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Yuja Wang: I Have That Blood

Yuja Wang talks about rhythm, approach, avoiding Beethoven and Mozart, Russians who don’t give Back, Rihanna, Petrouchka, Chopin and music as people.

By Ben Finane

BORN IN BEIJING, Yuja Wang began playing piano at age six and went on to study at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, Calgary’s Mount Royal University and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. She is now based in New York City. Wang has risen to prominence on Russian Romanticism and is a regular in recital and as a soloist at America’s — and the world’s — great halls. Wang spoke to Listen in 2013 at Steinway Hall. Afterward, shooting B-roll for the video of the interview (watch it here), Wang effortlessly blitzed and blazed through forty minutes of solo and concerto repertoire, stream-of-consciousness style. “I think it was this one,” she said, landing briefly on Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4, “that really got me.”


Your father was a percussionist; your mother was a dancer. How did you arrive at the piano?

The piano was their wedding gift, and it was kind of sitting there at home. [Laughs.] And my mom actually wanted me to be a dancer, but I’m not very flexible or disciplined — so I failed at that. But I loved music, so she would bring me to the rehearsals of Swan Lake and other stuff. I like music and the piano was like a toy — I would just play around. My dad is quite… adamant about rhythms. So I was always scared if he was around, but it was okay if my mom was around.

‘Adamant about rhythms.’ He wanted you to get the correct rhythms or he was telling you not to rush?

Oh he’s like a Nazi: rhythm-wise, note-wise, I have to be super clean. He has a good ear. His other job is [that] people give him tapes and he writes it all down as a score, like transcriptions.

With Swan Lake as your introduction to classical music, did that start a love of the Russian Romantics for you?

It must have. I don’t know if it’s the music or feelings the music invokes. I was quite young. The Romantic feelings…I remember I listened to it over and over again, and then I had the Chopin Études by Pollini [(Deutsche Grammophon)] and Chopin Nocturnes by Rubinstein [(RCA)] — so lots of Romantic stuff. And after that, Furtwängler conducting Beethoven Symphonies [(EMI)]. I immersed myself in the music. I can’t describe what exactly it was, I just wanted to listen to it over and over.

What music do you want to keep hearing?

Everything! For lots of music, I remember the first time I heard it. I remember the place; I remember the smell; I remember who I was with. It’s imbued in the brain and it’s nice to bring that back.

You’ve recorded a lot of Rachmaninoff, and your recording of the Second Piano Concerto [(Deutsche Grammophon)] got my attention, because it seemed to breathe new life into that piece. It’s a popular work that we’d call a ‘warhorse’ —

— like all the other Russians [laughs] — 

It’s a warhorse because it’s embedded within the canon, but we keep playing them because they’re so deep and there are so many ways in.

Right. Those Russian pieces, they have a way of bringing out all the emotions, longings, the nostalgic feelings in us — so we feel really human, but at the same time it’s like something larger-than-life, larger-than-human, something we’re all connected to, like a collective maestoso glorious feeling about it — that we are part of something bigger than us. That being said, they’re fun, and lots of presenters always want those Russian pieces.

Each [Russian] composer is really different. Prokofiev is so dark and so powerful and could be caustic and acid, edgy. Rachmaninoff is just pure romance, or a little jazzy — but not very sentimental. And Scriabin of course is a completely different world.


Tell Me about Scriabin’s sound world for you.

Scriabin went through a few stages. Last month I played his Sonata No. 6, which was the beginning of when he started losing himself. [Laughs.] I like the descriptions that he used in his scores. All in French: ‘delirium,’ ‘ecstasy,’ or ‘concentrated, mysterious.’ It’s like, ‘What do you want?’ [Laughs.] You get the sense of losing one’s self. I’m sure when he was writing this piece, he was losing himself into this world and that’s why he never played it because he was so scared to play the first chord. It’s like he himself is being sucked into the color and the tones of the world he’s creating.

He had a Messiah Complex that eventually, as you say, infected his music.

Right. I think it’s a sense of abandoning one’s self. Actually we do that all the time as musicians, or as any performing-arts performer. When you abandon yourself, you do feel like you’re a messiah! [Laughs.] You do feel like you’re connected to a higher being. I guess that’s what happens, but I can’t see colors. [Laughs.]

