“Her combination of technical ease, colouristic range and sheer power has always been remarkable … but these days there is an ever-greater depth to her musicianship, drawing you into the world of each composer with compelling immediacy,” wrote the Financial Times a year ago.
Yuja Wang (1987) was born into a musical family in Beijing. At the age of seven, she began studying the piano at the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, before moving to Canada at the age of thirteen to take part in the Morningside Music Bridge International Music Festival, Calgary. Strict Chinese teaching methods had given Wang a strong technical base, allowing her to feel free – Wang has always said that there must be a balance between these aspects. Two years later, she was accepted into one of the universities with the richest musical traditions in the US, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her teacher, the legendary American pianist Gary Graffman, remembers that Wang’s technical abilities were impressive, however “it was the intelligence and good taste” of her interpretations that distinguished her.
At the Curtis Institute, Wang also studied with Leon Fleisher. In an interview, she explained: “I was just in Vienna, and at dinner the question came up about which pianists people liked best in a Mozart performance. The consensus was that they loved Rudolf Serkin, and also Leon Fleisher. ‘You guys are from Vienna,’ I said, ‘and you think the best Mozart players are from America?’ “As Gary told me, that’s what’s so great about this country. You have everything here. Leon is descended from Schnabel, and Gary studied with Horowitz. Each has an individual voice—you hear it the moment either sits down. This made a big impression on me. So I saved the big Russian warhorses for Gary, and studied the German repertoire with Leon. At Curtis I was able to learn from every tradition.”
At the age of seventeen, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas also became her teacher; he remembers first hearing Wang when she performed a Grieg piano concerto: “The most striking thing about the performance was the way she listened. In the Grieg, there are a lot of places where the piano basically accompanies members of the orchestra. She did that so sensitively.”
Wang entered the international circuit in 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich in a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert with conductor Charles Dutoit. However, before this she had performed both with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich and the New York Philharmonic on its tours of Korea and Japan.
Two years later, she signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and since then her recordings have promoted her inclusion among the world’s elite pianists. In 2017, she was named Musical America’s Artist of the Year. Speaking of her now seven albums released with Deutsche Grammophon which include the music of Brahms, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt, Ligeti and Ravel, critics are unanimous: her interpretations of the most difficult pieces, performed with ease, are “filled with dramatic intensity and introspective breadth.”
In the 2018/2019 season, Wang will perform with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko, in addition giving solo recitals in South Africa, Turkey, Canada and the United States. She will be accompanying the Munich Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev on its tour of Asia. On a tour of Europe she will perform with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, as well as the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. Meanwhile, she will play with the Vienna Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel in France and Germany. On her tour of Korea and Japan with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she will premiere John Adams’ most recent piano concerto, and she will perform in many American cities as part of a chamber ensemble with cellist Gautier Capuçon.
This season, Wang is Artist in Residence at Carnegie Hall, the Wiener Konzerthaus and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, and she will also give countless solo concerts in other European and American concert halls.
When Michael Tilson Thomas was told of the astronomical number of views on Wang’s website, he replied: “One can think of other famous pianists who have gone into a merchandising mode. That’s not Yuja. Her idea of diversity is to go to the Edinburgh Festival and play all the Brahms Violin Sonatas with Leonidas Kavakos, in between doing Beethoven concertos with the San Francisco Symphony on tour… At the same time, she wants to play and learn significant pieces. At this point, she knows everything in the repertoire, and she has become adventurous, playing difficult works like Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie.”
Wang has been invited to festivals in places such as Salzburg, Aspen, Lucerne, Verbier, Budapest, Edinburgh, Dresden, Helsinki and Vienna.
When arranging Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Bartók’s sonatas for two pianos and percussion in collaboration with multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger, she joked in an interview “I’ll have to be Medusa at the piano,” although Musical America Worldwide journalist Stuart Isacoff adds that “the image of Kali, the many-armed Hindu goddess, more aptly describes her stunning technical prowess.”