Select a Date

October 2014
« Sep   Nov »

She’s One in Forty Million; Yuja Wang Comes to Chicago

Chinese-American pianist Yuja Wang

Chinese-American pianist Yuja Wang

When pianist Yuja Wang comes to Chicago this weekend, she will meet the NCPA Orchestra in the morning; rehearse and perform that afternoon. That’s pretty normal for this 27-year-old artist, who is fast becoming one of the hottest pianists today.

It seems like she’s everywhere: playing recitals, chamber music, and soloing with orchestras; she’s touring Europe, Japan, North America. She admits not having personal time, and commits herself to a large swath of repertoire in short order. “I think I like that, lot’s of variety, old and new. This year I do have lots of new things coming up like, for example, this Ravel. And there’s Mozart, there’s Bartok. Of course, last week I was doing Shostakovich One [First Piano Concerto] and this week in Vienna I’m doing Prokofiev Two [Second Piano Concerto], which is a piece I’ve known for eight years.” But she laughs at the idea that she’s performed pieces before. “It doesn’t get easier. Everything seems easier when I was younger.”

Earlier this month, she toured with violinist Leonidas Kavakos. They’ll do an American tour in November, but with a different program. She says it’s important not to look at the whole tour, and to be in the moment. “These days I’m doing this, so I’m focusing on that. And I think three days before the tour with Leonidas, we’re going to be really intensely working on the new program.”


As a 13-year-old, Yuja Wang was living in Beijing when she won a spot in an exchange program between China and Canada. In 2002, at the age of 14, she moved to Philadelphia to study with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute without the company of her parents – they weren’t able to obtain visas to come to the United States. By 2009, she had an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon and was recording with Claudio Abbado.

This week, Yuja Wang steps onto Chicago’s stage with an orchestra from her native China that has only been playing together for around four years: the NCPA Orchestra of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, China. It’s a young orchestra, one she likens to Gustavo Dudamel’s Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. “Every one is really hand-picked, going through lots of auditions, so they are really the top of the top people.”  According to Ms. Wang, that mirrors the conservatory experience, which was intensely competitive. What makes this group special for her is that they were all kids together at Beijing’s Central Conservatory.

The Central Conservatory admits children starting at the age of nine. Some of the kids have been playing since they were two. “So many people just rent places in Beijing to study with the professors there to be at the top level.” Ms. Wang says she started “quite late at the age of six.”

There is no shortage of classical instruction in China. According to the BBC, there are an estimated 40 million piano students there – a sharp departure from the piano-smashing days of the Cultural Revolution. Yuja Wang still remembers when it was difficult to get a score of the Ravel G Major Concerto, the piece she’ll be playing with the NCPA Orchestra in Chicago. Chinese pianists Lang Lang and Yundi Li changed people’s perceptions, however, causing interest among parents and students to explode in recent years. Owning a Steinway has become a status symbol in Chinese households, while Chinese piano manufacturing has increased to the point of putting many European piano makers out of business.


Yuja Wang takes a bow with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Working with Claudio Abbado

In 2011, Yuja Wang issued her first solo CD with orchestra featuring works by Rachminoff conducted by the late Claudio Abbado. She calls working with Mr. Abbado “quite a memory.” She giggles, “I played with all three of his orchestras…and every orchestra just sounded like Claudio.” When pressed to describe what that sounded like, she said, “The music just grabs you. I don’t know if there’s a sound or intention. He’s a very silent man. He hardly talked in rehearsals and was very elegant. He was quite sick already when I met him, but I did play Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, which is a very energetic work. And he made the orchestra sound always refreshing. He’s very different from rehearsal and in a concert. One thing I noticed, he’d really lift everyone up – their level – to play their best…like he had a magical wand. Rehearsal is just normal. And then in the concert, all the energies are just concentrated in one intense, intense beam.”

Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto

Yuja Wang and the NCPA Orchestra will perform music by Maurice Ravel at Chicago’s Symphony Center. “I can’t think of anything else that’s like that Concerto. There are so many refreshing ideas and eclectic influences. There’s almost like Messiaen, the theremin color. My favorite is the beginning of the second movement. It’s almost like a soliloquy.” The concerto is “very jazzy, very sexy-smokey.”

Yuja Wang and the NCPA Orchestra will perform a concert at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago on Sunday, November 2 at 3:00 pm. The program includes The Five Elements Suite for Orchestra by Qigang Chen and Dvořák’s 8th Symphony. Lü Jia is the conductor.


  • Peter Chen

    It was a very enjoyable evening; standing o’s after both the Ravel and Dvořák. The concertmaster broke a bow hair near the end of the symphony, then broke his G string during the encore (Slavonic Dance #3), LOL.

    • Terry Baer


  • Terry Baer