Pianist Yuja Wang made a sensational San Francisco Symphony debut in 2007 playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto #2, when she was just 19 years old. She returned to Davies Symphony Hall two years later to play Prokofiev's knuckle-busting second Piano Concerto, and in June she'll be back to play Ravel, Stravinsky and Poulenc. If that weren't enough, she has also played a couple of solo recitals, Mendelssohn with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and possibly also shortstop with the A's for a few innings. This is an awful lot of concerts in one market for such a young artist in such a short period of time. But the amazing part about this phenomenon is that, even if you had heard every note, it would have been worth hearing, and re-hearing. Wang is an extraordinary pianist on the cusp of an extraordinary career, and you have another chance to catch her in solo recital when San Francisco Performances brings the pianist to the Herbst Theater Thursday, April 22 at 8pm. NOTE: THIS THURSDAY APRIL 22 RECITAL WAS CANCELED ON APRIL 20, 2010; RESCHEDULED FOR SUNDAY JUNE 20 AT THE HERBST THEATRE.
I can't remember too many other times I have been as astonished by a new artist as I was when I heard Yuja Wang at that Beethoven concert in 2007. (SF Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman thought so, too; it was one of his Top 10 Classical Music Events of the Year) It was the same feeling I had when I first heard violinist Julia Fischer a couple of years earlier: here was not just another teenager with awesome technique, but a real, maturing artist with something important to say. The Beethoven was not just flashy, but full of nuance, tender at times, ferocious when it needed to be. Then she came back two years later and blew the doors off Davies Symphony Hall with the Prokofiev Piano Concerto #2. It's one of the hardest concertos ever written, and she was not only dazzling in the fast passages, but the power she generated with those rail-thin arms was astonishing. Lots of critics have said it, and it's part of her publicity materials, but it's true: she is redefining how well the piano can be played.
Check out this YouTube video of Yuja backstage before a concert, playing Arcadi Volodos' arrangement of Mozart's "Turkish Rondo." This is one of those insane piano pieces that someone would play only to prove that they can, but she knocks it out for a warm-up piece! (Note the pink cell phone on the piano -- nice touch.)
Yuja Wang's first CD, Sonatas and Etudes, which came out in 2009, was nominated for a Grammy Award; the new one comes out this week, and it's called Transformations, a title which not only describes the music (Stravinsky, Scarlatti, Brahms and Ravel) but her career as well, which is quickly becoming one of legend. Wang was born in Beijing, started piano lessons when she was six, won the Aspen Music Festival concerto competition in 2002 at age 15, then moved to the US to study with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Six years later she won the Gilmore Young Artist Award, one of the most prestigious honors in music. This is a prize you don't compete for; your career is "discreetly" evaluated over a period of time by an Artistic Advisory Committee, and then one day someone calls you up to tell you you've won. It's kind of like having a musical Fairy Godmother transform your career.
I do find it curious that the music she's playing in this concert has nothing to do with either one of her CDs. (Classical musicians have only recently caught on to the idea of "supporting the album" that pop stars have subscribed to for years, touring with the music on your latest release.) It really doesn't matter, though. Schumann, Scriabin, Prokofiev, and Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert songs all require a combination of power and passion that is very rare to find, but which Yuja Wang most definitely has. With any luck, you'll have many more chances to hear this remarkable artist grow (including next season with the San Francisco Symphony), but there's still time to say "I heard her when..." Yuja Wang plays the Herbst Theater on Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 8pm. For ticketsand information visit performances.org.