Everyone's Talking About Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

© Nohely Oliveros

Another year, another prodigious Chinese pianist. But even against so much competition Yuja Wang stands out. This young musician has worked with Abbado and Barenboim and wowed audiences around the world with her ferocious virtuosity. Just don't mention her skirts.

Yuja Wang? Piano prodigy from the Far East, is she?

You’re well behind the times, mate. She’s turning 27 this month and has been a bit busy playing with fellow mega-stars in every top international venue worth its salt.

Heading soon to a concert hall near me?

Well, near me. The LSO is about to give her one of their UBS Soundscapes Artist Portrait splashes at the Barbican.

Wang _purpleWasn’t there some kind of fuss about the length of her skirt?

Yup. A few years ago she wore a very short orange dress to play a concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. She looked a million dollars, but the press seemed more interested in writing about her legs than her fingers, as if she’d committed some kind of Crime Against Sacred Art.

Hello-o, I thought this was the 21st century? It’s pretty staid compared to what the likes of Rihanna or Miley Cyrus wear on stage…

True. Sexist claptrap is alive and well and living in our concert halls.

What did Yuja think about it?

She said shortly after that she thought it was ridiculous and that it was a bit sad if people were talking about her dress instead of her playing. But basically she laughed it off. She said: 'I’m a short person. I wear what suits me.' And it did suit her. We can’t all get away with that.

You’re just jealous, aren’t you?

My mini-skirt days are long gone... Thing is, I don’t have a problem with glamorous 20-something women looking great on a concert platform. The fuss said more about the fussers than it did about Yuja. Anyway, it was the Hollywood Bowl, which is a fun venue. Not like the, er, Barbican. And after all, it is the playing that counts.

So… can she, like, play?

Play? CAN SHE PLAY? Judge for yourself. Here she is in The Flight of the Bumble Bee. This video’s had a cool 3.4m hits on Youtube. Have a little listen:

Excuse me while I glue my jawbone back together. There’s more to her than 'virtuoso bedazzlement', though?

You bet. She’s worked with Abbado and Barenboim, she’s recorded two whopping great concertos with Gustavo Dudamel, she’s been blown away by visiting El Sistema in Venezuela and she plays the socks off everything from Bach to Bartók.

What do the heavy-duty pianophiles say?

A lot of them think she is the bee’s knees.…but listen, do. She’s got everything. Apart from navigating the most ferocious piano music and making it look easy, she finds an individual soundworld for each different composer and really delves into the character of every piece. She is a serious, top-quality musician and no skirt-length is going to change that.

Background? Mentors?

Her father plays percussion and her mother was a Chinese traditional dancer. Yuja was born in Beijing, started the piano aged 3 and left home at 14 to study first in Canada, then in the States at the Curtis Institute, which is kind of like Eton for musicians, only better. Main mentor: renowned pianist and pedagogue Gary Graffman.

Didn’t Lang Lang go there too?

Let’s leave Lang Lang out of this.

So what was her big break?

She won some competition prizes in her mid-teens, but things really got going when she was 17 and jumped in to replace an indisposed Radu Lupu in Ottawa. As the papers said, a star was born.

What’s she doing in London?

More like 'What isn’t she doing?' There are three concertos and a recital with a programme to take your breath away, to coin a phrase: Prokofiev, Chopin, Stravinsky and Kapustin.


Nikolai Kapustin. The most amazing Russian composer you’ve probably never heard of – unless you’re one of those heavy-duty pianophiles we were talking about. He’s 76, he’s a phenomenal jazz pianist himself and he writes piano pieces in classical genres with a jazz idiom. Pianists like Marc-André Hamelin, Steven Osborne and Benjamin Grosvenor play him too.

Bring it on! What else at the Barbican shebang?

Oh, just a few concertos…Beethoven Third with Jaap von Zweden conducting, Prokofiev Second with James Gaffigan, Rachmaninov Third with Daniel Harding. Like I said, just a few concertos... All this in the space of two weeks.

Do say…?

'Yuja, you look fantastic, but you sound even better.'

Don’t say…?

'I love Lang Lang.'

Yuja Wang is performing in the London Symphony Orchestra’s UBS Soundscapes: Artist Portrait between 9 and 23 February. Box office: 020 7638 8891