Yuja Wang may have been disappointed when she walked on stage on Thursday evening to find 30 percent of the seats empty. But her dazzling performance on the piano did not disappoint those who attended her concert at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA). The standing ovations for three encores promised that when she returns with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under the baton of Claudio Abbado in September, NCPA's concert hall will be full.
At Thursday's concert, Wang's first in her hometown Beijing since she left to study abroad in 1991, she played four of Scarlatti's sonatas, Brahms' 28 Variations on Theme in the first half. Her interpretation of Scarlatti's sonatas combined the spontaneity and fearless imagination of youth with the discipline and precision of a mature pianist.
The second half featured her favorite composer Chopin's Piano Sonata No 2, which is also included in her debut CD with Deutsche Grammophon. Stravinsky's Petrouchka showcased her control over the complex technical demands and the depth of her musical insight into the modern piece.
Wang may not be as famous as Lang Lang or Li Yundi in China, but in the US and Europe, the 22-year-old has already been acclaimed as the future of classical music. The latest issue of International Piano Magazine has her on the cover and calls 2009 Yuja's Year.
In January, Wang signed an exclusive recording contract for five discs with Deutsche Grammophon, to become only the third Chinese pianist to be signed up with the renowned yellow label of classical music, after Lang Lang and Li Yundi.
"After first hearing Yuja Wang in recitals and then meeting this remarkable woman, I realized that she is not only a fine artist but also made a terrific spokesperson for the next generation of classical musicians. It was obvious that Deutsche Grammophon and Yuja would be a perfect match," says DG president Michael Lang.
The day before her Beijing recital, Wang told China Daily:
"The first CD I ever heard was Pollini playing Chopin released by DG. DG was always the label that I aspired to record for, but I never thought it would be so easy. Mr Lang met me at a small caf the day after my Verbier Festival debut last July. I was over-excited to hear that DG would sign me."
Asked if she was proud of her achievements at such a young age, she says: "No, 22 years is not young. It was Earl Blackburn (manger to such artists as pianist Lang Lang, violinist Vadim Repin and conductor John Nelson) who signed me when I was a 16-year-old student at the Curtis Institute of Music. Playing the piano was always fun, but I never thought of doing so professionally until Blackburn came to me," says Wang.
Her breakthrough came in 2005 when, as an undergraduate at Curtis, she replaced Radu Lupu at a day's notice to perform Beethoven's Fourth Concerto with the National Arts Center Orchestra under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman. It led to the call to step in for Martha Argeric in a concert of Tchaikovsky' First Concerto with the Boston Symphony and Charles Dutiot in 2007. She later substituted for Yefim Bronfman in Sweden, preparing the Prokofiev Concerto No 2 in a day, then stepped in for Evgeny Kissin in Lisbon and replaced Murray Perahia for a recital and tour in the US with the Academy of St Martin. And next month, at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, Wang will take the place of Argerich to play Nicolas Economou's arrangement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons.
"Suddenly, the opportunities to replace famous artists began to
snowball. Substituting became my profession," laughs Wang, who now enjoys a
reputation for being "the one to call" when a big-name pianist is no longer
Yuja Wang's music
"Many may hesitate to take a call, if he has only one day to prepare something like Prokofiev's Concert No 2, but I like to have a try. I have 20 concertos in my repertoire, and I can pull off any of them if I'm asked to, at short notice."
Born in 1987 to a percussionist father and a dancer mother, Wang was put through classes in dancing, swimming, painting, Chinese calligraphy and piano from the tender age of 3.
"My mother Zhai Jieming is a ballerina and often played Tchaikovsky records, so I grow up with the music," Wang says, explaining how her interest narrowed down to the piano.
After learning initially with her mother's friend, a pianist with the China National Ballet, Wang was sent to learn with Ling Yuan and Zhou Guanren, at the China Central Conservatory of Music.
Her aptitude for the keyboard and her performance skills began to soon shine. She won several competitions in Beijing and by 9 had performed in Spain, Germany and Australia.
In 1999, the 14-year-old Wang won a scholarship to become an exchange student at the Morningside Music Bridge program at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Canada. The next year, she won the Aspen Music Festival's concerto competition, which led to her selection for Leon Fleisher's Carnegie Hall master-classes in New York and brought her to the attention of David Zinman who conducted her European debut in Zurich in 2003.
In 2002, she began six years of study with Gary Graffman who was also Lang Lang's teacher at the Curtis Institute.
"The culture of music education is different in China and in the US. In China, the teachers tell you what to do, but in Canada and the US, I was encouraged to investigate for myself."
During her six years at Curtis, Wang made her European debut in 2003, North American debut in 2005, debuted with the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel in 2006 and won that year's Gilmore Young Artist Award. In 2007, she debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit.
Her fast rise has naturally led to comparisons with Lang Lang, as both are from China, both are students of Graffman and have made a name for themselves at a young age.
"Lang Lang is an iconic figure and an inspiring artist. I attended his concert at Curtis. But musically, there is nothing very similar between us," she says.
When she left Beijing, her mother put a Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) in her luggage, which she takes wherever she travels but admits is too hard to understand.
"I like reading non-fiction books in English. Since I travel so much, I take my laptop everywhere and watch DVDs or log on to Facebook. When I tour a city, if have time, I go to the museum or just shop in the streets," says Wang.
"Sometimes, I do feel lonely of living a life between an airport, hotel and concert hall, especially when I do recitals. I wish I had a dog to accompany me," she says wistfully.
Talking about her popular YouTube videos of Mozart's Turkish March and Rimsky's Flight of Bumblebee, Wang say that's what she enjoyed playing at young age but now, is tired of it and would like to do a weightier repertoire.
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