SARATOGA SPRINGS — Pianist Yuja Wang has developed a novel reputation. Promoters know that if their star pianist gets sick, they can give Wang a call and, she’ll arrive suitcase in hand, to deliver a knockout performance.
“Radu Lupu was my first replacement in North America,” Wang said from New York City. “That kicked things off.”
That appearance was three years ago with the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa under Pinchas Zukerman. She played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. and received rave reviews. Wang was 18.
On Aug. 22, she’ll get her own concert date with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
“For Radu, I got two weeks notice. Then suddenly there were all these opportunities to replace people: Evgeny Kissin in Portugal to play Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev concertos and Yefim Bronfman in Russia to play Prokofiev. But the notice to replace has gotten shorter and shorter,” she said with a laugh. “I had four days to replace Martha Argerich last year.”
That’s where Wang met conductor Charles Dutoit, who was to conduct Argerich in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on four subscription concerts. He was greatly impressed, said Chantal Juillet, the artistic director of the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival, who had heard Wang in recital in Italy and was equally amazed.
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, routes 9 and 50, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Saratoga Chamber Music Festival at 8 p.m. Monday; with Philadelphia Orchestra at 8 p.m. Aug. 22
HOW MUCH: $41.50 to $36.50 for chamber concert; $72.50 to $31, lawn $18, for orchestra
MORE INFO: 584-9330 or visit www.spac.org
Wang will play Monday night at the chamber festival and Aug. 22 with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Prokofiev’s first Piano Concerto.
Wang loves how unpredictable her career is.
“I’m not bothered by nerves,” she said. “I like the unexpected.”
Born in Beijing in 1987, she started piano lessons at age 6 and eventually became a student of Ling Yuan and Zhou Guangren at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She was soon making public performances in China, Australia and Germany and won numerous competitions in China, Paris and Spain. She also spent a couple of summers attending the Morningside Music Bridge at Calgary’s Mount Royal College, which is an artistic and cultural exchange program between Canada and China.
But there seemed no future for her at home and her parents had no idea of where she should go to develop her classical music skills, she said. Her mother, who is a dancer, and her father, who is a jazz percussionist, decided to allow her Chinese teachers to make that decision.
At 14, her teachers helped her get a scholarship to move to Calgary to attend the Mount Royal College Conservatory.
“My parents stayed in China but I had really nice people to help me,” Wang said of her experience in Canada. “I learned English because I had to talk it most of the time. The scholarship provided me with a piano at home; so the transition was fairly easy.”
Within two years, she got management, she said. That turned out to be a good move. Her win at the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival prompted her selection as one of four pianists to participate at Leon Fleisher’s Carnegie Hall master classes in New York. It also brought her to the attention of conductor David Zinman, who asked her to perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich in 2003, which was her European solo debut. And, it was Zinman who told Zukerman about her when Lupu became ill.
Wang’s maturity as a performer is as much a surprise to her as it is to the many audiences and critics she impresses, she said. Until she was 10, she’d never heard a recording of classical music. Her first CD was of Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin Etudes.
“I had no music in my head. I had no imagination until I came here,” she said.
People at home in China called her a prodigy, but her teachers were always very critical and made sure she had a good technical foundation. That impressed Gary Graffman, who, in 2002, took her on as one of his students at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
She graduated this June, which was almost a non-event for her, she said. In the past two years she has barely been at the school because she’s been out giving up to 100 concerts a year. Now, she has to decide where she wants to live or if she wants to live in North America, she said.
In 2006, Wang got another surprise — she received the $15,000 Gilmore Young Artist Award, which is based on nominations from music professionals who, unknown to the artist, discreetly evaluate a prospective artist’s musicianship and performing abilities over a two-year period. The award is presented every two years.
In the past two years, Wang has debuted with several major orchestras in the United States and in Europe. She has toured with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, returned to China to perform with the China Philharmonic in Beijing and this year will play at chamber music festivals in Europe and Santa Fe. More orchestral debuts await next year. The constant traveling puts a crimp in her usually three-hour daily practicing and in how she stays fit.
“I do more packing than practicing,” Wang said laughing. “I have no routine but I walk a lot or play pingpong.”
She loves the travel, the hotels, the good food, the audiences, the big halls, and likes reading all those good reviews, she said. And especially, she loves her unpredictable schedule.