Christian Thielemann

Christian Thielemann

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance

Yuja Wang at Steinway Hall in New York City, on May 23, 2016.
Photo by Pari Dukovic for the New Yorker

















The piano prodigy is known for the brilliance of her playing and for her dramatic outfits.

By Janet Malcolm

The New Yorker – September 5, 2016

What is one to think of the clothes the twenty-nine-year-old pianist Yuja Wang wears when she performs – extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays, so that she has to tug at them when she has a free hand, or clinging backless gowns that give an impression of near-nakedness (accompanied in all cases by four-inch-high stiletto heels)? In 2011, Mark Swed, the music critic of the L.A. Times, referring to the short and tight orange dress Yuja wore when she played Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl, wrote that "had there been any less of it, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18 not accompanied by an adult". Two years later, the New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the "shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear", that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as "stripper-wear". Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny. Is the seeing part a distraction (Glenn Gould thought it was) or is it – can it be – a heightening of the musical experience?

During the intermission of a recital at Carnegie Hall in May, Yuja changed from the relatively conventional long gold sequinned gown she had worn for the first half, two Brahms Ballades and Schumann's "Kreisleriana", into something more characteristically outré. For the second half, Beethoven's extremely long and difficult Sonata No.29 in B flat, known as the "Hammerklavier", she wore a dress that was neither short nor long but both: a dark-blue-green number, also sequinned, with a long train on one side – the side not facing the audience – and nothing on the other, so that her right thigh and leg were completely exposed.

As she performed, the thigh, splayed by the weight of the torso and the action of the toe working the pedal, looked startlingly large, almost fat, though Yuja is a very slender woman. Her back was bare, thin straps crossing it. She looked like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant. She had come to tame the beast of a piece, this half-naked woman in sadistic high heels. Take that, and that, Beethoven!

A few months before the performance, I asked Yuja why, out of all Beethoven's sonatas, she had selected the "Hammerklavier", and she said that she had done it out of defiance. She wanted to prove that she could play the most difficult of Beethoven's sonatas. I said that I was probably not alone in finding the sonata hard, almost unpleasant, to listen to, and several days later she sent me a link to a video of a lecture about the "Hammerklavier" by the Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff. Schiff speaks in the slow, self-savoring way in which many Eastern European men speak, to let you know how interesting and amusing everything they say is – except in his case it is.

Schiff characterized the work as "the greatest" and "most monumental" of Beethovens sonatas, "a work that everybody respects and reveres but very few people love". Schiff' s object was to communicate his own "deep love for this piece", and he began by talking about Beethoven's metronome markings, which are "incredibly fast" and are ignored by most pianists, who play the piece slowly and ponderously. The piece "is not pretty", but it is not "heavy-handed... not made of lead". Schiff mocked the pianists who protract the long third movement to show that "we are very deep and profound... You can have lunch and dinner and breakfast, and we are still sitting here". Schiff went on to say, "If you play this piece at Beethoven's tempi, then it's not ponderous anymore... It is not a piece in marble... It is incredibly human and alive".

At Carnegie, Yuja did not play the piece quite at Beethoven's tempi – these days, few pianists do apart from Schiff – but I found myself responding to it as I had not responded to recordings by the great Maurizio Pollini and Mitsuko Uchida. I had not been able to get past the music's unprettiness. But now I was electrified. The forty- or fifty-minute-long piece (depending on how ponderously or not ponderously you play it) seemed almost too short.

A communication from another audience member, the pianist Shai Wosner, helpfully explained the inexplicable: why a piece that is about struggle and difficulty should have given the pleasure it gave in Yuja's interpretation. "There is hardly any passage in it that is truly comfortable to the hand", he wrote, along with "a certain harmonic tension that runs pretty much throughout the piece between B flat major and B minor, Beethoven's ‘dark, forbidden key’". He went on: "With all the Beethovenian struggle, this piece is also a very ‘cleanly’ conceived sonata, more faithful to the Classical sonata model than any of Beethoven's other late Sonatas. So what I loved about Yuja's performance was how this other aspect of the piece came across... her effortless approach brought out the brilliant, clear structure of Hammerklavier and highlighted it from another angle. Like a great monument that's not made of stone but of light-reflecting glass".

