Yuja Wang | Biography


Yuja Wang
© Norbert Kniat / DG
Yuja Wang is widely recognized as one of the most important artists of her generation, both for her supreme musicianship and her ability to captivate audiences of all ages. “Hers is a nonchalant, brilliant keyboard virtuosity that would have made both Prokofiev (who was a great pianist) and even the fabled Horowitz jealous,” observed the Los Angeles Times after one sensational performance at the Hollywood Bowl. Beyond drawing comparisons with past greats, reviewers have also hailed the emotional honesty and profound intelligence of her interpretations, and the charismatic power of her stage presence.
Yuja Wang’s prodigious virtuosity and technical control command critical acclaim. She believes, however, that technique should never be an end in itself, that it should always serve the cause of emotional expression and musical interpretation. Her artistic credo is ultimately both simple and extraordinarily complex: “I want to relate all life to music,” she recently told the Observer (London). She has spoken elsewhere of music’s unparalleled power to unlock her own emotional life. “It’s not about practising any more, it’s about learning the thought process of the composer,” she told British Vogue in August 2018. “What is the composer’s intention, what are they trying to express.... [They] have spent hours and hours writing those pieces, so it’s only right that we spend years deciphering the meaning.”
Yuja Wang was born into a musical family in Beijing on 10 February 1987. As an infant, she watched her mother, a dancer, rehearse Swan Lake. The experience resonated long after her first encounter with Tchaikovsky. She began picking out melodies on the piano at home, her parents’ wedding gift, and received her first piano lessons at the age of six. Rapid progress led to a place at the Beijing Conservatory. Yuja’s musical and personal development accelerated in 1999 when she moved to Canada to join the Morningside Music summer programme at Calgary’s Mount Royal College; she soon became the youngest ever student at Mount Royal Conservatory. In 2002 Wang won the Aspen Music Festival’s concerto competition; she also enrolled to study with the distinguished concert pianist and teacher Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Wang’s professional career was already underway by the time she graduated from Curtis in May 2008. She attracted media attention in Canada in 2005 following her sensational debut with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, prompting one newspaper to headline its review, “A star is born”. Her international breakthrough came in March 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich at short notice as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The pianist’s meteoric rise since then has taken place in company with many of the world’s leading orchestras and at the most prestigious concert venues. She has given concerto performances with such prominent conductors as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel, Sir Neville Marriner, Zubin Mehta, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Sir Antonio Pappano, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Yuri Temirkanov, Michael Tilson Thomas and Pinchas Zukerman. Her star status was underlined when she was named by Musical America as its Artist of the Year 2017, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for classical music.
“I get to know my repertoire by doing,” observes Yuja Wang. “I need to perform to feel alive. Every time it’s different, it’s organic.” The spontaneity and vision of her playing are reflected in her acclaimed Deutsche Grammophon discography. Since signing an exclusive contract with the yellow label in January 2009, she has recorded a series of landmark albums. Following the release of Sonatas & Etudes, her solo debut recording (April 2009), Gramophone named her “Young Artist of the Year”. Wang received the Echo Award as “Young Artist of the Year” for her 2010 album, Transformation, a carefully constructed solo programme featuring Brahms, Ravel, Scarlatti and Stravinsky. Her 2011 release of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto and “Paganini Rhapsody” with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, was nominated for a Grammy® as “Best Classical Instrumental Solo”.
Fantasia, released in 2012, offers a collection of encore pieces by Albéniz, Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Saint-Saëns, Scriabin and others. This was followed by a live recording of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 and Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 3 with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Yuja Wang: Ravel, with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and Lionel Bringuier, pairs Ravel’s two piano concertos with Fauré’s Ballade. BBC Music Magazine hailed her playing for its “superlative technique and musicianship” following the album’s release in October 2015. The Berlin Recital, her latest live recording for the yellow label, comprises interpretations honed over the course of an extensive European and North American tour. Set for international release in November 2018, the album explores the complex expressive worlds of solo works by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Scriabin and Ligeti. Four encores from her Berlin programme, the “Dance of the Four Swans” from Swan Lake among them, were released as an EP by Deutsche Grammophon in September 2018.
Yuja Wang made her solo recital debut at Carnegie Hall in 2011. She has since appeared regularly there, attracting capacity audiences and prompting standing ovations at each performance. Wang was the focus of an “Artist Portrait” series with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2013–14, made her concerto debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in May 2015, and entered new repertoire territory the following season with Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata on tour throughout the United States and Europe. Highlights of recent seasons include a project with Martin Grubinger and the Percussive Planet Ensemble; major international tours with the London Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; a European tour during which she directed the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard; and performances of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in New York, Beijing, Tokyo and Taipei. Wang joined the Berliner Philharmoniker and its Chief Conductor Designate, Kirill Petrenko, in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto in Berlin in April 2018 and again four months later for concerts at the Salzburg and Lucerne festivals and at the BBC Proms. Reviewing the latter event, the Observer (London) commended her “wild, percussive, silken, sinewy” playing, which won “matchless responses from the Berlin Philharmonic players”.
Wang’s 2018–19 season encompasses an extensive tour of China and Japan for Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with the Münchner Philharmoniker and Valery Gergiev, a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Frans Welser-Möst at the Palace of Versailles, and an appearance with Gustavo Dudamel as part of the Wiener Philharmoniker’s annual Summer Night Concert at Schönbrunn Palace. She is set to feature as Artist-in-Residence at three of the world’s leading venues, presenting a season-long “Perspectives” series at Carnegie Hall, a “Portrait” series at the Wiener Konzerthaus, and a residency at the Luxembourg Philharmonie. Other season highlights include a European tour with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and concerts in Istanbul, Athens, Toronto, Buenos Aires and São Paolo. In March 2019 she will join the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel for the world premiere of John Adams’s new piano concerto, Must the Devil have all the Best Tunes, in Los Angeles before taking the work on tour to Seoul and Tokyo.
As a chamber musician Yuja Wang has developed partnerships with several leading artists, notably Leonidas Kavakos, with whom she has toured and recorded the complete violin sonatas of Brahms, and the bass-baritone Matthias Goerne. She will join cellist Gautier Capuçon next spring for a seven-concert North American tour, including dates at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and Carnegie Hall. “Being a pianist, there are endless possibilities to explore and you never know where it leads you,” she observes. “We have to get inspired, get motivated and just be alive. There are ideas and inspirations out there for us to catch.”
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