“You mean the body paint?” said pianist Yuja Wang, looking up at a projected image of her latest album cover. She was joking about the skintight dress she’s wearing in the photo, and at the same time referencing something unique to her as a performer—her sense of style. The virtuosic 26-year-old pianist’s bold fashion choices have inspired much commentary over the years, but what she’s really doing is staying true to her own sensibilities, which has proven quite successful when it comes to her piano playing. Beyond that, too, Wang’s dress and her comments about it speak to a truth at the core of classical music that is often overlooked: the music is about enjoying yourself.
On Friday, Wang appeared at Harvard in a spirited discussion in the Kirkland Junior Common Room co-organized by Harvard College Piano Society and the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program, with support from the Celebrity Series of Boston. Piano Society co-president George C. Ko ’15 held a lively conversation with Wang about her career and her creative process. Wang is an internationally acclaimed pianist who has received numerous distinctions, including performing at Carnegie Hall in 2011, and has performed with many renowned orchestras, including those of Boston, Chicago, and New York, as well as the China Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, and Orquesta Nacional España. Wang, who began playing piano when she was six years old, is also the recipient of numerous competitive music prizes prizes. Her fame broadened to a new audience in 2008 when she became a YouTube sensation with a virtuosic performance of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” which stunned both with its technical prowess and its musicality and has since been watched millions of times. It would be unfair to define her in terms of a piece so designed to technically impress, though—Wang is distinguished from other pianists by her lively playing style. “Whenever she plays, she’s got a lot of energy,” says Jack Test, who attended Wang’s talk. During the talk, Wang discussed a variety of topics, including her musical education and her relationships with different musicians and teachers. Wang brings much more than her musical prowess to the table; she carries herself with an unbridled enthusiasm and good humor that is special to find in any discipline. Wang found something fun in every question asked of her in Friday’s discussion.“It’s fast,” Wang said jokingly as the audience watched a video of a performance with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Wang also laughingly discussed the advantages of introducing alcohol into her practice time. “I can say ‘if it’s a wrong note, it’s not me, it’s the vodka’,” she said.
She also mentioned the experience of recording her latest record and the relationship between virtuosity and musical realization. Wang’s words on her latest record, a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, provided the audience with an entertaining view of the dynamics between two young classical superstars. Dudamel, age 32, is an accomplished Venezuelan conductor and violinist. “It was amazing. Lots of testosterone, for sure,” Wang said of her performance with the orchestra. She went on to detail the ease of working with a conductor from her own young generation. “It was good, because we never even had a conductor meeting. Usually people talk through tempos and stuff, but we didn’t have to do that. We just let the music speak,” she said. Wang also is noted for her consistently unique and lively takes on established classics, and this is helped immensely by her devotion to exploring the score of a piece from her own point of view. “Pieces like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev I’ve heard a lot before from seminars or being in a concert or touring, so you can’t really not know the pieces,” Wang says, “But in general I don’t listen to the recordings.” It’s quite evident in Wang’s performances that this is true—she makes every piece her own. This discussion was part of the Harvard College Piano Society’s mission to encourage interest and excellence in the study of piano on campus. “What’s most important for us is to have a diversity of ideas and inspirations,” Ko says. He wants to provide examples for students of unconventional angles on classical music and to send the message that music is a personal thing to be accessed by everyone. “Music’s about having fun. It’s about expressing what you love. Classical music is no different from hip-hop or jazz. It’s all about expression.” The Piano Society’s aim is to shift the focus off of the demanding nature of classical music and onto the joy that comes from playing it. There are few people who could illustrate that more vividly than Yuja Wang.