Off Classique Interview
Filmed Jan 2014, Paris.

Yuja Wang: Managing the piano, conductors and the laundry

Limelight Magazine
By Clive Paget
Published:  Apr 12, 2014

The 27-year-old Chinese piano star talks about her influences, standing in for Argerich and doing her own laundry.

It’s great to talk! Where are you, out of curiosity?
I just flew into Toronto from New York this morning. I played a Chinese New Year Concert last night in the Lincoln Center.

And did that go well?
… ah, yeah – for one run-through [laughs]

May I ask about your childhood? Your mother is a dancer. Were you ever tempted to follow her?
Well, she wanted me to be a dancer but I was too lazy to move around. [laughs] But we did have a piano at home and I guess I was just more interested.

Who first taught you piano?
Nobody really, it was just one of the hobbies that my mother tried to educate me in. There was dancing, calligraphy, painting – she’d always take me to the dance rehearsals. And I liked the listening more than the watching so I started to try to play things on the piano. It was just fun at first – nothing really professional at all until I had this teacher for seven years in China.

So who was the first pianist you really listened to?
There were three: Pollini, Rubinstein and Evgeny Kissin. I remember it very clearly because I didn’t hear any other piano playing until I was 11 or 12. They were the first three things I heard.

And was that listening at home?
Yeah, they were on CD. And then I heard Pogorelić and Berman in live concerts in China.

Do you have piano role models yourself?
Not really. I mean, I get really inspired when I hear an amazing concert. But mostly I go to symphonic concerts. I like watching the conductor and listening to the sounds they create. Pianist-wise, right now I really like Sokolov and Pletnev, and I’m a big fan of Keith Jarrett – and of course Horowitz, but I never heard him live.

Funnily enough you have quite a lot of repertoire in common with Horowitz. There’s a definite similarity.
Yeah, well my teacher at Curtis [Institute of Music] who I studied with for six years – that’s Gary Graffman – he was Horowitz’s student.

Ah, so you’re a student of a student of Horowitz?
[laughs] I guess you can say that.

So how did you know that you might have a chance of an international career? Was there a point where you thought, “this might be for me”?
No, I never really thought of it. My hobby just became my profession, I guess. You know, I feel pretty jobless right now as a normal person. I did have concerts even half a year after I started piano – as something for fun – and so I guess the performance aspect was integrated into anything I learned.

And how old were you then?
I was seven.

And was that in Beijing?
Yes. But actually, the first country I came to out of China was Australia! I remember I was seven and I went to Australia for 12 days and then I was in Paris for a week.

And you played in Perth?
Yes, I played about seven of Haydn’s sonatas and some Chinese music.

So that was your Australian debut?
[laughs] Yeah.

Have you been back here since then?
No, never.

Any plans?
I think so, but I can’t say right now…

So you grew up in Beijing and then you went to study in Philadelphia aged 14. Was that a big change for you?
Not really. The transition was pretty smooth because I was in Canada for a year where I learned the language. And even when I was at home I was pretty much always alone. I had a teacher that I really trusted, but then I was practicing alone, going to school alone, so I didn’t really feel lonely when I moved. The only difference was the food and laundry.

You mean that you had to do them yourself?
Exactly. They were two things I had to take care of myself that I’d never thought of before ­– and it was almost like fun because I’d never made dinner before – I’d just been curious. That age, like 14 or 15 was almost the perfect age to be away from home. I’ve been in America from then until I graduated from Philadelphia at 21 and moved to New York.

And you live in NY now?
Yeah, but I’m hardly there. I just have a base there.

You made your European debut back in 2003 playing with David Zinmann and the Tonhalle. Which conductors have been most important for you?
There’ve been some memorable conductors. But the one that’s really sad to mention right now is Claudio Abbado. I was so lucky to play under him.

That extraordinary Prokofiev – I’ve seen it!
Thanks. Actually my first concerto recording was with him – which I will say doesn’t get any better. And there’s Gustavo Dudamel – but it’s a completely different generation and feel playing with him.

How would you describe the differences between working with Abbado and Dudamel? It was Prokofiev with both of them, wasn’t it?
Gustavo is very high energy – we match pretty well. And his orchestra in Venezuela is just amazingly high-voltage – really involved and really great ensemble playing. He is Claudio’s prodigy. There’s this way of constant listening and a constant awareness of each other, and that makes it much more powerful – the unity of the sound and everything. And his really fast reflexes – for a soloist is just amazing.

