Fast-rising pianist to open New World season in style

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

The New World Symphony opens its 21st season next Friday night with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Miami Beach orchestra in music of Ravel and Stravinsky, two MTT specialties.

Yet in addition to the celebrated conductor and orchestra, this season’s curtain-raiser also will provide audiences with the opportunity to catch a young, alarmingly gifted musician who appears to be on the brink of stardom. Pianist Yuja Wang will team up with Tilson Thomas and the New World in two works, Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Stravinsky’s Capriccio.

It’s a neat bit of symmetry that Wang, just 21, is the same age as the New World Symphony. She has already demonstrated to local audiences her astounding technique and fearless virtuosity in a recital for Friends of Chamber Music of Miami two seasons ago. Add a vivacious personality and charismatic stage presence and it would seem that there’s no stopping the Beijing-born musician. For an example of Wang’s flame-throwing bona fides, one can hardly do better than her romp through the tortuously complex Volodos arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca.

Since her Miami recital, Wang has graced the stages of the leading American orchestras, performing with the Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. And this season she will make debuts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony, National Symphony and Pittsburgh Symphony.

“I think she’s an amazing artist,” says Tilson Thomas, who has been an advocate and mentor of sorts, performing with Wang in San Francisco and London. “She represents the new wave of Asian artists. The level of creativity, her feeling for harmony and the level of musical understanding are extraordinary.”

“To hear her perform a concerto, you hear her reacting to every coloristic possibility of the orchestra. And she’s at a stage now when she’s learning so many concertos.”

Thirteen concertos to be exact, which is a daunting number to play in a single season, where many soloists restrict themselves to just a handful of works.

“It is a huge repertoire,” says Wang, with a laugh from New York, where she just moved the previous week. “But I think it’s more fun to play concertos because I can collaborate with other people. When you have a whole orchestra behind you, it’s more exciting and actually easier for me. With a recital, I have to control everything. There’s more freedom but I also have to work harder.”

Hard work is clearly something Wang is not afraid of. Nearly half of her concertos in 2008-2009 are new to her repertoire including the Ravel and Stravinsky works, which she will be performing for the first time on Lincoln Road next weekend.

Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand has most often been a staple of pianists with right-hand afflictions, like Leon Fleisher or Wang’s mentor at the Curtis Institute, Gary Graffman. But for Wang, it’s a favored work, one she was determined to play after hearing Graffman perform it two years ago.

“I just fell in love with it,” she says with characteristic enthusiasm. “I think it’s an awesome piece, even better than the Ravel G major. It’s so dark and the harmonies are so beautiful. The rhythmic vitality is very cool. And the orchestra has so much more color than the G major. It’s more sensual, more like Ravel.”

Stravinsky’s Capriccio is less often heard, dating from 1929, the same year Ravel began work on his Left Hand Concerto. The Russian composer wrote the flashy Capriccio for personal solo display and, more practically, as a tund-raising device he could perform to improve his shaky finances after fleeing Russia.

“The thing with Stravinsky is everything he wrote is so different,” says Wang. “I’ve played the piano part in Petrushka, and this is completely different, more from his neo-Classical period. There’s a lot of very jazzy moments and counterpoint in the orchestra. It’s a lot of fun.”

Wang learned the Capriccio at the request of Tilson Thomas, a conductor for whom, she says, every collaboration is educational and enjoyable. “He’s probably the most knowledgeable person I know,” says Wang. “He has so much imagination and creativity. And he’s so quick at absorbing information. He’s like this sponge that has everything in there.”

Born in Beijing in 1987, Yuja Wang began studying at age 6, performing in China, Australia and Germany as a child before attending the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She moved to North America, first attening the summer program of the Mount Royal College in Calgary and then the Mount Royal Conservatory. At 15, Wang won the Aspen Music Festival’s concerto competition and moved to Philadelphia to study with Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Wang is exhilarated by her recent move to New York from Philadelphia even though her current living situation is decidedly Spartan. “I just have a rug, a piano and a bed,” she says. “It’s a huge change from Philadelphia. But I’m just two blocks from Carnegie Hall. I’m very interested to discover the city. I want to explore every corner of New York.”

Unlike many a young musician, she doesn’t travel with an entourage of family, teachers and assorted hangers-on, a testament to her youthful maturity and independence. “I always travel alone,” says Wang. “I always bring a book and my laptop. I enjoy studying music on the plane too, like a conductor. It gives me time to think.”

In addition to a voracious appetite for music, the depth of Wang’s taste in reading is impressive in an age when The Da Vinci Code is considered classic literature. “Right now I’m reading The Idiot by Dostoyevsky. And I read Nietzsche’s Thus Sprach Zarathustra and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. And I love Victor Hugo. I read no trash,” she laughs.

As with her literary choices, Wang makes no concession to the middle-brow in music and is planning to explore more contemporary works, including music of Messiaen, Ligeti, Xenakis and George Crumb, “Being Chinese, I think Tan Dun is very interesting too,” she says. “There are so many treasures to discover. Every day I discover something new.”

Like many young women, she enjoys shopping, as well as exploring YouTube and is a dedicated movie fan, particularly older films, including Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which served as her video introduction to New York. She also enjoyed Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut for its use of Ligeti’s music. Asked if she was old enough to see the director’s erotic thriller when it was released, she laughs. “I’m legal now!”

Wang says her intellectual curiosity and intense desire for new experiences sometimes make her so restless that she becomes impatient and finds it hard to practice for extended periods. “I can only practice twenty minutes because I get bored. I’m trying to get a longer attention span. It’s a good thing all the pieces I play are under a half-hour!”

Yet, even at such a young age, Wang has the searching temperament and perfectionist attitude of a seasoned artist, finding herself constantly questioning and reexamining her approach to even the most familiar piece of music. “Sometimes, even subconsciously, I just change it a little,” she says. “You know, the hall is always different, different piano or orchestra, different conductor.

“I like to play it differently each time. That way it’s always fresh.”

Pianist Yuja Wang performs Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Stravinsky’s Capriccio with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17 and Saturday Oct. 18 and 3 p.m. Sunday Oct. 19 at the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. The program also includes Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird (1919 version). $28-$84.; 305-673-3331. 800-597-3331.

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Fri Oct 10, 2008
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