Shostakovich with Yuja Wang and the BSO


Andris Nelsons leads the BSO in Haydn’s 100th Symphony, and electrifying soloist Yuja Wang takes the stage at Symphony Hall for not one, but both of Shostakovich’s piano concertos.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Yuja Wang, piano
Thomas Rolfs, trumpet

Julia ADOLPHE Makeshift Castle
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Concerto No. 1
SHOSTAKOVICH Piano Concerto No. 2
Joseph HAYDN Symphony No. 100, “Military”

To hear a preview of Shostakovich’s piano concertos with Yuja Wang, click on the player above, and read the transcript below:

Brian McCreath I’m Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Yuja Wang, who has returned to the Boston Symphony with Shostakovich, both piano concertos this time, unlike last time when you did one of them, I think. So, welcome back and thanks for taking a little time to talk with me.

Yuja Wang Of course. My pleasure.

Brian McCreath So, I’m interested in where these pieces fit into your musical life. Like, are these pieces you’ve lived with for a really long time, or are they more recent additions to your repertoire?

Yuja Wang The Number One, definitely for a very long time. I played it with [the late Latvian conductor] Mariss Jansons, in the Concertgebouw. That was first time I played it. And I remember being like, you know, the language is not Prokofiev or Rachmaninoff for me, or even Scriabin. It’s, Shostakovich, for me, is very mystified, actually. And not until I saw his own video of himself [Shostakovich] playing this concerto, which is like crazy, amazing, actually, crazy fast [laughs]. And just like, “What? I didn’t hear any of the key changes.” Yeah, himself as being an amazing pianist. And it kind of made me understand this crazy, obsessive, like, just bang-your-head crazy. And the Number Two was recommended by MTT [conductor Michael Tilson Thomas] and I remember play / conducting with Mahler Chamber [Orchestra]. And also for the re-opening of Carnegie Hall, I chose this one rather than the Rachmaninoff [Piano Concerto No.] Two because it’s just so lighthearted and so intimate, because he wrote it for his son that he really adores. And so that’s a side of Shostakovich that’s just really Russian and familial.

Brian McCreath You’ve already said some things that I was going to ask you about anyway. But just to follow up on how you hear this music, you mention “crazy.” And so, when you play this, how are you taking that idea and channeling it into the keyboard? I mean, is it sort of like with the percussiveness of how you play, or the speed? How do these things come out in the music?

Yuja Wang Well, every time I take it up, it feels like there’s another layer of dark humor to come out. I mean, there’s an oppressive side. Everyone knows the political part. But I think, as a pianist, I mean, there’s so much making fun of Beethoven, of Bach, of almost everything we know. And then the the dialog between… I mean, it’s supposed to start with C major and then the trumpet comes in in a D-flat. And then you’re like, “Oh, okay!” And then I play D-flat major, like the first three measures is already like so much, so much messing around. And then there’s kind of a parody of the Appassionata Sonata of Beethoven. And there’s the “Rage Over a Lost Penny” in the last movement cadenza, we all hear that. And he actually makes the fugue out of that. So it’s just like he is, I don’t know, I guess all this conservatory practicing and stuff, he just wanted to kind of overthrow, overturn that system almost.

Brian McCreath And you mentioned that you watched this video of Shostakovich himself playing it.

Yuja Wang Right.

Brian McCreath And so what what did that do for you? Does that feel like more of a burden or did it help you to understand some things about the piece and how to play it or lead you to new directions with it?

Yuja Wang Well, I started with Mariss Jansons where everything is very Russian, you know, like, in a way very heavy, and there’s lots of depth to it. And then the specific part was the cadenza of the last minute of the First Concerto. I was so sure it was speeded up because it was just so fast. It was like watching a Chaplin movie, you know? [laughs] And then I heard he, you know, he gets nervous and he played faster. And then, yeah, it’s just there’s that personal part when you see it, it’s like, “Oh, he’s probably at his peace.” There’s nothing serious about it. Everything is like a parody of something else. I mean, unlike the Second Concerto, where everything is really sincere and from the heart. I mean, that was, I first heard it with Fantasia.

Brian McCreath The Disney movie.

