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. The pianist’s forthcoming release is the Prokofiev Second and Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon), recorded live in Venezuela with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. Wang, a Steinway artist, spoke to Listen at Steinway Hall. Afterward, shooting B-roll for the video of the interview (catch it on our facebook page, Listen: Life with Classical Music), Wang effortlessly blitzed and blazed through forty minutes of solo and concerto repertoire in the Henry Z. Office, 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?