Yuja: “Doing my own thing”

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.

9 Responses to “Yuja: “Doing my own thing””

  1. I am certain that I was the first to describe you as a force of nature, not unlike a solar flare.

  2. Just bought this CD. It is amazing and brings new life to both Concerti. I can’t wait to hear Yuja for real when she comes to the Barbican in London in February. I hope she enjoys being in London. I am sure she has many many fans here one of which of course includes me.

  3. Cuando descubrí a Yuja Wuang en el youTube, me atrapó. desde entonces la seguí tratando de encontrar cuál es el vínculo. Por fin lo encontré en la interpretación del concierto #3 de Rachmaninov. Me fascina la forma como interpreta su cuerpo, con la excelencia íntegra y coherente con que interpreta la música.

  4. What a joy to hear!

  5. Ti ho ammirata in due concerti su yout..! Grandiosa e semplice, amabile e delicata. Bravissima. :)

  6. Thanks for sharing, even if you don’t “reveal much of yourself in an interview.” We look forward to seeing you in San Francisco this winter! Hope you don’t mind the cold :)

  7. I hope she, does, play at Curtis in March, but I do not see it on the schedule.

  8. [...] As Gary Graffman and his wife, Naomi, come backstage to see Lio after the concert, it becomes clear how personally involved the Graffmans are with Gary’s students’ lives, beyond their careers. Graffman continuously keeps in touch with all of his students, past and present, keeps up with lessons and attends many of their concerts. Remarkable is the loyalty some of his star- pupils maintain, which includes his close connection to Lang Lang, who, irritated by the fact that his great mentor was out of sync with the latest technology, had just recently provided him the latest cell phone model. “They all call, text or email,” he says. The Graffman’s elegantly curated residence on West 57th Street, houses an expansive art collection, boasting a conglomerate of Asian artifacts of varying geographical regions and historic provenance, and equipped with a professionally grade bar, often hosts ‘his musicians’ and visiting performers after a concert performance across the street, at Carnegie Hall, including Yuja Wang and artists like Evgeny Kissin. Quite the charmer, Graffman, while mixing drinks behind the counter of his bar, shares some anecdotes about his family’s heritage, his pianistic legacy and his worldwide travel- and teaching experiences that kept his spirits high, even after his performance career had come to an abrupt halt. Similarly to his colleague, the esteemed pianist, turned conductor and pedagogue Leon Fleisher in 1964, Graffman, in 1979, suffered an affliction to his right hand’s extensor muscles with the ring finger and the two small fingers weakening and curling with uncontrollable spasms, which prevented the continuation of a pianistic career based on two-hand repertoire. The condition also generally known as focal dystonia became a major game changer within the pianist’s life, when it became clear that merely changing fingerings within scores would not suffice and Graffman had to adjust his life, affording a great deal of courage, vision, and humility, and his ability to see the positive in things:”At that point it looked like it was the end of the world, but it turned out it was ok,” he says. “Otherwise I would have never become the head of Curtis,” he adds; and he certainly would not have established one of the greatest legacies as a mentor for the next generation of pianists, many of whom do not only admire him for giving on the treasures of a great pianistic tradition but for opening their minds for the significance of culture in our civilization in general. Yuja Wang was impressed how much she was able to absorb from Graffman’s great knowledge about her own, Chinese culture, coming as a young girl to Curtis. (see my article about Yuja Wang ) [...]

  9. [...] ‘Seine Musiker’ kommen oft vorbei,  wie auch nach New York kommende Auftrittskünstler, einschließlich Künstler wie Evgeny Kissin, die nach einem Konzertauftritt in der Carnegie Hall gegenüber auf der anderen Strassenseite auch bei Graffmans zu Gast sind. Ganz ein Chameur, erzählt Graffman, während er hinter der Bar uns einen Drink mixt, einige Anekdoten über seine Familienherkunft, sein pianistisches Vermächtnis und seine weltweiten Reise- und Unterrichtserfahrungen, die ihn bei Laune hielten, selbst nachdem seine Auftrittskarriere ein abruptes Ende gefunden hatte. Ähnlich wie bei seinem Kollegen, dem 1964 erkrankten, geachteten Pianisten Leon Fleisher, erlitt Graffman im Jahre 1979 ein Leiden an den Streckmuskeln seiner rechten Hand, an der die Ring- und die beiden kleinen Finger schwächer wurden und sich mit unkontrollierbaren Krämpfen krümmten, was eine Fortsetzung seiner pianistischen Karriere, die auf einem zweihändigen Repertoire basiert, unmöglich machte. Dieser Zustand, der auch allgemein als fokale Dystonie bekannt ist, führte im Leben des Pianisten zu einer tiefeinschneidenen Veränderung, als klar wurde, dass ein bloßes Verändern des Fingersatzes innerhalb der Partituren nicht ausreichen würde und Graffman sein Leben entsprechend anpassen musste. Ein großes Maß an Courage, Vorausblick, Bescheidenheit und seine Fähigkeit, das Positive in den Dingen zu sehen, hervorbrachte kamen ihm in dieser schweren Zeit zu Hilfe: “Zu diesem Zeitpunkt sah es so aus, als handelte es sich um das Ende der Welt, aber zum Scluss stellte es sich als o.k. heraus,” meint er. “Sonst wäre ich nie der Leiter von Curtis geworden,” fügt er hinzu, und mit Sicherheit hätte er nicht eines der größten Vermächtnisse als Mentor für die nächste Generation von Pianisten begründen können, von denen ihn viele nicht nur dafür bewundern, die Schätze der großen pianistischen Tradition weiterzugeben, sondern ihre Sinne für die Bedeutung von Kultur in unserer Zivilisation im Allgemeinen zu öffnen. Yuja Wang war davon beindruckt, wieviel sie von Graffmans großem Wissen über ihre eigene chinesische Kultur für sich aufnehmen konnte, als sie als junges Mädchen zu Curtis kam. (Siehe meinen Artikel über Yuja Wang) [...]

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