Anthony Tommasini, reviewing the performance in the Times, wrote, "Ms. Wang's virtuosity goes well beyond uncanny facility... She wondrously brought out intricate details, inner voices and harmonic colorings. The first movement had élan and daring. The scherzo skipped along with mischievousness and rhythmic bite". Neither Tommasini nor Wosner mentioned Yuja's dress, but I wondered about its impact on their experience. I know that what I saw was intertwined with what I heard. Looking at her in that remarkable getup was part of the musical experience. But what part? Yuja had played the "Hammerklavier" a week or so earlier in Santa Barbara, and Mark Swed had again not failed to notice what she wore. This time, perhaps not altogether seriously, he attributed her choice of costume to altruism. Six days earlier, Murray Perahia, who is sixty-nine, had played the "Hammerklavier" nearby, in Los Angeles. "Hers is a 40-year age advantage", Swed wrote, so "as if to level the field technically, she came out onto the stage... tightly squeezed into a red-orange gown and wearing platform heels so high that she could barely walk". Swed praised both performances. "Perahia's understanding, feeling and urgency produce a ‘Hammerklavier’ for the ages", while Wang, "with a flick of her dazzling fingers on the keys, sends an electric current through the ‘Hammerklavier’ that makes it modern music, Beethoven for the 21st century". And, while Perahia "emerged from his ordeal exhausted, hardly able to walk offstage" (in spite of his flat-heeled shoes), Wang "in the manner of the greatest virtuosos of yore... made this great effort seem almost effortless and was ready for three amazing encores".

In New York, as it happened, Perahia had once again played the "Hammerklavier" a few days before Yuja did and again had had the starch taken out of him. Tommasini returned to Perahia's performance in his review of Yuja's (he had enthusiastically reviewed the Perahia on May 9th) and held up the older pianist's exhaustion as a sort of necessary tribute to the piece's profundity and monumentality. "This was not a probing or profound Hammerklavier", he said of Yuja's interpretation, as if suddenly remembering himself and wishing that his praise of her had been more grudging. I could hear András Schiff laughing to himself. We are very deep and profound... You can have lunch and dinner and breakfast, and we are still sitting here.

Tommasini ended his review by complaining about the five encores that Yuja played, each one making the "Hammerklavier" recede "further from memory". I have to say that I agreed with him. I had heard these encores before. Yuja habitually wheels them out at performances. They include Vladimir Horowitz's amusing high-speed "Carmen Fantasy" and an equally funny arrangement by various hands of the Alla Turca movement of Mozart's Sonata No.11 in A major. The audience, as Tommasini felt obliged to report, went mad with delight. When I first heard Yuja play these encores, I went mad with delight, too. But this time I wished she had left us with an unmediated memory of her "Hammerklavier". The roars that went up after the encores were greater than those after the "Hammerklavier". This seemed wrong. But in the split between the concert proper and the encores we may read the split in Yuja herself – her persona as a confident musical genius and as an uncertain young woman making her way through the maze of a treacherous marketplace.

She was born in Beijing to a mother who was a dancer and a father who was a percussionist. She is vague about her emergence as a prodigy. She likes to tell interviewers that her mother wanted her to be a dancer, but that she was lazy and chose the piano because she could sit down. She was performing publicly by the age of six, and entering competitions from which she always emerged with the first prize. When she was nine, her parents enrolled her in the Beijing conservatory, and when she was fourteen they sent her to a conservatory in Calgary, Canada, where she learned English. From there she went to the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia, whose head, the pianist Gary Graffman, immediately recognized her quality, and took her on as his student, something he did only with the most outstanding talents, such as Lang Lang. Yuja hasn't lived in China since.

About a year ago, I began meeting with Yuja in the Sky Lounge, on the top floor of the building she lives in on Riverside Boulevard, in the West Sixties – a common space with a view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey shoreline, whose privileged-looking armchairs and little tables evoke first- and business-class waiting rooms at airports. When I say "the building she lives in", I am speaking loosely. Yuja tours the world, playing in premier halls, either in solo recitals or with leading orchestras, in London, Paris, St. Petersburg, Edinburgh, Bucharest, Caracas, Tokyo, Kyoto, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Sydney, Amsterdam, Florence, Barcelona, and San Francisco, among other cities, and spends only a few weeks, between more than a hundred scheduled performances, in the apartment, a studio she bought in 2014.

