I recently got the latest album by the 23 year-old piano sensation, Yuja Wang. On it she tackles two great Russian warhorses, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his Piano Concerto #2. Depending on what she’s wearing, She can look like teenage kid, movie star, wunderkind, gamine. She casually talks about Rachmaninov as being tough but fun too. You realize while listening that she has a deep understanding of the music she performs. She follows in the footsteps of other great Chinese pianists like Lang Lang and Yundi Li but doesn’t play second fiddle to them.. Critics are amazed at not just her technique but the emotional wisdom of her playing. And that little orange cocktail dress she wore at the Hollywood Bowl last summer got her some notices, too, from not only the press but the audience and the orchestra as well. Look at the eyes of the first violinist!
We see similar successes every day in the newspapers, on a larger, more global business front. China is growing and growing while the U.S. is no longer the world power it used to be, especially in business and trade. China is definitely on the ascendency both economically and culturally. Democracy? Not yet. Maybe never.
The piano isn’t exactly a Chinese instrument. I once read that when the British first brought a piano to China in the 19th century, people were scared of it because–to them–it sounded like bones rattling inside. Many young Asian artists take up the violin. Less so the piano. But that is changing too.
After my music salon class the other night some of us hung around talking about playing music. I recently resumed flute lessons after a long time off. It’s tough work getting those high E’s and F#’s out. My high notes sound like a door that needs some WD40. Two women in the class told me they’d been forced into taking piano lessons early on and had to practice until they finally were able to quit. They were sick of it all. I asked if they had tiger moms. Yes, they said. I told them I wish I had had a tiger mom, a white Amy Chua, because then I would be a much better player now than I am. That goes for both piano and flute. One of them told me they loved Chopin. How I wish I could play Chopin. Or Debussy, Ravel, even Satie.
I don’t know if Yuja Wang had a tiger mom, but she is an amazing and stunningly accomplished new artist. Unlike China, she may not be taking over the world—not yet, that is—but she certainly is carving out a niche for herself as one of the most gifted newcomers on the international classical scene.