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Yuja Wang’s Boston Recital Debut this Friday


Pianist Yuja Wang is a busy and noted young celebrity who just released her fifth Deutsche Grammophon album last week, pairing the 2nd piano concertos of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. She makes her Boston recital debut this Friday, October 18, 8pm at Jordan Hall, as part of the Celebrity Series, and she’ll be back to Boston in March, 2014, to perform the Prokofiev 2nd with the BSO (3/27, 3/28, 3/29). Her BMInt interview follows:

James McDonald: Before questions, shall we shake things up a bit for our readers? I cracked up at your quote, from a Twitter feed (which I discovered in Vivien Schweitzer’s excellent New York Times article) about music reviews: “Music criticism should be to musicians what ornithology is to birds.” I completely agree.

Yuja Wand (file photo)
Yuja Wang (file photo)

Have you played most, or all, of the Prokofiev sonatas? Favorites?

Yuja Wang: I feel a real connection to Prokofiev and have read through all the sonatas. However, in concert I’ve only played No. 6, and now No. 3 coming up. I find the 8th sonata to be a particularly powerful statement. But the question of favorites is a movable target. It may be that No. 1 is a “favorite” in how it fits the rest of the program, while No. 8 is a favorite in a different setting. It all depends on context.

I know you’ll be playing the Prokofiev 2nd piano concerto with the BSO in March 2014 (3/27, 3/28, 3/29). And I know that the Prokofiev 3rd is a favorite of yours, because (as you were quoted in backstage interview at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia) that it fits your “edgy and kind of sarcastic and naughty personality,” (New York Times article). Can you elaborate a little on this? Will we get some sarcasm and naughtiness in the 3rd sonata?  

Is there any other way to play the 3rd sonata?? Prokofiev’s writing is pure genius, so in addition to the usual edginess and brilliant harmonic writing, there will be many moments of sarcasm and naughtiness.

I can’t wait to hear your Chopin! You’re well known for and have recorded the B-flat Minor Sonata. I’m so pleased you’ll be playing the B Minor (op. 58), and I’m especially looking forward to the 3rd movement, though I’m sure the last movement will be something to behold. Are there are particular artists performances or recordings of the B Minor that you particularly admire?

Wow – so many great recordings and performances, but… you may be surprised, I don’t really study other pianists’ recordings when learning a piece. Let’s just say I admire anyone who tackles a work of this depth.

The Kapustin Variations for Piano, op. 41, was not originally on your program. Have you known the piece for a long?  

I’ve known the Kapustin for a few years, but only recently brought it into my repertoire.

The Kapustin can be described as a note-for-note written score sounding like a jazz improvisation. It also quotes and pays homage to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, beginning with, and later re-quoting the beautiful, high bassoon solo.

I know the character of the Kapustin differs radically from the Stravinsky Rite of Spring, but: Is it fair to say that, in a sense, you’ll be doubling up on Stravinsky ballets in this program?

Honestly, I wasn’t thinking of it that way, but it’s nice to know of the connection. The Kapustin simply feels right in my program, and the fact that I’m also doing Petroushka is somewhat of a coincidence.

Stravinsky’s Petroushka is one of your signature pieces. When I thought I would not be able to hear you in Boston, I planned a New York mini-vacation around hearing you play this work live in Carnegie Hall (Oct 22). I guess it’s an understatement to say you’re a bit fond of this piece?

Whenever I find a piece that speaks to me, that has a voice which I relate to, I find it interesting. Petroushka is one of those great works.

I had the pleasure of hearing Pollini play Petroushka in Symphony Hall, a huge space. It was powerful. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Zimermann play in both solo recitals in Symphony Hall and in Jordan Hall. Now it seems that nearly all, if not all, of the Celebrity Series pianists play in Jordan Hall, or other smaller venues. I’ll have the pleasure of hearing you play the Stravinsky in Jordan, then a much bigger Carnegie Hall. Do you make any major adjustments for such a piece in these different settings?  

