ARTIST OF THE YEAR 2017: YUJA WANG
An ecstatic moment in Yuja Wang’s 2014 recital at Carnegie Hall.
© 2014 Jennifer Taylor
She represents a new breed—the complete, thoroughly modern package. Wearing stunning gowns chosen specifically to match the repertoire she is playing, she has cultivated a persona of visual beauty as well as musical brilliance. And then there are those dynamite encores—wow!
In a recent video for Giorgio Armani, Musical America’s Artist of the Year, Yuja Wang, performs Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, the work’s dark, dulcet tones swirling against a dimly lit backdrop of piano and pianist as the music gently weaves a spell of soulful mystery. The performance, technically impeccable and full of subdued passion, is intercut with images of Yuja in a variety of tasteful fashion poses. There was a time when this would have raised eyebrows, along with protestations about classical music’s chaste role in a world full of commercial taint. Welcome to the 21st century, when women play the piano as well as men and feel free to flaunt their other gifts as well.
Yuja Wang represents a new breed—she’s the complete, thoroughly modern package. Wearing stunning gowns chosen specifically to match the repertoire she is playing, she has cultivated a persona of visual beauty as well as musical brilliance. And she packs a photographic wallop. In a New York Times Arts and Leisure feature, the diminutive pianist was shown seated at the keyboard, adorned in five-inch heels, arms outstretched as if ready to take flight, head extended to the sky, her graceful right leg extending to the sustain pedal. It could have been a study by the elegant sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The caption noted her “power and poetry.”
Her career is soaring. An exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon has already produced seven discs, with repertoire ranging from Brahms, Scriabin, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff to Chopin, Liszt, Ligeti, and Ravel. Her rendering of Petrushka is a lesson in orchestrating at the piano, filled with changes of color; Stravinsky’s counterpoint filigree is projected with individual dynamics and timbre, evoking sparks leaping from a fire. Brahms’s Paganini Variations are treacherously difficult, but she eats them for breakfast. Her Brahms Violin Sonatas with Leonidas Kavakos are filled with dramatic intensity and introspective breadth.
This season, the 29-year-old pianist’s schedule includes an Asian tour with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, a Bartók concerto cycle with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performances with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and recitals with baritone Matthias Goerne and Kavakos. And she was named the second artist-in-residence ever of China’s National Center for the Performing Arts, where her plans include concerts with multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger, among others.
“He’s brilliant,” Yuja declares. “We are planning an arrangement of The Rite of Spring, and possibly one of West Side Story. And we’ll be doing a one-piano arrangement of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. For that I’ll have to be Medusa at the piano,” she laughs, although the image of Kali, the many-armed Hindu goddess, more aptly describes her stunning technical prowess.
The Beijing-born Yuja began piano lessons at age 6, though she says she could read scores by the time she was 5. The instrument didn’t exactly call to her, however. She simply knew she liked music, and the piano was her easiest entry point. Within two years, her teacher informed her parents that she belonged in a conservatory, and that they needed to purchase a better instrument. She entered Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. And from that point on, her life was in the hands of the Fates.
She worked on the standard repertoire up to Brahms. “The approach was different from the way things are done here. I had to work on a single piece until it was perfect in all the details. And I entered many competitions. I liked it at the time, even though it was like being in a straitjacket,” she recalls. “It gave me a good foundation so that later I could be free—there’s always a balance between the two.”
Youngest Student at Morningside
At the age of 12, Yuja became the youngest student ever accepted at the Morningside Music Bridge International Music Festival at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. “They are amazing people, the most supportive ever. Calgary became like a second home. Of course, Glenn Gould is their hero, but they are open-minded about so many things. They really opened up my vision. When I turned 14, I started going to school there full time.”
How did she manage being on her own in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language and culture? “I think it is the dream of every 14-year old to be away from home,” she responds. “I loved it. I was ready. I had been going to school and taking lessons since I was 7. A new door was opening and I was excited.”
Then, at 15, the Curtis Institute—the Philadelphia Conservatory “with a huge reputation in China”—beckoned. She auditioned, and when word came that she had been accepted, she felt relief at leaving the cold Canadian climate for the warm mentorship of Gary Graffman. “He became my anchor,” she says. “There is something so positive and inspiring about him,” adds Yuja. “Before meeting him I didn’t realize how many interesting things there are in the world. For example, he is a huge fan of Asian art. He brought me to Sotheby’s one day, and pointed out aspects of Chinese history: ‘This is Han Dynasty, this looks like Sung Dynasty.’” The program at Curtis, from which she graduated in 2008, offered new vistas for learning and performing.
Gaining entry was no easy task. “In my year there were 120 applicants,” she explains, “and, as usual, they chose two or three.” If the Canadian experience opened her eyes to a wider world, Curtis offered advantages she had barely dreamed of, including the ability to study with other important artists, such as Leon Fleisher. For Yuja, it had far-reaching implications. “I was just in Vienna,” she recounts, “and at dinner the question came up about which pianists people liked best in a Mozart performance. The consensus was that they loved Rudolf Serkin, and also Leon Fleisher. ‘You guys are from Vienna,’ I said, ‘and you think the best Mozart players are from America?’
