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Yuja Wang: Force of nature?

On 20 Jan 08 I attended a startling — in a wonderful way — concert. Yuja Wang gave a piano recital in magnificent Hill Auditorium. Only 20 years old, Wang has been on a very successful world tour for the past two years, after studying with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute. Last year she was selected for a prestigious Gilmore Young Artist award.

I was startled because Wang was fabulous in ways I didn’t anticipate. I knew she was a technical wizard, partly from seeing videos of her playing on YouTube. I didn’t expect her to be so emotionally mature, or musically expressive.

First, a word about her technique: yes, she can play extremely difficult passages with seeming ease. (Her program included Ligeti’s Etudes 4 and 10, and Liszt’s B minor Sonata.) But what, for me, distinguished her from so many other young wizards was her pianissimo. I was absolutely floored: she could play long passages, fast, in the most wispy pianissimo (I was in the 7th row yet almost had to strain to hear it), yet every note sounded, and sounded clearly and distinctly. I kept shaking my head and asking myself, “How does she do that?” She seemed able to draw sounds out of the Steinway D that are simply not physically possible on a piano. Amazing.

But my greater wonder is reserved for her emotional maturity. It’s not so much that she conveyed age way beyond her years (like the also remarkable young Jacqueline du Pre when she gave her definitive performances of Elgar’s autumnal Cello Concerto), but that had a depth and breadth of expression rarely heard in a young technical wizard. She drew out new feelings and colors, especially in the Liszt (also in Ravel’s La Valse). I was particularly moved by her patience: her ability to extend a rest, or slow a passage to a near crawl while maintaining forward motion. Indeed, several times her rests and slow passages were so engaging that I leaned forward in my seat, as if she were reaching out to me and I was responding. I felt concerned for her, and what she was feeling.

Wang also surprised in her ability to abruptly shift mood, in a completely convincing way. And so many moods, some nuanced, some expansive. Her (volume) dynamic range was terrific, but her emotional (dynamic) range was overwhelming. I was in tears several times during the performance, sometimes from joy, other times from the ineffable sadness she could convey.

Part of my wonderment, I think, is due to seeing her the day before give a small master class at the UM School of Music. One of my Ph.D. students is a friend of hers and told me about the unadvertised class (it was attended primarily by the students of two piano professors at the School). In that setting she seemed like the 20 year old young women she is: caually dressed, giggly, convincing but not especially impressive (she is no natural-born teacher). She encourged the students to take chances, to invest their playing with more emotion, but I had no clue what I was going to be hearing from her the next afternoon.

I’m not a qualified music critic. I have only a so-so ear for nuance and color. Maybe I’m way wrong in my assessment of Wang’s capability. But I have heard quite a few great pianists perform, and this was the first time I heard someone young and not yet well known (she has no commercial recordings, for example) and walked out convinced that this was the real thing, a performer who would succeed and play at the highest levels. I think we will be hearing a lot more about Wang in the years to come.

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  1. […] learn the G Major).  As a special treat, one of the four performers is Yuja Wang whom I’ve written about before. Posted by jmm on Saturday, May 9, 2009, at 2:08 pm. Filed under Learning, practice. Follow any […]

  2. […] year and a half ago I was effusive after seeing 21 year old Yuja Wang in her debut recital in Ann Arbor.  This year, she has been […]

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