When nerves and familiarity combine, expect pianist Yuja Wang to create magic

Ignore the wardrobe, Yuja Wang’s passion lies in grappling with muscular music and hoping that stage fright strikes, writes Victoria Finlay

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 5:59pm


IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A profile of 27-year-old mainland pianist Yuja Wang these, in a nutshell, are the five points you might include: she is brilliant; she grew up in Beijing; she wears short dresses; ignore the previous point, it’s all about the playing; and did I mention she wears very short dresses?

“That’s a very good summary,” she says with a giggle when I try it out on her. Since appearing in a short orange dress to perform at the Hollywood Bowl in August 2011, Wang has won as many reviews of her skimpy clothes as she has of her performances.

“It’s easy to write that way,” she says. “It’s actually probably how people can write about me, because that’s how it looks. They always want a story and that’s the story – short skirt.

“I think it’s amusing, and the thing is, you can only ever see the tip of the iceberg in an interview. An artist’s life is always more multilayered and complicated.” Wang claims the Hollywood Bowl concert and its fallout were fun. “The conductor [Lionel Bringuier] was one of my friends and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s Hollywood and nobody will care’.”

Her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor – was also pretty hot-blooded. “I found it [the dress] fitting to the mood of the piece, but people made a big deal.”

The thing about Wang is – we’ve skipped straight to item four, if you are following the five-point story outline – ignore the dresses, the playing is the point. And she plays exceptionally well. Her career trajectory has been exciting. In 2009, Gramophone named her Young Artist of the Year. Soon after, she was given Young Artist of the Year at Germany’s Echo Klassik awards.

She’s been nominated for a Grammy, and her grueling tour schedule includes the world’s most prestigious orchestras including the Royal Concertgebouw, the London Philharmonic, the Filarmonica della Scala, and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

She was selected from more than 3,000 musicians as a soloist in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2009, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas at Carnegie Hall. The concert was streamed live to millions of people around the world. Other soloists included Gil Shaham and Joshua Roman, and pianist Lang Lang, who helped teach three children to play a Rachmaninoff waltz for six hands.

She will play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3 at her concert with the London Symphony Orchestra on March 8 for this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. The piece is widely considered one of the most challenging for the piano and was recently released on Deutsche Grammophon. That live recording was led by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and includes Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor. Both pieces of music are considered muscular.

“The Prokofiev is all about the devil, the dark side. It’s very mean and I think it’s actually what we like as a teenager. And the Rachmaninoff is a piece I first heard when I was 12, the Horowitz recording, but I didn’t play until I was 20. It’s like a monstrous piece,” Wang says.

“There are a lot of separate episodes in the Rach 3. Probably the most difficult thing is that you have to make it as a unified whole.”

She thinks of the piece as rather like a person, who is growing and giving, and constantly transforming. “On stage it’s about being in the moment and ravishingly enjoying it, which is really easy as it’s such a rich piece and so versatile. It’s a bit like reading Russian literature. Except it’s only 45 minutes long which is a lot shorter than most Russian literature I’ve read.”

And she does read Russian literature, particularly while she is playing the Russian repertoire. “It helps at a subconscious level.

I read it for pure enjoyment and for expanding my mind. But I also think they were probably inspired by those things, by those words and stories, when they wrote it.”

Born into an artistic family – her mother is a dancer and father a percussionist – Wang started piano lessons at age six.

As a small child, her mother took her to ballet rehearsals.

“My mum wanted me to be a dancer but I’m so lazy,” she says. Yes, I say, you must be pretty lazy to be a concert pianist. “I don’t want to move my body around, I just like to sit here,” she says.

There had always been a piano in the family’s apartment. It was a wedding gift to hr parents. Surrounded by the combination of music and dance, it felt as if Tchaikovsky, for example, was in her bones from the beginning. “I feel very close to Russian music,” she says.

About six months after her first piano lessons, she was on stage, performing for an audience. “It was a very organic process.

I didn’t really have stage fright back then. It’s a different story now,” she says.

Wang studied at a mainstream school until she was about nine, about the time when it was clear that her hobby was soon to become her profession.

“Actually, I liked violin better, it looks cooler,” she says. In the beginning nobody had thought she would make it as a pianist because her fingers were “wrong” – they were considered too skinny and too flexible.

Her teacher concentrated on helping her develop a broader interest in music and art, just in case the piano didn’t work out. “I had the same teacher until I was 14, and I was very close to her.My life challenge rotated around her: she was pretty moody and I did my best not to make her mad.”

Scarcely speaking a word of English, at the age of 14, she spent a year studying music in Canada. She kept up to date with her schoolwork in the mainland over the internet. Away from her parents and living with a Canadian family, Wang was forced to learn English quickly. “I watched a lot of movies,” she says.

Then it was on to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “People said, ‘Were you homesick?’ but it was different when you’re a teenager. I was very happy to be away from my parents so that all worked out,” she says.

Aged six, Wang could not have imagined that stage fright existed. She just enjoyed the physical pleasure of playing. The pre-concert nerves arrived at about nine or 10 years old.

“Up until then I guess it was just the excitement to be on stage, to share what you do. My strategy first was to not look at the audience. But then I realised that I have to see the audience because it is the audience that actually feeds me. Now I would be nervous if I wasn’t nervous.”

Wang now considers the nerves a prerequisite to the moments of magic most world-class performers enjoy on stage. “The key thing is that it’s not something I’m in control of, whether it happens or it doesn’t ... there are so many factors.

“When it happens, it is always when I know the music so well that it’s completely digested in my blood and in my heart. It’s a thing about letting it happen,” she says.

When it comes together, she is aware “the audience is holding its breath and I am letting the music play through me”.

This tour takes her to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland, a concert which she says will be both her most exciting and scariest of the trio.

“My parents will be in Beijing and the audiences in China are always so warm to me. And my teacher is there too. She is still very strict. So I know I have to play very well indeed.”

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Yuja Wang performs Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No 3 in D minor with London Symphony Orchestra on March 8 at Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre at 8pm. Tickets: HK$580 to HK$1,080. Inquiries: 2824 2430