Yuja Wang is a superstar of our time. She is a phenomenal pianist of the highest order who has astounded audiences in the world’s great concert halls. Her dramatic sense of style, exuberance, and artistic flair have won her acclaim with traditional and non-traditional audiences. Since her 2008 graduation from the Curtis Institute of Music, she has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, mastering a vast range of solo repertoire, collaborating with notable colleagues in chamber music, and performing with preeminent conductors and orchestras around the globe. Wang’s versatility and artistic inquisitiveness are cornerstones of her six-concert Perspectives. In a recent interview with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall’s senior director and artistic adviser, Wang discussed her inspiration for this season’s series.
You first performed at Carnegie Hall as a young artist in a series of workshops and master classes with Leon Fleisher in 2004 and 2005. By 2011, you made your solo recital debut in Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage.
It didn’t really feel that different. I still feel like a student of life—and back when I was a student, I felt like a performer.
Do any of your Carnegie Hall performances particularly stand out in your memory?
I definitely remember the recitals. Every year I perform my recital program at Carnegie Hall, and it’s usually the last concert of the whole tour. The Hall can be really intimidating—you can feel the history of it. So many of my idols have played here. But also the acoustics are so clear and the space is so huge. You can feel very alone on stage—it’s just you and the piano.
But with your Perspectives series, you will never be alone—literally.
I just can’t wait! First of all, I am not doing a solo recital—that’s what I do all the time. But I am going to be performing with all of the people who are close to my heart.
What were your initial thoughts when you received the invitation to be a Perspectives artist?
When I received the call, I was in New York. The idea of doing whatever I want for a whole year in my adopted hometown—especially at Carnegie Hall—totally excited me. I didn’t want to do the same things that I always do, like a recital or a concerto with an orchestra. So I decided to perform with my friends and mentors who have meant a lot in my life, who have been a source of inspiration and encouraged me to do what I do now. I have realized that collaborating with people and being around artists like Leon Fleisher and Michael Tilson Thomas (who has been my mentor since I was 17) is the best way to learn—not just about music, but also about life.
Let’s talk about the first concert in your series, which was this past October with percussionist Martin Grubinger. On first glance, that is one of the most…
…unusual pairings? Yes. I first heard Martin at Beethovenfest in Bonn, Germany. I was doing a concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Manfred Honeck, and the next day he was performing John Corigliano’s percussion concerto. He was literally running around the stage, using all the different instruments for 40 minutes without a score, and I was just completely blown away. He was like a magician with all of these different colors, different moods, different shapes. I thought maybe I could play with him—if anyone could hear me over all of that percussion! My dad is a percussionist, so I hear music in a very rhythmic way.
Unusual—or rather unexpected—as that performance may have been, that is not the most surprising of pairings you have in store this season. How did your collaboration with Igudesman & Joo come about?
The video that got everyone’s attention—myself included—was“Rachmaninoff Had Big Hands.” Those two guys are so funny—they crack me up every second. And they’re so full of ideas—really great, intelligent ideas. Just the thought of me being in a show with them is very outside myself. It’s something completely different. But I have no idea what they’re going to make me do! Apparently they have this idea of having me do yoga…
Can you do yoga?
Not exactly, but the way I play piano requires flexibility—there’s a physical aspect to my style of performance. So perhaps they want to combine that.
It was at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland that you first performed with violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Gautier Capuçon. You and Kavakos have since embarked on a handful of international tours.
At Verbier, I realized that chamber music is an option—that I don’t have to play recitals or concertos all the time. And Leonidas is the perfect person to travel with. He’s always calm, always so on top of things, and incredibly funny. But he has intense, really high standards, which means that our rehearsals can go on for hours. I remember being in Athens to play a concert with him—he’s pretty much a god there—and I was very excited to see the city, but we ended up rehearsing for 12 hours. I would never do that to myself if I was playing a solo recital. I still joke with him about that. But we always have so much fun—even in rehearsal—and I’ve learned so much from him.
With cellist Gautier Capuçon, I’d imagine the two of you have very similar energies.
Yes, I think so. But that also can be dangerous because we get too excited together, whereas with Leonidas there’s a more controlled approach. Gautier emphasizes being spontaneous. We don’t rehearse together very much—we literally breathe the phrases the same and always end up together.
It seems that with Michael Tilson Thomas you probably formed most of your concerto references.
I did. From the moment we met, we immediately had a connection. And he’s such an inspiring figure. All the concertos that I know, I’ve learned with him because he’s one of the few conductors who sits down and works with the soloist from the beginning of the piece to the end. We really think about every phrase. It’s that way of learning together—same with Leonidas and Gautier and Martin—that enables us to have one musical mind on stage. It’s an incredible feeling.
In all your performances, there is such joy in the act of making music.
I find inspiration everywhere. I was just in China, now I’m in the US, and then I go to Europe—each place with a different program. But I think that’s what keeps me going. I need that kind of nourishment, that kind of stimulation and inspiration—just being creative and being on stage does that for me. But it takes lots of discipline, lots of devotion. It is through music that I find meaning in life. Inviting all these people to perform with me who have been so influential—and to have a party with them at Carnegie Hall that lasts the whole year … I couldn’t ask for more.