Meet Musical America Artist of the Year Yuja Wang
12/28/2016 6:08 PM
Yuja Wang has been awarded the title of 2017 Musical America Artist of the Year. The 56th Annual Awards ceremony takes place at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on December 8, to recognize Ms. Wang and her fellow honorees – the list includes composer Andrew Norman, conductor Susanna Mälkki, bass-baritone Eric Owens, and the ensemble Eighth Blackbird.
Written by Stuart Isacoff
Originally published in Musical America
She represents a new breed—the complete, thoroughly modern package. Wearing stunning gowns chosen specifically to match the repertoire she is playing, she has cultivated a persona of visual beauty as well as musical brilliance. And then there are those dynamite encores—wow!
In a recent video for Giorgio Armani, Musical America’s Artist of the Year, Yuja Wang, performs Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, the work’s dark, dulcet tones swirling against a dimly lit backdrop of piano and pianist as the music gently weaves a spell of soulful mystery. The performance, technically impeccable and full of subdued passion, is intercut with images of Yuja in a variety of tasteful fashion poses. There was a time when this would have raised eyebrows, along with protestations about classical music’s chaste role in a world full of commercial taint. Welcome to the 21st century, when women play the piano as well as men and feel free to flaunt their other gifts as well.
Yuja Wang represents a new breed—she’s the complete, thoroughly modern package. Wearing stunning gowns chosen specifically to match the repertoire she is playing, she has cultivated a persona of visual beauty as well as musical brilliance. And she packs a photographic wallop. In a New York Times Arts and Leisure feature, the diminutive pianist was shown seated at the keyboard, adorned in five-inch heels, arms outstretched as if ready to take flight, head extended to the sky, her graceful right leg extending to the sustain pedal. It could have been a study by the elegant sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The caption noted her “power and poetry.”
Her career is soaring. An exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon has already produced seven discs, with repertoire ranging from Brahms, Scriabin, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff to Chopin, Liszt, Ligeti, and Ravel. Her rendering of Petrushka is a lesson in orchestrating at the piano, filled with changes of color; Stravinsky’s counterpoint filigree is projected with individual dynamics and timbre, evoking sparks leaping from a fire. Brahms’s Paganini Variations are treacherously difficult, but she eats them for breakfast. Her Brahms Violin Sonatas with Leonidas Kavakos are filled with dramatic intensity and introspective breadth.
This season, the 29-year-old pianist’s schedule includes an Asian tour with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, a Bartók concerto cycle with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performances with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and recitals with baritone Matthias Goerne and Kavakos. And she was named the second artist-in-residence ever of China’s National Center for the Performing Arts, where her plans include concerts with multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger, among others.
“He’s brilliant,” Yuja declares. “We are planning an arrangement of The Rite of Spring, and possibly one of West Side Story. And we’ll be doing a one-piano arrangement of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. For that I’ll have to be Medusa at the piano,” she laughs, although the image of Kali, the many-armed Hindu goddess, more aptly describes her stunning technical prowess.
The Beijing-born Yuja began piano lessons at age 6, though she says she could read scores by the time she was 5. The instrument didn’t exactly call to her, however. She simply knew she liked music, and the piano was her easiest entry point. Within two years, her teacher informed her parents that she belonged in a conservatory, and that they needed to purchase a better instrument. She entered Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music. And from that point on, her life was in the hands of the Fates.
She worked on the standard repertoire up to Brahms. “The approach was different from the way things are done here. I had to work on a single piece until it was perfect in all the details. And I entered many competitions. I liked it at the time, even though it was like being in a straitjacket,” she recalls. “It gave me a good foundation so that later I could be free—there’s always a balance between the two.”
Youngest Student at Morningside
At the age of 12, Yuja became the youngest student ever accepted at the Morningside Music Bridge International Music Festival at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. “They are amazing people, the most supportive ever. Calgary became like a second home. Of course, Glenn Gould is their hero, but they are open-minded about so many things. They really opened up my vision. When I turned 14, I started going to school there full time.”
How did she manage being on her own in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language and culture? “I think it is the dream of every 14-year old to be away from home,” she responds. “I loved it. I was ready. I had been going to school and taking lessons since I was 7. A new door was opening and I was excited.”
Then, at 15, the Curtis Institute—the Philadelphia Conservatory “with a huge reputation in China”—beckoned. She auditioned, and when word came that she had been accepted, she felt relief at leaving the cold Canadian climate for the warm mentorship of Gary Graffman. “He became my anchor,” she says. “There is something so positive and inspiring about him,” adds Yuja. “Before meeting him I didn’t realize how many interesting things there are in the world. For example, he is a huge fan of Asian art. He brought me to Sotheby’s one day, and pointed out aspects of Chinese history: ‘This is Han Dynasty, this looks like Sung Dynasty.’” The program at Curtis, from which she graduated in 2008, offered new vistas for learning and performing.
Gaining entry was no easy task. “In my year there were 120 applicants,” she explains, “and, as usual, they chose two or three.” If the Canadian experience opened her eyes to a wider world, Curtis offered advantages she had barely dreamed of, including the ability to study with other important artists, such as Leon Fleisher. For Yuja, it had far-reaching implications. “I was just in Vienna,” she recounts, “and at dinner the question came up about which pianists people liked best in a Mozart performance. The consensus was that they loved Rudolf Serkin, and also Leon Fleisher. ‘You guys are from Vienna,’ I said, ‘and you think the best Mozart players are from America?’
“As Gary told me, that’s what’s so great about this country. You have everything here. Leon is descended from Schnabel, and Gary studied with Horowitz. Each has an individual voice—you hear it the moment either sits down. This made a big impression on me. So I saved the big Russian warhorses for Gary, and studied the German repertoire with Leon. At Curtis I was able to learn from every tradition.”
Read the entire feature at Musical America