Filmed in New York, January 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?
Have you been back here since then?
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.