The dynamic Yuja Wang to make her Boston recital debut
By any measure, Yuja Wang is at the top of the game. The Chinese piano phenom launched her North American tour earlier this month, playing George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony in Miami Beach.
She is following that up with eleven solo recitals in October. The venues include Carnegie Hall, The Royal Conservatory in Toronto, San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, and Boston’s Jordan Hall where Wang will make her local recital debut for the Celebrity Series this Friday. The program will include Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3, Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Kapustin’s Variations for Piano, and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka.
“When I play recitals in a row, the pieces really grow on me, because there are things I can only learn onstage,” she said in a recent phone interview from Sweden. “For me, the recital is much more free, because I can take my time. I am the protagonist for the storytelling, and I can expose much more. With a recital I spend much more time, and energy, and physically it’s much more exhausting.”
Rounding off her current tour are two additional concerti: Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Philadelphia Orchestra November 7-9, and then Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic December 19 –22. (Her live CD of the “Rach 3,” plus the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2, with Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela was released earlier this month.)
At just 26, Wang is a force of nature. She’s already an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon recording artist and a Steinway artist. In phone conversation, Wang is relaxed, with a ready laugh and quick wit.
She was speaking from Stockholm, where she was preparing for performances of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. It’s a piece she loves, but acknowledges that it’s a challenge for her audience.
“It’s hard to digest. You really have to know the piece inside out, because everything happens really fast, and there’s lots of contrapuntal stuff. It’s not like you can go to the concert and just enjoy it. It has to grow on you. It’s very intellectual, lots of math, proportion, and every motive is augmented, diminished, and inverted.
“If you analyze the whole thing, you’re like ‘Wow, this is very scientific.’ But if you just hear, it, because of the fast tempo, you’re just like, ‘Wait, what?’”
Born in Beijing and trained at its Central Conservatory of Music, Wang polished her English beginning at age 11 as a student in a Chinese-Canadian summer exchange program at Calgary’s Mount Royal College. She went on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Wang’s dedication has earned her a debut in Bartók’s home country. From Stockholm, she went to Budapest for two performances of the Bartók, with the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, and Zoltán Kocsis conducting.
“Kocsis is really the reason why I started to like Bartók,” acknowledges Wang, “because of all his recordings of Bartók. He’s going to be the conductor, so I really want to discover the whole thing again with him.”
Coincidentally, the Bartók 2nd is the piece Wang performed with the New World Symphony on her last trip to Miami. She originally learned the Bartók with Michael Tilson Thomas, for whom she has now learned the Gershwin, and with whom she shares a special relationship.
“He is very maternal toward me,” laughs Wang, calling the conductor by his nickname, MTT. “It’s really rare to come across such a brilliant musician and at the same time a really caring and humble human being. Every time I’m in Miami or San Francisco, I’m staying at his house instead of hotels.
“It feels like he’s an all-around mentor. He had the idea of doing Gershwin. I don’t know anything about Gershwin, but coming from a theater family, Gershwin is naturally very close to MTT’s heart, and for me, the best connection to the Gershwin is through him.”
She originally met Tilson Thomas in San Francisco when she was only 17, rehearsing for a Chinese New Year concert with one of his assistants.
“The first thing that caught my attention about Yuja was how she listens while she is making music,” Tilson Thomas recalls. “It is extraordinary how she is involved with every note and with every person on stage playing with her.”
“I remember really clearly,” says Wang, “even though this was ten years ago. I was lucky he was in the hall while we were rehearsing, and then he invited me for a Gala Concert the year after. Since then, I’ve been invited back often, and luckily always with MTT, not a guest conductor. To go every year or two, and absorb his energy – he always has so many inspiring ideas that you can conjure up years afterward.”
Their collaborations have include numerous concerti with the San Francisco Symphony and New World, the YouTube symphony, and a tour of Asia, including her homeland, China. After her October NWS performance, the pair will team up in San Francisco next May to perform Rachmaninoff—not his Concerto No. 3, but the rarely heard No. 4.
“That was my choice,” she happily recounts. “I’ve done all the other Rachmaninoff besides One and Four. It’s just something I’ve added into my repertoire this year, along with the Gershwin, Shostakovich’s First, and Beethoven’s Third.”
Although Wang has an impressive number of works in her repertoire, she tosses it off casually, saying, “Being a pianist, it’s kind of like, that’s what we do.” But it is a dizzying list of accomplishments nonetheless.
“In the years since we have worked together she has taken on almost all of the major concerti, polished them off and now is moving into new and contemporary repertoire,” says Tilson Thomas. “She is always exploring music and it is exciting to keep up with her ever-curious spirit. She is a tremendously fun and yet serious person and always has a way of making the musical experience seem brand new.”
With concerti, Wang feeds off the energy from the orchestra. In her recent performance and upcoming CD with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the energy was palpable. “Their energy was amazing,” she recalls. “Just to have that orchestra behind me was like being charged with blood and emotions.”
She and Dudamel knew each other by reputation, before they finally met in the Hollywood Bowl for a Tchaikovsky concerto in 2012. When their schedules aligned this February, they seized the opportunity to perform and record the Prokofiev 2nd and the Rachmaninoff 3rd with the Simón Bolívar Symphony
And they have bigger plans ahead, says Wang. “We both are young and we want to try something new. We were thinking Schoenberg.” (Note; Gustavo Dudamel will being the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Jordan Hall under the Celebrity Series’ auspices on March 23.)
Wang’s interest in new music comes from her desire to experience making music with living artists. “I think one of the most exciting aspects of being a musician is getting to know people who have a voice, have something to express, and to play that. Since I don’t improvise, this is something I can do.”
While Wang has worked with nearly every leading conductor today, including Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Charles Dutoit, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, and Kurt Masur, she is particularly thrilled about the two conductors who are leading off her fall season.
“Learning Gershwin with MTT and doing Bartók with Kocsis—-really, you can’t get better than that.”
Yuja Wang performs music of Chopin, Prokofiev, Kapustin and Stravinsky 8 p.m. Friday at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661.
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