Pianist Yuja Wang’s very short dresses and very big talent

Celebrating 5 years of blogging at The Classical Girl! Enjoy Off Balance and the award-winning Outside the Limelight, Books 1 and 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, for 99 cents and $2.99, respectively, all month long!

images-124

The thing is, I didn’t know about the “very short/tight/colorful dress” business before Yuja Wang’s May 2014 performance with the San Francisco Symphony. I’d seen and enjoyed her performance in 2012, here at Davies Hall, when she played Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and blew everyone away. She was 25 at the time, and lucky for San Francisco Symphony patrons, Michael Tilson Thomas had long before pegged her as a stunning talent and featured her in Project San Francisco, an artist’s residency of sorts, for the season. The performance was astonishing; she threw herself wholly into it. Her concentration, technique, sensitivity and musicality were all top notch. But, in truth, I don’t remember a very short/tight/colorful dress.

This season, she is again the featured artist in Project San Francisco and Last Sunday I saw her perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilton Thomas conducting. Once again, she burned up the stage with her playing. Actually, she burned up the stage when she appeared. And, okay. So there it is, the dress thing. I was shocked by it: a short, short, skimpy white cocktail dress. With those platform-y high heeled shoes currently in vogue, sort of pearlescent and clunky. I wouldn’t have guessed it was possible to play the piano in shoes like that. But she proved once again that she was a master. So. Let’s table the discussion about the Very Short Dresses until later, and instead talk about her talents as a pianist, which are considerable.

A brief history: Beijing-born and raised, Wang studied at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music,  Canada’s Mount Royal College, and at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, graduating from the latter in May 2008. Her considerable talent got noticed in a big, big way when, in March 2007, she replaced Martha Argerich, who’d been forced to cancel her engagement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Great story about the performance HERE) Since then, she’s been lauded as a major talent by critics, media, and audiences alike, garnering numerous awards and honors. With reason. She’s amazing.

images-126

Now a word about Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1. He, too, was young, a brilliant composer and performer, only 20 and still in conservatory when he composed this work. (He would go on to perform his own concerto in his final graduation performance from the St. Petersburg Conservatory two years later, reasoning, according to Wikipedia lore, that though he might not be able to win with a classical concerto, with his own concerto the jury would be ‘unable to judge whether he was playing it well or not.’ He won the coveted Anton Rubinstein prize.) It’s a fun, rousing concerto to listen to, full of all sorts of textures and colors, what you’d expect from the guy who gave us “Peter and the Wolf,” and utterly delicious compositions of “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Not bad for a 20-year-old on just his 10th opus.

Yuja Wang consumes the piece she’s performing. No, she inhabits it. Her concentration is mesmerizing to watch. Her technique is astonishing. Here’s how San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman describes her performance: “The steely precision with which she dispatched the concerto’s passagework – its big, clangorous chords, its massive octave runs and its fizzy bursts of filigree – were never anything less than astonishing. Within a palette that favored sleek, brittle piano sonorities, she still uncovered a wealth of variety, alternating passages of stark clarity with more shadowy and evocative tones.” Great review; you can read more of it HERE.

Wang’s exit from the stage, post-performance, is charming, almost clumsy. She staggers up, away from the piano, still in that dazed artist’s groove, and offers one fierce, deep bow, throwing her whole self into that, too. It’s like she’s sneezing, hurling her upper torso over and up, lightning fast. Afterward she strides right off the stage, not even pausing to bask in the applause, take a second bow, take a look around her and thank the audience. But it seems natural, unaffected, and I have to admire that about her. She was there to blow us away with her music and she did and when she was done, off she went. She did, fortunately, return, and return again—the audience’s unceasing applause all but demanded it—and offer an encore performance.

There’s no YouTube of her performing the Prokofiev, but here she is, playing Scriabin (not wearing the media-buzz-producing orange/red dress, nor the white, but a third very short one that, admittedly, looks lovely on her).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHO4Ucw9zL4

And now for the Very Short dress business. Back in 2011, she drew considerable attention when she strode out onto the stage at the Hollywood Bowl in a very short orange (I say red) dress, prompting all sorts of buzz in the media and the blogosphere the next day. Too short and provocative for classical music? Too conservative, the tastes of the critics, who complain that it was a distraction?

You want to see these dresses now, don’t you?

