Playing the Most Difficult Piano Concertos in the World

March 4, 2014  Editor: Frank Zhao

Playing the Most Difficult Piano Concertos in the World
Wang Yuja rehearses for concert held March 1 and 2 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). [Courtesy of NCPA]
Dressed in a short red one-piece, Wang Yuja performed Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, considered one of the most difficult piano concertos in the world, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on Saturday. The next day, she performed another great piece: Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.2.

A month prior to the concert, the 27-year-old Wang released her fifth album through Deutsche Grammophon, covering concertos by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

After the concert on Saturday, one of the audience members, a pianist and professor from the Central Conservatory of Music Zou Xiang, wrote on his Sina Weibo: "It is great that young pianist Wang Yuja has been recognized by international mainstream music circles... I enjoyed her passion, her straight forwardness and even the sexiness of her performance tonight. She has a natural understanding when it comes to playing, especially when it comes to the magical way she moves her hands and those octave jumps."

Nobody doubts that Wang's skills are up to the task of playing these complex concertos. As some of her fans have said, "The only problem that Wang has when playing piano is she makes it seem too easy."

"These aren't new pieces for me. I've wanted to record these concertos for a long time," Wang told the Global Times.

"Although difficult skill-wise, the greatest part of these pieces is the strong emotional impact they possess. They contain psychological details similar to those found in Russian novels," she said, adding, "I hope to attract people with music and grab the hearts of the audience in the same way a story does."

Star from the Start

Many budding young pianists' image of Wang is that of a little girl with ponytails playing sonatinas and etudes. Studying under famous pianist Ling Yuan, a professor from the Central Conservatory of Music, Wang appeared in many of Ling's teaching videos when she was still a primary school student during the 1990s. Before appearing in the videos Wang had already won her first international championship in a piano competition for children in Spain.

With a dancer mother and a percussionist father, Wang was brought up in a musical family and started to study piano at 6. At the age of 11, Wang went to Canada to attend the Morningside Music Bridge International Music Festival at Mount Royal University. At the age of 15, she attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, US where she studied under famous music professor Gary Graffman for five years before graduating in 2008.

This contact with different cultures during her early life abroad helped Wang develop an independent and confident personality. Moving to New York a few years ago, she told the Global Times that she only spends about three weeks out of the year there as approximately 100 annual concerts and recording affairs around the world keep her constantly busy.

"Of course I'd like to rest, but whenever I take a holiday, I end up feeling quite bored and can't wait to get busy again," she told the Global Times.

Since her parents still reside in Beijing, Chinese cities are still one of her most common destinations. "I may not hold as many concerts in China as some musicians, but I come back quite often according to my own schedule.

"Nowadays most of my time is spent on planes and hotels. So I enjoy watching movies and reading books whenever I take a flight," said Wang, adding that she really enjoyed The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-wai and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Understudy to Superstar

As quoted in many of her early interviews, Wang describes herself as a lucky person. Many of her early performances came about when she was an understudy and some well-known pianists failed to attend a performance. It was in this way that she was pulled into the limelight when she was still a student and got the chance to work with world-famous masters and orchestras.

Her North American debut came about when she filled in for Romanian pianist Radu Pulu in playing a Beethoven concerto with conductor Pinchas Zukerman in 2005. This opportunity gave the then 18-year-old pianist a chance to show her amazing skills and confidence when playing with a world-renowned master.

Another opportunity came in 2007, when Wang replaced Martha Argerich, the legendary Argentine artist considered as one of the greatest pianists of the late 20th century, in playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This concert was one of her early career's greatest breakthroughs. 

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