When Chinese pianist Yuja Wang plays here Wednesday, she’ll be playing works by Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev and Alexander Scriabin – the same program as her October 20 her Carnegie Hall recital debut.
Judging by the acclaim this rising star has received in recent years, it’s a pretty safe bet it will be an evening to remember.
On the phone from her home in New York, the 24-year old pianist had plenty to say about her life, music – and those little dresses.
Q: Are your parents musicians?
A: My mom is a dancer, and my father’s a percussionist.
Q: What was it like studying at the Central Conservatory in Beijing? Is it like a Western music school, or is it different?
A: In some ways it’s like Juilliard or Curtis. They do teach traditional Chinese music, like Chinese opera – but it’s about 80 percent Western music: piano, violin, cello and singing. It’s a huge school, and it’s competitive, with high standards. It’s very hard to get in. I was there from the age of 9 to 14.
Q: You completed your training at the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia. How does it compare to the Beijing Conservatory?
A: I was there for six years, and they were probably the best years of my life. Curtis is about one-tenth the size of the Beijing Conservatory, and it was a really friendly environment. It was very exciting: everyone was so talented and loved music so much. I was in a bachelor’s program, so I also had classes in art history and psychology.
Q: According to your website, you’ve got a very busy year coming up, with concerts all over the world. How do you do so much?
A: I really don’t know! A week ago, I was in Sao Paulo, and then I was in Paris and Berlin. Last night I played a recital in Denver, and now I’m back in New York for a day. It’s a little inhuman, but I guess it’s part of the game. Some people say that I should take more time, and not burn out. But right now I’m just enjoying it.
Q: I feel I should ask you about your choice of concert attire, which has been much debated in the press lately. Why do you wear such small dresses on stage?
A: I’ve been wearing them for a few years now. But it was just recently that it was blown up into a controversy, after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I like to wear them in the summer, at outdoor concerts where I don’t want to wear a long gown. And with so many concerts to play, I want to wear something I enjoy wearing. What I wear on stage is just what I normally wear.
It’s not like there are some rules that I have to follow. And if people find it shocking – then I’m sorry. But I’m really just there to play the music.
Q: Were you surprised when this became a controversy?
A: I was very amused – but I was also puzzled. I didn’t think the controversy would go so far.
Q: You’re not a big person – yet some of the music you perform demands a lot of strength: Ravel’s La Valse, concertos by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, and the Liszt B Minor Sonata, which you’ll be playing in Houston. How do you find the strength and energy to play this music?
A: I’ve been playing this music since I was six – and I’m a lot bigger now than when I was six! So I don’t feel that there’s a physical problem. You don’t need to be big to play Rachmaninoff.
For me, playing the piano is more about motivation: about expressing things that inspire my imagination and make me want to communicate with people. I want to share the things in the music that make me excited.
Q: I see you’re also playing some pieces by Scriabin in your Houston recital. This isn’t an obvious choice. Why Scriabin?
A: He created a sound-world that nobody ever made before. His music is full of clouds and colors and explosions – there’s a lot physical force in it. And his early music is very Chopinesque. I love playing it.
Q: Your Carnegie Hall recital debut is coming up. How do you feel about it?
A: Other people in my life are more excited about than I am. I’d like to think that it’s just another recital, so I don’t freak out.
Q: Who are the pianists you most admire?
A: I definitely admire Horowitz, because he was unique. And Rachmaninoff was very sincere and straightforward – almost child-like. I also like Glenn Gould. And I wish they had recording technology in Beethoven’s time.
But I don’t listen to a lot of piano recitals, I must confess. I love orchestral music, and dance, and opera. I play solo piano music myself all the time, and I want to find inspiration from other stuff.
Q: What do you do in your spare time? Or do you have any spare time?
A: Oh, I have plenty! I spend a lot of time waiting in airports, so I read books and magazines. On flights, I love to watch movies: I love Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan. And I like to watch tennis – but I’m not athletic at all.
© Colin Eatock 2011