may 2012

Yuja Wang: About Fantasia, an album of favorite encores, she explains: ‘I love all the pieces here. I've played them for so long that they've become a part of me. With each of these miniatures, I hope to capture an atmosphere, to create the vignette of a memory or a hope--like a haiku. An encore is something that is both ephemeral and truthful, a temporary mood reciprocated by the audience.’

Yuja's Fantasia: Quite Fantastic

By Janos Gereben

We are at the cusp of transition from one generation of pianists to another, but a name stands out as exception to clear distinction between grand old musicians and brilliant young talent. Yuja Wang doesn't fit into either of those (arbitrary) boxes.

At only 25, Yuja (she prefers to use her given name in second reference, the patronymic Wang not being distinctive enough) is an old soul, and seemingly in the vanguard for a long, long time. In fact, it has been a dozen years--half her life--that she has been winning international contests and hearts around the world, plus engagements with major orchestras, so she is neither a newcomer nor a member of the ancien régime. She is what she is, one of the finest pianists--and, importantly, musicians--of our time.

Behind the scenes of a video shoot for Yuja Wang’s Fantasia

And she has now produced her fourth Deutsche Grammophon CD, which is the subject of our sermon today. Fantasia follows Sonatas & Etudes (2009), Transformation (2010) and Rachmaninov (2011).

It is a varied, capricious, collection of miniatures, just a few minutes each, the longest being a 10-minute tribute to Mickey Mouse (please wait for the explanation). At any rate, quite a change since the large-scale collection of Transformation.

Almost all tracks come from Yuja's large storehouse of encores; she needs many because her recital audiences invariably demand--and almost always--receive them.

Yuja Wang, from Fantasia, ‘Danse Macabre’ by Camille Saint-Saëns, arranged by Franz Liszt & Vladimir Horowitz.

Four brief Rachmaninov pieces lead the way, played with unshowy brilliance, power and her usual complete authority over the keyboard. The stormy Étude-tableau in A Minor Op. 39 No. 6 is a grand calling card; Op. 39 No. 4 is swift, playful; Op. 39 No. 5 has a quiet, but persistent romantic sweep.

Élégie in E flat minor Op. 3 No. 1, wisely slipped in between No. 4 and No. 5, is meandering, Chopinesque, a change from the mood shared by the Étude-tableaux.

Scarlatti, a Yuja perennial, appears here only with the two-minute-long Sonata in G Major K. 455. It is an irresitible melodic cascade of pearls, and it is over before you can catch your breath.

Yuja Wang, Variations on a Theme from Bizet’s Carmen as arranged by Vladimir Horowitz. The studio version is included on Fantasia.

For contrast, the poignant Melody from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice follows, giving way to Albéniz's sweeping "Triana," from Iberia, Book II.

One of Yuja's heroes, Vladimir Horowitz, is responsible for two transcriptions: the Gypsy Song, from Bizet's Carmen, and the CD-closing virtuoso Dance macabre by Saint-Saëns (in Liszt's arrangement). The Carmen excerpt is marked "White House version" because it became famous in Horowitz's televised White House concert in 1978.

Yuja Wang, a snippet of Strauss' Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka Op. 241, from Fantasia.

There are many other cuts, including a superb collection of five Scriabin miniatures, but let's get back to Mickey Mouse. Everybody's favorite rodent will inevitably come to mind while listening to Yuja's tempestuous The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in Victor Staub's arrangement.