Well, okay…

167108_Bringuier_LKH_                       yuja-wang

So. Is it sexist for me to bring it up? (How about this: I hate what Joshua Bell wears when he performs. They look like black pajamas. There.) Is it too conservative of me to have raised my eyebrows while watching her perform? (And for the record, no one has ever called me conservative. I’ve long been the eyebrow raise-ee, not the raiser.) Does it distract from a performance, from the pleasure bubble, to wonder, uneasily, if the dress is going to ride up so high that everyone feels a little, well, awkward (at least the females in the audience)? Every time, just before she’d reach up to tug the dress down because it was riding  too high, I’d feel a cramp of sympathetic anxiety, a frisson of unease.

Now, musicians might argue in defense of wearing whatever the hell they want, arguing that “it’s all about the music; I should be judged by my music alone.” To which I say: oh, come on. We’re watching you. The performing arts are a visual spectacle. It’s why we forked out the money instead of staying home and listening to your CD. It’s why venues spend loads of money to look luxurious and inviting, and it’s why we, too, all dress up. Because this is a night out and looks do matter. But hey, go for it. Be daring and keep classical music in the news, in  mainstream conversation. No complaints there at all. Wear what you want and I’ll respect it, your music and artistry, and I’ll enjoy the dialogue via social media that it invites the next day (Google “Yuja Wang’s orange dress” to see what I mean).

But I don’t want to end this on a judgmental note. Yuja Wang is too good of a musician and performer. You know how I adore Chopin, right? (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/chopin-everyone/) Okay, so check this one out. It’s one of his waltzes, Op. 64, no. 2.  Her expression as she plays is so pure, so rapt, and her hands move so gently, yet skillfully over the keyboard, it’s such a joy to watch. Truly this is an artist to watch, for many reasons.

15 thoughts on “Pianist Yuja Wang’s very short dresses and very big talent

  1. kathleen

    Wow–she is fascinating, both musically and fashionably! And she will be performing in Kansas City at the Kauffman Center next weekend, doing Rachmaninov. I, however, will be at a family wedding with a decidedly different energy. At least I know what I will be missing……

    Reply
      1. admin Post author

        Yikes, I couldn’t even say “ooh, yah for Kansas City!” before I read this 2nd message. Sorry for KC folks that she cancelled; wonder why? Hate it when that happens. Although sometimes the replacement performance can be very exciting too, this less-known artist being given a chance. (Well, like Yuja did for Martha Argerich in 2007.)

        Glad you were unable to attend (wait, that came out wrong), or shall I say, glad it was her performance and not the wedding you’re attending that was cancelled (wait, that came out very, very wrong). Um, let’s try again. Enjoy the wedding! Enjoy the opportunity – in the future – to see Yuja Wang in concert! She puts on a real show.

        Reply
  2. admin Post author

    Kathleen, I was reading a great article by Jim Farber at San Francisco Classical Voice and he talked about injuries/cancellations dogging her, back in 2011. That could be what’s happening now. Here’s a link to the article for everyone, (https://www.sfcv.org/events-calendar/artist-spotlight/pianist-yuja-wang-floating-like-a-butterfly) but here’s the quoted bit:

    Unfortunately, Wang’s demanding schedule of worldwide performances and recording sessions (for Deutsche Grammophone) has taken its toll in the form of a hand injury and, ironically, cancellations. As recently as June 2, Wang was forced to cancel a series of concerts with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa and was replaced by — who else? — another “youngster,” the 16-year-old Conrad Tao. And as this article was being published on June 7 Wang cancelled her June 21 solo recital, the last concert of her two-week residency with the San Francisco Symphony. The other concerts will go on as scheduled.

    Reply
  3. admin Post author

    Okay, I’m commenting away like mad on my own blog, which is kind of odd, but I’m enjoying looking at all the articles about Yuja Wang out there. Here’s an interview, and I’m cracking up at the way it starts, because I wrote about the very thing this journalist said the average writer would do:

    IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A profile of 27-year-old mainland pianist Yuja Wang these, in a nutshell, are the five points you might include: she is brilliant; she grew up in Beijing; she wears short dresses; ignore the previous point, it’s all about the playing; and did I mention she wears very short dresses?

    Really interesting, insightful article though, by Victoria Finlay, for the South China Morning Post. Worth a read: http://www.scmp.com/magazines/48hrs/article/1434912/when-nerves-and-familiarity-combine-expect-pianist-yuja-wang-create

    Reply
  4. Grace Harstad

    Thank you so much for introducing me to Yuja Wang. Wow! Would love to see her live. So sorry to learn of her hand problem.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Grace, you are very welcome! She’s a lot of fun to watch on Youtube – check out those links I embedded. I went back yesterday afternoon and enjoyed the Scriabin video more leisurely. She plays several preludes, and they capture very different moods. Great opportunity to see her artistic range.

