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A musical voice: An interview with Yuja Wang

A musical voice: An interview with Yuja Wang

At age twenty-five, Yuja Wang has already compiled a list of accomplishments that could define a full career. A Gilmore Artist and recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Prize, she has released four recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and performed recitals to critical acclaim across the globe. She has appeared as a soloist with many of the world's prestigious orchestras, under the direction of luminaries such as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Charles Dutoit, Loren Maazel, Kurt Masur, Sir Neville Marriner, Sir Roger Norrington, and Michael Tilson Thomas. She consistently receives praise for her musicality, artistry, and depth of interpretation.

As a young artist in the twenty-first century, Yuja Wang has already received a great deal of media coverage and attention on all aspects of her performing career. When she was in town to perform the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with the Atlanta Symphony, I sat down with her for a conversation that included discussion of her teaching and training in China and North America.

Could you tell us about the teaching you received when you were a student? Did you have a teacher before you went to the Beijing Conservatory? 

No, I had the same teacher, Ms. Ling. I started with her at age seven and stayed with her until I left China at age fourteen. So my instruction was very unified. She was heavily influenced by Russian ideas on how to produce sound, styles, tastes, etc. I remember that she had lots of old recordings of Cortot and Schnabel, which were later released on CD, and Deutsche Grammophon recordings. She was also a big fan of Leon Fleisher. When I went to Curtis, I primarily studied with Gary Graffman, but I did two workshops with Leon Fleisher in Carnegie Hall. One was on late Schubert, and one was on the last Mozart concerto.

Yuja Wang with teacher Ling Yuan.

People often ask, "What's the difference between studying in China and studying in the West?" For me, studying in the West was actually continuing the line of what my teacher was talking about in China, and it refreshed her ideas. Teachers such as Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman have a way of articulating and clarifying concepts.

So those two workshops had a big influence on you. 

Yes, yes.

Have you stayed in touch with Fleisher, or played for him since? 

Not really, because he is very busy and still plays quite a bit. Mainly I was glad to get his concepts and principles. I also had a teacher in Canada for a year before I went to Curtis, Hung Kuan Chen. He was from Taiwan but studied in Germany when he was thirteen, so he had a strong Germanic background. 

He did almost all of the major competitions and he had a complete repertoire of nearly everything, so he was very much in demand as a performer. So, my teacher from China recommended him. Because he was so much in demand, I had about three lessons that entire year. But it was very fruitful, because it was so precious to have time with him.

Who else has influenced your playing? 

Leon Fleisher is one. I played for Radu Lupu once, and I also played for Evgeny Kissin, which is rare. I've also learned a lot from the coaching in chamber music at Curtis from Pamela Frank, Claude Frank's daughter. And Meng-Chieh Liu, our chamber music coach. He had great ideas. And I learned from the students— everyone is so talented there and they all have their own ideas. They are actually the most critical, more so than the teachers.

You have said that your first teacher, Ms. Ling, really forced you to listen. Can you talk about how she motivated you to listen more critically? That can be a hard thing to teach. 

Yes. She was very intuitive, and very temperamental, so it was always nerve-wracking to go to lessons. I realized afterwards, when I played with Claudio Abaddo, that a lot of it was about silence. People ask Martha Argerich what Michelangeli taught her, and she says, "silence."

Ms. Ling taught me to listen with the inner ear. There's a difference between elevator music, that you listen to, and hearing, and she pointed out that difference. She emphasized listening inside your head, listening to your left hand while practicing your right. And practicing slowly. It doesn't feel like you are getting anywhere, but she would say, "Listen to the harmony. Can you hear it?" And I would be able to hear it. It is something that needs so much time after the lesson to discover on your own. Sometimes I would spend that time and she would say, "See, you totally got it." And sometimes I would spend just as much time and she would say, "I don't hear anything!"

She also taught me about style—she has great taste. I learned lots of Beethoven under her, and Chopin. Those are her favorite composers. It is amazing how intuitive she was. My later teachers had a way of intellectualizing and putting concepts into words, but that made me realize, "Oh, that's what she was talking about." She had a very emotional and direct way.

She was probably the most influential person, besides my parents, in China, in terms of my musical development. She does have her limit—she stops at Brahms. Sometimes I feel that is a little conventional, but why not?