“As Gary told me, that’s what’s so great about this country. You have everything here. Leon is descended from Schnabel, and Gary studied with Horowitz. Each has an individual voice—you hear it the moment either sits down. This made a big impression on me. So I saved the big Russian warhorses for Gary, and studied the German repertoire with Leon. At Curtis I was able to learn from every tradition.”
An Important Meeting with Michael Tilson Thomas
Those experiences quickly paid dividends. She was 17 when she first met Michael Tilson Thomas, who became a mentor. At the time, she had been engaged to play the Grieg Piano Concerto in San Francisco with conductor Edwin Outwater. “It was for a Chinese New Year’s concert, which is a big thing here,” remembers Tilson Thomas. “Edwin said, ‘You really should come hear her, she’s remarkable.’ The most striking thing about the performance was the way she listened. In the Grieg, there are a lot of places where the piano basically accompanies members of the orchestra. She did that so sensitively.”
Tilson Thomas invited her to audition, and he was instantly won over by her ease and professionalism. “Unlike many young wunderkind pianists who bring a team of people along to surround and protect them,” he says, “she just showed up and said, ‘OK, I’m here. What should we do?’” He quickly learned she could do almost anything, from Beethoven to Stravinsky and Bartók.
“We performed the Henry Litolff Scherzo from his Concerto Symphonique No. 4 at Buckingham Palace for Her Majesty the Queen. It’s one of those dazzling little pieces where if you have the right kind of piano brilliance, people go crazy. They did. At the same time, she wants to play and learn significant pieces. At this point, she knows everything in the repertoire, and she has become adventurous, playing difficult works like Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.”
Consider the astronomical number of hits her website receives, Tilson Thomas notes. “One can think of other famous pianists who have gone into a merchandizing mode. That’s not Yuja. Her idea of diversity is to go to the Edinburgh Festival and play all the Brahms Violin Sonatas with Leonidas Kavakos, in between doing Beethoven concertos with the San Francisco Symphony on tour.”
He has learned, he says, to appreciate both her serious side and her playfulness, which can erupt unexpectedly. “In the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto, there is a place where the piano sits quietly during a trumpet solo,” he chuckles, “and then it interrupts with an enormous tone cluster that takes up much of the keyboard. Yuja had joked that one of these days she was going to play it with her derriere. Then, one night during the London Symphony tour, she actually did—she stood up, turned around, and sat on the keyboard. The trumpet player lost it. It also had a big effect on the audience, but somehow the reviewer didn’t seem to notice.” At around the same time, he says, she was reading the Confucian Analects in the original.
Before a Performance: Rock Music
She has as keen interest in popular culture as well. Hence her attention to fashion, as well as her usual reported practice of listening to rock music before stepping out on stage. She uses Spotify to keep on top of new things, and goes to live concerts as often as possible. Though she values working with older masters, she loved performing with Gustavo Dudamel’s Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolivar (“What a crazy bunch of outrageous musicians!”) partly because they are mostly her age, and their youthful outlook matched her own. After the concert, she reports, they could all agree, “Let’s go to a bar and listen to electronic music.”
Over the years, the pianist has garnered numerous awards and accolades, from prizes at the Sendai International Music Competition and the Aspen Music Festival’s concerto competition to being named a Gilmore Young Artist. Another important marker was her 2007 appearance with Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony, replacing an ailing Martha Argerich in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto. But her recent recitals in Los Angeles and New York, followed by an extensive European tour, represent an important new stage of Yuja Wang’s development. The program was Germanic and serious: the first two of Brahms’s Op. 10 Ballades, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, and Beethoven’s majestic “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata, Op. 106.
In New York, a prominent critic, though deeply respectful of her Beethoven, complained that “she ruined it” by playing five encores in a lighter vein, including Horowitz’s “Carmen” Fantasy and a jazzy, fun-filled take on Mozart’s “Turkish” Rondo efcredited to Arcadi Volodos, Fazil Say, and Wang herself. When asked if there were particular pieces that mean more to her than any others, she pointed to those encores, music she has been playing for many years.
She says she doesn’t pay attention to critics. “On tour, in a few places I played eight encores,” she boasts. “Sometimes I got six stars out of five! I didn’t read the New York review,” she admits, “but Gary did.” For his part, Graffman contends that the problem arose because of a misconception in regard to the “Hammerklavier,” about which a mystique has developed. He believes that if she had played Beethoven’s Op. 110, which is just as serious a work—“even more so,” says Yuja—the encores would not have been an issue.
But it points to the delicate line that Yuja Wang has enjoyed walking for years, balancing the profound and the lighthearted, the weighty and the carefree, working like a demon to sweat the small details and then letting loose when it is time to dance. If the “girl just wants to have fun,” that’s good news for the rest of us. •
Stuart Isacoff ’s publications include Temperament and A Natural History of the Piano. His book on Van Cliburn’s piano victory in Cold War Moscow will soon be published by Alfred A. Knopf.