When you walk into the apartment – which is small and dark – the first thing you see is a royal-blue nylon curtain suspended from the ceiling like a shower curtain and drawn around a lumpish object that turns out to be a Steinway grand piano. The curtain is there to muffle the piano's sound, to accommodate a neighbor for whom the practicing of a world-class pianist is not the thrill it would be for you and me. The rest of the apartment has the atmosphere of a college dormitory room, with its obligatory unpacked suitcase on the floor and haphazard strewings of books and papers and objects. There may be a few stuffed animals on the bed or maybe only a sense of them – I am not sure because I was at the apartment only once. Yuja prefers to see interviewers in the Sky Lounge. When I proposed visiting the apartment again – this time with a notebook – she politely demurred. It was too much of a mess, or the cleaning woman hadn't come.

Yuja speaks in fluent – more than fluent – English, punctuated by laughter that gives one to understand that what she is saying is not to be taken too seriously, and that she is not a pompous or pretentious person. Occasionally, there is the slightest trace of an accent (vaguely French) and a lapse into the present tense.

We talked about her life as a child prodigy. "Oh, yes, I'm a real prodigy", she said. "They still call me wunderkind. I remember when I went to the conservatory for the first time. All the other kids were looking at me like – by then I was already a child star – like I am another species in a zoo. Oh, my God, she's here."

"You seem so unspoiled", I said. "Were you more spoiled then? Or were you unspoiled even then?"

"I think unspoiled came later", Yuja said.

She recalled something I didn't and still don’t completely understand about the effect that playing Mozart had on her as a child. She said that performing his Twelve Variations in C major ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star") permitted her to feel for the first time what it was like to have stagefright. She was eight or nine.

"I was always quiet before a concert, while the other kids were so nervous. They talk, some are very noisy. I don't understand. Why are you nervous? Until the first time I played Mozart. I was not nervous until I was onstage. Then I felt I was in a completely different time and space. My fingers just played. And I thought there is a difference between practicing at home and playing onstage."

I asked if she could explain further what had happened to her when she performed the Variations.

"Maybe intuitively I was struck by the beauty, by the symmetry, by how like something inherent in nature it is. Before, I was, Oh, Mozart is so boring."

When I told her of my feeling of awe at the superhuman feat that is a concert performance, she said, "For me that's normal – like talking". She has the erroneous idea that writing a book is a similarly remarkable achievement. She became a serious reader in her teens. Among the books she recently read are Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" and Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason". When I commented on the high-mindedness of her reading, she quickly said, "No, I'm always reading something trashy, too".

I asked about her home life in China. "Did your parents immediately realize that you were different from other children?"

"I don't know. They're very naïve people. Extremely conventional and traditional. Very Communist. If you read Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, you will understand what kind of people they are. Just simple, extremely kind. My dad was really talented, and my mom also. They are extremely artistic – or autistic", she said, with a peal of laughter. "Their environment never allowed them to develop to their full potential."

"Is this what you mean by ‘very Communist’?"

"Yeah. Because you have to go to Party meetings and talk about how to do well for society. Twenty-year plan. Five-year plan. You work for the common welfare rather than for the individual. Working for the individual is almost synonymous with being selfish. Which is not how I feel. I feel lucky that I came out when I was fourteen." Yuja's mother came for her graduation from Curtis and for her Carnegie Hall début; otherwise, Yuja sees her parents only when she performs in Beijing. She
speaks of them in an affectionate but veiled way, always stressing their kindness.

When I asked Yuja to elaborate on her sense of the political differences between China and America, she paused before answering. After a while, listening to her, I realized that she was talking about an entirely different subject. I decided to persist. "I asked you about politics, and you have been talking about music", I said.

"You noticed?" she said, laughing.

My visit to Yuja's apartment had taken place after this conversation. It was around four on a hot August afternoon, and Yuja was dressed in denim shorts, very short ones, and a tank top. We had tickets to a five-o'clock concert of advanced contemporary music at Alice Tully Hall, and Yuja was debating whether to change for it. She rummaged through the suitcase on the floor and extracted two garments – strapless black-and-white minidresses made of a stretch fabric, called bandage dresses by their French designer, Hervé Léger, because that's how they fit, and characterized by Yuja as "modern and edgy" as well as practical, because they don’t have to be ironed and lie nice and flat in a suitcase – and asked my opinion. Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was – was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