So you don’t have A Messiaen problem [synaesthesia].


Do you approach a composer always with the same priorities, or are there certain things for each composer that you want to bring out?

I think I go through the same procedure, which is really reading the score very carefully, especially Brahms. Post–Brahms, I’m trying really hard to read the notes first. [Laughs.] No, I don’t think the approach changes — for me, at least. There are some pieces I feel I just learn by osmosis. And there are some, like late Brahms, that take such a long time. I know the notes, I can play the notes, but it feels like there’s a long, unconscious process that takes years — to digest and become that music so I can understand it. And when I understand it, I feel comfortable. I feel like I’m speaking the language. And that happens slower. And I think that’s part of the reason why I’m holding off on playing Beethoven or Mozart.

Why is that? Do you feel you’re not prepared to play Beethoven and Mozart specifically?

I’m just giving myself time because I’m only — I do feel a little older — but I am twenty-six and I do [want to] play those Russian pieces more thoroughly. It’s so passionate, so hot — I have that blood — especially when I played with Dudamel in the recording.

And those philosophical and psychological pieces need to undergo a long-term thought process. And those pieces I do want to save for later. And if I don’t get it later, then I’m — [laughs] — screwed. It’s actually a big risk to take.

So right now you’re sitting in Russian Romanticism.

Well, next recital I’m playing lots of Chopin. With the Russians, I know at least that there are always exciting elements in the performance, and it is, in a way, easier to be in that state of mind. It’s like going to a rock concert versus going to a lecture. [Laughs.] You’ll probably get more from the lecture and learn more, and have more growth and self-realization — I think that’s what I’m looking forward to with Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Bach. I probably will understand myself more. Whereas with the Russians, you’re putting out a lot of emotion, but I’m not sure how much you get back. So I can’t play them all the time. 

‘Those Russian pieces, they have a way of bringing out all the emotions, longings, the nostalgic feelings in us — so we feel really human, but at the same time it’s like something larger than life, larger than human, something we're all connected to...’

Let’s get back to your forthcoming recording with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

I’ve never really liked the recording process, so I asked for a live concert — and the project happened fast. The live concert happened in Venezuela: Prokofiev Second and Rachmaninoff Three. So the week before in Paris, I was trying to work out and knew I had to be fit. When I arrived, things were chaotic. But once the music started, it was satisfying. So much passion, blood and energy. And the reflexes [of the orchestra] — if I say one thing, they will, right away, do a hundred and fifty percent more, fifty percent better than I thought they could sound. That was such an inspiration for me. I play those two concertos quite a lot, so that extra jolt of excitement — and unexpectedness — drove the concert. The piano wasn’t great, but I had an amazing orchestra and it’s their first recording with a soloist so I was quite honored. And I did the Prokofiev Toccata as a bonus track; on the recording, it sounded like I was really on something. [Laughs.]

You say you wanted to be fit for the program. Does that mean pianistically fit or in shape?

I usually don’t care about physical fitness for a concert, but with those two concertos together, I do. It doubled everything. Plus, being recorded, you’re under a microscope: you hear everything. Mentally I have to be extremely alert and emotionally very heightened — almost exaggerated — to elevate myself to that state.

Do you still listen to Rihanna before you play?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I listen before — and after, to calm myself down. I love her voice.

Who else — outside of classical music — do you listen to?

I like Keith Jarrett. And if I really want to wake up I listen to five minutes of Art Tatum, because he’s so fast. I like Radiohead. I like The Black Eyed Peas. And this French singer, Zaz, I really like her voice. And Sting.

A lot of classical musicians see classical music at the top of the pyramid — and then everything else. I don’t get the impression you’re that way.

No. [Laughs.] Other music really excites me as well. Sometimes when I play Prokofiev, I try to extract the groove or beats from other rock music. There’s always a different approach — there’s not just one way to approach any music. That’s why it’s never boring to play the same piece over and over, because you see it from different angles. That said, I still haven’t seen one angle for Beethoven yet. [Laughs.]

You’re still looking for a way in to Beethoven. What’s making him tough?

