was four; her father taught her for two years, then sent her to study at the Juilliard School. The 13-year-old whom I encountered was so self-possessed that her chaperoning father seemed superfluous: when I asked him questions, she got in first with answers on his behalf. She played a straight bat to all questions about her art, on occasion clarifying them first. "Admiring and liking are quite different things," she snapped, when I'd asked if she was ever forced to play things she didn't like or admire. Did her chronological immaturity feel like an impediment? "No. Some people say you must first experience life, but I don't think so. You just have to be born with musicality." But she was a diplomat to her fingertips: not a negative word about anything, not even about the music she didn't like. A perfect player, perfectly attuned to a perfect world; a conundrum.

When I met her again six years later - father still hovering - that cool control was unchanged, but she did let slip one revealing remark: "I was always the cute new face on the block. I was always longing for someone younger than me to appear, so that I'd finally feel human." I also sensed an overriding concern to resist the pressures towards crossover - "I have made it very clear what I'm not prepared to do" - and to stay true to her classical heroes.

The poised woman that I encounter now - minus father - has struck a remarkable balance between the demands of showbiz and high art. In Fire & Ice, recorded under Placido Domingo's orchestral baton, she delivers Bach, Sarasate and Ravel with exquisite refinement, while her new CD this month revisits turn-of-the-century Paris. But what really excites her at present is the prospect of becoming the violin's Sarah Brightman - starring in a new orchestral version of The Phantom of the Opera. "The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber will have the Phantom's lines, and I will have Christina's. So far, I've shied away from any sort of crossover, but I looked at the score, and for once I thought, this is really cool. And I've always been a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber." Not a cut-price Puccini? "No! An absolute genius."

She's equally happy to endorse the products of Movado, alongside Pete Sampras and Wynton Marsalis: "Movado make gorgeous watches, but what drew me into their campaign was that they support the arts, and I later discovered that they'd supported a lot of my concerts." (So that was a favour accidentally repaid.) She is also looking in other directions, agreeing, for example, to play her fiddle in a dance piece with American Ballet Theatre at the New York Met. "We always take ourselves too seriously, and I'm bound to fall flat on my face. But if I'm going to do that, I'd better do it at the Met."

She has often told me that she isn't ready to record Bach: when will that moment come? "When I see my first grey hair." What is she waiting for? "Absolute peace in my life. I'm very aware of the musical maturity he demands." So what advice would she give to younger fiddlers? A modest disclaimer, then: "The main thing is to play for yourself - not to please someone else. When you go out on stage, ask yourself, 'Do I like being up here?'." And if the answer is no? She laughs. "Then you're in a little bit of trouble!"

No danger of that with Chloë Hanslip, a 5ft bundle of energy - on very high heels - who is delivered for interview by the parents who have reshaped their lives to accommodate her talent. Hanslip fields my questions like a tennis player at the net: three times her voice temporarily rises to a squeak when a volley catches her off-balance, but this 50-minute interview is as confidently polished as any of her performances on stage. Her Wigmore concert this week will include works by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Ysaÿe, but she's also looking forward to touring Philip Glass's Violin Concerto round Europe with the Czech Philharmonic, and to starring with Bryn Terfel in "Chloë's Concert" - to benefit the Great Ormond Street Hospital - at the Royal Albert Hall. "I love doing things for charity," she says. This is still almost a child, eager and ingenuous, but you sense an almost political canniness as well; she feels "very comfortable" doing TV breakfast shows to promote her concerts. The ceaseless jetting around is "fantastic", as is the whole process of marketing. "I'm very happy with all aspects of my life. All I have to do is go with the flow."

She has always had top-notch tuition. Menuhin taught her about posture; Zakhar Bron, with whom she still studies, grounded her technique; Ida Haendel "taught me the importance of being myself, and being true to the composer"; a lesson with Maxim Vengerov - as part of a film entitled Can You Make A Genius? - dwelt on the importance of colour as well as line. She doggedly remakes her genius by practising six hours a day whenever she's at home in Camberley. Is that tiring? "Not at all. Having spent the past eight years studying with the Russian school, I've learned to concentrate for long periods of time."

When she was eight, her mother took her to study with Bron in Germany, where she spent the next three years. Her schooling there didn't work out - her voice goes up, when I ask if that was traumatic - and her subsequent schooling back home has been largely private-tutorial. Were her parents too pushy? "The pushiness is all mine. My parents are fantastic, the best in the world. We work as a team with my manager." When she was 13, she got a contract with Warner, which ditched her after two records. Did that hurt? (Voice up:) "Um. I was sad that I couldn't make the next record, but they had financial constraints. But people say that difficulties can prove to be opportunities. So I'm looking on it as a positive experience." Has she another label in view? "We're in talks."

Her work with Terfel and her new friend Sir John Tavener is now carrying her into showbiz, where last year she made her mark by winning a Classical Brit. What's her opinion of those awards? "They're a wonderful way of bringing classical music to a wider public." But some of them aren't even classical! "That's not for me to comment on." She's a voracious reader, with intellectual tastes, but she's also keen to convince me of her ordinariness. "I'm a typical teenager. Though there aren't many discos in Camberley, I love them. I'm a shopaholic for shoes and bags. I love going to the cinema, and messaging my friends online. I also just happen to be a violinist."

And a very fine one, too. Concert halls are where she's happiest: "Having that adrenalin rush, getting on stage to make beautiful music with 70 other people." And no nerves? "Just good ones, just the right amount to play well." Yes, she passes Sarah Chang's key test.

Sarah Chang's tour begins in Dublin on Wednesday, then visits Reading, Birmingham, Sheffield and Southend. Chloë Hanslip plays the Wigmore Hall, London WC1 (020-7935 2141) tomorrow, 7.30pm. 'Chloë's Concert': Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212), 30 May