      And wow, there are tons of article about her online. Can’t believe they all eluded me two years ago when I first saw her perform. Then again, I wasn’t blogging, and thus wasn’t researching. (Well, if she’d been a violinist I would have done those things. But not much of an audience at Violinist.com for pianist profiles!)

      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3 - The Classical Girl

  6. Pingback: San Francisco Ballet and Ratmansky's "Shostakovich Trilogy" - The Classical Girl

  7. Kendali

    I know this is an old thread, but I literally just now discovered Yuja Wang from a Facebook post of her playing Mozart (so I guess FB can be worthwhile), and to say I was blown away would be an understatement. I’m a musician, and the amount of talent, dedication and discipline it takes to play as she does is almost unbelievable. How I would love to perform at that level! She looks like she is enraptured when playing, and that is something I can really appreciate.

    So I did look into her little orange dress and see that some have an issue with it, and it made me question what sexism really is. I don’t have an answer to that, but it did make me think about it and look at my own ideas on that subject. I have zero problem with how she’s dressed; as a matter of fact I love it which doesn’t really mean anything except that enjoy looking at a beautiful woman as much as the next guy. Is it sexist of me to notice that? Maybe, but I’m not really bothered by that. I acknowledge her mainly for her supreme talent. The fact that she is also stunning to look at just goes to show how unfair life can be. From all outward appearances, she’s got it all and knows what to do with it.

    If she couldn’t play like that, then we really wouldn’t care would we?

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Kendali, I’m so glad you posted a comment – new readers come to see these articles every day, so there is definitely not a shelf life aspect to my posts. I always love it when people offer their opinion on any post! I am nodding over so much you say here. I’m not even a musician, but I sure can tell when a musician is at the top of their game, and then some, and she just continues to dazzle me. Saw her at the San Francisco Symphony again, late last spring, and she was once again amazing, in all ways. She was wearing a Little White Sparkly Dress this time, and my heart just swelled with delight, with admiration, with pure gut pleasure. The woman sitting next to me, too, burst out with this unhinged “woo hoo!” or something like that, and I could tell that she, too, loved it. So there we were, two women, just as thrilled by her outfit as the men were. Is it sexist to notice that first, even when we’re women analyzing another woman? I say not. The eye sees before the ear hears. Her playing was sublime, her concentration and enthusiasm palpable. I am thrilled, frankly, that she is drawing non-classical music listeners into this world of ours, and making it seem accessible and fascinating and, okay, SEXY. She is for classical music what Misty Copeland is for ballet. I feel so fortunate to have ambassadors like this, who have uncompromising classicism and high standards of excellence AND look visually appealing. Way cool.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Reply
  8. Amir Agami