I played him a lot when I was in China and then steered myself toward Russian music once I came here. Beethoven really takes maturity and involves lots of reading, lots of thinking. For me, Beethoven is a philosopher. His way of life is so different from mine — traveling around, hanging out with friends, partying. I think to play his music maybe needs solitude, maybe not a thousand years of solitude but it needs that kind of time. It’s like a good bottle of wine. Being by one’s self, quiet… maybe I’ll do that this summer. [Laughs.] 

‘There are pieces I want to know but it's like people: once you know them like that, maybe not. Maybe not friends’

You had a great performance of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka on your Transformations album [Deutsche Grammophon] that seemed to really capture his playfulness. When I say Stravinsky, what does that conjure up for you?

Stravinsky is like a different man in every decade. Maybe I’m shallow, but I still like his Firebird, Petrouchka, and of course The Rite of Spring. Every time I hear that piece, it’s amazing to think of it being played a hundred years ago, what genius that was. Petrouchka is the only piece actually written by the composer for solo piano. And I really identified with the Petrouchka character. Of course I saw the original ballet version. It’s really fun, this mechanical person with exaggerated emotions — and the movements are exaggerated as well, theatrical. So it wasn’t difficult to be Petrouchka myself. And it’s ballet music, so it’s easier for me. Whenever I see gestures or movements, it’s easier for me to imitate or to use my imagination. Petrouchka is actually on my upcoming program at Carnegie, though the majority is Chopin.

Chopin is an elegant craftsman.

Chopin for me is really special. The first piece I played publicly was a Chopin waltz — which I still play everywhere, the C-sharp minor [Op. 64, No. 2]. The first piano music I fell in love with was the Chopin preludes and études. His music is just directly from… it’s celestial. It’s just so perfect. Every piece is perfect. His mazurkas, Polonaises — so nationalist yet universal. And very innovative: his Second Piano Sonata, which I recorded on my first CD [Sonatas & Etudes, Deutsche Grammophon] — it’s really dark, every movement is like the four corners of the world and at the end, these leaves, circling around on the grave. So it’s an ominous feeling toward death — fearful, fragile but vulnerable, and at the same time really aristocratic, noble and so poetic.

When I was twelve, I played the Scherzo, No. 4, for Fou Ts’ong [winner of the Mazurka Prize at the 1955 International Chopin Piano Competition] — this cultural giant in China, he knows all this literature and poetry [that] is the essence of Chinese culture. So I played the Scherzo for him and he just said: “Chopin’s soul is completely Chinese.” [Laughs.]


I wrote the program notes for your May recital at Carnegie — and the program changed a lot before we got to the final one


That tells me that you put a lot of thought into what's on your recital programs.

— Or that I didn’t put a lot of thought….[Laughs.]

Well, when you're creating a recital program how do you determine the right balance?

It’s actually quite excruciating because you’re kind of like a director — for a movie, an opera, whatever — and you want to tell a story. You want to bring people on a journey. At the same time, there’s a balance between what actually interests me and what would be interesting for the audience. Of course, the Russians are so exciting and so emotional and so nice to listen to, but I’ve been doing that for a while. And there’s also a balance between quality and curiosity. There are pieces that I am very curious as to how they will sound in concert. Even pieces that people will know: the Brahms Handel Variations, the Beethoven “Hammerklavier.” But for me, they’re completely new. Everything is a new creation when you bring it on stage for the first time. And I’m always a nervous wreck. [Laughs.] No matter how much you prepare. Of course, pieces I’ve played for a long time and even recorded — like the Scriabin or the Petrouchka — I know the quality will be up there, because it is a metamorphosis, a transition I underwent. The music is in my blood. And that process takes longer for pieces that I’m curious about — but the concert schedule doesn’t allow me to actually do that. But I like performing. It’s like living in a different state of being when I’m onstage. I have to keep doing that to feel alive. So that’s a very big dilemma and that’s part of the reason why I’m always changing the program.

You want to keep it fresh?

That and also once I learn a piece… There are pieces I want to know but it’s like people: once you know them like that, maybe not. Maybe not friends. And there are pieces you don’t know, and it’s mysterious. The more you know, the more you want to know. And you want others to know; you want to share. It’s like books; it’s like people. It’s always a matter of curiosity — and satisfying that curiosity.

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.   

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