Person of interest: Yuja Wang, classical music pianist


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BONN, Germany -- Pianist Yuja Wang is on fire. At 26, Ms. Wang has established herself as one of the top pianists on the classical music circuit, hailed for her technical ability and the depth of her interpretation.

Since debuting with Ottawa's National Arts Center Orchestra in 2005, she has played with many of the best orchestras in the world, in Amsterdam, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York and beyond.

Ms. Wang, who is from China, has also raised eyebrows for her controversial concert attire. Her bright tight dresses contrast with the black tuxedos and long skirts typical of the musicians she often fronts; when she bows to the audience, her hair flops forward, in a move almost as dramatic as her playing style.

So Ms. Wang is no stranger to attention, nor to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. She joined the PSO for five concerts on its recent European festivals tour, playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in Austria, France, Germany and Romania. Of her performance of that piece with the PSO in June, former Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod wrote, "Her playing was loud, often harsh and generally unconnected with the orchestra. I am hoping she just had an off night, and there were some redeeming moments." Apparently, it's not only Ms. Wang's attire that is controversial.

I spoke with her prior to the PSO's final tour concert. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.


How do you enjoy playing with the PSO on tour?

It's great. We played the same piece in a subscription concert, but every venue we have a very short sound check, and then you just have to give it all in the concert, and different acoustic, different audience, and we get more stimulated or inspired by that element. Last week, I really enjoyed [the concert in Dusseldorf], and then I have seven days in between. This is the last one. So I remember really missing them already, in a week.

So do you get to know some of the musicians?

I know lots of them, from Curtis [Institute of Music in Philadelphia]. There are lots of grads from there. And it's really a nice group, really young, really friendly, and great musicians. I notice we're so in the moment when we play. Like, ensemble-wise we become really free, more and more free in a concert, which is a good thing for Tchaikovsky because it could get stale sometimes.

So do you have a favorite stop on tour? You've done a few concerts with the PSO.

I have to say I really, really enjoyed Romania, because it was my first time, and I was looking forward to it. It's like the only place I have to get a visa for. And the hall was huge; it was 3,500 seats. And people were super friendly, really nice. And we had two days off, so we were in the old center, and great nightlife there. And Paris is always my favorite city, so between Romania and Paris I was, like, really happy.

So, do you have any interesting pre- or post-concert rituals or practice rituals or anything like that?

I used to, but now I have concerts like every other day. I can't. I used to practice very little, before the concert, just mental practice and physically relaxed, just to be focused and relaxed at the same time, on stage. But I can't do that anymore.

No weird, like, "I always eat chicken wings before a concert"?

After. Hamburger and alcohol.

People always say, "Oh, she's so young." Do you like that, or does that sort of rub you a certain way?

It's so relative, being young. I certainly don't feel like I'm young. I've been doing this for 20 years. I should be very mature, but I'm probably not. I could be a mature musician but an immature person, which is very possible, so in that case I'm still young. And I want to keep young all the time, even in 50 years, because there's just so much to discover in the world.

Favorite composer? Do you have one?

No, I feel like that would be unfair to all the others.

And what would you be if you weren't a pianist?

Oh, lots of things. Music is so time-consuming. Maybe I'd just be a useless person but could do anything, like a Renaissance woman.

Complete the following sentence: Every classical music lover should listen to ...

Non-classical music. I don't know, should listen to everything.

Or person, or a concert in a certain hall.

Well, because I just heard this [at a PSO concert in Bonn], they should listen to the Corigliano Percussion Concerto, called "Conjurer," played by Martin Grubinger, because I cannot imagine any other percussionist can do that physically and mentally, just to memorize that, for 35 minutes. I was completely like, "What planet are you from?" But it's a good piece, it's a great piece. They should all listen to 20th-century music. And maybe Bach.

What do you do to relax?

I find a cute boy ... no. And watch movies together. I would say cinema, films. I just saw Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine." Those great movies make me feel great, and I have this luxury of always being in hotels so I always go to the spa. And very much into massage.

What's the most surprising, or maybe even embarrassing, album in your personal collection that you listen to?

I wouldn't say embarrassing, but it's just a little X-rated. It's "Rude Boy."

By Rihanna?

By Rihanna.

I love that song.

music

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG. Blog: Measured Words (http://blogs.post-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/measured-words).


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