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To say that Yuja Wang marches to the beat of her own drum might feel a slightly muddled metaphor to describe a virtuoso pianist.
Perhaps it would be more apt to say that she’s styling to the height of her own hemline. I’m referring of course to Wang’s short dresses (often paired with dangerously high heels) that have attracted almost as much attention from the critical press as her astonishing skills at the keyboard.
Her rock star wardrobe may be far from the most interesting thing about the 28-year-old Chinese musician, but it speaks to the determination and individuality that has driven her meteoric rise to international stardom. Already she has performed in many of the world’s great concert halls along with the world’s greatest orchestras, most recently making her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, performing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2.
Meanwhile, despite being signed on exclusive contract to classical recording juggernaut Deutsche Grammophon, in characteristically progressive style she has also reached out to millions via YouTube with her blistering performances of Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, and – racking up over 4.5 million views alone – a sparkling performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee.
With one critically acclaimed performance after another, Yuja Wang has firmly cemented a mixture of jaw-dropping speed, unshakable technique, and a youthful yet audaciously gusty style of playing (despite her diminutive stature) as her stock in trade, and today the demand has never been higher.
It’s little wonder then to learn that a star so rapidly on the rise was born into an artistic family. Wang’s mother, herself a professional dancer, had creative aspirations for her daughter from a very early age. “My mum wanted me to be a dancer like her, but I was too lazy, and I thought the piano was a lot more fun,” Wang explains to me on the phone from her apartment in New York. Prodigiously gifted at the keyboard, Wang’s talent for music soon eclipsed her other early creative pursuits, but despite her immediatley apparent aptitude for the piano, at home in her native Beijing she was just one of many such gifted child musicians.
Wang recalls her earliest international engagement, by coincidence in Perth in Western Australia, at the age of seven, less than a year after beginning to learn the instrument. “I was so excited to be going away for 12 days, and I remember it was such a long flight. We were there as little talents, but I don’t remember that much about the playing – that was the part that was the most familiar to me. Everything else was so different from China.”
Growing up listening to the great European pianists of the 20th century, Evgeny Kissin, Maurizio Pollini and Wilhelm Kempff, and of course the pianist who shared Wang’s love of Romantic repertoire, Vladimir Horowitz, it was clear that in order to reach the fullest extent of her substantial potential she would have to look beyond China’s borders. However it wasn’t Europe that would turn out to nurture her blossoming talents, but the United States, via a brief stint in Canada (where she perfected her English). Aged just 14 Wang relocated to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but whereas many of us might assume this must have been a traumatic upheaval for such a young person, for Wang it was the natural next step.
“I remember clearly being age 9 and thinking that 16 was so old! So when I moved overseas by myself at the age of 14, it felt completely normal,” Wang confesses nonchalantly. “Looking back I sometimes think, ‘yes, I was quite young,’ but moving away from home taught me to be responsible for a lot of things and also to be very independent.”
"I didn't think about a type of image I wanted to put out there. I'm just being sincere about who I am."
In her teenage years, flourishing amidst the expressive freedom afforded to her during her studies in the United States, Wang would seize upon the opportunity to play the monumental repertoire of her early piano idols. “As a teenager I had a very strong opinion of my own. I was never one to do what people told me to – I did exactly what I wanted! But I guess all teenagers are like that,” she says, with just a hint or rebellion in her voice. “I got to study all the big Russian repertoire, which was really my dream, because in China I was always told, ‘oh, you have such tiny hands!’ But at Curtis I could play anything I wanted!”
As a musician and artist so clearly psychologically evolved beyond her years (as well as being ferociously determined), Wang’s uninhibited personal styling might, to the casual observer at least, seem like a bit of a contradiction: perhaps more precocious than mature. I’m curious about how consciously has she considered her image? “It developed in very much the same way as I have musically,” she replies. “I didn’t think about a type of image I wanted to put out there. I’m just being sincere about who I am, in a very honest and – not literally of course – exposed way, because that is how I play.”
Consciously or not, Wang has shrugged off many of the dusty stereotypes of classical performance and in doing so captured the attentions of many who are intrigued by her defiance of time-honoured conventions, while raising more than a few eyebrows along the way. In a review in the LA Times following a typical performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011, one critic noted, “Had there been any less of the dress, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18, not accompanied by an adult.” Unphased by this kind of scrutiny in the press, for Wang her concert attire has never been about making a fashion statement. “I don’t feel the need to wear a big gown and be somebody else just because tradition says you have to wear a gown for a performance,” she says. “In a way I’m trying to say that what I look like doesn’t matter. I want to feel that I can be myself on stage, focusing on what the sound can communicate, not what I’m wearing.”
Equally paradoxical is Wang’s online successes on video sharing sites like YouTube, where the many clips of her performances have attracted millions of views, playing a vital role in the international scale of her celebrity. “I’m not a big fan of those distractions, in fact I actually think they can be very detrimental,” she says. “As a musician I need to be able to practice, sometimes for hours, without constantly checking the phone. Discipline is really vital, because even though you may think you’ve put the hours in, if you practice without concentration it’s not cool. Someone else looks after my Facebook and Twitter for me now!”
The effortlessness with which Wang has naturally happened upon such a compelling and rewarding public image shares the same tinge of serendipity that mark some of her earliest artistic breakthroughs. Although she commands top billing now, previously as an exciting young artist building a reputation as a star in the making she was invited to cover for some of the world’s most notable pianists, a list of artists that included Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu and, in what can now be viewed as the performance that launched Wang’s career, Martha Argerich at a performance in Boston in March 2007.
