Monday, October 24, 2011

The Hottest Classical Pianists

24 years old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang 王羽佳 had her Carnegie Hall solo recital debut on the evening of Oct 20th.    Simple counting of how many concerts a year Carnegie Hall normally holds should convince you that the event must be filled with high expectation by Yuja herself and the audience alike.  After all there weren’t that many pianists in history who had the opportunity to have recital debut at this 120 years old most prestigious concert hall of the world in New York City.  

While there is no doubt that Yuja is a musical prodigy, the road to Carnegie was never easy.  One version of the popular story about Carnegie Hall says it all:  A tourist on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan stopped Jascha Heifetz (a famous violinist) and asked "Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?" "Yes," said Heifetz. "Practice!"  

Practice she did, since age 6.  She spent five years at the Central Conservatory at Beijing till age 14 and six years at the Curtis Institute of Music at Philadelphia from age 15 after spending a year in Calgary, Canada studying English and music. 

Before reaching Carnegie Hall, Yuja has been performing numerous solos and concertos on stage worldwide for last 5 years, initially often at smaller and 2nd tier venues.  Like some other stars before her, opportunities knocked when she was asked to sub for superstars like Martha Argerich, Murray Perahia, and Radu Lupu and she delivered spectacular performances.  DG (Deutsche Grammophon), one of the most respected classical record label, signed her up in 2009.   Performing about one hundred 100 concerts a year, she now spent her life mostly in between airports/planes, hotels and concert halls.  As stars are all lining up, it was pretty clear that she was on her way to the stardom. 

In his review entitled Flaunting Virtuosity (and More), Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of The New York Times, had nothing but praises and positive technical comments about her recital debut.  That is not it; he just could not refrain himself from commenting on the controversy of Yuja’s tight, short orange dress for her last summer’s outdoor performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl (see photo to the right).   His ultimate compliment came at his conclusion of his review: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. What matters is that Ms. Wang has got it as a pianist.  The audiences were equally excited about her performance as well.  She gave four encore performances, lasting almost half an hour at the conclusion of her debut as most audiences refused to leave.
For your convenience and enjoyment, here is the viral Youtube video of her performance of Rimsky Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee, arranged by Cziffra.   To give you some idea about the incredible speed: she must be playing these seemingly unstoppable chromatic sixteenth notes at about 10 notes a second in one minutes thirty seconds. 

Almost 8 years earlier in Nov, 2003, then 21 years old Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang had his solo recital debut at the same hall.  The ad by DG (who had signed up Lang Lang) hyped ''The future of classical music has arrived. His name is Lang Lang.''  Lang Lang’s path was similar to Yuja Wang but 5 years or more ahead of her, from the Central Conservatory of Beijing to Curtis Institute of Music (where they both were students of Gary Graffman).  

As one of the most sought after and marketed pianists, Lang Lang’s onstage dynamism has polarized the audiences and music critics.  Some loved it but some disliked it and found his posture exaggerated and tasteless.  I am more the latter camp although I’d like to continue “supporting” his carrier through purchases of his CDs.   

Tommasini wrote in his review A Showman Revs up the Classical Genre about Lang Lang’s solo recital debut back in 2003: “… Mr. Lang's head seems to be so full of his own hype that there can't be much room left for analytic thinking…” and concluded  I lasted through one encore: Schumann's ''Träumerei.'' It was not easy to hear that wistfully beautiful melody so yanked around. Surely Mr. Lang played many more encores for his adoring fans. But I didn't want to be a party pooper, let alone impede the future of classical music.”  Since then, Tommasini had toned down over time his criticism and noted Lang Lang has been maturing.  The real issue of course is not so much about how one (should) move when playing the instrument.  It is about the coherency of the mind and body of the true master performers whose gesture and expression would naturally reflect their interpretation and feelings of the music.  Lang Lang did often push his superficial expressiveness over the edge and lost the balance between intellectual and presentation.  On a similar note, Yuja’s concert dress should not have been the issue.  Her mannerism at the recital debut was in fact shy, focused, and restrained, if anything. 

Anyway, below is a video of Lang Lang playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (arrangement by Vladimir Horowitz) in 2006.  If you watch it, you would appreciate why Tommasini and many others have been so disturbed by his performance despite his fantastic skills and stamina.  The video does not show his facial expression which would have in fact irritated some even more.

By the way, Yuja Wang had chosen to play Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B Minor in the 2nd half of her Thursday evening recital debut.  It is probably not a coincidence since Oct 22nd was Liszt’s 200 years birthday.  Liszt, a prominent composer, was also a virtuosic pianist as well.  Although there wasn’t any video recording, his performance style by many accounts involved showmanship at the piano with facial expression and gestures that drew criticism from many.  Apparently, Liszt himself had admitted he had done so just to draw more applause.  There was no question that he had succeeded in drawing a lot of fans across Europe; so much so that the term Lisztomania was coined to describe the frenzy of the fans towards him.   In fact, the best way to imagine how it was like is to simply watch some of today’s wildest rock star performances including smashing guitars.  Yes, Liszt had supposedly destroyed pianos onstage!

In his recent interview, Lang Lang talked about Liszt being his piano hero and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 was his first encounter with classical music as a 2-year-old watching a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon on television.  Knowing that, it should not surprise any of us then that showmanship was a part of Lang Lang’s performance.  By the way, Liszt did not invent everything on his own; he got his inspiration to become a virtuoso from seeing a concert by Niccolò Paganini, one of the greatest virtuosic violinists. 

Happy Birthday, Franz Liszt.

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