    As a music lover and a non-professional pianist myself, I have today found out about Wang only by incidence as I opened youtube and there was a recommendation on a recording of her playing the Hammerklavier sonata. After listening to parts of it, I realized that I am missing an excellent pianist that I have never heard of. So I looked for other recordings of her on youtube. I was so moved by her playing of chopin Waltz Op. 64. (C#) I felt I have to look for more recordings of this pianist. This is not another interpretation of the Waltz. This is interpretation a distinguished one, in my opinion. Then I found her recordings of playing Chopin piano concerto and was thrilled. So I listened to it again and that was no mistake. Then I listened to her playing chopin’s 1st Ballade (which I also play myself). Even though I was not impressed as I after hearing the Waltz, It was indeed great. Then then some more, including schumann, Schubert, and even more modern composers I usually don’t even usually listen to. I couldn’t sto looking for more and more recording of her. Her performance is such brilliant it made me listen to composers I never found any interest in! But what catched me more than everything else is the feeling that she REALLY is allowing herself to play the piece as she feels without becoming a slave to some “norms” about it. This is especially evident on Chopin’s waltz Op. 64. Smooth and natural tempo transitions, authentic rhythm interpretation (sometimes even not surrendering to the Waltz designation, one might say, but if you open your mind, who cares? Her rhythm is fantastic!). Her musical choices are so brave and beautiful, so real and so moving to heart. At the end of the day I realized that I have been sitting for a couple of hours today in order to listen to her playing and she made me surprised and moved so many times during this short period of time!
    Above all, her musical interpretations and playing are so honest, so new and fresh, discovering inner details, voices and harmonies I haven’t been aware of even after years of playing and listening to these pieces. She is free, and that freedom is in every part of her choices – from the flow of tempo in chopin’s waltz and concerto, through the joy in which she plays some of the most beautiful parts of Hammerklavier, and, well, also in her behavior, her laughter, and her choices of how to dress, which is actually a good taste in clothes in my opinion. Articulation like hers is something I have rarely heard. It is not just crisp and technically sound. It is exposed. Like saying this is what I play now. This is no pedal, No sound technicians, not even the composer’s written dynamics (and I don’t write that as negative criticism). It’s her. And it’s so exposed, so humane, so enchanting, and so high quality, it just makes me want more. Be it Brahms, Schumann, Schubert. Be it in a short or long skirt, I want to listen to more interpretations of this person playing and musicality. To me, it does sound a bit like she still has to work more with chamber music, but I am no worried about that. If she has such skills in listening to those inner melodies such sensitivity to express them, and such a personality to let us meet through performance, I have no doubt about the potential of her chamber music.
    If the skirt disturbs you or distracts you, it’s fine to close your eyes, even though I think it is really fine she is both talented and beautiful, and, like her music interpretation, she is authentic and free, so she wears what she feels good wearing, and that’s great. It’s part of her authenticity! She looks great, feels great in those clothes, and plays great! Whether some critics like it or not, I don’t give a damn. Please, play more and more. It is avangardic to dress like that. But that’s just another facet of freshness, authenticity, beauty, boldness, and, doing what you really feel like, which in arts is an absolutely good thing to aspire to.
    Please keep playing, please keep being who you are, I hope I will hear more recordings of musicians like you and more artists will continue to make art, dress, and perform like THEY think is appropriate, not how their critics’ opinions mandate. Sooner or later, authenticity, freedom, and cognitive and emotional plasticity yields fulfillment.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Oh, wonderful, wonderful, everything you wrote, Amir! Just a delight to read, and I got vicarious enjoyment out of your amazement and gratitude and enjoyment of Yuja Wang’s music. How lucky we are, that she is continuing to be this artist, to be fully engrossed in her playing, her interpretation, her sense of joy and wonder. Each time I hear her perform again (gosh, it’s been 4 times, I think, in eight years), I cross my fingers that she has kept up her high standards, and each time I’m thrilled that she has. And then I worry that the San Francisco Chronicle critic is going to be critical about the same performance, but he never is. She truly is one in a million, in my mind. (And the outfits are icing on the cake and I LOVE them! Especially the gorgeous white one from the last performance. Fun, on top of classy, on top of talented. Who could ask for more?)

      Reply
  9. klaudia

    hi,
    i’m sorry to get mixed up in this old post… but i feel, the fact that you stated you’d feel at unease watching her.. (the skirt having gone up to far…feeling awkward… ) makes me question… where is it coming from? and i can only derive that it is a sort of a solidarity? because we know this feeling..this fear of being reduced to something (a flash of her underwear would make her talent, art a mere side effect)
    my humble psychological analysis is that it is us. that we have someone here who also ‘speaks’ for us other women? we don’t want the picture to be distorted so to speak? protective if you will….
    now,…obviously it would be amazing if all of that wouldn’t matter but sadly we are not there yet….we’d need five times more female pianists …. 😉

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for your comments and insight, Klaudia! Regarding the “where is it coming from?” I can only speak for myself. I am an empath (actually, a hyper-empath, which will have too many non-empath people scratching their heads so we won’t go there) and I powerfully feel (or project) others’ emotions and physical experiences. Last night I was watching the Olympics, the ice dancing couples, and a female skater’s costume came undone at the top. I was literally clenching and cramping with vicarious agony. From my dance days, I remember what it felt like to perform in such a compromised state. It robs the performance and the performer. Now I might be entirely off the mark, however, with Yuja and her performance. If the short dress riding up while she performed didn’t bother her in the least, and here I am, vicariously cringing, well, that is a wonderful message for me to consider. Quite possibly, it is all about her art and music-making, in her mind, and the dress is an afterthought. I actually like that thought. Musical talent and the ability to listen to the music (as an audience member or recording-listener) have no gender. That’s one of the reasons I find such comfort in listening to beautifully played classical music. It transcends politics, gender, current events, crises, etc.

      Anyway, you might have been going in a different direction in your thoughts – apologies if I sort of hijacked the thread. But thank you for posting your own take!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *