January 2008 Issue
Cleveland State University Professor and Grammy Award-winner Angelin Chang credits a beloved mentor for her success.
As she settled into the seat next to her parents at the Staples Center in Los Angeles last February for the 49th annual Grammy Awards, Chang pinched herself in disbelief. The Cleveland State University associate professor of music had spent the weekend hobnobbing with recording artists ranging from soul-music legend Ike Turner to alternative-rock star Imogen Heap.
Now, the moment she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about for two months had arrived: the announcement of the Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra. Her piano presentation of Olivier Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (Exotic Birds), recorded with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, was among the nominees.
“Throughout the evening, I was engaged in a tangled mental tug-of-war,” Chang recalls today. “First, I’d think, ‘It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s just great to be here,’ followed by ‘What if it does happen?’ followed by ‘It probably won’t happen,’ followed by ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ followed by ‘Oh no. If I win, I’ll have to say something.’”
She did receive the coveted prize –– and the speech that followed was heartfelt.
To Chang, composer Messiaen was not only a groundbreaking musician who incorporated the sounds of nature into his works before his death in 1992. He was also a beloved mentor who taught her how to embrace the beauty of music.
“I would have to say that being able to pay tribute to your professor –– the person who has given you so much –– really means a lot,” Chang says softly. She’s perched on a stool next to the Steinway grand piano that, along with a Yamaha, occupies half her office space at CSU. “It’s really beyond words to me.”
Chang’s introduction to the piano was, she says, clearly a diversionary tactic devised by her parents to quiet their 4-year-old daughter. The Muncie, Indiana, family was attending a formal dinner party, and as the adults conversed and childhood boredom set in, Chang wandered off to explore the host’s house.
When she entered the music room, fate intervened.
“I was fascinated by this big black thing I had never seen before,” she recalls with a smile. “Our host’s wife was a musician and she started playing, and then taught me a little something.
“For the rest of the night, I was a really good girl, an angel. And so my parents thought, ‘Oh, OK, that’s what she was looking for. This will keep her out of trouble. Little did they know …,” she laughs.
What followed were formative years filled with music lessons at Ball State University, where her father taught international relations. Unlike many children who must be cajoled into practicing, Chang couldn’t tear herself away from the piano. She credits her parents and teachers with nurturing her talent by encouraging individual creativity, a pay-it-forward process she engages in with her own students.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have great people in my life who have shared their love of music with me,” Chang says. “They believed in giving knowledge, yet not stifling talent.”
That philosophy, now an integral part of all of Chang’s lesson plans, has stood the thirtysomething professor in good stead throughout her musical career, which includes helping launch the Performing Arts for Everyone series of free music and dance programs at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and acceptance to the renowned Paris Conservatoire in 1987, where she was one of 300 piano students vying for admittance.
Competition was fierce, with only a dozen spots open on the class roster. Candidates were given three weeks to produce a program filled with music most had never played, much less heard before. For Chang, that included Beethoven’s final sonata, Opus 111, which she describes as one of the most difficult works she ever attempted.
“I knew,” Chang admits, “that the chances of getting in were slim.”
But it happened, she adds, “as if by magic.”
And it was there that she met the couple who would help her fine-tune her musical style and serve as the inspiration for her Grammy success: composer Olivier Messiaen, whom Chang ranks in stature with Debussy and Ravel, and his wife, Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen, who became her piano teacher.
Chang recalls that even though there is strict adherence at the Conservatoire to how music should be performed, Loriod-Messiaen wouldn’t hesitate to make corrections to her husband’s scores. The teacher often used her arms and fists to evoke emotion, and it was not uncommon for her to play with more than one finger on a key.
“To Madame Loriod, it was all about breaking rules when they need to be broken, and remembering to read between the lines,” Chang says.
It’s a technique, she explains, that’s particularly apparent in Oiseaux Exotiques. As avid ornithologists, the Messiaens traveled the world to not only view birds but to hear them, transforming the sounds they produced into musical notations.
“To me, this not only demonstrated their passion, but also their musicianship –– to be able to replicate nature sounds to the nth degree,” she says.
Chang was so impressed with his opus to nature that she wrote her dissertation about Messiaen while earning her Doctorate of Musical Arts at the Peabody Institute-Johns Hopkins University, and vowed to record the composition. It’s now part of a burgeoning discography, which includes music by Schumann, Chopin and Shostakovich.
Kudos have come from around the globe, including Britain’s Gramophone magazine, which called Chang’s artistry “alternately prismatic and pointed.”
Chang smiles at the attention.
“It’s great to have recognition and confirmation of your work,” she says simply. “But the true satisfaction comes in being able to see how the music touches people’s hearts.”