In February of this year, on four successive nights at Geffen Hall, Yuja played Mozart's Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat major, the "Jeunehomme" – written when Mozart was barely twenty-one and considered his first masterpiece – with the New York Philharmonic, under the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit. This was a departure for Yuja. Her career has been built on her playing of the Russian Romantics, the "red-blooded" and "hot-blooded" composers, as she calls them, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, for whose "passionate, emotional" pieces her short flame-red dresses seem to have been made. For a while, there was a picture of Yuja in front of Carnegie Hall in the flame-red dress she had worn at a recital in May, 2013, her arms raised high in the air in a gesture of culminating abandon. It stopped passersby. Now she was entering a new phase of engagement with Mozart and the nineteenth-century German classical composers. The picture of her in front of Geffen Hall was unremarkable.

A day before the first concert of the series at Geffen, I attended an open rehearsal at the hall. The Mozart concerto was on the first half of the program, to be followed by Respighi's orchestral pieces "Roman Festivals", "Fountains of Rome", and "Pines of Rome". The Respighi pieces were being rehearsed first, and when I arrived at the hall, around noon, much Respighi remained to be played. Yuja was waiting in the small room upstairs where soloists change clothes and receive visitors. She showed me a closet where the three dresses, designed by Roberto Cavalli, she would wear at the concerts were hanging. I took an immediate dislike to one of the garments – a short pink dress with black swirling lines on its gathered skirt and bodice. It was neither ultra-short and tight nor long and clinging. It was a kind of girlish summer dress. I did not like the idea of Yuja wearing it onstage. The two other dresses were a glamorous dark-blue long gown and a short, also concert-worthy dress.

Yuja curled up on a sofa – she was wearing tight-fitting black leather trousers – and laughingly recalled a newspaper headline she had seen during a tour: "‘Twenty-eight-Year-Old Wunderkind’. Isn't that an oxymoron?" she said. I had arrived early at Lincoln Center, and stopped into a café for a sandwich, though not so early that there was time to eat the whole large overstuffed thing. When I offered Yuja the half sandwich the waiter had wrapped, she accepted. Predictably, she opened the sandwich and ate the chicken, then the tomato, then the lettuce, and then – unpredictably – the bread.

Dutoit, a tall man of seventy-nine, appeared with his fourth wife, Chantal Juillet. After husband and wife hugged Yuja, Dutoit stood back to look with elaborate mock lecherousness at her tight trousers. Dutoit and Yuja go back a long way. The infamous habit of Dutoit's second wife, Martha Argerich, of cancelling concerts at the last minute had given Yuja one of her early breaks. Argerich was one of the stars Yuja replaced while she was still a student at Curtis; Radu Lupu, Yefim Bronfman, Evgeny Kissin, and Murray Perahia were others. ("With Martha it was like, ‘I'm tired... do you want to play with the Boston Symphony for me?’ And I'm like ‘Of course! – Wrong question!’" Yuja told an interviewer for the Australian magazine Limelight.) Yuja's ability both to learn fast and to turn the disgruntlement of audiences into amazed delight did not go unnoticed. "By the end of the final movement" – of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 – "the audience stood and roared", the Philadelphia Inquirer critic David Patrick Stearns wrote in a review of the concert at which Yuja replaced Argerich.

After some cheerful banter, Dutoit left to rehearse the final Respighi, and Yuja excused herself to warm up in a large adjacent room that had a piano. She preferred that I not go into the large room with her but didn't object to my staying in the small room, where I could hear her play phrases over and over and feel that I was uselessly eavesdropping on coded artistic secrets.

At the concert proper, the following night, Yuja wore the glamorous dark-blue gown, and played with delicacy and beauty. She and Dutoit and the orchestra were in elating rapport. The first cadenza produced one of those you-could-hear-a-pin-drop hushes in the sold-out hall. She had gone very quiet, and the audience followed as if mesmerized. No one coughed.

"Who can play Mozart the way she did?" Graffman said afterward. "It was so natural, in such good taste. Not that she was doing anything. That's just the way it came out. Who can do that and also play the Horowitz ‘Carmen Fantasy’?" In the New Criterion, Nordlinger wrote, "Mozart ends with a rondo – and it should be fast, exuberant, and fun. It was. Wang ripped the notes out of the keyboard, as much as played them. At one point, I almost laughed out loud. That’s how funny she was, and how funny Mozart is".

