Superstar Pianist Yuja Wang Is Embracing the Darker Side of Classical Music, and It’s Thrilling

Falling James, L.A. Weekly

Yuja Wang brought the requisite star power and overt glamour that nearly filled Disney Hall on Friday night, as the astonishing Chinese pianist reunited with simpatico conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic and continued her recent obsession with the morbidly engrossing Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

The 30-year-old Beijing native and resident of New York City first came to attention as a preteen, preternatural wunderkind who dazzled with light-speed precision and over the past decade has become equally at ease with the frothily delicate melodies of Frédéric Chopin and the more tempestuous histrionics of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Wang’s already versatile playing has become even more nuanced and expressive over the past few months as she plunges deeper into the dark and strange waking nightmares of Bartók …

The piano roams from airily pretty melodies to suddenly foreboding, shadowy chords. For emphasis, Wang sometimes literally punched the keys of the piano with her balled-up fists. While there were several sections of downward-spiraling riffs where she demonstrated her famously blurry tempos and unraveled streams of intensely clustered notes, Wang also proved yet again that she is not just a speed demon. Her sense of touch and phrasing is unrivaled, and she made even relatively simple progressions feel incandescent as she pawed at the keyboard with dramatic but sensitive flourishes.

Wang has been playing a lot of Bartók’s music lately, and her facility with the composer’s thunder and dusty clouds of sound — the music that inspired countless horror-film soundtracks — is increasingly evident. In February, she appeared in Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara with Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and it was a revelation to see the duo unpeel the darkest layers of Bartók’s soul in such an intimate and starkly stripped-down format.