Classical Music
1:57 am
Mon December 2, 2013

Yuja Wang: Rooted In Diligence, Inspired By Improvisation

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 9:56 am

Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 — "Rach 3," as fans fondly call it — is one of the most famously difficult pieces of music there is. The sheet music goes on and on, with notes so dense the pages start to look like modern art. The piece is so challenging that some noted pianists have declined to perform it — but Yuja Wang has recorded it for her newest album.

The 26-year-old, Chinese-born pianist says there's something about the Rach 3 that reminds her of legendary improvisational jazz pianist Art Tatum. Wang says she's positive that Rachmaninov, a turn-of-the-last-century Russian composer, must have started out improvising alone at the keyboard the way a jazz musician might.

"I'm always amazed by improvisations, because of how they turn around a motif and can just be all creative about how everything is connected," Wang says. "And that's how the piece is written: It's a huge work for 45 minutes, but everything is interconnected."

A pianist since age 6, Wang says she was inspired to enter the classical world after hearing another striking piece of music.

"The first thing that really got me was [Mauricio] Pollini's recording of Chopin's etudes. I just really wanted to have the same sound. You know how girls really want a doll or a toy? I really wanted to play the way I wanted to play. So I was really working toward that."

And work she did. Her first exposure to the instrument was an upright piano that her parents received as a wedding gift. As a teenager, she studied in the United States at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music and then burst onto the concert scene.

Wang currently lives alone in New York — where, she says, she embraces the opportunity to reflect in a personal space.

"Being a musician is almost like a very isolated life, and the only time you actually get to communicate is on stage with music," Wang says. "It's not a bad thing. People say, 'Oh, are you lonely?' I think being solitary, it really allows us to think about life and to think about why people write this music. Or why those people are moved by certain melodies. It makes you start to wonder about things that are beneath the surface."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we'll hear how a pianist masters one of the most famously difficult pieces of music there is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The composition is Rachmaninov's Concerto Number 3 - Rach 3, as it's called. The music goes on page after page, the notes so dense the pages start to look like modern art. The pianist who is playing it here with an orchestra behind her is Yuja Wang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Rach 3 is so challenging that some noted pianists have declined to perform it, but Yuja Wang has and even puts it at the top of her newest album. When she came by Studio One at NPR's headquarters, we led her straight to the piano to help us understand the answer to one question: How on earth do you do that?

YUJA WANG: How long do you have?

INSKEEP: How long do you have?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: The whole afternoon.

INSKEEP: She talks easily while playing. This 26-year-old, a native of China, dressed casually in black today, though she's drawn attention and caused debate in the classical music world with her glamorous clothes onstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: You notice that while talking Rachmaninov, her fingers keep wandering to some jazzy tune. She is sure this turn of the last century Russian composer must have started out at the keyboard alone, just improvising like a jazz musician.

WANG: On things like...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: ...I'm sure it just came to his mind. I mean it's a really long phrase and...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: ...when the orchestra plays the melody, and others are just filigrees of things that he probably just made up on the spot.

INSKEEP: So you imagine him sitting there just noodling around on the piano and...

WANG: Yeah. I'm always amazed by improvisations, because of how they turn around a motif, and just being all creative about how everything is connected. And that's how the piece is written: It's a huge work for 45 minutes, but everything is interconnected.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Well, you said you're amazed by improvisation. We were amazed when we thought about the feat of performing this entirely written piece because the sheet music...

WANG: Memorization?

INSKEEP: Yeah, because the sheet music is - it's looks like a phone book almost.

WANG: Yeah, we just decipher the codes.

INSKEEP: But when you go out to perform Rachmaninov Concerto Number 3, you don't take the music out.

WANG: No.

INSKEEP: You've got it memorized, the whole 40-something...

WANG: Don't want to be a loser.

INSKEEP: Is there a trick to memorizing a 40 or 45 minute piece?

WANG: Well, my trick was listening to it since when I was really young.

INSKEEP: Where was this?

WANG: That was in China and it was one of my friends, like you have to listen to this piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: The most important for me is the thorough understanding of the structure of the piece.

INSKEEP: Each part of it builds on what came before.

WANG: Exactly.

INSKEEP: And so whatever you just played tells you what you need to play next.

WANG: Yeah, kind of like everything in life, what comes after (unintelligible) before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Now, when you were first hearing this at 11 or 12, you were already playing piano at that point, right?

WANG: Right, yeah, started when I was 6.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking, you know, my mom started teaching me piano when I was around 5 or 6, but I didn't end up playing Rachmaninov. Was it something inside you that made you want it to really work or did it come easily to you?

WANG: I think probably both. The first thing that really got me was Pollini's recording of Chopin's etudes. I just really wanted to have the same sound. You know how girls really want a doll or a toy? I really wanted me to play the way I wanted to play. So I was really working towards that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The instrument Yuja Wang first learned on was an upright piano, which her parents, both musicians, had received as a wedding gift. As a teenager, she studied in the United States and then burst onto the concert scene.

WANG: Now I live in New York by myself. It is - being a musician is almost like a very isolated life, and the only time you actually get to communicate is onstage with music. I mean it's not a bad thing. People say, oh, are you lonely? I think it's - being solitary, it really allows us to think about life and to think about why people write this music or why those people are moved by certain melodies. Like the beginning of Rach 3.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: It's just like, how did he come up with that, you know?

INSKEEP: And that part, unlike other parts, is so simple.

WANG: Yeah, simple, but touching. It makes you start to wonder things that are beneath the surface.

INSKEEP: What's the hardest part of Concerto Number 3 to play?

WANG: There is several. It goes one after the after. After the credenza, I have a kind of a little (unintelligible) interplay with the woodwinds and then it...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: I mean there's all different ways of playing, but you know what I mean, like this, doesn't that sound like Art Tatum or something?

INSKEEP: I wanted to start applauding and you just went on talking. I mean, that was really amazing to hear.

WANG: And then after all this...

INSKEEP: You heard her say it's like Art Tatum, like jazz, like improvisation, yet it's all unfolding under that 45-minute plan demanding incredible stamina from the performer.

WANG: In the end, I mean you want to save the biggest to the end.

INSKEEP: Can I get you to play the end?

WANG: No. Play the CD. I mean (unintelligible)...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: After saying no, she can't resist, though Yuja Wang says you really should hear it with the orchestra, an experience larger than life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Yuja Wang, playing Rachmaninov from her new CD. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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