Did she spend a lot of time on technique? 

Not technique, but sound. She was very elite, very specific, and had very high standards. She emphasized quality more than anything else.

In China, everyone has technique. Having the technique to play difficult repertoire wasn't anything special. Even more nowadays— everyone can play Rach Three when they are twelve! And actually quite musically sometimes, too! [laughs]

You really have to spend time to find your own voice, to be distinct from others, so people remember you. Otherwise you are just one in a mass of talented, competitive, young pianists.

What do you do now in your practicing to focus on bringing out the music, to go beyond just playing the notes right? 

Well, I'm trying to figure that out! [laughs] I have to say it was easier before, because I studied the pieces I wanted to learn. With my schedule (we always schedule two years in advance), sometimes I wonder, "why am I playing this piece again?" If I want to be positive, there is always a way to delve deeper into the music.

I feel limited in such a boundless, indefinite music world. I've played most of the major concerti, yet there are so many more to learn beyond those. It is difficult to know where to begin. I'm trying to see if I can do this on my own. And life takes over—all the concerts and all the media. It is less focused than when I was at school. So I'm trying to adjust to that, to be honest.

If I'm under a deadline, I still want to bring the experience of the concert to people. I can't avoid that. So, I try to look to the story I want to tell or the big picture that I want to deliver, even if I miss something. But of course the greatness lies in the details. For me the structure makes the music; it makes everything clearer, more transparent. That's how my mind works.

The harmonic structure, or the form? 

The form. The form, and what I want to do in each section. It is like being a movie director. I want to tell a story, and I have to figure out how to tell it. Do I tell two stories in parallel or do I contrast? But, those plans can go into a puff of smoke when I am on the stage! [laughs]

There is something that you learn from performing that you can never get when you practice. There is that momentary magic. Sometimes you have it and sometimes you don't, and you can't really control it.When you have it you are thanking God for it, and when you don't, you feel like all the work you've done just goes into the trash! Pieces I have played for a long time seep into my consciousness, and sometimes I don't even have to practice—they are just there. And then it spoils me, because I wish that every piece was like that!

Is there still repertoire out there you would like to learn? 

Yes, of course. Prokofiev concertos. Some people think I should do all five Prokofiev concertos, but I'm not crazy about the fourth. Ravel, Debussy, and Bach, which I never play in public. Beethoven.

What do you think about Bach? 

I have different thoughts about Bach every month! [laughs] That's how I started. I love practicing Bach. When I started the piano, I hated the etudes. And Bach for me was joyful to play. It is not too demanding, and it makes people more peaceful. It used to be required for competitions, but it isn't anymore. I feel that it is something that I can improve my musicality with and enjoy personally, rather than sharing it on the stage. That being said, I think I'm also a little scared of playing it publicly, because I'm not contrapuntally oriented.

It seems that in competitions with open repertoire, you rarely see anybody play Bach. If you do, it is often Bach-Busoni or another transcription.

Yes. And also you are risking having the label of "Bach interpreter," like a Glenn Gould. People like to pigeonhole; I'm the "Russian interpreter." [laughs]

Have you taught masterclasses? 

No, only once or twice. I'm not really a good teacher. I think lots of things come very naturally to me, and I can demonstrate, but I don't know how to tell someone how to do it. I don't know what to say, and with interpretation I think, "Why am I there to tell the student what to do?" What works for me might not work for someone else.

Someone like Leon Fleisher can give a great class, because he is so articulate and he has principles. But I doubt how much that will help you if you just have a masterclass. There is always the audience factor, and you don't want to bore them. But the real lessons are boring. That's how we learn. Not just boring, the process is excruciating, actually.

The real lessons aren't for an audience. 

Right, and that's what helps us, I think, more than a masterclass teacher saying, "That was great, now work on this section."

You have said that you've developed a fondness for Cortot. 


If you had the opportunity to talk to Cortot, what would you ask him?

I would just let him talk and let his thoughts wander around. He could be so poetic. Speaking French doesn't hurt either! That's what I think is the most inspiring. After I read [his edition] of the Chopin Etudes, I would practice as he said, but it didn't really help! [laughs] Then I heard his Chopin Etude recording. It was so musical! A little messy, but so musical!

Many people have said that Cortot wouldn't make it out of the prelims of today's competitions. 