I find myself naturally having to adjust to the different acoustics of halls, and it happens somewhat spontaneously. It’s not something I can plan. Plus the sound of any hall will change when an audience is in there, so I naturally make adjustments between my warm-up in the empty hall and the concert with a full audience.

Related to the last question, Gary Graffman, with whom you studied at Curtis, referenced (New York Times article) your “broad range of artistic interests, [your] sense of humor and [your] ability to produce a ‘gorgeous sound’ from even second-rate instruments. She is very self-critical, he added.”

Is it possible to describe at all what sort of mental calculations you must make in order to make a second-rate instrument sound gorgeous?

It’s kind of you to imply that I make any instrument sound gorgeous. The fact is, unlike a violinist or flutist, I don’t carry my instrument with me (there are pianists that do), so I’ve learned to go with the flow, as they say. No specific mental calculations other than knowing ahead of time that each piano and each space is different.

You’ve commented that you’ve learned some pieces almost by osmosis (other, such as late Brahms, only after spending years with the music). Do you think it helps pianists (and all musicians) today to have access to recordings, and visuals (YouTube), to see someone play, not just study a score? If yes, is there a downside?

As I mentioned before, I don’t study recordings or videos of others as I prepare music. I do watch YouTube and listen to recordings separately, but not with the intent of hearing in how someone else plays a given piece and learning from that.

If there is a downside—and I don’t really know whether there is—it may be that someone tries to imitate another artist’s playing, and that can be artificial.

A few questions on a lighter note…

To the broad range of artistic interests… I’ve read much about your musical tastes, literary tastes, interest in fashion and dance, but nothing about the visual arts. Do you go to museums and galleries in NYC? Got original art on your walls? I’m guessing you’re more a Picasso than a Paul Klee fan?  

I frequently go to museums and galleries in many cities. It’s all about inspiration.  I have a variety of original works in my apartment. Haven’t bought a Picasso or a Klee, yet.

Based only on watching you on YouTube, you seem to play with such joy (that is not to say without pathos, sadness, the works). Just that you seem to enjoy your work, your play, at the piano. Accurate? Any nerves at all?

I love playing piano. I love making music. But, as you say, it’s not all joy by any means. Not so much that is makes me nervous. It’s a process of expressing a huge range of emotions.

Got perfect pitch? Yes.

How many hours a day at the piano? 3-4.
Do you play the Mephisto Waltz?  Yes, I have.

Quick sneaky question: Will you (please!) play different encores in Boston and NY? Then, I will have more to say to the ornithologists.

Encores are supposed to be spontaneous, and not planned ahead of time. We’ll just have to see…

About things you are proud of… long fifth fingers!? Might we get a picture of you holding up your hands? Wait, I do see such a Google photo… those are long fifth fingers!…but I can’t access the image. Could we get such a photo for BMInt?

Sorry, no hand photos in my collection!

The program:

Prokofiev, Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28

Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58; Nocturne No. 1 in C minor, Op. 48; and Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47.

Kapustin (b. 1937), Variations for piano, Op. 41

Stravinsky, Three Movements from Petroushka

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  1. Yuja Wang is a great and truly wonderful musical treasure in every way. Does any one play the piano better than she? I personally don’t think so. A better question might be, “does anyone play the piano as well as she”? A few other super virtuosi, of course,yet there is something she has to a greater degree than most, and it is demonstrated over and over in her playing. It is her deep musical interior which enables her to define and embrace the lyrical aspects of her music making in personal and probing ways, adding greater dimensions to her overall playing, and often to the music itself. There is a certain joy and wellness in Ms Wang. She is totally secure yet unpretentious and wonderfully alive, and as such, able to celebrate who and what she is in completely natural and fulfilling ways. And there in, we as partakers of her art, are in a sense blessed.

    Comment by Donald betts — October 24, 2013 at 3:11 pm

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