There is meaning behind the selection: Disney's Fantasia, writes Shirley Apthorp, "along with a performance of Swan Lake, was her first encounter with classical music as a child, and she always enjoys the frisson of recognition that runs through an audience when the familiar melody emerges."

classical voice

Published April 13, 2012 in San Francisco Classical Voice. The go-to place for classical music in the Bay Area, San Francisco Classical Voice was founded in 1998 byretiring San Francisco Chronicle classical-music critic Robert Commanday and San Francisco composer and philanthropist Gordon Getty. SFCV’s journalistic mission is to inspire and motivate people to attend, listen to, learn about, discuss and actively participate in the Bay Area's vast and varied classical music scene. Since its inception San Francisco Classical Voice has published more than 3,500 concert reviews of Bay Area classical music groups. In addition, the site publishes artist interviews; an events calendar; music news; a self-contained section, Kids & Families, that includes a calendar of family friendly events, notices of music education opportunities for children, reviews of kid friendly books and recordings and a Kids & Families podcast.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at

Yuju Wang's Fantasia is available at For more Yuju Wang news and information, visit the artist’s website


Yuja Wang takes a bow after playing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)

Now About That Dress…and Other Yuja Wang Matters

1. ‘I Didn’t Think the Controversy Would Go So Far’

Pianist Yuja Wang started making the wrong kind of headlines this past August when she showed up for a performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in a bright orange, form fitting mini-dress “atop sparkly gold strappy stiletto sandals,” as the Los Angeles Times’ Adam Tschom noted in a brief headlined “Classical Gasp.”

“In particular,” reported Tschom, “Wang's outfit was a hot topic at the concert and continued after L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed's review appeared in print and online. While Swed praised her delicacy, speed and grace at the piano, his fashion comments--including the observation: ‘Her dress Tuesday was so short and tight 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’--have touched off a spirited debate among music critics and bloggers about what constitutes appropriate concert attire and, conversely, whether a critique of a performer's clothes has any place in a music review.”

Subsequently, Ms. Wang addressed the controversy in interviews, one of which appeared in the Houston Chronicle of October 2011, in advance of her recital there—and included the following exchange:

I feel I should ask you about your choice of concert attire, which has been much debated in the press lately. Why do you wear such small dresses on stage?

I've been wearing them for a few years now. But it was just recently that it was blown up into a controversy after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I like to wear them in the summer, at outdoor concerts where I don't want to wear a long gown. And with so many concerts to play, I want to wear something I enjoy wearing. What I wear onstage is just what I normally wear.

It's not like there are some rules that I have to follow. And if people find it shocking--then I'm sorry. But I'm really just there to play the music.

Were you surprised when this became a controversy?

I was very amused--but I was also puzzled. I didn't think the controversy would go so far.


2. ‘The more I play it, the more beauty I find in there…’

In May 2009, ahead of her concert at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, the then-22-year-old Yuja Wang, whose repertoire for the concert included what one critic has described as “the dastardly difficult Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2,” was already being hailed by classical critics in the City by the Bay as “an artist of dazzling genius” who is surrounded by "an aura of greatness...Wang combines a practically superhuman keyboard technique with artistic eloquence that is second to none."

Yuja Wang performs the ‘dastardly difficult’ Prokofiev Piano Concert #2, First Movement

In the following excerpts from an interesting Q&A with SFist published on May 20, 2009, Ms. Wang discusses the Prokofiev and her approach to it, as well as influences and her celebrated professional relationship with Michael Tilson Thomas.

What can you tell us about that piano concerto??

I've been playing it a lot in the past two years, with different orchestras. When I first heard it, I guess it was different, I did not get what it was, it was a very dark piece. When I started to learn it, I was incredulous. The more I play it, the more beauty I find in there, every time I perform it. It's the first time I'm going to play with a different conductor, not Charles Dutoit, but Michael Tilson Thomas, so I'm very looking forward to find something new in it.

Did you listen to Prokofiev's own playing? There are recordinsg of him playing different pieces.

Yes, there is a recording of the 3rd concerto, and I heard it on YouTube. He's a great pianist, really. But the way he plays, it's very straightforward, there is so much other stuff that I find he is not showing in his own playing.

There is a lot more to it than how he played it. It was all very fast, he wrote the piece and then he played it. He was very young, and I thought there was more to it than what he played.

In your profile, you list Alfred Cortot as your favorite musician. That's pretty obscure, isn't it?