Despite being placed squarely in the intensely pressured international spotlight from the age of 20, the magnitude of these pivotal opportunities proved far from overwhelming for the young pianist. Wang recalls them now with a palpable sense of affection. “I guess I was pretty fearless back then. I wasn’t terrified at all, I was like, “Sure, I can do it! That’s awesome! I should definitely be the one to do it!” I was very positive and just so excited to have the opportunity to play a concert. I wasn’t thinking too much about replacing those legends. Perhaps if I had to do it now I might think twice!” she admits.
Wang is just as wistful recalling the surprisingly fortunate connections that these crucially significant performances offered up. “I’ve been so lucky – one thing always led to another. I played for Charles Dutoit, which is how I met Martha. When she asked me to cover for her because she was feeling unwell, I think that’s when Barenboim heard me. When I covered for Murray [Perahia], Claudio [Abbado] heard the concert. Everything was really interconnected, so I feel really very lucky it turned out that way,” she remarks. “I’ve had the chance to step in for everyone I’ve admired. That was kind of my job until I was 21. Except for Pollini, but that’s only because he hasn’t cancelled yet!”
Through a combination of youthful enthusiasm, fabulous talent and sheer luck, Wang has been catapulted through the stratosphere and into the constellation of elite classical superstars. Today however, the breakneck spontaneity of those decisive early engagements has given way to the more rigorously scheduled calendar of an in-demand headline artist, and those engagements standing in for famous pianists have been replaced with appearances sharing the concert platform with the world’s great maestros. I ask, of all the conductors she’s made music with, are there any that really stand out? “I think the most memorable would be Claudio Abbado,” she says with barely a hesitation. The late Italian conductor, one of the finest of the 20th century, who sadly passed away in January 2014, conducted Wang’s first concerto recording for Deutsche Grammophon, as well as some of the pianist’s most acclaimed concert appearances in Europe and China. The relationship was one communicated entirely through the music. “He barely said a word in rehearsals, to me at least. But during performances he could communicate everything with his energy and gestures, through something very intangible. He could always bring the very best out in his musicians, without any words at all,” Wang confides.
Claudio and Abbado and Yuja Wang © Medici.tv
Whereas Abbado and Wang shared a nonverbal connection, the pianist has benefitted from a much closer relationship with American maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, or “MTT” as she affectionately calls him. “He’s been a mentor of mine since I was 17. He’s always on top of things and really updated. He’s just a very creative and inspiring person,” Wang says.
However, while she has been championed by some of the most illustrious names of the 20th century, Wang is just as proud of her collaborations with the next wave of great conductors. Among them the irresistibly charismatic Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, with whom Wang recorded Prokofiev’s Concerto No 2 and Rachmaninov’s Concerto No 3 back in 2013, accompanied by the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar. “He’s just so high energy – we match pretty well,” she says of the South American maestro. “He is Claudio’s protégé, and he shares his incredible level of listening and awareness of each other. The unity of sound is everything, and the speed of his reflexes are just amazing for a soloist.”
Another protégé of Claudio Abbado, who Wang will be working with in July when she makes her first trip back to Australia since that early international performance at the age of seven, is Diego Matheuz, Principal Guest Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. While she hasn’t worked with Matheuz before, the pianist will be in familiar musical territory, performing Prokoviev’s Concerto No 2 just as she did with Dudamel in 2013. I wonder, does she expect to share the same connection with Matheuz as she experienced with Dudamel and Abbado? “I’m not sure. I hope so, definitely,” she responds with a slight chuckle.
Before she heads down to Victoria, Wang will make her Australian concerto debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of a far more familiar face for the soloist, the conductor Lionel Bringuier. “We’ve played together since we were 19, and this year we’re practically married as I’m an artist-in-residence at the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich, where he is the Chief Conductor,” she beams. “We played in Israel together, we opened the Hollywood Bowl together, and next we’re going to Australia!”
When the pair take to the stage at the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall next month it won’t be to deliver one of the gargantuan Russian concertos for which Wang has become so well known, but another beast of the Romantic canon, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 2. The change of tack is all part of the pianist’s drive to stay fresh and stimulated. “People definitely always love it when I play that big Russian repertoire, but I’ve played it so much that it’s not that interesting anymore, no matter how great the pieces are. So I really had to learn the Brahms,” she confides.
Over the next year Wang will continue diversifying her repertoire with planned performances of Mozart, Beethoven and even Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, although the music of the Baroque and early Classical masters, such as JS Bach and Haydn, remain conspicuously absent for now. Wang seems keenly aware of the challenges of tackling music from a such a different aesthetic orbit compared to the dark Russian works she is so well known for – “There’s no way you can play Mozart that’s the right way,” she sighs – but in typically defiant style she remains resolutely fearless and determined to continue reinventing herself.
A lot has changed for Yuja Wang in the 21 years since she last stepped onto an Australian stage, but given the powerful current of her indefatigable spirit its unsurprising that she returns Down Under, not as a child, but with the world at her feet. “People always have something to say,” she remarks confidently. “But I’m just being me. I don’t care what people think or say, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.”
Yuja Wang performs with Sydney Symphony, July 15-18 and with Melbourne Symphony, July 23-24. She plays a recital at Sydney’s City Recital Hall on July 13
FIVE GREAT YUJA WANG RECORDINGS
Yuja Wang p, Simón Bolívar SO/Dudamel
Kavakos v, Wang p
Yuja Wang p
Yuja Wang p
Piano Concerto 3
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Abbado