Piano, passion, and percussion
by arwulf arwulf
From the October, 2018 issue
Early footage of Yuja Wang as a diminutive child prodigy dressed in white satin shows the young pianist waltzing with the spirit of Chopin, her delicate hands floating gracefully over the keys. Born in Beijing, the child of a ballet dancer and a rhythmically exacting percussionist, she is now an internationally celebrated virtuoso who has tackled some of the most challenging works in the classical piano repertoire.
Far too much media attention has been focused on this artist's glamorous wardrobe. Granted, her couture represents personal and professional empowerment; she has freed herself from the constraints of the classical music performance dress code. But what matters most and makes her so exciting in concert are the sounds she draws from the piano, the breathtaking delicacy and lightning-quick intensity of her technique, and the passionate absorption that is visible on her face during a live performance.
Wang's phenomenal success is the result of a deeply ingrained work ethic, maintained over the years with Olympic perseverance. She recalls her first encounter with Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto as a mind-expanding revelation, and compares the task of mastering Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata to a daunting Himalayan ascent.
Wang describes the art of learning a musical composition as a metabolic transformation. Communing with the thought processes of the composer, she digests the work's every note and nuance until it manifests in her bloodstream, possesses her heart, and ultimately alters her DNA. The pianist fully embodies the music and says she loves to feel it playing through her.
When Wang returns to Hill Auditorium on October 24, it will be in the company of Martin Grubinger Jr.'s Percussion Planet Ensemble. They will perform Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, using arrangements tailored for this ensemble by Martin Grubinger Sr. The program also includes DanzOn no. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, and One Study One by New Zealand's John Psathas. This multinational mix reflects Grubinger's worldview: He's written that "percussion
thrives on its universality. It recognizes no borders or racial divisions."
One Study One busily showcases marimba and junk percussion, their rattling motoric rhythms triggering memories of Max Roach's M'Boom Re: Percussion Troupe and Roy Brooks' Detroit-based Aboriginal Percussion Choir. Poised in the eye of this expertly coordinated hurricane, Wang ferociously attacks the ivories with unerring rapid-fire hammer strokes. Marveling at the blur of her hands flying over the keyboard, I'm reminded of jazz historian Val Wilmer's oft-quoted description of the late Cecil Taylor handling the piano as if it were "eighty-eight tuned drums."
[Originally published in October, 2018.]
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