Yeah, but it is what lies behind. There is a documentary of him, of the concerts he did in a twoweek span, all the different programs. Chopin, Liszt, Schumann. It is amazing. Back then they didn't have all this management and scheduling. They played, and perfection was not the main issue. I loved his Schumann Op. 15, and Carnaval. Rachmaninoff has a great Carnaval, and Chopin preludes, as well. I love that old sound, the sound of Schnabel or Rachmaninoff.

Do you think that style is somewhat lost today?

I think people live differently, and life influences that. Back then they didn't have computers and they would read so many books. And now we read books, but we read electronically, and it is not the same. We go to a hard drive somewhere. There is less human interaction and less time to really know oneself. It is more difficult to approach that in this lifestyle.

We've lost some of the art of reflection. 

Exactly. But we can still do that.

When you were a student did you ever lose your motivation? 

I still do. I think it is an ongoing struggle, being a musician. 

Is there anything your teachers or parents did to keep you on track? 

Well, if I screwed up once, I helped myself. Then I would have to go back to practice!

You have done some of your own transcriptions, including one on your new CD. 

Yes, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. I didn't really do the transcription, I just had the piano scores of Viktor Staub. So, I edited. For this new CD I did a lot of that, also the Gluck [Orfeo et Euridice], which I heard on a Rachmaninoff CD. I don't have the music for that, so it's not really a transcription.

Do you see yourself doing more of those in the future? 

I don't know. I just did it for fun, for encores. One critic said it was a nightmare to have all this compilation of "cheap" music, like junk food. But it was something different. Everyone has his own concept.

I feel like the encores are something that people always love, and this is a CD of my favorites and audience favorites. It doesn't really say anything about my artistic decisions, it is just a CD.

You did a lot of competitions when you were a student. 

When I was in China, before I was fourteen, yes. I haven't done any since then.

Do you think those were helpful to you? Are you glad you did those? 

Yes. My teacher said that it was a way of getting you to the stage and to performance. Everything she did for me was toward performing. So the result of the competition didn't matter; it was preparing me. That was a good attitude toward competition, but I didn't like the set repertoire, and I didn't like just molding a piece to perfection. When I got out of China, I loved not having to do that and didn't miss it a bit. It does push people to a higher level. I guess it is a motivation.

Was it your decision to not do more of them when you got older?

Yes. And I also got management when I was sixteen. I was thinking of doing the Chopin Competition, but you do competitions to get management and concerts. If you have management, Gary Graffman told me, there isn't a necessity for that.

How did you come to get management at such a young age? 

Well the manager came to one of my concerts, actually two. At the first one I did Petruchka and the Liszt Sonata, and he said, "OK, good. I want to hear Mozart." [laughs] It was interesting. I was lucky because he is very seasoned.

You are successful with concerts and get good audiences, but a lot of pianists are struggling to get audiences. In classical music, here in America we are struggling to get young people. What can we do as performers to help get more people to the halls?

I don't think it is up to performers. I think people crave an experience, and that's why they go to rock concerts. I don't know why because I never go to a rock concert! [laughs] Or they go to a jazz concert, which, I would love. It is like going to the landmarks in a new country. You want to see it for yourself. I don't know how to get the audience to come. But I do know that once they are there, if I can deliver the music, that's all I can do.

So you don't go to rock concerts.

Actually, I wish I did, though I would need some earplugs first!

What do you listen to that is not classical?

I actually love Rhianna and Jeff Buckley, Michael Jackson and Keith Jarrett. Jazz stuff.

Do you listen to a lot of jazz?

Sometimes, yes. It depends.

Is there any advice you would give to students or aspiring pianists, from little kids to those trying to make a career?

Oh, I wish I were one of those wise people who could just do that. There's a DVD with Simon Rattle, where they are helping homeless kids by gathering them to dance the Rite of Spring with the Berlin Philharmonic. He said, "To live in music like this [what these kids did], it is not a luxury, it is a human necessity." It reaches the human life, it takes you to a different world or a different level. I guess it is about reflection, but it is also about experiencing a different way of life. Just open yourself up with that kind of experience and see where it takes you. Always do what you love to do, and don't force it.

I think that is pretty wise.

For a twenty-five-year-old, that's not bad, is it?

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