And how was Abbado to work with?
Really obscure and mysterious during rehearsals because he didn’t say a word ­– to me at least. And then in the concert, everything just came out. You don’t really know what happens with the gestures or the energy field. There was something intangible in concerts. He made everyone play his or her best and that’s something very special – without even talking, without any words. He also had this intimidating way of such intense listening. I so wanted to experience that again because you only can know through playing music with him.

Nowadays you take top billing but early on you made some very notable replacements, standing in for Radu Lupu on one occasion and Martha Argerich on another. Was that difficult for you, just because of the expectation of someone else’s performance?
No, I think I was too young and so I was pretty fearless! It’s a kind of a cliché to be the young one replacing the master. I pretty much replaced everybody from Yefim Bronfman, Murray Perahia and Kissin even. Of course Martha and Radu Lupu were the most famous. Lupu was the first one in Canada with Zukerman conducting Beethoven Four. It makes one look at life differently, because everything is based on chance. I was really fortunate, in terms of repertoire choices, and I was just so ready at that age. Not exactly the playing, but just ready to just go on stage and be all passionate.

With Martha it was like, “I’m tired… do you want to play with the Boston Symphony for me?” And I’m like “of course! – Wrong question!” [laughs] That was exciting for a while. Every day you don’t know what’s happening. Then the next week it would be, “Murray Perahia has cancelled a tour with St Martins-in-the-Fields, and you play Mozart?” Also I had the ability to learn pieces fast – even a piece I didn’t play. I just focused myself – so it was a way of learning repertoire as well. If you wanted me to do that now it would take a lot of asking!

So does that mean that as you get older, the expectations make your job more difficult in a sense?
No, I think everything is more difficult when one gets older – expectations from others and from myself to be more creative – not to repeat myself. I guess my biggest competitor is probably myself from before. It’s good and there’s so much potential there, but to realise that potential, to actualise it, it needs so much work. And at the same time there are so many concerts so I’m trying just to cope with everything – with travelling, and just being centred with oneself. It’s difficult.

You’ve got a reputation for tackling really big 20th-century works. As a young player, how do you build up the physical strength for that kind of repertoire?
It’s actually easier for me, and more fun for me, to play the Rach Three, the Prokofiev Two – the ones that I just recorded – because the pieces are so physical. There’s a visceral thing that happens on stage that makes me abandon myself. It’s not as subtle and intellectualising as Beethoven, or even playing Debussy or Chopin. It’s easier to let oneself go on stage with Rach Three and pieces like that.

I remember the first time I heard you play Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from Petrushka. The only person that I’ve heard play it with that strength of technique is Pollini. Does that require actual physical strength – do you go to the gym? How do you get that sound?
Well, Pollini really was a big influence. I know his CD – he also plays Pierre Boulez and Webern and Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata. I really adore it. I think it’s probably just the way we are trained or brought up – how we want our sound – because everyone has their personal sound. I change over time I notice, but even with different pianos, every pianist has their own fingerprints almost. Pollini has a really clean-cut, crystal clear transparent sound. Maybe it has to do simply with the shape of the hand, because everyone is different. I’m not quite sure, but that’s a big compliment, thank you.

You’ve been recording Rachmaninov and Prokofiev a lot lately. Obviously they’re important composers to you. Are there other composers that you feel are close to your heart?
I recorded those composers because I feel I’m confident enough now to record them. But Prokofiev, I feel very close to because he’s really naughty and sarcastic with all those really edgy, saucy colours. It changes over time, but I often feel I like Stravinsky and sometimes I love Brahms. Actually, when I really just want to be moved I listen to Schubert.

And what do you plan to record next?
I just did Brahms, actually. Brahms Violin Sonatas with Leonidas Kavakos. It’s coming out really soon on Decca. And that will be my first chamber disc.

Yuja Wang plays Prokofiev and Rachmaninov with Gustavo Dudamel and Brahms Sonatas on Deutsche Grammophon.


