"She enrolled me in the competition in an effort to get me to practice more," Chang recalls, laughing. "She told me I would be competing against all these college students who practiced a lot more than I did."
Whatever the motive, the ploy worked: Chang won the competition, along with the chance to perform as a soloist with the Spokane Symphony, working with legendary music director Donald Thulean at his farewell concert. The experience led her toward a career on the concert stage.
Although she's been back for recitals many times since, Chang hasn't played again with the Spokane Symphony -- until now. This week, she'll join the orchestra at the Met for two concerts, where she'll perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.
"It's very exciting [to come back to Spokane] because my family is there, and I'm sure they'll have a lot of fun with it," she says. Chang's parents, Ho Lan and Danny Chang, run Ho Ho Teriyaki Chicken in the Flour Mill, and that's where you'll find them most hours of the day.
"My parents are excited about it," Chang laughs. "They're actually going to close the restaurant, at least for the duration of the concert."
Chang left Spokane after high school and received both a bachelor's and a master's degree in piano performance from the University of Houston. She then completed a doctorate of musical arts at the Manhattan School of Music, studying with noted pianist and instructor Constance Keene.
"She was a lively spirit, very young at heart," Chang says of Keene, who died on Christmas Eve. "She was curious about everything, a rare person. She was an influence musically, of course, but she was also a very dear friend."
Now Chang has a few private students of her own and does guest lectures and master classes. She also performs several concerts and recitals each year. A recital at Carnegie Hall in 1999 earned her a glowing review from New York Concert Review. Last summer, she performed at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Field in London, where she had the chance to play camera-toting tourist briefly after the concert: Her postcard advertising this week's concerts bears a photograph of Chang pointing to a recognizable circle of stones.
"The postcard? Yeah, that was Stonehenge," she laughs. "I didn't have a lot of time, but I also went to the British Museum and had a great time walking around London itself, where so many of the buildings are older than America."
A few years ago, Chang and her mother made a pilgrimage to China's Wu Tai Mountains, a place of sacred significance to Buddhists. They visited five mountain peaks, guided by monks from a nearby monastery. Both women were so moved by the experience that they returned the next year with Chang's father and brother.
"China is an amazing place, and I feel like I've only seen a small part of it," she says. "But it's so wonderful to be able to travel to China now. The people are very nice, and they like classical music." Chang still speaks Taiwanese and knows enough basic Mandarin to get by as a tourist, she says. "I can order food and ask where I'm going. I speak just enough Mandarin to get myself in all kinds of trouble."
Aspects of Chinese and Buddhist philosophy and culture infuse Chang's life and work, even though her recordings have focused thus far on the works of Fr & eacute;d & eacute;ric Chopin. At the London concert, she played Chopin, as expected, but she also presented pieces by three contemporary Asian composers, including the world premiere of Four Little Pieces for Wood by Taiwanese composer Shih-Hui Chen.
"It refers to the element wood," says Chang. "The five elements [earth, metal, water, fire and wood] are important to the Chinese. The elements are used to categorize emotions, colors, seasons and more. The season of spring, the emotion of love, the color of green -- all these are categorized by the element of wood."
Chang doesn't try consciously to integrate Chinese philosophy into her work; it's just part of who she is.
"I never try to imagine how Chinese I am, or how Japanese -- my mother's mother was Japanese -- or how American, because I grew up mostly here," she says. "But once in a while I notice a basic difference between myself and someone else. I think Buddhist beliefs and Taoist beliefs affect what I do."
Her most recent CD, released in 2004, presents all of Chopin's preludes on one disk. What makes this collection special is the restored 1907 Pleyel piano that Chang played for the recording. Pleyel pianos were the composer's favorite, so Chang felt a direct link to the past as soon as her fingers hit the keyboard.
"Chopin has been quoted -- wait, I have the quote right here: 'Pleyel's pianos are the last word in perfection,'" she says. "He felt they could express what he was trying to express."
On the CD -- recorded by Chang's sister, Hsi-Ling, a Grammy-nominated recording engineer -- the piano sounds rich and mellow, like warm caramel. It's a marked contrast from the bright, crisp sound of today's top-of-the-line concert pianos.
"You have to keep in mind the difference in the size of the halls," Chang explains. "The pianos we have today, like the Steinway Ds, are built for big halls. They have to be voiced more bright so the sound will carry. In salons, where Chopin played, there wasn't that distance. It's like the difference between acting on stage or on TV -- it's a matter of scale. A salon is intimate. It's your friends. It's a different mindset, a different way of living life. That's why this piano is so ... magical. I felt like I'd traveled through a portal in time. The sound is a little more poignant, a little more tender."
At the Met, Chang will play the Mozart concerto as part of a program celebrating the musical spirit of Vienna. Beethoven's Prometheus Overture and a Schubert symphony round out the program.
"It's a dramatic concerto with a beautiful slow movement, like his opera arias," she says. "The first movement has a lot of twists and turns, and a slight hint of darkness, like in Don Giovanni. And the last movement is a fun conversation -- there's a lot of back and forth between the piano and the orchestra. It's a lot of fun to play, and I plan to have a good time."