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Piano virtuoso Yuja Wang does more than tickle the ivories — she slays them

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Chinese pianist Wang Yuja smiles during a 2014 rehearsal at the National Concert Hall in Taipei. AFP/AFP/Getty Images

This week, The Frame received an invitation that we simply couldn’t pass up:

Come down to Disney Hall for a couple of hours, watch Gustavo Dudamel rehearse with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the world’s most talked-about pianists, Yuja Wang.

The 30-year-old piano virtuoso was born in China, but studied in Canada and the United States. She was a stand-out talent from a very young age, just look at how she owns the keys at just nine years old: 

Today she is a sought-after performer and she lives, more or less, in New York — though she's in such demand that she’s rarely home at all. She plays Bartók with the L.A. Philharmonic this weekend, and June 1-4 as well. Then she is off to England, Sweden, Denmark and Finland — just in the following two weeks.

After Wang rehearsed Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 1 with Dudamel and the orchestra, we sat down with her backstage. 

Interview Highlights:

We just got a chance to watch you rehearse with the L.A. Phil and Gustavo Dudamel. In a session like that, what do you learn about the music and the way it’s going to be played with the L.A. Phil?

Bartók's First Concerto is extremely heavy on the ensemble, so usually we take two or three rehearsals. But me and Gustavo kind of have this telepathic connection or something. So silence means so much. We just kind of grasp it spontaneously on stage with music and with whatever is on the score, and with this temporary explosive energy.

I’m very fascinated by Bartók — as a person, as a composer, as a pianist. Like Rachmaninoff, but much more mysterious for me. His brain, I think, works in a mathematical way. Unlike any other composer, he wrote a timing after every section. So he’s kind of a control freak. And he wrote all these pieces that he has to play himself, and they’re very challenging. So he’s probably a sadist. He’s very interested in the Golden Ratio, in the mathematical formula for his structure. This is the first time I’m actually playing all three [concertos] with one band. So it’s going to be fun.

When you have a composer who is so mathematical and so precise, is it harder for you to find ways in which you can express your own identity through playing?

That’s really interesting. I was just thinking that today. Because I was like, Wow, I really do not have any freedom of expression. Really. Because I played Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Ravel, Gershwin — I play all this with Gustavo. And today, all we’re doing is trying to be exactly precise, following the score. I think what makes me happy won’t be my interpretation, but actually striving for the perfection that he has indicated with the score. That’s a way of looking at it. But ... we have recordings of [Bartók’s] own playing, which is extremely free and lyrical. He’s screwing around a lot. He never followed what he wrote himself. So maybe I can do that as well. (laughs)

You travel the world, and I think people have this idea that you’re seeing great cities, and out and about. Do you actually get to see the cities that you’re visiting? Or is it travel, rehearse, perform, etc.?

I have to walk around. I love parks. I love walking in parks to get some chemicals in my head. And I think life is not about racing through those things. It’s about really enjoying and noticing those things. Actually, a few days ago when I got to L.A., the concierge said, "You are going to be with us for 14 nights, is that correct?" And I was like, Oh my God, the last time I was in one city for 14 nights is like when I was in Curtis [Institute of Music]. Gladly, L.A.’s not a bad city. Love the sun, love the people here. I have lots of friends. So I’m going to enjoy that.

People often comment on how you dress on stage. In doing research I found headlines like: "The Pianist Whose Skimpy Outfits Are As Closely Watched As Her Concertos." What is your reaction to people who are fixated with how you dress on stage?

I'm just letting that go and being very patient, because in the end that doesn't matter. It is human nature, I'm not denying that. I love to look at beautiful people and I love beautiful dresses and I love beautiful heels, but for me that's not essential. What moves me, what keeps me going in the power of music, is the growth of human soul. That's what they're supposed to say. It makes me really angry and frustrated because there's so many layers and layers of depth to music, of different things they can talk about. But, nope, they stop right there. What does that have to say about me? Nothing. What does it say about them? A lot. 

You recently started sharing your iTunes playlist. It had the usual [classical music] suspects. Mozart, etc. But also, “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone. Is that representative of what you listen to, that broad spectrum of music?

I do love jazz. I do love hip-hop. Good hip-hop, I have to wake up to it. And Ed Sheeran, I’m a huge fan. It’s just too dramatical (laughs) to get up to Tchaikovsky’s symphony. So I do listen to pop music and hip-hop to get in the mood. Sometimes I listen to that before my concerts as well. It’s like a cup of coffee. It’s like Red Bull.

If you didn’t pick the piano, what would you play? Or would you not play? Would you do something totally different?

I would rather not play so I don’t have to practice all that time. I don’t know. There’s so many things to do. I think being an movie director ... Right now I’m just completely wrapped up in "Twin Peaks," which, actually, has lots of similarities with Bartók’s music, I find. It’s a very trippy, psychedelic, mysterious world. There’s a nocturnal introspective dream sequence. The dream sequence is so related to the night music, the nocturnal music that Bartók was trying to create. They say maybe it’s dark, but I think it’s also very ... just the other world that we’re not very sure about. It’s not the world we see. Not the physical reality, three-dimensional world.

There’s obviously a lot of physical demands of playing one of these pieces. But there’s also a lot of emotional demands. When you’re done playing, are you emotionally drained or physically drained?

I think I’m mentally drained. Everything is from the brain — emotional or physical. Have you seen this clip about the eye movement of a pianist? We require lots of that in Bartók. Just to keep the form intact, concise. The music has already shown that, but basically being a navigator of how the music goes, you have to be totally mentally sharp and acute. And I think emotion comes out of that. It’s not going to be like, I’m going to [be] dramatic … I do that with relationships, not on stage.

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