Pianist Yuja Wang at Hill
Virtuosity, expressivity, sensitivity
Virtuosity is relatively easy. With a degree of talent and a willingness to spend years practicing six to ten hours a day, most players do eventually become virtuosos. Think Eric Clapton, Charlie Parker, Itzhak Perlman, or virtually any U-M School of Music graduate. Expressivity is harder. But still, with a sufficient familiarity with a genre plus the tiniest drop of real emotion, most virtuosos can at least sound like they have something to say. Think Carlos Santana, Stan Getz, or Pinchas Zukerman.
Sensitivity is much harder--much, much harder. A profound understanding of a work's deepest aesthetic meanings and the ability to communicate that understanding to an audience with overwhelming immediacy is the heart and soul of a great performance. But while virtuosity can be learned, and expressivity can be imitated, sensitivity is nearly impossible to fake, and in art as in love, fake sensitivity is frankly repulsive.
This brings us to Chinese piano players in general and Yuja Wang in particular. Like her slightly older countrymen Lang Lang and Yundi Li, Wang is manifestly a stupendous virtuoso and an extremely expressive performer. On her tours since graduating from the Curtis Institute in 2008 and her recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, Wang has displayed these qualities with a lack of inhibition that has shocked some and thrilled many others.
And like Lang and Li, Wang has been dogged by critics' charges of insensitivity. I agreed, finding her playing on record to be staggeringly virtuosic and extravagantly expressive--not even Maurizio Pollini is more technically accomplished, nor is Vladimir Horowitz more emotionally flamboyant--but also utterly insensitive. If Wang had any idea what the music she was playing meant or any feeling for its aesthetic meaning, she didn't communicate it to me in her performances.
But I could certainly be wrong. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that Wang, Lang, and Li hear things in nineteenth-century European art music which this middle-aged American does not. After all, it's happened before when musical cultures meet. Some critics have said Bernstein's Mahler is just as insensitive as Wang's Chopin, or that the Rolling Stones' Muddy Waters is just as inauthentic as Wang's Brahms. But most listeners disagree, swept away by stunning virtuosity, extraordinary expressivity, and perhaps even a sensitivity to depths which critics miss.
As always, the only way to know is to go--in this case, to Hill Auditorium on Sunday, October 9, to hear Yuja Wang for yourself.
[Originally published in October, 2011.]