About Cortot, I like the older style, I guess it's the poetic part that really grasps me, the sound that he phrases, how he listens for harmonies. Also, a lot of Chopin and Liszt I play, it is very inspiring to see how he thinks about music, and I was quite admiring that.

You are sometimes described as a protegée of Michael Tilson Thomas. How did that happen?

The whole thing was, it was funny, I was playing the Chinese new year concert with another conductor. We were rehearsing, and he heard me when I was playing Grieg, and then he just decided to play with me. He's very interested in young musicians, and the way how he supports my playing and how he helps me is incredible.

Next I did Ravel with him, also I played with him with the New World Symphony in Miami, and I played the Ravel left hand, which I've never played before and the Stravinsky Capriccio which is rarely played as well. So with him, there is always a process of learning new pieces, and how to interpret them for the first time. And it's always fun time with him. With Prokoviev, I played with Dutoit so much, and now there is another way to looking at it. Sometimes people have this connection when they meet each other, and it just kinda clicked when he heard me in the rehearsal that time. And then we decided to play.

People often mention that you are Chinese, or link you to Lang-Lang. How do you feel about that?

I don't like how people tag artists with their nationality. I just recorded with Deutsche Grammophon, and people ask me the question, do you feel you are the new generation for artists? I guess I could be the ambassador of new generation. For me, I'm just a new artist that's trying to discover the music, trying to discover what's out there and to put my interpretation into it and all that.

I mean, I know Lang Lang, he's a very inspiring artist, but I don't like to categorize like that. I did not mind in the beginning, but not anymore.


3. ‘I’m concentrating on continuing to build my career, and to take time to enjoy life.’

At Tokafi, Ms. Wang was a good sport in answering “15 Questions for Yuja Wang.” We’ve assembled a few of those 15 along with a handful from other interviews for a more rounded, albeit brief, portrait of the piano sensation. She reads Tolstoy, by the way. And—take note, Mitt Romney—Ayn Rand.

Yuja Wang, with Kurt Masur conducting, performs Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1

What’s the hardest part about being a musician and what’s the best?

Being a soloist I have to travel around alone, besides being lonely I have to carry my gowns and try not to lose my passport…but the best part is the fun during rehearsal, during performance, these experiences are so valuable that it can't be replaced and it makes it impossible for me to complain about other trivial hardships.

What’s your view on the classical music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

I don't see classical music is so much different from other genre of music, and of course, in China, classical music is flourishing. I think as long as music speaks to another human being's heart, it doesn't matter about the quantity; it serves its purpose.

Some feel there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before. What do you tell them??

Stop reading the book, it has been read before; or stop going to the same restaurant, you've eaten there before--the dish might be the same, but the chef is different, even with a same chef, his dish is his personal creation at the moment, it can never reproduce the same again. Same with recordings, each artist is not just playing what is on the score, but brings his personal view and experience into it that is unique and inimitable.

True or false: People need to be educated about classical music, before they can really appreciate it.

Very false, music doesn't categorize in genres, it is either good or bad: good music always moves people, directly touching the heart. If one doesn't appreciate classical music, he/she might not appreciate music altogether. The more one listens to music, the more sensitive to what they hear, the more they'll appreciate.

Four Minutes with Yuja Wang: From June 14-21, 2011 Yuja Wang did a residency with the San Francisco Symphony's Project San Francisco that included performances of Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony, plus a solo recital, and a concert of chamber works with members of the SFS. In this quickie Q&A she discusses the music and what she expected of the experience. Posted at YouTube by the San Francisco Symphony.

How would you describe the relationship with your instrument??

Love/hate relationship, very promiscuous.

Do you like to read? If so, any favorite authors?

Murakami, Ayn Rand, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo--I love reading and there are a lot of authors I enjoy!

You’ve accomplished much already, so what’s next for you? Any more classes with children?

I don’t feel I’m experienced yet enough to work more with children. After all, I’ve only been playing really full seasons for three years, and I’m just twenty-four. That will come sometime more in the future. For now, I’m concentrating on continuing to build my career, and to take time to enjoy life.

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