Yuja Wang, daredevil pianist, takes on a musical Everest
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Yuja Wang, daredevil pianist, takes on a musical Everest
The acclaimed pianist Yuja Wang, in New York, Jan. 18, 2023. A Carnegie Hall date on Jan. 28 will be one of the most important concerts of her career: a 3 1/2-hour marathon of Rachmaninoff’s five works for piano and orchestra, a herculean undertaking that few artists have attempted. (Jingyu Lin/The New York Times).

by Javier C. Hernández

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Star pianist Yuja Wang, fresh out of rehearsal Tuesday with the Philadelphia Orchestra, threw her arms into the air and let out a nervous laugh.

“We survived,” she said inside a dressing room stocked with dark chocolate, granola bars, a bear-shaped bottle of honey and a bag of lemons.

Wang, 35, was a few days from one of the most herculean concerts of her career: a 3 1/2-hour marathon of Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” at Carnegie Hall in New York on Saturday, a virtually unheard-of undertaking. She was excited but also a bit anxious as she imagined what was coming — the rushed rehearsals, the mammoth program and playing before an audience that will include some of her closest friends and mentors.

“I have no idea what the hell I’m doing,” she said. “I’m also having the same feeling as everyone else: Let’s see where this kamikaze run is going to go. I can’t even control it, so I’m just going to go with the flow.”

Wang has made a career out of dazzling displays of virtuosity, including in the works she will perform this weekend. But taking on these Rachmaninoff pieces together — more than 400 pages of music, including some of the most vexing piano passages in the repertory — poses a new test.

To prepare, Wang has reined in aspects of her flamboyant lifestyle, cutting back on drinking and partying so she can get eight hours of sleep a night. She has largely avoided intense solo practice in recent days, spending an hour or two a day on lighter fare like Johann Strauss waltzes. And she has tried to inhabit Rachmaninoff’s world, setting aside time to reflect on the love, loneliness and hope in his art.

“All of it is imbued in his language,” she said. “You just play his music, and it just comes out.”

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director, who is leading the Carnegie concert, likened the effort to climbing Mount Everest. (Olympic-style medals, emblazoned with grand pianos, will be given to Wang, Nézet-Séguin and the players at the end of Saturday’s marathon.)

“It’s insane for everyone,” he said. “It’s possible only when people know each other so well. And that’s the case between Yuja and me and this orchestra.”

Nézet-Séguin recalled thinking, “OK, that’s exactly the person made for that music” when Wang performed Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto with the orchestra in 2013, one of their early collaborations. He described her as the “ideal Rachmaninoff pianist,” saying she had honed a powerful yet airy style.

“With her there is never, never, ever a hint of a harsh or hard sound,” he said. “It’s always beautiful, it’s always phrased, it’s always very free.” (Nézet-Séguin will also conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in a series of Rachmaninoff performances with Wang at the ensemble’s home to celebrate the composer’s 150th birthday.)

Wang, who was born in China, has long felt a connection to Rachmaninoff’s music. As a child, she was drawn to the lyricism of his preludes for piano, even as she followed a strict conservatory regimen of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

It was not until she enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, at 15, that she began intensely studying Rachmaninoff’s works, including his piano concertos and the “Rhapsody.” She was drawn to the “noble and pure” sound of the composer’s own recordings, she said, and to the vulnerability of his music.

“It’s like reading Russian literature,” she said. “It’s really enjoyable, even though it’s long, because it’s very loquacious.”

Pianist and educator Gary Graffman, who taught Wang at Curtis, said it was quickly apparent that she intuitively understood the composer’s style. Her technical mastery of the pieces, which demand breakneck finger work and stunts like keyboard-sweeping glissandos, was exceptional, he said. But it was the sensitivity of her interpretations that awed him.

“She ate it up,” he said. “She’s undaunted by everything.”

After her graduation from Curtis, in 2008, she quickly became one of classical music’s most in-demand stars. She earned praise from critics for her fiery interpretations of works by Russians like Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. And she was celebrated by audiences for her virtuoso takes on well-known pieces, including the Rondo alla Turca from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11.

She also attracted attention for her vivid sartorial choices, performing war horses in skintight dresses and Jimmy Choo heels. And her love of encores captivated the public; at a recital in London last year, she performed 10. (A video of one favorite, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” has garnered more than 8.3 million views on YouTube.)

During the early days of the pandemic, Wang took a break from piano, spending time watching Netflix, taking walks in Central Park and learning to master household tasks that she, as a prodigy, had long neglected, like cooking and laundry.

But she returned to the stage in May 2021 with Rachmaninoff, performing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in London with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a longtime friend and mentor.

“Imagine,” she said of the experience, “that was like, ‘Oh, OK, I see the power of music!’”

As cultural life sprang back, Wang began thinking about new challenges. She was eager to create an experience that would test the attention span of audiences in the TikTok era. She recalled listening to Wagner’s “Ring” as a student at Curtis for hours on end and walking away with new admiration for “a past human being’s work and their effort and what they’re trying to express.”

Saturday’s concert, she said, is “going to be a stamina test for the audience as well.”

The Rachmaninoff marathon also had a virtuosic appeal for Wang, an inveterate thrill-seeker who has learned to handle a motorized water scooter and dabbled in cryotherapy. She said that performing the works in one go gave her “lots of ego”: “It’s like, Yes, I can play them!” She added that she would like to perform the program again, perhaps in Los Angeles or China. (She recently spread out the concertos over multiple programs with the Orlando Philharmonic, and will do the same, adding the “Rhapsody,” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in February.)

Thomas said that Wang sometimes asked composer friends to revise piano works written for her — including ones by him — so that they were more demanding. He likened her to a racehorse.

“She wants to run; she wants to show everything she can do,” he said. “And at the same time, she’s a very, very respectful and curious musical intelligence.”

No artist has ever played all five of these Rachmaninoff works in a single concert at Carnegie, which is marketing the performance as a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. Rachmaninoff, who long admired the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed the first three of his piano concertos with the ensemble under Eugene Ormandy there in 1939. Vladimir Ashkenazy played all four concertos on four consecutive nights with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Daniel Barenboim at the hall in 1968.

Clive Gillinson, Carnegie’s executive and artistic director, said few artists had the stamina, focus, intensity and emotional engagement to pull off such a feat.

“There have been occasions when artists do marathons and you feel it’s about showing off,” he said. “This 100% is not. That is not who Yuja is.”

During rehearsals this week in Philadelphia, Wang seemed confident even as she fretted about the difficulty of sounding fresh in pieces that are well known. She said that at the height of her mastery of a piece, the music emerges so naturally that she felt as if she had composed it.

And she reminisced about the energy she had in her 20s, when she said she could stay out late drinking and still perform at 11 the next morning. But now, she added, she feels a more profound connection with the music, especially since last year, when she began dating conductor Klaus Mäkelä. (She recently took him to meet Graffman, her teacher, who offered his approval.)

“When the love part is going well,” she said, “this music has a deeper meaning than just a release of emotions.”

As Nézet-Séguin worked to lighten the sound of the orchestra in the “Rhapsody” to match Wang’s tone, she flipped through the score on an iPad and ran her fingers silently over the keys, practicing thorny passages.

At the end of the rehearsal, he stopped to speak with her.

“You’re my hero,” Nézet-Séguin said, embracing her. Wang smiled and laughed, and then turned back to the score.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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