“Live! Planet People” Interview

Radio Television Luxembourg
“Live! Planet People” Interview
Apr 1, 2014

Yuja at Radio Television Luxembourg

Interview the Sensational Pianist Yuja Wang
By Ka Yee Chan
March 22, 2014

Yuja at Universal Music Classics




Étienne Barilier’s novel was inspired by the author’s admiration for Yuja Wang’s performances.

Please check or for purchasing.

On A Chilly Factory Floor, Yuja Wang’s Piano Sizzles

NPR Field Recording
By Anastasia Tsioulcas
February 19, 2014

Yuja at NPR

Yuja at NPR

Yuja Wang: Rooted In Diligence, Inspired By Improvisation

By Steve Inskeep
Interview: Dec 2, 2013

Yuja at NPR

Yuja at NPR

Yuja: “Doing my own thing”
By  Ilona Oltuski
Published: Nov 21, 2013

There are great performers who take you on a personal journey into the depths of a composer’s world, and then there is Yuja, who makes them come alive with her signature force-of-nature drive, both on and off stage. Her October 2013 was a perfect example; the concert was a feat of virtuosic repertoire, which she mastered with grandiose control. But beyond her sweeping performance style, there was something evanescent connecting her to the audience, a vitality that conveyed her very own truth through music.

Following up with the 26 year-old piano superstar for an interview, we met at ‘Indies,’ a small lounge we both frequent not far from her New York apartment near Lincoln Center.

“I react a lot to the audience and feed off the energy I feel in the hall”, Yuja says. “I have always performed, from early on, and I get to know my repertoire through performance, by doing – and that has not really changed. I need to perform to feel alive. Every time it’s different, it’s organic. When I perform with different artists, they all bring out a singular side in me. Even with different friends, I can be like a different person.”

There have been many comments about some of her outfits, and her unabashed, sexy appearance at her Hollywood Bowl performance has drawn a good amount of criticism. Yuja’s response to that? ” “I am like a chameleon, reacting and adapting to my surroundings.”  And: “Their criticism says much more about them than it says about my choice of dress.”

Her candor may have something to do with the fact that she does not really dwell on reviews: “I never read them – once it’s done, it’s done,” she says with the sunniest of smiles. She also displays an astounding indifference to the vast amount of publicity around her. Untainted by ‘all that jazz’, her self-assured personality conveys a fierce independence and an eccentric authenticity that might help to keep her vulnerable self hidden and protected.  “I don’t really like to reveal too much of myself in an interview,” she adds, “and somehow I am never really quoted correctly, anyhow.”

For Yuja, truth lies in music. “I play my best when I am sincere,” she explains. “That’s when I am able to move people. But the perception changes easily: for example, when I started recording, what I thought I was doing was very different from what I heard in the recording. Sometimes it had nothing to do with what I felt – it’s a whole butterfly effect.” She goes on to describe the process of finding the honesty she aims for in her playing, here for example during a recording session: “I play, then I go listen, I hate it. I think to myself, I can play so much better. Then I try three times, four times, five times and listen again and compare… only to find that the first time was the best.”

Another of her critics’ bones of contention is what they call the ‘flashy’ rather than ‘serious’ style of her interpretations, to which she answers: “I have learned Beethoven, I have learned Bach, but I just do not feel the same excitement that I feel when playing Rachmaninov.” Nevertheless, Yuja will perform Beethoven’s Concerto No.3 with the London Symphony Orchestra during her residency at the orchestra’s Artist Portrait series in February of 2014.

“Virtuosic scores are not necessarily about a flashy style”, she explains. “My presenters schedule all these romantic and post-romantic works two years in advance, and I want to bring my best to the stage. However, when I am excited about a piece, and the more it connects to my personality, the better I can play it and grip the audience. That does not mean I don’t sometimes tire of that much fire either; I do. And there is a lot to learn.”

In summer 2014, Yuja will collaborate again with violinist Leonidas Kavakos, this time featuring Brahm’s sonatas for violin and piano. Through Kavakos, she also connected to the legendary Hungarian pedagogue Ferenc Rados (Andràs Schiff’s teacher) who she considers to be a genius. “He can change your musical insight of a piece, how to structure it best, based on its inherent harmony.”

Travelling all over the globe for over 80 concerts and recording engagements each year, Yuja doesn’t really get to spend much time in one place. “Someone asked me recently, ’Where are you at home?’ and I answered: ‘My living room is in New York, my studio is in Paris, and I record in Germany,’ but then, it isn’t really as much about the place as it is about the people.”

