Prospero, The Economist
Against the orchestral musicians, uniformly dressed in black, Yuja Wang shines like a jewel in the Royal Albert Hall in London. She sits, straight-backed, at the piano in a glittering sleeveless dress and unfeasibly high heels. She smiles and closes her eyes as she begins to play Prokofiev’s “Piano Concerto No.3”—one moment thrusting her head in accordance with the speed and passion of the music, the next allowing her fingers alone to convey coolness and tranquillity. She is technically brilliant and entertaining, so applause for her performances is seldom reserved. Her encores are almost as celebrated as her repertoires, encouraging Deutsche Grammophon to release an album this month of extra performances from her recent North American and European tour. Once seen, Ms Wang is hard to forget.
The pianist was born in Beijing in 1987 to what she calls a “musical family”. Her mother a dancer, her father a percussionist, Ms Wang inherited a love of “hot-blooded” composers, particularly the “Russian Romantics” such as Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and an appreciation of the performative arts. She began her studies aged nine at the Beijing Conservatory and in her teenage years moved to Canada and then America for the tutelage of Gary Graffman, a renowned teacher of promising pianists (Lang Lang, a Chinese star to whom Ms Wang is often compared, is among his former pupils). Young artist awards piled up. Publications hailed her a prodigy, a wunderkind and a sensation.
She broke onto the international classical music scene in 2007, standing in for Martha Argerich at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Since then she has performed and recorded with some of the world’s most acclaimed conductors and orchestras. All her collaborators comment on the playfulness of her performances but the interpretative maturity she brings to the pieces. “I cannot tell you how much fun we have together,” Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, says. She “has an ability to showcase many qualities: expressive lightness, depth, brilliance”. Paavo Jarvi of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan agrees. “Although she comes across as easy going, she is an exceptional combination of no-nonsense and fearless at the same time,” he says. She “has the highest level of professionalism and preparation”.
Little wonder that composers write with her performance in mind. Ms Wang anticipates working with Esa-Pekka Salonen, a Finnish composer and conductor, whose works are reminiscent of the modernist, percussive pieces of the 20th century and which seem a perfect fit for her. John Adams, an American composer, is writing a new piano concerto at Ms Wang’s behest. Entitled “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” it points to her position as a charismatic and cheeky soloist with a sense of fire—a bass guitar and a “honky-tonk” piano will complement Ms Wang—as well as her skill. The 25-minute work is played in three movements with no breaks.
Critics attribute Ms Wang’s popularity with aficionados and casual fans alike to her unpretentiousness, her “élan and daring” and her sheer power. She couples her mastery with a sense of adventure, and uses her encores to explore lighter pieces such as Mozart’s “Turkish March”. Her unprecedented combination of the visual and the musical is undeniably a factor, too. “Her alluring, surprising clothes don’t just echo the allure and surprise of her musicianship, though they certainly do that,” Zachary Woolfe summarised in the New York Times in 2013. “More crucial, the tiny dresses and spiky heels draw your focus to how petite Ms Wang is, how stark the contrast between her body and the forcefulness she achieves at her instrument. That contrast creates drama.” Janet Malcolm, in a profile for the New Yorker, thought that Ms Wang’s playing was less inspired when she deviated from her usual daring evening dresses.
Ms Wang tells Prospero that her clothing is “a way of being and living creatively”. “Every dress can give some certain meaning to the music,” she observes, since “the first impact when the audience sees me is they see me—they don’t hear me”. She approaches each performance as a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art, combining the visual and the aural. Her piano is a distinct force, not one that blends into the orchestra, and so it must be with her appearance. (Practicality is relevant to her sartorial choices, too. She says that they must be sleeveless—“for the freedom of the arms”—and “pack well” for her tours.)
The totality of Ms Wang’s performance means that, in the eyes of many critics, she “represents a new breed” of musician: she is the “completely, thoroughly modern package” according to Stuart Isacoff, a writer and pianist. After winning the Musical America Artist of the Year award in 2017 and embarking on global tours, it is clear that Ms Wang is at the height of her powers. Quoting Gustav Mahler, she suggests that individuality is key to being a great artist: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”. She certainly knows how to set audiences’ hearts aflame.