As every parent knows, the time inevitably comes when a young person we cherish begins to adopt a darker, edgier attitude. The sweet sounds they used to make are replaced by sometimes frightening outbursts, reflecting a more complicated and volatile emotional life.
And so it is with Yuja Wang, the widely acclaimed concert pianist who will give her fifth Santa Barbara appearance as part of UCSB Arts and Lectures’ Classical Series at the Granada Theatre on Monday, May 2.
Like so many young virtuosos, Wang largely made her name playing romantic warhorses, with an emphasis on Russian repertoire. But her sparkling performance of the Gershwin concerto with the London Symphony at the Granada Theatre last March signaled she is expanding her horizons, and Monday’s recital, presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures, signals a major shift.
The weighty, serious, all-German program features two Ballades of Brahms, Schumann’s Kreisleriana, and after intermission, Beethoven’s mighty (and mighty long) Piano Sonata No. 29, the Hammerklavier.
“I have heard so many people ask, ‘So when are you going to play Beethoven?’” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I thought, ‘OK, you want to hear Beethoven? I’m going to go for this 50-minute, meaty work!’ I don’t believe in incremental steps!”
“It’s a real challenge, both in terms of stamina and of holding the audience’s attention for 50 minutes. It’s a little masochistic!”
Yang laughed, as she did frequently during a recent half-hour conversation. But she soon turned serious again, noting that the piece conveys “so much inner pain. It’s his way of reaching for sublimity.”
In other words, it isn’t overflowing with hummable melodies, but it’s amazing music that will speak to open-minded listeners on a deep level. Wang’s new motto is: Don’t be afraid to challenge the audience.
“That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do,” she said. “Over the past few years, I have played a lot of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Those are actually the easy pieces.” (Let’s pause to give other, less gifted pianists a moment to shake their heads at that comment.)
“Those composers were great pianists themselves; they knew the instrument. Especially Prokofiev—he’s like a choreographer for the hands. It’s very direct, passionate music, and the audience loves it. But you can’t have that all the time. There is another side of life—that solitary spiritual searching that everyone goes through. All the great composers went through that, and [in sharing the experience, they let us know that] nobody is alone. So from this year on, I’m playing all the hard-to-listen-to pieces. Next year, I’m going to record Bartok with the Hungarian National Orchestra and Kocsis.”
Yang gets her adventuresome spirit from her mother, a dancer who introduced her daughter to a variety of art forms in her native China. “She wanted me to be a dancer, but I was too lazy,” she recalled. “It wasn’t that the piano spoke to me; I just liked to sit.” Asked at what point she started taking music-making more seriously, she replied: “I just remember being extremely moved by playing Chopin and Schubert.”
Soon, those who heard her play were finding themselves very moved as well, and in 1999, at age 12, she moved to Canada to learn English and continue her studies. Three years later, she enrolled at the famed Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where she studied with a onetime pupil of Vladimir Horowitz, Gary Graffman.
While she has been out of school for eight years, she is always learning new pieces, including the Beethoven she is playing on Monday. She is avoiding, for now, listening to other pianists’ interpretation of the work, but “I am listening to other stuff Beethoven wrote around the same time, like the Missa Solemnis and the late string quartets.”