Cliburn medal gave Yang a major boost

Pianist Joyce Yang will be featured Friday night when the Albany Symphony Orchestra performs at the

ALBANY — Many people might think that a pianist who wins the second prize medal in a competition as prestigious as the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition would feel their struggles are over. After all, besides receiving a cash prize of $20,000, it provides management for three years to perform recitals and concerts with major orchestras in the United States, and a CD on the harmonia mundi usa label. Certainly, that’s enough to get one’s feet wet and headed down a respected path to a golden future.

Joyce Yang, who won the silver medal in 2005 at 19, as well as the top prizes for the best performance of a new work and the best chamber music performance, and who will make her third appearance with the Albany Symphony Orchestra on Friday, would set all those people straight.

“I’m slightly relieved I got the silver and not the gold medal. [Alexander Kobrin, 25, of Russia, won the gold.] I had so much room to grow and that medal would have been so much pressure on my shoulders,” she said from Sante Fe before a concert with the Takacs String Quartet.

“There are so many pianists out there and if you zone out, it’s over. You must work really hard. You can’t get comfortable. Every concert is total focus. I constantly feel the need to push myself forward.”

Albany Symphony Orchestra

WHO: Guest pianist Joyce Yang

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany

HOW MUCH: $46 to $23

MORE INFO: 465-4755

And because PBS did a story on the competition, many in the United States know her.

“Silver medal is my middle name,” she said laughing. “That special — you turn into a rock star. There are many expectations. It’s no longer just having fun.”

Beyond dreams

Her silver medal was more than she ever dreamed about, she said. And this is from a pianist who was considered a prodigy in South Korea. After winning top awards at numerous competitions there, she came to New York City at 11 to study at the Juilliard pre-college division. By 14, she had signed with management.

Initially, she didn’t intend to enter the Cliburn.

“I thought if I didn’t win it, it wouldn’t matter. I thought it would be a stress-free experience,” she said.

Six months before the competition deadline, she decided to go for it. Hundreds apply, she said, but officials narrow those down based on paper resumés. Traveling jurors hear hundreds more worldwide in 40-minute recitals. She was one of the 30 who were asked to come to Fort Worth to compete.

When she arrived, the first thing everyone did was meet Van Cliburn.

“You shake his very large hand and think ‘Wow, he’s real. This legendary figure,’ ” she said. “Then you get a pair of cowboy boots from Neiman Marcus.”

Cliburn was always around to offer support. And she needed it, she said. The pressure was extreme. Thousands of people packed into the hall to hear the various concerts. The press observed every move. None of the other competitors seemed to make any mistakes and everyone seemed to be at their peak.

But Yang, who was the youngest of the competitors who ranged in age from 22 to 28, was playing pieces she’d just learned two weeks before.

“That first concert was an eye-opener,” she said. “Everyone thought I was so relaxed. And that helped me. People thought I was there to make music rather than make an impression. I’d grown up with management early on, so they called me the backwards girl. [Most competitors were seeking management.] But I was freaked out.”

The competition allowed pianists to choose their own repertoire for recitals: concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony and chamber music with the Takacs String Quartet. All had to perform a new work commissioned for the competition, Sebastian Currier’s “Scarlatti Cadences + Brainstorm.” Yang played eight concerts and spread her repertoire among Liszt, Brahms, Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Corigliano, Dvorak and Carl Vine.

“I wanted to play pieces I could make my own,” she said.

Although the new work was extremely difficult to memorize (she was one of only two who did), her passion for new music made it worthwhile. The judges agreed because she got the prize for the best performance, which carried a cash award of $5,000. She also received $6,000 for winning the best chamber music performance.

As she progressed each round, she said, she was thrilled that people liked her playing, but she was always concerned about how to offer something other pianists could not. Because the audiences were very subjective, she said.

“Everyone had different styles. But it was who do you like. Who speaks to you,” Yang said.

She little expected her future when Cliburn called her name three times at the final ceremonies.

“Exposure has been huge,” she said. “I’ve done 50 concerts a year since then.”

Return visit

This will be Yang’s third appearance with the Albany Symphony. Conductor David Alan Miller calls Yang “an ironclad performer” and is thrilled she’s returning, especially as she’s performing the Ravel Concerto in G at his suggestion, a piece Yang said she has played only once before. Also on the concert are two Morton Gould works from the 1930s: his clever “Chorale and Fugue in Jazz” and “American Symphonette No. 3,” which he wrote for his radio show.

“The Chorale was Gould’s breakthrough piece,” Miller said. “Everyone played it and then it disappeared from the repertoire.”

Both works are part of a CD the ASO is recording. Also scheduled is Gershwin’s own arrangement of the “Porgy and Bess Suite: Catfish Row.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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