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I remember when I went to the conservatory for the first time. All the other kids were looking at me like—by then I was already a child star—like I am another species in a zoo. She was eight or nine. They talk, some are very noisy. Why are you nervous? Until the first time I played Mozart.
I was not nervous until I was onstage. Then I felt I was in a completely different time and space. My fingers just played. And I thought there is a difference between practicing at home and playing onstage. Before, I was, Oh, Mozart is so boring. She became a serious reader in her teens. I asked about her home life in China. Extremely conventional and traditional.
Very Communist. If you read Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, you will understand what kind of people they are. Just simple, extremely kind. My dad was really talented, and my mom also. Because you have to go to Party meetings and talk about how to do well for society. Twenty-year plan. Five-year plan.
You work for the common welfare rather than for the individual. Working for the individual is almost synonymous with being selfish. Which is not how I feel. I feel lucky that I came out when I was fourteen. She speaks of them in an affectionate but veiled way, always stressing their kindness. When I asked Yuja to elaborate on her sense of the political differences between China and America, she paused before answering. After a while, listening to her, I realized that she was talking about an entirely different subject. I decided to persist. It was around four on a hot August afternoon, and Yuja was dressed in denim shorts, very short ones, and a tank top.
Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip. This was a departure for Yuja. For a while, there was a picture of Yuja in front of Carnegie Hall in the flame-red dress she had worn at a recital in May, , her arms raised high in the air in a gesture of culminating abandon.
It stopped passersby. Now she was entering a new phase of engagement with Mozart and the nineteenth-century German classical composers. The picture of her in front of Geffen Hall was unremarkable. A day before the first concert of the series at Geffen, I attended an open rehearsal at the hall.
Yuja was waiting in the small room upstairs where soloists change clothes and receive visitors. She showed me a closet where the three dresses, designed by Roberto Cavalli, she would wear at the concerts were hanging. I took an immediate dislike to one of the garments—a short pink dress with black swirling lines on its gathered skirt and bodice. It was neither ultra-short and tight nor long and clinging.
It was a kind of girlish summer dress.
Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance
I did not like the idea of Yuja wearing it onstage. The two other dresses were a glamorous dark-blue long gown and a short, also concert-worthy dress. When I offered Yuja the half sandwich the waiter had wrapped, she accepted. Predictably, she opened the sandwich and ate the chicken, then the tomato, then the lettuce, and then—unpredictably—the bread. Dutoit, a tall man of seventy-nine, appeared with his fourth wife, Chantal Juillet.
The piano prodigy is known for the brilliance of her playing and for her dramatic outfits.
After husband and wife hugged Yuja, Dutoit stood back to look with elaborate mock lecherousness at her tight trousers. Dutoit and Yuja go back a long way. After some cheerful banter, Dutoit left to rehearse the final Respighi, and Yuja excused herself to warm up in a large adjacent room that had a piano. At the concert proper, the following night, Yuja wore the glamorous dark-blue gown, and played with delicacy and beauty. She and Dutoit and the orchestra were in elating rapport.
Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance | The New Yorker
The first cadenza produced one of those you-could-hear-a-pin-drop hushes in the sold-out hall. She had gone very quiet, and the audience followed as if mesmerized. No one coughed. Not that she was doing anything. It was. Wang ripped the notes out of the keyboard, as much as played them. At one point, I almost laughed out loud. Yuja must have liked reading this. I find I play him better when I am hung over or drunk. The human emotion is there but with a lot of godliness in it.
Was it my imagination or was her playing less inspired than it had been the night before? Meeting Yuja in the Sky Lounge a few weeks later on a rainy day, I told her of this impression, and she did not contradict it. I liked the pink dress because it was different. Sometimes, the difference might become the style of my next season. Or it could be something to discard. Just when I walked onstage. Just the opposite of the nude dress. I can dress in long skirts when I am forty. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage.
She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to. More crucial, the tiny dresses and spiky heels draw your focus to how petite Ms. Wang is, how stark the contrast between her body and the forcefulness she achieves at her instrument.
That contrast creates drama.
“I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee” speaker: four letters.
It turns a recital into a performance. The sense of a body set in urgent motion by musical imperatives requires that the body not be distractingly clothed. With her usually bared thighs, chest, and back demurely covered by the black-splotched pink fabric, this sense was lost. When Maurizio Pollini plays in some nondescript suit, his body-aliveness is no less present for us. Plainness is never a mistake on a concert stage. For the two remaining Mozart performances, Yuja, realizing her misstep, returned to the designer she regularly uses.
Yuja wore this fabulously gorgeous costume at the third concert—which had the electricity of the first one—and felt comfortable and happy in its defiant sexiness and her feeling of nakedness. I looked out the window of the Sky Lounge and saw the New Jersey shoreline disappearing in a gray mist. Yuja herself was in a dark mood. She had recently returned from a European tour and was exhausted and dispirited.
I ask myself, Am I playing for the applauding, for the standing up, or am I playing because I really like something in the music and I just want to play? She talked in the same dark vein about her personal life. I naturally give my love and friendship, but once the tour is over are they really your friends? The other things come and go—except maybe your parents. Graffman, you may recall, is the distinguished pianist whose career was disrupted in the late nineteen-seventies, when he lost the use of his right hand. When I visited the Graffmans in their apartment at the Osborne, on West Fifty-seventh Street, they spoke of Yuja as of a beloved granddaughter of whom they are so proud they can hardly stand it.
She played like a finished artist. As Yuja had been a musical wunderkind at six, at twenty-nine she is a kind of existential prodigy, already undergoing the crisis that ordinary people undergo in midlife. Do I want to go on doing it, or is there something else waiting for me? I must be a little masochistic. But by the time she had untied herself from the mast of her art it was midnight, and there was no one to join her in a walk in the park. They were fun. Nice people. I had lots of drinks.
But I get the same questions again and again. And then I become a little unpleasant. And then I feel guilty that I was unpleasant. The room had darkened, and everything on the river was disappearing.
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