South-Korean pianist Joyce Yang has just begun her first solo recital tour in Australia for Musica Viva. Performing two challenging programs in nine cities, including a world premiere by emerging Australian composer Elizabeth Younan, Yang takes time out of her busy schedule to talk to Limelight about the whirlwind experience.

Joyce Yang. Photo © KT Kim

This is your first ever solo recital tour in Australia. Do you thrive off touring as a solo pianist?  

Doing consecutive solo recitals is a very challenging task, especially with jetlag and travel in between! Solo recitals are exponentially more difficult and taxing on the body and the mind than any other kind of collaborative performances. I interact with myself alone, and very often I find that I need to interact with different voices within my psyche that give conflicting suggestions to me during the concert! In a chamber music performance, I am instantly gratified by the way other musicians onstage respond to my playing – and there is a satisfaction or a release in tension in knowing that my musical thought has reached someone. In a solo recital, there is no feedback from anyone but myself as I am performing. I play hoping that the music I am performing is reaching the audience. It is a humbling journey to face all sides of yourself, believe in the journey, and stay positive. A solo recital tour is a rarity in my life. I almost never do more than a few recitals in a row! So I am taking this tour one concert at a time. Each concert will be unique and special – I must not let the huge magnitude of the tour overwhelm me!

You’ve created two very unique programs for the tour. Can you talk a little bit about the decision-making process? 

“Contrast” has been the keyword in coming up with these programs. I always liked putting together rather contrasting pieces that give life to each other and gain power because they are put next to each other, as part of a larger journey. I had many conversations with Artistic Director Carl Vine to narrow down the pieces. We went through countless variations in putting different pieces together, like a jigsaw puzzle. Then we came up with two contrasting programs that occupy opposite worlds.

In program one, I interwove a series of short movement pieces built on humour, spontaneity of thought, and poetic sentiment. I feel that each composer (Grieg, Debussy, Chopin, and Schumann) found themselves deeply inspired by their surroundings when they wrote these compositions – whether it is from nature, travels, person, or situation – and there is a sense of discovery in each piece, like they’re trying something new for the first time. There is a freedom in expression that seems both fresh, innocent, and full of hope. Sun shines through many passages and there is a celebratory undertone to each piece [Grieg’s Five Lyric Pieces, Debussy’s Estampes, Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Elizabeth Younan’s Piano Sonata and Schumann’s Carnval].

In program two, we explore dangerous, passionate sentiments through Rachmaninov’s Three Preludes, Janáček’s Piano Sonata, Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody, Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor and Elizabeth Younan’s Piano Sonata.

The light that is in program one sets and disappears into the sunset and program two lives at night-time. Even when the light appears, I imagine a dramatic single candlelight or shadowy flashes, never sunshine. The works in program two seem to contemplate the space between life and death (Janáček), the tug of war between the angel and the devil (Liszt), and the interplay between stillness and the storm (Rachmaninov). There are so many rollercoasters of emotion in this program. I am never too safe!

Liszt’s B Minor Sonata is a very challenging work. What for you are the most important things to keep in mind when you’re playing it?

This piece is a big journey. What is very difficult is the ability to be present in each moment but also be aware of where I am in a larger journey. You can’t let small things get to you because once you start criticising yourself, the piece will swallow you into a black hole, a point of no return! It gains incredible momentum during stormy sections but also has time to stop time during sublimely soft sections.

You’ll be giving the world premiere of Elizabeth Younan’s Piano Sonata. Can you talk a little bit about your involvement in the creation of that piece?

When I heard Elizabeth’s string quartet, I was absolutely blown away. It was like being introduced to a world I never thought existed. Her voice is so powerful – her music roared into my heart! We met for the first time last November when she travelled to Wellington to hear me play Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. We discussed all of our favourite pieces and the composers that we admire. Months later, I was sent this piece, her Piano Sonata!

What were your very first impressions of her Piano Sonata, and what are your impressions of it now that you’ve lived with it more? 

I think it is one of the most technically difficult pieces I came across! Some parts still feel like I’m climbing a devil’s staircase and I have to do everything in my power not to fall off! Difficulty aside, it is a tremendously atmospheric work that will put you on a fantastic journey. There is heart, virtuosity, and so much spontaneity built into the score. I hope I can do it justice.

Can you identify any particular technical challenges that the Piano Sonata poses? 

There is a lot of difficult counterpoint in this piece. Small motifs start to develop in all shapes and sizes and start interacting with each other. My two hands often need to be acting completely independent of each other to achieve the clear counterpoint. This was very difficult to master and I am still working each day to get it a little bit sharper!

What do you hope audiences will take away from these two programs?

I hope they walk away feeling like they’ve travelled to places they’ve never been… felt, smelled, experienced new things. I hope they feel a little more awakened by the experience, and feel inspired to explore more art.


Joyce Yang tours nationally for Musica Viva until July 21

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine