The Chinese piano prodigy takes no prisoners. She embraces Brahms and Beethoven as fiercely as she defends her right to wear what she likes
There are two Yuja Wangs. Or so you might think. One is the young Chinese pianist whose virtuosity and musical intelligence place her in the top echelon of performers. The other is an elfin, spiky-haired fashionista courted by Armani and Rolex, who has a zany wit and delights in appearing before concert audiences in itsy bitsy dresses and five-inch heels. This split identity is not of her making. Young classical artists are loosening up, but Wang is on a different level of visual and aural adventure that still takes people aback.
I want to relate all life to music, she says, cross-legged on a sofa in a borrowed Paris apartment home is New York looking calm, serious and slightly sleepy. Dressed in tight-cropped yoga pants and skinny vest she looks no different to the people thronging the Left Bank outside in the sun.
Im interested in looking good, but fashion bores me as much as checking for updates on my phone, she says with a yawn, downing an espresso. Rather than following textbook behaviour and doing what classical musicians have always done She stops mid-sentence to shape her thoughts, then giggles explosively. This is all philosophical bullshit! I need to sleep first. I feel like a zombie.
Wang was in Florence the night before, out late having a few drinks. Her current European tour covers more than a dozen cities, including London, where she gives her Royal Festival Hall solo-recital debut in the International Piano Series on 11 April. The programme consists of two monumental works: Chopins 24 Preludes and Brahmss Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Schubert is also on the schedule.
Nah. Ive scrapped Schubert. How can I know two years ahead what Im going to play at 8pm in this hall in this city? Im still exploring repertoire. I just say some random composer names Doesnt that upset audiences? Yes. No. They get more encores! For Wang, encores are integral, not add-ons. Its when I feel free, I move more, I improvise. The rest of the time she is upright, graceful, like a dancer or gymnast. She doesnt admit to doing exercise Run? Ive never run in my life but learned stretches from her dancer mother. She taught me good posture. My father, a percussionist, sorted out timing and rhythm.
Her head is still in Florence. Yesterday, I was in a church dressed as I am now, having a little quiet spiritual moment to myself. Then this man taps me on the shoulder and says Im being disrespectful to Jesus. Did she cover herself up? No way. I dont know if he understood what I said to him. But I guess everyone knows the F-word.
Born in Beijing, an only child Of course. Im Chinese! Wang started the piano aged six and gave her first concert less than a year later. Was she immediately recognised as a prodigy? Yeah, I guess so. At 14 she left China, alone and not speaking any English, and went to study first in Canada then to the Curtis Institute of Music, in Philadelphia. She has lived in the US since.
It was right for me. I am independent-minded, self-reliant. With the guidance of various mentors, including the pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, she immersed herself in the great European piano tradition. Her heroes are Kempff, Schnabel, Horowitz, Maurizio Pollini and Evgeny Kissin. When, in 2007, Martha Argerich cancelled a concerto date, Wang stepped in and got her big break.