Pianist Wang brings her intensity back to Heinz Hall

| Wednesday, June 5, 2013, 7:07 p.m.

Yuja Wang is almost never home. The young Chinese pianist has a nice apartment, complete with an 1890 Hamburg Steinway grand piano, only three blocks from Lincoln Center in New York City. But she spends most of her time on the road, playing more than 100 concerts a year all over the world.

“I live a very high-intensity lifestyle. I haven't been home since March,” Wang says. “At least, it's not boring, in a sense.”

Pittsburgh music lovers understand why she's so in demand from her previous Heinz Hall appearances: remarkable performances of Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Sergei Rachmaninoff's “Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.”

Wang will be the soloist when Manfred Honeck leads the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in concerts June 7 to 9 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The program is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5.

“Every time I've played (the Tchaikovsky First concerto), it's been very significant, a big event in my life,” she says. “I played it at the Hollywood Bowl with (Gustavo) Dudamel. I always work hard at the concerto. It's pianistic. The music just kind of flows out. I love the Tchaikovsky because it's so beautiful.”

Wang's excellence in Russian repertoire is no accident. Her teachers at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, her hometown, had all studied in Russia, which has a tradition of great piano pedagogy.

She studied for a year in Canada when she was 14 and, a year later, enrolled at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where she studied with Gary Graffman. He was an important American pianist who recorded all three of Tchaikovsky's piano concertos, the First with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.

“He's more like a performer than a pedagogue,” Wang says. “He has amazing insights from his experiences rather than just teaching playing. That was very useful. He's also such a lovely person that it's great to learn with him. You just want to learn your stuff, very good motivation.”

Although Wang loves the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, she admits she has “a history” with it.

“I refused to play it because everyone plays it and I heard it all the time when I was young. But when I was 19, I had a concert with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov, one of my favorite conductors, and they would only take Tchaikovsky No. 1.”

Honeck is looking forward to working with Wang again, after their first collaboration on Rachmaninoff. He calls her a wonderful artist and is glad she will be part of the orchestra's late-summer European Festivals Tour.

He's also keen to conduct Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 again, a work that also will be featured on the tour.

When Shostakovich wrote the symphony in 1937, he was in hot water with Communist officials. He wrote it in such a way that the symphony could be labeled an artist's reply to just criticism. But, after publication of his memoirs, titled “Testimony,” his true feelings were revealed. The finale, for example, is not a glorification of the Soviet state; it is a celebration at the point of a bayonet.

“In Shostakovich's music, there is always something in the background,” Honeck says. “You can never trust that what he wrote doesn't have a second or third meaning. The question for me is should we go with what is written, the official face, or go for what is underneath. In my opinion, it makes more sense for me that, if Shostakovich wanted to hide something, then it's better to lift the curtain and be open to the things which he really wanted to say.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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