She enjoys being a citizen of the world, and there are lots of adventures away from the piano she would like to experience, like going to India and living there for a while without Internet. At the same time, she knows that it would take a lot of courage to detach herself from her rigorous performance schedule. “Separation anxiety,” she calls it. Which is very much what the 14 years old Yuja might have felt when she left her Beijing family 12 years ago.

Back then, her teacher at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing had recommended that she continue her studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, hoping Yuja would be able to study with the eminent pedagogue, Claude Frank. But when Yuja finally arrived for an audition at Curtis, it was Gary Graffman who took her under his wings.

“He loves Chinese culture, and he is a big collector of Chinese art”, she says about Graffman who also mentored superstar pianist Lang Lang. “He taught me a lot about Chinese history and culture. Even though he belongs to a very different generation, we had this wonderful relationship.” And about his style of teaching she says: “Artistically he would leave me lots of freedom and just loved it when I found something unexpected in the music. His face would light up and I loved getting that reaction. I ‘worked’ that, and it inspired me to surprise him again.”  Graffman, at whose 85thbirthday celebration in March 2014 Yuja will play, retired as President of Curtis after Yuja’s graduation in 2008. “Without him, my career would be nothing,” she says. “He inspired me deeply and through him I was connected to the whole of the European classical music culture. … When I was young, I dreamed of studying in Europe. But at Curtis, I got to play for everyone who connected me indirectly to the great tradition; finally I also played for Claude Frank, Pamela Frank and Leon Fleisher, among many other artists.”

Yuja also values the emphasis Curtis places on developing friendships over competition between students. “Curtis is an amazing environment altogether; it is a small school and super welcoming. It’s all about the discovery of music and about igniting curiosity. And they treat everybody like they are an exception. It has a special place in my heart.”

What is it like not being part of a group of students anymore? Yuja smiles, and a little lost in thought she says: ”I am often lonely. But I am used to this. Even as a kid I did not really play with other children. I was not very social but not unhappy about it. I was practicing and doing my own thing.”

Which is what she is still doing. And very successfully so.

Yuja’s fifth recording with Deutsche Grammophon: Piano Concertos/Rachmaninov, Prokofiev featuring recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 op. 30 and Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2, Op. 16 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela will be released in January 2014


George Enescu Festival. Bucharest, Romania: September 2013

Yuja Wang is back to open the New World Symphony season with Gershwin

South Florida Classical Review
By Dorothy Hindman
Published: Sep 30, 2013

By any measure, Yuja Wang is at the top of the game. The Chinese piano phenom launches her North American tour with the New World Symphony’s season-opening program this weekend, playing George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, under Michael Tilson Thomas’s baton.

Eleven solo recitals follow in October, with Wang performing works by Sergei Prokofiev, Frederic Chopin, and Igor Stravinsky in venues including Carnegie Hall, The Royal Conservatory in Toronto, San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, and Boston’s Jordan Hall.

Rounding off her tour are two additional concerti: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra November 7 – 9, and then Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic December 19 – 22. (Her live CD of the “Rach 3,” plus the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2, with Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela will be released October 8.)

At just 26, Wang is a force of nature. She’s already an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon recording artist and a Steinway artist. In phone conversation, Wang is relaxed, with a ready laugh and quick wit.

She is in Stockholm, preparing for performances of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. It’s a piece she loves, but acknowledges that it’s a challenge for her audience.

“It’s hard to digest. You really have to know the piece inside out, because everything happens really fast, and there’s lots of contrapuntal stuff. It’s not like you can go to the concert and just enjoy it. It has to grow on you. It’s very intellectual, lots of math, proportion, and every motive is augmented, diminished, and inverted.

“If you analyze the whole thing, you’re like ‘Wow, this is very scientific.’ But if you just hear, it, because of the fast tempo, you’re just like, ‘Wait, what?’”

Wang’s dedication has earned her a debut in Bartók’s home country. From Stockholm, she goes to Budapest for two performances of the Bartók, with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, and Zoltán Kocsis conducting.

“Kocsis is really the reason why I started to like Bartók,” acknowledges Wang, “because of all his recordings of Bartók. He’s going to be the conductor, so I really want to discover the whole thing again with him.”