Yuja must have liked reading this. She had once talked about how funny Mozart is: "Mozart is like a party animal. I find I play him better when I am hung over or drunk". At the same time, she saw Mozart's music as "noble, tragic, like a great Greek play. The human emotion is there but with a lot of godliness in it". On the second night, my heart sank when Yuja walked onstage in the pink dress. Was it my imagination or was her playing less inspired than it had been the night before?

Meeting Yuja in the Sky Lounge a few weeks later on a rainy day, I told her of this impression, and she did not contradict it. "Because of that dress, the little pink one, because it's so different from everything I've ever worn, I didn't really feel myself, and maybe that came through. I liked the pink dress because it was different. Sometimes, the difference might become the style of my next season. It could be what's going to come. Or it could be something to discard. You don't know until you try it." She added, "They wanted to put in social media that I was dressed by the designer Roberto Cavalli".

"Were you feeling something related to the dress while playing?"

"No, not while playing. Just when I walked onstage. This was a cute little pink dress, and I thought, It's not me. It's about a young girl. Just the opposite of the nude dress."

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about "her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses", she gave a flippant reply: "I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am forty". But in fact Yuja's penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own "super-smallness", as she calls it. She knows that small tight clothes bring out her beauty and large loose garments don't. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware – as many soloists affect not to be – that she is being looked at as well as listened to. Reviewing the Carnegie Hall recital Yuja played in May, 2013, Zachary Woolfe wrote in the Times, "I confess that while perhaps 90 percent of my attention was on her precise yet exuberant playing, a crucial 10 was on her skintight flame-colored dress". Woolfe went on to brilliantly anatomize the experience of simultaneously listening to and looking at Yuja: "Her alluring, surprising clothes don't just echo the allure and surprise of her musicianship, though they certainly do that. 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. It turns a recital into a performance". When Yuja played the "Jeunehomme" in the girlish pink dress, that contrast was absent. The sense of a body set in urgent motion by musical imperatives requires that the body not be distractingly clothed. With her usually bared thighs, chest, and back demurely covered by the black-splotched pink fabric, this sense was lost.

Yuja's customary self-presentation as a kind of stripped-down car is, of course, only one way of appearing onstage to artistic advantage. When Maurizio Pollini plays in some nondescript suit, his body-aliveness is no less present for us. Martha Argerich's widow's-weeds black gowns heighten the beauty and mystery of her playing. Plainness is never a mistake on a concert stage. For the two remaining Mozart performances, Yuja, realizing her misstep, returned to the designer she regularly uses.

The "nude dress" was a long gown (in recent years, long gowns have been admitted into Yuja's concert-clothes closet, but they have to be slinky) made of body-stocking fabric with sparkling encrustations at bosom and stomach and a long swishing skirt. Yuja wore this fabulously gorgeous costume at the third concert – which had the electricity of the first one – and felt comfortable and happy in its defiant sexiness and her feeling of nakedness.

I looked out the window of the Sky Lounge and saw the New Jersey shoreline disappearing in a gray mist. Yuja herself was in a dark mood. She had recently returned from a European tour and was exhausted and dispirited. In Munich and Paris, she had played the Mozart piano concerto with Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, and the reception had been only O.K. A blog about the Paris concert saying, "Yuja Wang disappoints", had stayed with her. She paraphrased its words: "‘She didn't have emotion. She's not yet mature enough to play Mozart’." She went on, "With Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky I can blow them away. ‘So amazing, so impressive!’ But I went for the surprise, for the unexpected. I ask myself, Am I playing for the applauding, for the standing up, or am I playing because I really like something in the music and I just want to play?"

She talked in the same dark vein about her personal life. She spoke of the "too many people" she meets on tour: "Who are your real friends? I naturally give my love and friendship, but once the tour is over are they really your friends? What's always there, of course, is music. The other things come and go – except maybe your parents". She laughed. "And Gary."

