In the piano world, there are few as technically talented or as divisive as Yuja Wang. Born in Beijing, her remarkable rise to fame and flashy media presence over the past few years have garnered her an equal share of admirers and critics. On Thursday, Oct. 24, Wang will perform at Baldwin Auditorium through the Duke Performances Piano Recital Series.
“She’s uncommon in that she has reached such success so young. To take that athleticism and turn it into something beautiful usually takes a little more time,” said Dr. David Heid, a Duke piano faculty member.
In fact, Wang’s youth is what impresses so many people. Wang started playing piano at the age of six and went on to perform with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, all before the age of 21.
“It was just a hobby, and I ended up sticking with it,” Wang said.
Despite her widely acknowledged technical talents, Wang has earned a reputation for causing some controversy in the media due to her flashy dresses and obvious appeal to a younger generation. Heid doesn’t see this as a bad thing. “She’s challenging what we think classical music looks like,” he said. “For classical music to thrive in our society, it might have to be packaged differently.”
And, indeed, Wang is packaging her performances in a way that is accessible to the general public. Whereas other performers do everything in their power to prevent their concerts from being recorded and put on Youtube, Wang uses it to grow her online presence.
“She’s available in a way that a younger generation is,” Heid described. “I think she’s challenging what it looks like to go onstage and play. She clearly has an image she wants to present.”
Wang’s modernized approach to classical music makes her appealing to the Duke Performances staff and to students at Duke. “Always, we look for people who can communicate their music effectively,” Aaron Greenwald, Director of Duke Performances, explained. Additionally, he sees this performance as a way for audience members to make an informed decision about Wang and the controversy surrounding her.
“You don’t have to do a lot of reading to realize people are pretty split on her. [The concert] is an opportunity for people to judge for themselves,” said Greenwald.
When asked what she wants to accomplish through her music and performances, though, Wang is much more straightforward, cutting right through the media buzz to what really matters.
“[This music] is something very beautiful and very human. I like being able to share that. I am privileged to have the chance to be the conveyor of that,” said Wang.
Still, even after her incredible success story, she is seeking to improve and build on her talents. “There are just so many things to discover!” she said. “With the piano especially, there is just a huge range of repertoire.” Not only that, but Wang is ready for every chance to share her music with a new audience. “I really think I can learn a lot more from the college students at Duke,” she said.
For a young, world-famous classical pianist who admits to loving Radiohead and Rihanna, relating to students at the college level may be the easiest thing for Wang. This is a performance that will likely have a great influence on the Duke community and Duke students. According to Greenwald, “There is an opportunity for that experience to be genuinely life-altering."
When asked about the immense pressure on her and worries for the future, Wang seemed not to care too much. “I don’t worry!” she said, laughing a little sheepishly. “I think the beauty of...individuality or having a leadership role in society is to take the risk and not to worry about your faults.”
Yuja Wang will perform at Baldwin Auditorium at Duke University on Thurs., October 24. The performance is currently sold out. For more information, visit http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/calendar/yuja-wang-piano
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