There is a photo of pianist Yuja Wang, published in the Los Angeles Times last July, that belongs in a dictionary next to the word “rapture.”
Wang, playing with the L.A. Philharmonic, has turned her face skyward in the image, her eyes shut, arms raised well above a Steinway’s keys as if in surrender to the divine. Even her hair seems to be pulled upward by an invisible force.
The shot is testament to what Wang — who appears at Benaroya Hall next on Dec. 3 in a solo recital — calls her “visceral” relationship with the music she plays. You can see it in numerous YouTube videos of her in performance: a silky immersion into a waltz or sonata, a private world opened, an artist not just revealed but exposed.
It’s no wonder Wang tends to bow quickly and hasten offstage at the end of a concert. Does she try to forget, when playing, that there is an audience present?
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“Completely,” Wang says in an email interview. “I acknowledge their presence and it’s quite an energy pool. But it is the world of music that I’m trying to grasp and search, to make it happen.”
Wang will make the music of Franz Schubert and Alexander Scriabin happen at Benaroya, in a program that begins with selections from two of Schubert’s renowned song cycles: “Die schöne Müllerin” (“The Lovely Maid of the Mill,” published in 1824) and “Schwanengesang” (“Swan Song,” published posthumously in 1829). Wang will play Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of the pieces for solo piano.
Schubert’s works will be followed by his Piano Sonata No. 13 in A major.
“It was a difficult choice to choose three out of hundreds of Schubert’s Lieder,” says Wang, of the Romantic poems set to music, “but two are from ‘Schwanengesang,’ which is very close in chronology to the sonata, a major one. The sonata is the second-to-last piece he wrote in his brief but profound life. For me it’s another realm of a world beyond reason and logic. It’s celestial, yet the emotions are so human.”
Wang will also play a half-dozen works by Scriabin (1875-1915), a Russian composer who explored his own form of atonality and dissonance, linked to an idiosyncratic mysticism.
“I selected pieces chronologically,” says Wang, “up to his ‘Black Mass’ sonata, so we have a linear view of how his amazing mind developed in terms of musical language — his harmonies — and his philosophy, which is an enigma.”
Born in Beijing, Wang, 27, is the daughter of a dancer (her mother) and a percussionist (her father). At age 7, she began studying piano in Beijing, then, at 11, in Calgary, Canada. At 15, she transferred to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
Along the way, Wang was praised as much for the breathtaking eloquence of her playing as her startling technique. Her self-deprecating wit and easy laugh in interviews make her gifts seem all the more extraordinary.
Her breakthrough moment was in 2007, when she replaced legendary pianist Martha Agerich with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; she was in her final year at Curtis.
Wang will be back in Benaroya on April 1, 2015, as guest pianist of the visiting London Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas. She’ll be playing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F.
“I haven’t done it much,” she says, “and am very much looking forward to it. Michael knows this music in his blood.”
Wang sometimes chooses not to practice the music most familiar to her, so she can bring intention and curiosity to a fresh performance.
“With pieces I have done for years, I just let them breathe by themselves and not try to fix what’s already there, so there will be spontaneity while on stage. I like to see what happens if I try to delve deeper. I’m sure new revelations could come up the more time I spend on it.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org