Gary Graffman, who is eighty-seven and now retired as the head of Curtis, and his wife, Naomi, who is eighty-eight, are Yuja's best friends in New York and perhaps in the world. Graffman, you may recall, is the distinguished pianist whose career was disrupted in the late nineteen-seventies, when he lost the use of his right hand. When I visited the Graffmans in their apartment at the Osborne, on West Fifty-seventh Street, they spoke of Yuja as of a beloved granddaughter of whom they are so proud they can hardly stand it. When I asked Graffman how she compared with the other prodigies at Curtis, he said, "She was remarkable among remarkable students. She didn't play like a prodigy. She played like a finished artist". Naomi recalled that when Yuja first arrived at Curtis, Gary asked her to take the new student to lunch, and she dutifully did so. "By the time lunch was over, I thought she has to be at least thirty-five or forty", Naomi said. "She was speaking so intelligently about so many things". Yuja was fifteen and a half.

As Yuja had been a musical wunderkind at six, at twenty-nine she is a kind of existential prodigy, already undergoing the crisis that ordinary people undergo in midlife. "I’ve been doing this for twenty-nine years. Do I want to go on doing it, or is there something else waiting for me?" She spoke of her sense of alienation from people who don't have to constantly and relentlessly study music and practice, of feeling like an outsider, sometimes even "I don't like to say but almost like a prisoner. I haven't ever enjoyed my free time. It's always like I am challenging myself. I must be a little masochistic". She would see people walking in the park on a beautiful day and long to join them. But by the time she had untied herself from the mast of her art it was midnight, and there was no one to join her in a walk in the park.

At the "millennials' parties" she had attended on the last two nights of the Mozart concerts (their purpose was to encourage young people to go to concerts), she had wearily answered questions from a stage. "I would have enjoyed these parties five years ago", she said. "I still enjoyed them. They were fun. Nice people. I had lots of drinks. But I get the same questions again and again. It's like water goes into the same spot. And then I become a little unpleasant. And then I feel guilty that I was unpleasant. They ask me things like" – she began speaking in a mocking singsong voice – "‘Are you single?’ ‘How do you memorize your pieces?’ ‘How do you pedal with your heels?’ ‘Who do you buy your dresses from?’ ‘Why do you wear short dresses?’ ‘Why do you wear long dresses?’ ‘Why do you have short hair?’ ‘Do you like travelling?’ ‘Why don't you play more Prokofiev?’ ‘Why do you play Mozart?’"

The room had darkened, and everything on the river was disappearing. When I drew Yuja's attention to the apparition of the sublime in the window, she was looking at her phone. "I'm just checking", she said. "I'm not being impolite". Yuja treats her phone the way almost every young (and not so young) person today treats it – as a transitional object. She and I have corresponded by e-mail (largely about chocolate), and the messages from her phone are filled with emoticons and LOL-like abbreviations. In deference to my age, she does not text me.

When I commented on her melancholy, she denied – and then acknowledged – it: "It's a very depressing thought. Just touring and playing – the same things or different things. But in society people don't allow you to be sad or depressed. It's like a bad thing. It's why I'm antisocial. I feel this negative energy. ‘She just complains a lot’. Excuse me, that's part of what I do. You feel all these things. As a musician, you probably feel them more intensely. But society wants me to be happy. My parents. They are the most unintrusive parents. ‘I don't care what you do – just be happy’". She made an urrrgghh sound and laughed.

Yuja has made changes in her professional life that she is not sure have solved the problems of doubt and restlessness by which they were impelled. Last year, she abruptly left her manager, Earl Blackburn, of the large Opus 3 Artists agency, with whom she had been since she was sixteen, and joined Mark Newbanks, whose London-based agency, Fidelio Arts, has only three other clients – but what clients! – the conductors Gustavo Dudamel, Lionel Bringuier, and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Although Yuja doesn't speak of it in such terms, the change of managers has the atmosphere of the dissolution of a marriage: a young wife leaves the dull, older husband for an exciting younger man. Naomi Graffman spoke of Blackburn's extraordinary devotion to Yuja: "He coddled her as no one had ever been coddled before. Every little thing she wanted or needed, he did it for her. He would brush her teeth for her if she wanted". The younger man is different. He does not take Yuja's clothes to the cleaners; recently, he did not offer to pick up a Russian visa for her, as Blackburn would have done. "She was furious", Gary said. "Never having had experience with anybody else, she thought that was what managers did". I happened to have heard about the Russian visa from Yuja. She had not mentioned Newbanks, just the fact of this and other annoying little errands she had to run, followed by the playful question "Shall I hire a boyfriend or an assistant?"

