Not only has Yuja Wang become one of the classical-music world’s biggest box-office draws, at just 32 the pianist is regarded among the instrument’s greatest living interpreters. Indeed, some critics are ready to put her at the top of the list.
Such a mantle is a huge compliment to Wang, who will present a recital Feb. 16 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series. But trying to live up to such accolades also can be something of a burden.
“If I actually take that seriously, I would just go insane,” she said. “All I can do is follow my instincts and curiosity and play the pieces I want to play and drive myself crazy by changing the program because I don’t like it. And then in end, probably still not like it, but I have to fix it [in place], because the presenter asks me to.”
Wang made a name for herself with her take-no-prisoners approach to some of the biggest and most challenging works in the repertoire, such as Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 (Hammerklavier).
But in recent seasons, she has begun to expand her repertoire, trying works that are more introspective and reflective. Nowhere is that more evident than in the startling program of mostly miniatures –some just 90 seconds long – that she will bring to Chicago. “It’s completely new,” she said, “and I’m learning it now, actually.” One of the selections by 20th-century Spanish composer Federico Mompou is a section from his Impressions intimes (Intimate Impressions): a title that also seems fitting for the program that Yang has assembled.
It’s a marked contrast to one that she recorded and released in 2018, a line-up she described as “pretty amazingly huge.” It contained major sonatas by Prokofiev and Scriabin as well as shorter works by Rachmaninov and three of György Ligeti’s knotty Études. “So it was quite daunting,” she said. “Now, I’m going to go for the opposite extreme.” But in the end, this program might actually be equally if not more challenging in its way. “With a bigger piece,” she said, “it’s easier for me hold (together) the larger structure and tell a story, rather than smaller, little vignettes of mood and intimacy.”
In selecting the program, she described herself as a composer. But rather than putting together musical notes, she intricately assembled 15 works that touch her in some way, arranging them according to such qualities as keys and mood. She put off make making her final choices as long as possible, devoting herself to other musical priorities. “I didn’t focus on this until I had to,” she said with a laugh. “I’m a big procrastinator.”
The lineup went through many iterations. At first, she considered going back to a program that she had performed earlier in her career that included Liszt’s towering Sonata in B Minor, which she was going to group with Alban Berg’s Sonata, Op. 1, and something by Wagner. She also thought of a Spanish-focused program. But in the end, she went with the line-up listeners will experience in Chicago.
The first half consists of 10 works, which will be performed in groupings. Among them is J.S. Bach’s Toccata in C minor, four works by Frederic Chopin, including his Intermezzo in E minor, Op. 119, No. 2, and three selections by Johannes Brahms. The second half focuses on five compositions all written in the first two decades of the 20th century, including the Berg sonata, which Wang calls an “amazing masterpiece.” “I love Berg,” she said. Also featured will be two sonatas by Scriabin and Une barque sur l’océan (A Boat on the Ocean) from Miroirs (Mirrors), a five-movement solo suite by Maurice Ravel.
She will begin performing this new program during a North American recital tour that begins Feb. 12 in Princeton, N.J., and then she will take it to Europe in March and Asia in December. Wang has no idea whether she will be praised or criticized for this new direction. “One thing I’ve noticed with people is that they have a set expectation for each artist, and they don’t realize that artists evolve and grow. This program, especially the first half, is super out of my own skin, so we’re like snakes [molting] every year, and that’s what keeps us growing – the uncomfortableness.”
Wang’s career was already on the upswing earlier, including being named in 2005 a winner of a Gilmore Young Artist Award, but it was substituting for celebrated pianist Martha Argerich with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2007 that represented her big breakthrough. Since those early days, Wang said, she has tried to follow the curiosity that has always been part of her music-making. It has led her to perform Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla–Symphonie and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, works she is not sure she would have dared to perform earlier in her career.
“You always have to reinvent yourself rather than do same thing,” she said, “and that actually takes a lot of thought. In the end, it’s a big balance. There are things you want to learn in private that you’ll never play in public, and there are things that only when you play them publicly that you really know the piece.”
One of her biggest leaps of faith came last year when she served as soloist for the world premiere of John Adams’ third piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? “And, actually, I had so much fun doing this,” she said. She then recorded it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which commissioned the work. “It’s not so hard on the piano,” she said, “but to put it together rhythmically is very complicated with the different instrumentations, like there is a honky-tonk piano and there is bass guitar. In the end, it’s all super groovy.”
Wang is so much in demand internationally that she could easily devote all her time to solo recitals and concert engagements, but she makes a point each season to carve out multiple weeks for collaborations with some of her favorite instrumentalists such as cellist Gautier Capuçon and violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Indeed, she and Capuçon recently released an album of works by Chopin and César Franck.
Wang enjoys the musical diversity and friendship that come with such forays. “It’s essential for my well-being as a human being to have that, “to travel with friends on the road rather than always being the soloist,” she said. “The spotlight is fun, but it’s not as endearing as touring together and going through delayed flights and being stressed out together.”