By Anastasia Tsioulcas
February 19, 2014
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
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. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.
By the time the pianist Yuja Wang had played a fifth encore to cap her exhilarating concert on Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall, I confess that while perhaps 90 percent of my attention was on her precise yet exuberant playing, a crucial 10 was on her skintight flame-colored dress.
It seems that a high-minded, conscientious music critic should pay Ms. Wang’s signature attire no mind. Enough ink, certainly, has been spilled on the subject during her rise to prominence these past few years.
But her vivid sartorial choices are far from incidental to the formidable effect of her playing. Her alluring, surprising clothes don’t just echo the allure and surprise of her musicianship, though they certainly do that.
More crucial, the tiny dresses and spiky heels draw your focus to how petite Ms. Wang is, how stark the contrast between her body and the forcefulness she achieves at her instrument. That contrast creates drama. It turns a recital into a performance.
And a performance, in the fullest sense of the word, was what Thursday’s program demanded. Ms. Wang offered an immersion in the overripe afterglow of 19th-century Romanticism: sonatas by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, and “La Valse” by Ravel, all introduced by Lowell Liebermann’s “Gargoyles” (1989), a contemporary work that neatly evoked the fin-de-siècle decadence of the rest.
To say that Ms. Wang barnstormed through these dreamy, theatrical works is true but drastically understates her range of expression. Her fortissimos were fearsome, but so, in a quieter way, were the longing melodic lines of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2.
Ms. Wang began these melodies with a stiffness approaching self-consciousness before gradually relaxing into pure lyricism, giving a sense of the music’s tightening and loosening in grand cycles. Playing with daring deliberation, she came close to disconnecting the phrases of the slow second movement. It was a move that emphasized Rachmaninoff’s incipient modernity, as did her teasing out of jazzy figurations and Debussyian kaleidoscopic textures.
The liquidity of her phrasing in the second movement of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 eerily evoked the sound of woodwinds. In that composer’s Sonata No. 6 she juxtaposed colors granitic and gauzy to eerily brilliant effect before closing the written program with a rabid rendition of the one-piano version of “La Valse,” accentuating the sickliness of Ravel’s distorted waltzes.
By her apocalyptic finale, there was no question that the party of the 19th century was definitively over in the aftermath of World War I. But she offered a nostalgic glimpse back in her fourth encore, Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor.
Ms. Wang returns to Carnegie on Oct. 22 with a program of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and more Chopin. I’ll see you there.
At this point, there’s no more news to report about Yuja Wang. She is, quite simply, the most dazzlingly, uncannily gifted pianist in the concert world today, and there’s nothing left to do but sit back, listen and marvel at her artistry.
Happily for local audiences, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony were among the first to recognize her pre-eminence, and quickly forged a relationship with her that has brought us a series of revelatory local appearances. The latest came over the weekend, when Wang joined the orchestra in Davies Symphony Hall for a titanic account of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.
There were other delights on the program on Sunday afternoon, but Wang’s Rachmaninoff was clearly the headline event. It wasn’t just the fact that she made this concerto’s fabled technical difficulties – its thunderous chordal writing, its intricate passagework, its wearying length – seem easy, although that was part of it.
More remarkable still was the depth and imagination she brought to the entire score, and the way she made the piece’s virtuosic angle just one part of its purpose.
Of course, there were plenty of opportunities for showmanship, and Wang dispatched them with her customary aplomb. The fierce keyboard explosions in the outer movements – thickets of notes, densely clustered for maximum effect – and the quicksilvery bursts of repeated notes in the central episode of the second movement were beautifully handled.
But just as striking was Wang’s ability, which Thomas and the orchestra suavely supported, to convey the lyricism and grace of Rachmaninoff’s writing. In Wang’s hands, the opening theme – a simple melody in octaves brimming with nuanced emotion and energy – sounded every bit as impressive as the finger-busting displays that ensued. For pure finger-busting, Wang delivered a stunning encore of Vladimir Horowitz’s “Carmen” Variations.
Thomas and the orchestra brought their own brand of magic to the concert’s first half. It began with Fauré’s “Pavane,” in a lovely, rhythmically sustained reading graced by a fragrant contribution from principal flutist Tim Day.
Even more alluring was the orchestra’s sleek and strong-boned rendition of Sibelius’ all-too-rarely heard Third Symphony. Thomas seemed intent on underscoring the work’s elegance and balance without letting it subside into pure arabesque, and the orchestra followed his lead superbly.
We are at the cusp of transition from one generation of pianists to another, but a name stands out as exception to clear distinction between grand old musicians and brilliant young talent. Yuja Wang doesn’t fit into either of those (arbitrary) boxes.
At only 25, Yuja (she prefers to use her given name in second reference, the patronymic Wang not being distinctive enough) is an old soul, and seemingly in the vanguard for a long, long time. In fact, it has been a dozen years — half her life — that she has been winning international contests and hearts around the world, plus engagements with major orchestras, so she is neither a newcomer nor a member of the ancien régime. She is what she is, one of the finest pianists — and, importantly, musicians — of our time.
And she has now produced her fourth Deutsche Grammophon CD, which is the subject of our sermon today. Fantasia follows Sonatas & Etudes (2009), Transformation (2010), and Rachmaninov (2011).
It is a varied, capricious, collection of miniatures, just a few minutes each, the longest being a 10-minute tribute to Mickey Mouse (please wait for the explanation). At any rate, quite a change since the large-scale collection of Transformation.
Almost all tracks come from Yuja’s large storehouse of encores; she needs many because her recital audiences unvariably demand — and almost always — receive them.
Four brief Rachmaninov pieces lead the way, played with unshowy brilliance, power, and her usual complete authority over the keyboard. The stormy Étude-tableau in A Minor Op. 39 No. 6 is a grand calling card; Op. 39 No. 4 is swift, playful; Op. 39 No. 5 has a quiet, but persistent romantic sweep.
Élégie in E flat minor Op. 3 No. 1, wisely slipped in between No. 4 and No. 5, is meandering, Chopinesque, a change from the mood shared by the Étude-tableaux.
Scarlatti, a Yuja perennial, appears here only with the two-minute-long Sonata in G Major K. 455. It is an irresitible melodic cascade of pearls, and it is over before you can catch your breath.
For contrast, the poignant Melody from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice follows, giving way to Albéniz’s sweeping “Triana,” from Iberia, Book II.
One of Yuja’s heroes, Vladimir Horowitz, is responsible for two transcriptions: the Gypsy Song, from Bizet’s Carmen, and the CD-closing virtuoso Dance macabre by Saint-Saëns (in Liszt’s arrangement). The Carmen excerpt is marked “White House version” because it became famous in Horowitz’s televised White House concert in 1978.
There are many other cuts, including a superb collection of five Scriabin miniatures, but let’s get back to Mickey Mouse. Everybody’s favorite rodent will inevitably come to mind while listening to Yuja’s tempestuous The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in Victor Staub’s arrangement.
There is meaning behind the selection: Disney’s Fantasia, writes Shirley Apthorp, “along with a performance of Swan Lake, was her first encounter with classical music as a child, and she always enjoys the frisson of recognition that runs through an audience when the familiar melody emerges.”
If you check the Music News column on April 17 you will find out where and how you can see the Disney Fantasia on the big screen again in San Francisco. Meanwhile, enjoy Yuja’s tribute to it.