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.
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?
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? (https://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.