I proposed a boyfriend/assistant. Earlier, she had spoken of the obstacle her touring schedule put in the way of lasting romance. The boyfriend/assistant – i.e., a muse – would always be in the next seat on the plane. "No", she said, “guys won't do that. It's O.K. for a woman to do that. It's harder for guys to get rid of their egos, to be even a little bit subservient". She added, "Of course, I want guys who are successful. Which means that they have their own work, that they're busy – and that I am the one who visits them”.

I asked if her romances were with artists of her calibre.

"Not of my calibre", she said without hesitation (and the obligatory peal of laughter). "I never meet people of my calibre who are available."

She talked of the older and old people with whom she feels happy and comfortable (the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is a kind of runner-up to Gary Graffman in the lovable-mentor sweepstakes): "people who have their whole life behind them" – as opposed to the young with their oppressive burden of futurity. Another older friend, Emanuel Ax, invited her for Thanksgiving last year, and she accepted, but in the end did not go, preferring to "be home and snuggle up and watch Netflix".

She spoke of leaving Earl Blackburn not regretfully, exactly, but with a kind of cold wisdom about the possible pointlessness of the gesture that people three times her age don't often achieve. "There was nothing wrong with the old manager. He really built my career. He was really caring. But I was, like, if I don't make a change, I'll never make a change. I'm bad at confrontation. So I just did it out of the blue. But nothing much has changed. It's a little better here and there. But it's still the same circus."

When I met for coffee with Newbanks – a suave, slender, elegantly dressed man of forty-eight, a former cellist – he told me that his aim as Yuja's manager was to cut back on her engagements and "put air" in her schedule. "She had three days free when I met her – that's impossible." Another goal was to steer her toward experimentation with repertoire, and one of these experiments has already taken place – in March, Yuja played for three nights with the New York Philharmonic in Messiaen's "Turangalîla-Symphonie", conducted by Salonen. "Turangalîla" is a thrilling, mad, loud piece that features two solo instruments, the piano and the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that makes unearthly wavering sounds not easy to hear over the orchestral pandemonium. Yuja's playing was brilliantly audible. She played from a score, and on the night I attended did her own page turning, which lent a certain suspense to the proceedings. The pages flew at a rate of about one every thirty seconds. Would they lie flat? Page turners usually give a little firm pat to the page they have just turned to make sure it will stay in place. Later, Yuja told me that she had put adhesive on the pages to insure that they would stay in place.

Newbanks told me that it is customary for management to take twenty per cent of a soloist's fee and fifteen per cent of a conductor's fee. I asked him, as I had asked Yuja, what her fee was, and, like her, he wouldn’t tell me. "No one in the business talks about it", he said. The business evidently exacts a vow of omertà from its members. Newbanks laughingly (perhaps a little nervously) said that Yuja had alerted him to my unseemly interest in money. When I put the futile question to her, she had answered, "I don't usually like to talk about fees", and added, with uncharacteristic humorlessness, "I feel it is degrading to art to measure it with money".

As patches of blue and orange appeared in the sky of the Sky Lounge, Yuja's internal bad weather seemed to lift as well. She recalled her time in Europe with Gergiev: "He is amazing. This is the first time I am playing Mozart with him, and I was curious how he would do it. I did Russian stuff with him before – the energy for the Russian stuff was unbelievable. And he had the same energy for Mozart, which is scary, because it’s overwhelming for Mozart. But it put us into a good place. He has that. Claudio" – the conductor Claudio Abbado – "had that. Claudio is like intense listening. It makes you feel so scrutinizingly uncomfortable. And that place of uncomfortableness is exactly where you want to be every time you are onstage. Because that makes you play better, and that is when you are growing. Feeling comfortable is always like O.K., I'll do the thing again. Been there done that".

Yuja reveres Abbado, who died in 2014. When, in the interview for Limelight, she was asked what it was like to play under Abbado, she spoke of how "obscure and mysterious" the experience was. During rehearsals, "he didn't say a word – to me at least. And then in the concert, everything just came out. You don't really know what happens with the gestures or the energy field... He made everyone play his or her best... without any words".

She spoke of her new repertoire: "It makes me happy playing ‘Hammerklavier’ rather than playing Rach 3 another twenty times. I used to only play pieces I was comfortable with and good at, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky. Now I propose music I won't be comfortable with. This is the only way to get out of my skin, out of myself, and to learn". She added, laughing, "But once in a while I crave those Russians. My heart is crying, Where are they?"

A week or so after Yuja's "Hammerklavier" concert, the photograph that accompanies this piece was taken at the new Steinway piano showroom, on Sixth Avenue at Forty-third Street. When I arrived at the showroom, around noon, Yuja, wearing one of her bandage dresses, was sitting on a table, facing a mirror, as a hair-and-makeup man from Paris applied mascara to her eyelashes. She was patient and compliant and practiced. She had done this before. There are many beautiful portraits of Yuja floating around the print and Internet worlds. After greeting me, she began lighting into Tommasini for his comment about her encores. "If instead of feeling exhausted I feel exhilarated, and want to make people happy by giving them a gift, why not do it?" she said. "It feels like home to play those familiar pieces. People play encores after much more sublime pieces. Why can't you do it after climbing Mt. Everest? Stupid conservative doctrine."

We were on a below-street-level floor, filled with pianos. The photographer, Pari Dukovic, and his three assistants were placing lights and screens around one of them. They had been there since eight-thirty in the morning (catering and hair and makeup had followed at eleven-thirty). Several of Yuja's concert dresses were strewn around an alcove serving as a dressing room, among them the blue-green dominatrix gown she had worn to play the "Hammerklavier". This was the dress finally chosen for the portrait. The hair-and-makeup man, with whom Yuja had established laughing rapport, revised something in her hairdo at her request. "My cheeks are too fat", she said as she looked in the mirror. She ate a few forkfuls from a plate of salad that her friend Carlos Avila, a pianist who teaches at Juilliard, brought her from the catering table. Then she slipped into the blue-green dress and stepped into stiletto heels, and the photo shoot began. Yuja went to the designated piano, and Dukovic – a handsome young man, with a warm and charming manner – began circling around it, snapping pictures with a handheld camera, as she played bits and pieces of repertoire. At first, she played tentatively and quietly, starting a piece and trailing off – and then she worked her way into a horrible and wonderful pastiche of Rachmaninov, Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Gershwin, Horowitz, Tchaikovsky, all mushed together, playing louder and louder and faster and faster, banging with mischievous demonic force, as Dukovic continued his circling and snapping, like the photographer in the famous orgasmic scene in "Blowup". Yuja ended with a parodic crescendo as Dukovic shouted, "I love you!" and she burst into laughter.

The arresting photograph that was chosen out of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of pictures Dukovic took of Yuja at the piano and, later, in the first-floor showroom, posed full figure in front of a piano with its lid up, represents her as no concertgoer has ever seen her. The wild disorder of the hair has never been seen in a concert hall. (Yuja's hair tends to stay in place throughout the most rousing of her performances.) And the foreshortened, oversized hand is an obvious deviation from the consensus we call reality. Will Yuja cringe when she looks at the photograph? Or will she see it as expressive of her impudent, defiant nature and find in it, almost hear in it, an echo of her incomparable musicality?

Source: newyorker.com

Yuja Wang. Photo by Pari Dukovic for the New Yorker














See also

Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No.1 in A major – Yuja Wang, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor | Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor – Yuja Wang, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel (Audio video & Download 96kHz/24bit)

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue – Yuja Wang, Camerata Salzburg, Lionel Bringuier

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major – Yuja Wang, Camerata Salzburg, Lionel Bringuier

George Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F major | Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor – Yuja Wang, London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor – Yuja Wang, Verbier Festival Orchestra, Yuri Termikanov (HD 1080p)

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concertos – Yuja Wang, Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Lionel Bringuier (Audio video)

Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor – Yuja Wang, Berliner Philharmoniker, Paavo Järvi


Yuja Wang plays Robert Schumann, Maurice Ravel and Ludwig van Beethoven at Verbier Festival 2016

Yuja Wang, the pianist who will not go quietly


Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.3 in C major – Yuja Wang, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado


Leonidas Kavakos, violin & Yuja Wang, piano

Johannes Brahms: The Violin Sonatas – Leonidas Kavakos, Yuja Wang (Audio video)

Johannes Brahms: Sonata for piano and violin No.2 in A major – Yuja Wang, Leonidas Kavakos


Maurice Ravel: Sonata for violin and piano No.1 in A minor – Leonidas Kavakos, Yuja Wang


Ottorino Respighi: Violin Sonata in B minor – Leonidas Kavakos, Yuja Wang


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