Pianist thrives on success, returns to region for recital

On Saturday pianist Yuja Wang will debut at the Massry Center for the Arts as part of the Renaissanc

Standing ovations and rave reviews have become almost commonplace for pianist Yuja Wang.

“I’ve pretty much gotten used to it,” she said in an email from Paris.

Wang doesn’t get much time to chill.

On Saturday she’ll debut at the Massry Center for the Arts as part of the Renaissance Musical Arts series in a program of Scriabin, Prokofiev and Liszt. The concert is one of about 35 recitals and at least 100 solo appearances with an orchestra that she performs each year. Specifically, the Massry recital is also one of 12 that Wang is doing in five states and Canada just in October.

That she would have all this success was evident from the beginning.

Born in China in 1987 to a mother who was a ballet dancer and a father who played jazz percussion, she began piano at 6 and by her early teens had won several competitions and concertized throughout China, Australia and Germany.

Yuja Wang, piano

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Massry Center for the Arts, College of Saint Rose


MORE INFO: 337-4871, www.strose.edu/concerts

There didn’t seem much future in staying at home, however, so with her parents’ assent, her teachers helped the 14-year-old Wang get a scholarship to attend Calgary’s Mount Royal College Conservatory, which has an artistic and cultural exchange program with China.

Making a connection

In 2002 at the Aspen Music Festival, Wang was one of the participants in the piano competition. That’s where Charlotte DeBlois, who runs the Young Musicians Forum series at the Niskayuna Public Library, met her. DeBlois often went to Aspen to meet with young performers and their teachers — many of whom eventually performed in the series. John Perry, one of the teachers at Aspen that year, told DeBlois she had to attend the competition.

“He said there was a pianist who had a talent that he’d never seen before. It was Yuja Wang,” DeBlois said. “She won and played Beethoven’s fourth concerto. It was absolutely incredible. She had a flowing, natural grace to her technique. She was a true wunderkind.”

When DeBlois met Wang later at a party that Perry threw for the players, she found her to be a delight.

“She was just a little girl . . . an elf,” DeBlois said.

Wang had just been accepted on full scholarship at the Curtis Institute, where she was to study with Gary Graffman. DeBlois asked Wang if she’d like to give a recital for YMF.

“Can I?,” Wang asked. “I love to play.”

In May 2003, Wang came to Niskayuna. In 2004 she returned to play on DeBlois’ series and Richard Balsam’s Renaissance Musical Arts series, which was then held at the Albany Country Club. Soon, however, Wang’s career went international and her earning prowess put her into major concert halls.

She won the 2006 Gilmore Young Artist Award and the 2010 Avery Fisher Career Grant. In 2009, Wang became an exclusive recording artist for Deutsche Grammophon. Her three discs have all met with critical acclaim and won awards.

Local ties

But Wang has not forgotten her local ties. DeBlois still gets the occasional phone call from her even as DeBlois tries to connect with her backstage wherever possible — such as when Wang debuted in 2008 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra or last summer when she performed at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“I felt like a substitute grandmother,” DeBlois said with a laugh when she remembered Wang’s early years. “She loved reading. We used to take lengthy walks. She loved fashion and clothes. She never could find the right shoes.”

What especially intrigued her was the way Wang would practice.

“I never heard anyone practice like her. She practiced in snippets. There would be a few bars of Bach and then Liszt,” DeBlois said. “I think it was more a memory testing thing.”

The performances left her awed.

“They were unforgettable. She’s blessed with fantastic hands,” DeBlois said. “Her tone is never harsh. She has a very elegant technique. She opens the dynamics totally. I’ve never heard such pianissimos.”

Her maturity and grasp of a piece’s architecture impressed DeBlois as it has almost every critic who has heard Wang.

“It’s as if she were walking through a Gothic cathedral and checking each room,” she said. “But she never lets go of the larger picture.”

All this is heady stuff, but Wang,

who reads her reviews, said she’s taking it all in stride.

“Like anyone, of course I feel pressure. But I use that energy to create good music,” she said, adding that she isn’t totally satisfied with her playing.

“Or else I should retire now!” she said. “I thrive on playing for other pianists and getting their feedback.”

One of the aspects of her success she is still grappling with is that there is less unpredictability. Just three years ago, when much of her career was taken up with being a last-minute substitute for an ailing pianist, she didn’t know where she would be weeks down the road. And she loved that, she said. Now she’s booked two years out.

“Yeah, one of the things I didn’t quite get in the beginning, but now it’s making more sense, is that my manager is often talking to orchestras and recital presenters two years in advance and they have to plan their seasons so far ahead,” she said.

“There’s no way around that and it’s something all artists get used to. I still love being spontaneous — it’s just my personality. But the big picture needs to be planned in advance.”

Seeking private time

With so much of her life taken up with travel and her career, Wang said she’s always looking for private time.

“The trick is to . . . try to create some time where I can be away from the piano and just enjoy life,” she said.

Visiting museums, reading — she’s an avid Kindle person, she said — and hanging out with her friends are at the top of her list. She visits her parents, who live in Beijing, when she can. In the past, her mother had not been able to get a visa to visit her in the United States, but she will be in New York City next Thursday when Wang gives her Carnegie Hall debut.

“This is exciting for me,” Wang said.

Categories: Life and Arts

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