Yuja Wang Exactly. But the second movement is like the most beautiful thing. It’s almost like there’s all these sides of Shostakovich that he’s hiding behind. And then I think the Second Concerto is the one that we see the true, tender side of him, which most people say he’s actually just a shy, kind of quiet, childish hiding out. But so much rebelliousness, too, I guess. And I guess Freud wasn’t really popular in Russia. So all the craziness can come from, like he’s written down in his music. Like, sometimes it’s hard. I mean, the First Concerto, for a while, for me, it was like, Huh? Like, it was just some every instant is a change of key, is a change of like, is chromatic, but not in terms of notes, but in terms of harmony.

Brian McCreath When you were here before, you played Shostakovich’s First, you know, a few years ago. And I wonder whether, you know, Andris, like, working with him, sort of also brought you to new ways of doing particular things within either of these concertos.

Yuja Wang Well, I hear his [Shostakovich] symphonies with Boston, which is a landmark of how they should be. We just played it in Leipzig and I played extra crazy. And then he said, “I like the… It’s like, challenging the Soviet authority.” Yeah. I mean, I think coming from Latvia, he has, especially the time we live in now, he has a lot more to say with the emotional power this music brings.

Brian McCreath When you hear about Number Two, written for his 19-year-old son, you might get the impression that the Second Concerto is easier than the First Concerto for the soloist. Is that actually true?

Yuja Wang Well, I played it play / conducting.

Brian McCreath You conducted it and played it at the same time?

Yuja Wang Yeah, yeah, with Mahler Chamber [Orchestra], yeah.

Brian McCreath How did that go?

Yuja Wang It was amazing because the piece itself is very metrical. It’s not like the Number One where there’s lots of give and take, rubato-wise. Yeah, this one is very rhythmical. Except the third when there’s a seventh [beat in each measure]. But once I’m very clear musically, it was, the Mahler Chamber [Orchestra] was amazing. So it was right on and was like super powerful in the very rhythmical way, yeah. And then he [Shostakovich] incorporates Hanon.

Brian McCreath Yeah. The Hanon [piano] exercises that all the pianists do when they’re young students.

Yuja Wang [Laughs] I remember doing them. It’s like, well, I’m just learning Shostakovich’s Concerto. [Laughs]

Brian McCreath There you go. You can tell students that, right? That you’re just learning Shostakovich concertos.

Yuja Wang Yeah, but the second movement is just the most beautiful thing. I mean, everything is, I think the way himself playing is so anti-sentimental. And I kind of really adore that. I mean, in his, like, not taking time, just complete poker face way of playing. But then, I mean, it can have so many ways of [being] interpreted. I remember with Mariss Jansons, it was “Bring out the Russian-ness, the folksy stuff,” whereas I think Andris is much more like “Sewing machine!” [Laughs]

Brian McCreath I love that. That’s a fantastic image, “sewing machine.” Wow. Well, there was one moment in rehearsal where, it was in the, I think, the second movement, one of the slow parts anyway, where, you know, you’re mostly focused when you play looking at the keyboard, you know, really, really focused right in front of you. But at this moment, you actually turned and you looked into the hall while you were playing. And it kind of made me wonder for you, how much does the hall that you’re in kind of seep into your playing and your experience of the moment? Or are you always just focused on that keyboard right in front of you.

Yuja Wang No, the aura of the hall definitely is like a big energy field, right? And then, no, today was just, I haven’t played for, I feel like I haven’t played in a hall for a long time. I mean I was in festivals in Europe, and I just came back to America after three months. And then I just remembered this hall being very emotional, when I was 20 replacing Martha Argerich, and it was like, I can’t believe it’s this hall. So, I was looking back. And yesterday I went to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabel Gardner Museum. And then I started noticing those amazing sculptures in the hall. And also, just played in Leipzig, I think this hall was had some affinity with the Leipzig…

Brian McCreath Yeah, this hall is sort of based on the the hall that no longer exists in Leipzig, the old hall that got bombed in World War Two.

Yuja Wang Yeah, that. And then I went to the Mendelssohn House in Leipzig. And everything just kind of put together, I guess it was kind of like what Shostakovich did with the music. It’s like, yeah, and I just really, really adore the hall. And then especially this week, it’s going to be recorded. So in the hall is always something very emotional, yeah.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Yuja Wang, it’s so good to have you back in Boston and especially for these two pieces. Yeah. Thanks for taking a little time to talk with me today.

Yuja Wang Thank you. It’s amazing to play the Shostakovich with the Boston [Symphony], who recorded all the symphonies. You know, they just have it. Yeah. Thank you.