The Fashionista Modernism of Yuja Wang

It has never been just about the music. The notion that performers should be faceless butlers of genius, impersonally conveying sublime messages in sound, has no basis in tradition. The bonkers antics of virtuoso pianists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries prove otherwise. Franz Liszt, whose stage costumes ranged from Magyar military garb to priestly robes, would sometimes stop between pieces to chat with admirers. The infamously acerbic Hans von Bülow, while on an American tour, became so irritated at the promotional efforts of the Chickering piano company that he took out a jackknife and scraped the brand’s name off the instrument. Vladimir de Pachmann once appeared at a recital holding a pair of socks; these, he claimed, had been knitted for Chopin by George Sand. And so on: the history of the piano is a history of weirdness.

Given this gaudy lineage, it is curious that any controversy should attend the thirty-seven-year-old pianist Yuja Wang, who seldom speaks during performances, presents programs of wide-ranging seriousness, and plays with flawless technique. The debate, such as it is, is confined to her taste in clothes. She favors spangly, skintight ensembles from high-end designers, such as Hervé Leger and Akris, and clomps across the stage in Christian Louboutin stilettos. The late Janet Malcolm, in a 2016 Profile of Wang for this magazine, devoted considerable space to the pianist’s couture, arguing that it is less a contradiction than an accentuation of her athletic performance style: “The sense of a body set in urgent motion by musical imperatives requires that the body not be distractingly clothed.”

All the same, a number of people find themselves distracted. “She’d fit much better in a night club” is one of the politer complaints to be found on Wang’s Facebook page. Ironically, such concern trolling is symptomatic of the very superficiality that it purports to condemn. If you hold music to be a pure, transcendent, anti-physical medium, your attention shouldn’t be meandering to a player’s physique. Fortunately, most audiences recognize that Wang’s fashions are an honest extension of her personality. At a recent recital at Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, each of her ensembles elicited giggly applause. (She customarily changes at intermission, as opera singers do.) What would happen if a male pianist chose to highlight his body in a similar way? Some boundaries have yet to be tested.

The flamboyance ends when Wang begins to play. At the keyboard, she is precise, dynamic, purposeful, unsentimental. Although she has drawn attention for a marathon survey of Rachmaninoff’s five concertante pieces for piano and orchestra, sultry Romantic repertory isn’t her strongest suit. Some of her most memorable performances have been of thornier fare: Schoenberg’s Suite, Opus 25; Bartók’s First Piano Concerto; Messiaen’s “Turangalîla” Symphony; Ligeti’s Études; John Adams’s “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” It’s seldom noticed how she uses her star power to lead audiences outside their comfort zones. She’s a modernist in fashionista gear.

I first encountered Wang in 2004, when she participated in a master class on the Schubert piano sonatas at Carnegie Hall, under the aegis of the great Leon Fleisher. Her command of the often fiendishly difficult C-Minor Sonata was staggering; I would have been even more awestruck if I’d known that she was only seventeen. At times, though, Schubert’s songfulness eluded her. Fleisher felt that she was too aggressive in her attack; she was “dive-bombing” the keyboard, he said. He wanted her to relax and breathe with the music. When, a year later, Wang played the Grieg Concerto with Neeme Järvi and the New Jersey Symphony, that message had sunk in. The performance was as lyrically generous as it was rhythmically sharp.

Two decades on, Wang still has her dive-bombing moments. On a new Deutsche Grammophon disk, titled “The Vienna Recital,” she delivers a swift, spiky reading of Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 31, No. 3—one that captures the work’s mischievous spirit but shortchanges its dreamier moments. At Disney, her rendition of Debussy’s “L’Isle Joyeuse” was brilliant to a fault: amid the impeccable swirl of notes, the piece’s big, bounding tune remained somewhat hidden until the very end. “Regard de l’Esprit de Joie,” the second of two excerpts from Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus,” hit a peak of intensity too early, so that one felt a little pummelled by Messiaen’s storm of ecstasy.

My cavils about the Disney recital pretty much end there, though. (Wang had played the same program at Carnegie two days earlier.) “Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus,” the first of the Messiaen selections, was an exercise in unhurried bliss, its expectant pauses as telling as its sumptuous sighs. Perhaps only Wang could have got away with opening a concert in so anti-virtuosic a manner. After “L’Isle Joyeuse,” she offered a rigorous, vibrant account of the Eighth Sonata of Alexander Scriabin—a composer whose yen for continuous flux can easily exhaust the listener. Wang plays Scriabin as well as anyone alive: her cool, analytical manner is a perfect complement to his hothouse mysticism.

After intermission came Chopin’s four Ballades—if not the highest summit in the piano repertory, then one of its hairier ascents. Mastering the exuberantly moody First Ballade is one of the age-old tests of conservatory training: on YouTube, you can find Wang giving an excellent, if somewhat studied, performance of it at her Curtis Institute graduation recital. The other three Ballades move beyond the familiar welter of Romantic emotion into zones of volatility and violence. The Second Ballade—which may or may not have been inspired by an Adam Mickiewicz poem about Polish maidens fleeing from Russian soldiers—begins with a pastoral siciliano in F major. Wang lingered over the passage with unaffected tenderness, giving just a twinge of emphasis to its bittersweet chromaticism. It trails off with a series of A’s that, in Wang’s hands, rang like a distant bell in a valley—the prelude to a brutal A-minor assault.

The shock of that shift landed even more strongly because Wang chose to play the Second Ballade first. She thus echoed the otherworldly innocence of the Messiaen “Baiser” that opened the first half. In recent years, Wang has tried to loosen up concert routines, withholding program notes and making unannounced changes in the order of works. (That practice occasioned a bizarre protest at a 2022 Disney recital: after the Beethoven, someone shouted, “Did you write that? Who wrote that?”) In this case, the reordering changed one’s perspective on the First Ballade: robbed of its status as a stand-alone showpiece, it became the brooding heart of a larger sonata structure. Wang, far advanced from her student days, viscerally inhabited the piece’s conflicting moods and smoldering transitions.

The Fourth Ballade stages a climactic collision of extremes. It begins with seven bucolic bars in C major, which turn out to be a prelude to a mournful F minor. At the end of the initial passage comes a solitary, exposed C: Wang rendered it with a sudden coldness, signalling the transition to the minor. Such nuances of articulation are essential to persuasive Chopin playing. The oasis of C major returns just before the coda, this time reduced to five pianissimo chords. Wang struck the first of these with a dry, plain tone; then her touch softened, so that the chords subsided into a somnolent haze. After a split-second pause, the coda exploded with concussive force. These events didn’t feel plotted in advance: Wang seemed lost in the music, in the best way.

Lest anyone worry that Wang abandoned her sense of fun, she traipsed back with a grab bag of encores: Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2, Samuel Feinberg’s transcription of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” Chopin’s Nocturne in D-Flat, Glass’s Étude No. 6, Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue in D-Flat, and Glinka’s “The Lark.” Whoops resounded. Someone shouted, “Goddess!” In the end, Wang’s flair for spectacle doesn’t diminish her gifts; it heightens them. ♦

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