The photo that virtuoso pianist Joyce Yang posted on Facebook of a very snowy Rochester, N.Y. — taken the day of her recent concert there and the evening before my interview with her — does not suggest an especially inviting night out for either artist or audience.
“Snow doesn’t prevent anything here,” she says with a chuckle.
“Nothing would stop people coming to the concert. So I showed up.”
Yang won’t face such extreme conditions when she makes her Seattle debut at Meany Hall for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, Feb. 19.
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She’s faced more daunting challenges than winter in a career that began with winning competitions in her native South Korea at age 10 and taking the silver medal at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at 19.
Yang, 28, is frequently praised for her musical insight as well as the depth of her playing, variously described by critics as “astounding” (BBC Music) and “vivid and beautiful” (New York Times).
Yang’s Meany recital will include several works she has been touring around the world, though the program is largely anchored, she says, by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2. The composer wrote the piece in 1913 but shortened it in a 1931 revision.
Yang will perform the latter.
“I chose a newer version without five minutes of the original score, losing all the transitional materials and making it sound impulsive in a way,” she says. “Many different chapters open up that way without Rachmaninoff’s notorious meandering. It has a different landscape than his earlier version.”
Yang says choosing the sonata dictated the rest of the program, which includes Bartók’s “Out of Doors” suite, Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke” and three of legendary pianist Earl Wild’s song transcriptions of Rachmaninoff’s music (“Dreams,” “The Little Island” and the Vocalise).
“All these pieces are based on what I could call the art of spontaneity,” Yang says. “Each has a weightlessness to it that can transform it within seconds and take it on a completely different route without warning or transition. I think the Rachmaninoff sonata echoes the bipolar personality of Schumann. I thought I would offset it with Schumann’s ‘Fantasiestücke,’ which is a great study of the composer just unapologetically being himself.
“In the second half, the Rachmaninoff half, I thought I would give the audience the never-ending nostalgia and passion in the melodies only he can write.”
Born in Seoul, Yang began studying piano at age 4. At age 10, she entered the Korean National Conservatory, then moved to New York at 11 to study at Juilliard, in the school’s pre-college division. She graduated in 2010 as the recipient of the Arthur Rubinstein Prize.
Besides taking the silver medal, Yang won awards for Best Performance of Chamber Music and Best Performance of a New Work at the 2005 Van Cliburn competition. Yet, she seems most proud that she simply survived the contest.
“It’s a very stressful process,” she says. “You learn a great deal about what your limits are because you end up playing basically everything you can play in just two to three weeks. Throughout, many people thought I was a happy camper, no problem. But that was definitely not true. It was incredibly scary to be around so many accomplished pianists who already knew their individual voices and what made them unique, whereas I had just finished freshman year at Juilliard.
“To show you how nervous I was, in the first round I sat down at the piano and my legs went numb. But I had to live up to the reputation of the competition, and somehow I did.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org