There are great performers who take you on a personal journey into the depths of a composer’s world, and then there is Yuja, who makes them come alive with her signature force-of-nature drive, both on and off stage. Her last Carnegie Hall recital in October 2013 was a perfect example; the concert was a feat of virtuosic repertoire, which she mastered with grandiose control. But beyond her sweeping performance style, there was something evanescent connecting her to the audience, a vitality that conveyed her very own truth through music.
Following up with the 26 year-old piano superstar for an interview, we met at ‘Indies,’ a small lounge we both frequent not far from her New York apartment near Lincoln Center.
“I react a lot to the audience and feed off the energy I feel in the hall”, Yuja says. “I have always performed, from early on, and I get to know my repertoire through performance, by doing – and that has not really changed. I need to perform to feel alive. Every time it’s different, it’s organic. When I perform with different artists, they all bring out a particular side in me. Even with different friends, I can be a different person.”
There have been many comments about some of her outfits, and her unabashed, sexy appearance at her Hollywood Bowl performance has drawn a good amount of criticism. Yuja’s response to that? ” “I am like a chameleon, reacting and adapting to my surroundings.” And: “Their criticism says much more about them than it says about my choice of dress.”
Her candor may have something to do with the fact that she does not really dwell on reviews: “I never read them – once it’s done, it’s done,” she says with the sunniest of smiles. She also displays an astounding indifference to the vast amount of publicity around her. Untainted by ‘all that jazz’, her self-assured personality conveys a fierce independence and an eccentric authenticity that might help to keep her vulnerable self hidden and protected. “I don’t really like to reveal too much of myself in an interview,” she adds, “and somehow I am never really quoted correctly, anyhow.”
For Yuja, truth lies in music. “I play my best when I am sincere,” she explains. “That’s when I am able to move people. But the perception changes easily: for example, when I started recording, what I thought I was doing was very different from what I heard in the recording. Sometimes it had nothing to do with what I felt – it’s a whole butterfly effect.” She goes on to describe the process of finding the honesty she aims for in her playing, here for example during a recording session: “I play, then I go listen, I hate it. I think to myself, I can play so much better. Then I try three times, four times, five times and listen again and compare… only to find that the first time was the best.”
Another of her critics’ bones of contention is what they call the ‘flashy’ rather than ‘serious’ style of her interpretations, to which she answers: “I have learned Beethoven, I have learned Bach, but I just do not feel the same excitement that I feel when playing Rachmaninov.” Nevertheless, Yuja will perform Beethoven’s Concerto No.3 with the London Symphony Orchestra during her residency at the orchestra’s Artist Portrait series in February of 2014.
“Virtuosic scores are not necessarily about a flashy style”, she explains. “My presenters schedule all these romantic and post-romantic works two years in advance, and I want to bring my best to the stage. However, when I am excited about a piece, and the more it connects to my personality, the better I can play it and grip the audience. That does not mean I don’t sometimes tire of that much fire either; I do. And there is a lot to learn.”
In summer 2014, Yuja will collaborate again with violinist Leonidas Kavakos, this time featuring Brahms’s sonatas for violin and piano. Through Kavakos, she also connected to the legendary Hungarian pedagogue Ferenc Rados (Andràs Schiff’s teacher) who she considers to be a genius. “He can change your musical insight of a piece, how to structure it best, based on its inherent harmony.”
Travelling all over the globe for over 80 concerts and recording engagements each year, Yuja doesn’t really get to spend much time in one place. “Someone asked me recently, ’Where are you at home?’ and I answered: ‘My living room is in New York, my studio is in Paris, and I record in Germany,’ but then, it isn’t really as much about the place as it is about the people.”
She enjoys being a citizen of the world, and there are lots of adventures away from the piano she would like to experience, like going to India and living there for a while without Internet. At the same time, she knows that it would take a lot of courage to detach herself from her rigorous performance schedule. “Separation anxiety,” she calls it. Which is very much what the 14 years old Yuja might have felt when she left her Beijing family 12 years ago.
Back then, her teacher at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing had recommended that she continue her studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, hoping Yuja would be able to study with the eminent pedagogue, Claude Frank. But when Yuja finally arrived for an audition at Curtis, it was Gary Graffman who took her under his wings.
“He loves Chinese culture, and he is a big collector of Chinese art”, she says about Graffman who also mentored superstar pianist Lang Lang. “He taught me a lot about Chinese history and culture. Even though he belongs to a very different generation, we had this wonderful relationship.” And about his style of teaching she says: “Artistically he would leave me lots of freedom and just loved it when I found something unexpected in the music. His face would light up and I loved getting that reaction. I ‘worked’ that, and it inspired me to surprise him again.” Graffman, at whose 85th birthday celebration in March 2014 Yuja will play, retired as President of Curtis after Yuja’s graduation in 2008. “Without him, my career would be nothing,” she says. “He inspired me deeply and through him I was connected to the whole of the European classical music culture. … When I was young, I dreamed of studying in Europe. But at Curtis, I got to play for everyone who connected me indirectly to the great tradition; finally I also played for Claude Frank, Pamela Frank and Leon Fleisher, among many other artists.”
Yuja also values the emphasis Curtis places on developing friendships over competition between students. “Curtis is an amazing environment altogether; it is a small school and super welcoming. It’s all about the discovery of music and about igniting curiosity. And they treat everybody like they are an exception. It has a special place in my heart.”
What is it like not being part of a group of students anymore? Yuja smiles, and a little lost in thought she says: ”I am often lonely. But I am used to this. Even as a kid I did not really play with other children. I was not very social but not unhappy about it. I was practicing and doing my own thing.”
Which is what she is still doing. And very successfully so.
All photos courtesy of Yuja Wang.
Yuja’s fifth recording with Deutsche Grammophon: Piano Concertos/Rachmaninov, Prokofiev consists of recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 op. 30 and Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2, Op. 16 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela will be released in January 2014.