Coincidentally, the Bartók 2nd is the piece Wang performed with the New World Symphony on her last trip to Miami. She originally learned the Bartók with Michael Tilson Thomas, for whom she has now learned the Gershwin, and with whom she shares a special relationship.

“He is very maternal toward me,” laughs Wang, calling the conductor by his nickname, MTT. “It’s really rare to come across such a brilliant musician and at the same time a really caring and humble human being. Every time I’m in Miami or San Francisco, I’m staying at his house instead of hotels.

“It feels like he’s an all-around mentor. He had the idea of doing Gershwin. I don’t know anything about Gershwin, but coming from a theater family, Gershwin is naturally very close to MTT’s heart, and for me, the best connection to the Gershwin is through him.”

She originally met Tilson Thomas in San Francisco when she was only 17, rehearsing for a Chinese New Year concert with one of his assistants.

“The first thing that caught my attention about Yuja was how she listens while she is making music,” Tilson Thomas recalls. “It is extraordinary how she is involved with every note and with every person on stage playing with her.”

“I remember really clearly,” says Wang, “even though this was ten years ago. I was lucky he was in the hall while we were rehearsing, and then he invited me for a Gala Concert the year after. Since then, I’ve been invited back often, and luckily always with MTT, not a guest conductor. To go every year or two, and absorb his energy – he always has so many inspiring ideas that you can conjure up years afterward.”

Their collaborations have include numerous concerti with the San Francisco Symphony and New World, the YouTube symphony, and a tour of Asia, including her homeland, China. After her October NWS performance, the pair will team up in San Francisco next May to perform Rachmaninoff—not his Concerto No. 3, but the rarely heard No. 4.

“That was my choice,” she happily recounts. “I’ve done all the other Rachmaninoff besides One and Four. It’s just something I’ve added into my repertoire this year, along with the Gershwin, Shostakovich’s First, and Beethoven’s Third.”

She also is looking forward to returning to Miami Beach for the usual reasons of most 26 year olds. “I remember liking shopping, and the beach, and the bars and everything. It’s a very relaxing place. When you go there, you just want to have a Sex on the Beach! It’s cool. Miami kind of has this summer festival feel for the whole year.”

Although Wang has an impressive number of works in her repertoire, she tosses it off casually, saying, “Being a pianist, it’s kind of like, that’s what we do.” But it is a dizzying list of accomplishments nonetheless.

“In the years since we have worked together she has taken on almost all of the major concerti, polished them off and now is moving into new and contemporary repertoire,” says Tilson Thomas. “She is always exploring music and it is exciting to keep up with her ever-curious spirit. She is a tremendously fun and yet serious person and always has a way of making the musical experience seem brand new.”

Wang recognizes the differences between each type of performance. “When I play recitals in a row, the pieces really grow on me, because there are things I can only learn onstage. For me, the recital is much more free, because I can take my time. I am the protagonist for the storytelling, and I can expose much more. With a recital I spend much more time, and energy, and physically it’s much more exhausting.”

With concerti, Wang feeds off the energy from the orchestra. In her recent performance and upcoming CD with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the energy was palpable. “Their energy was amazing,” she recalls. “Just to have that orchestra behind me was like being charged with blood and emotions.”

She and Dudamel knew each other by reputation, before they finally met in the Hollywood Bowl for a Tchaikovsky concerto in 2012. When their schedules aligned this February, they seized the opportunity to perform and record the Prokofiev 2nd and the Rachmaninoff 3rd with the Simón Bolívar Symphony

And they have bigger plans ahead, says Wang. “We both are young and we want to try something new. We were thinking Schoenberg.”

Wang’s interest in new music comes from her desire to experience making music with living artists. “I think one of the most exciting aspects of being a musician is getting to know people who have a voice, have something to express, and to play that. Since I don’t improvise, this is something I can do.”

While Wang has worked with nearly every leading conductor today, including Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Charles Dutoit, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, and Kurt Masur, she is particularly thrilled about her next two conductors.

“Learning Gershwin with MTT and doing Bartók with Kocsis—-really, you can’t get better than that.”


Yuja Wang performs Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. The program also include Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. There will be a WALLCAST™ Saturday night.; 305-673-3331.