AN INTERVIEW WITH PIANIST JOYCE YANG
Born in Seoul, 25 year old Joyce Yang was admitted to Julliard School at age 11, and performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra a year later. Declared the ‘the most gifted young pianist of her generation’, she was the youngest ever to win a medal in the Van Cliburn competition. She was also the recipient of the Artur Rubinstein Prize upon her graduation from Julliard and, in 2010, received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. Her recent CD, ‘Collage’, appears on Avie AV2229. She performs Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the VSO on her current visit.
1. PERFORMING AROUND THE WORLD HAS NOW BECOME A NON-STOP WAY OF LIFE FOR YOU. HOW MANY CONCERTS DO YOU DO OVER A YEAR?
I never actually counted until recently, but the number is now close to 80. This is certainly near my limit, and it really tests your ability to balance things. One thing I know is that I cannot perform endlessly in the same musical genre. If I have been doing concerto performances for a while, I really need a break to play chamber music or perform in solo recitals -- and vice versa. That is the key to keeping yourself fresh and fully energized.
2. HOW DO YOU ORGANIZE THE DAY OF YOUR CONCERT?
After dealing with airport and hotel details, I simply say to myself that I have 7 hours to get ready for one hour of peak performance. Of course, I have to practice for some time, but I am an ‘explorer’ and love to find unusual things in the city I am visiting. I may also try to ‘work out’ a bit (I like to keep fit), or possibly find a private art gallery where I can just sit down and absorb a special painting. But this is just a plan; sometimes I practice too long and don’t have time for much else. I do know that after the performance is over, I need to do something fairly indulgent to get me back to normal. A gourmet restaurant that serves some unique cuisine usually does the trick. Food seems to reawaken your senses, just like the music did before.
3. I UNDERSTAND THAT IT WAS YOUR AUNT WHO ORIGINALLY STARTED YOU ON THE PIANO AT AGE FOUR?
Yes, my aunt was the music person in my family; my parents were more scientifically oriented. I was given an upright piano, strangely coloured white, as a birthday present, and my aunt began her many inspired teaching experiments with me, eventually employing the Suzuki method. This could have been a horror story but I really enjoyed it, and there was little pressure to be really successful. Of course, my aunt was a master of reverse psychology in getting me to practice all the time. She would say at dinner: “Eat all your greens, and then you will be allowed to practice”. I quickly ate all my greens in eager anticipation of this privilege. It also helped that so many of my friends were also practicing piano all the time.
4. IT ALWAYS AMAZES ME HOW FAST ASIAN INTEREST IN MUSIC INSTRUCTIONS HAS GROWN OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS. WHAT IS YOUR REACTION?
It is truly amazing. In Seoul, there are just so many piano schools that it is difficult to believe. You walk down the street past a grocery store and a restaurant, and there is a small piano school tucked in between them. You walk a short distance further, and there is another one. You go to a doctor’s office and upstairs he has a piano school too. I think this is just a matter of Koreans liking to follow the trend. If enough people are doing a new activity, it becomes the thing to do for everyone, no questions asked. Look at the explosive growth of golf. Next, it might be figure skating.
5. DID YOU FIND THE JULLIARD SCHOOL A FORBIDDING EXPERIENCE WHEN YOU FIRST ARRIVED IN U.S.?
No, I enjoyed it fully from the beginning. I was 11, and in grade five. In the pre-college program, I only attended Julliard on Saturdays, regular school during the week. We lived over two hours from Manhattan and I vividly remember the excitement of getting up before 5am just to make it to Julliard on time. My first piano teacher (Yoheved Kaplinsky) really opened up my talents and let me see what I could do. It always intrigued me that he could be the common teacher for so many students, yet we each played so differently.
6. I AM FAMILIAR WITH BOTH YOUR RACHMANINOFF PERFORMANCES AND YOUR PERFORMANCES OF VERY MODERN COMPOSITIONS. YOU SEEM TO LIKE THE MODERN AS LEAST AS MUCH. PERHAPS YOU MIGHT TURN OUT SPECIALIZING IN THIS DIRECTION?
I would love to be a pioneer in modern stuff. In fact, right now I am learning a new concerto by the Danish composer Poul Ruders. I have already recorded works by young American composers such as Lowell Liebermann. But I do love Rachmaninoff so much, especially the Paganini Variations that I am performing with the VSO. It is a work of such complexity and variety yet it all adds up to an wonderful whole. The give and take between soloist and orchestra is fascinating. I play a note and the orchestra throws it right back at me, almost as a reflex action. And this happens many times. The famous Variation 18 is a truly organic outgrowth of all this interaction; the work simultaneously releases and blossoms.
7. YOU HAVE PLAYED RACHMANINOFF WITH MANY DIFFERENT CONDUCTORS AND ORCHESTRAS. DO YOU THINK YOUR INTERPRETATIONS REMAIN PRETTY MUCH THE SAME? DO YOU THINK THEY REFLECT SOME OF THE INSIGHTS LEARNED FROM THE CLASSIC PERFORMANCES OF THESE WORKS?
Really, I have no idea what exact form a performance will take on any particular night. It often amazes me that you can go through a work thoroughly in rehearsal, agree with the conductor on fine points of tempo and balance, and then the actual concert comes out quite differently. I do think I have learned from the past masters, but they are almost impossible to copy. I remember once trying to phrase certain passages like Sviatoslav Richter but, listening to my efforts after, it certainly did not sound like Richter; it sounded like me!
8. WHAT ABOUT CHAMBER MUSIC? YOU HAVE NOW PLAYED WITH THE WONDERFUL TAKACS QUARTET A NUMBER OF TIMES. THAT MUST HAVE BEEN QUITE AN EXPERIENCE?
Yes, playing with them really brought me to life. It was the first time that I really understood how music can communicate to people in the way that words cannot. One time, in the opening movement of the Schumann Piano Quintet, it suddenly occurred to me that I should lighten and soften the texture a little. I had never done this before but somehow, like magic, all the members of the quartet softened and lightened the texture with me spontaneously. Even if I could have spent hours before dictating the effect I was aiming for, we would have never ended up with the beauty we actually achieved. There seems to be a rare energy between sensitive musicians that allows them to anticipate each other even though no one can articulate fully what is happening.
9. I DO NOTICE HOW WELL YOU CAN CHANGE TEXTURE AND FEELING ALMOST IMPERCEPTIBLY IN QUIET, SUSTAINED PASSAGES. YOU SEEM TO ALWAYS HAVE YOUR RADAR OUT FOR THE NIGHT WEIGHT OF EACH NOTE, AND THE POINT OF EACH PHRASE, NEEDED TO CAPTURE SUBTLE CHANGES IN THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE. ARE YOU ACTUALLY AWARE THAT YOU ARE DOING THIS?
Yes, of course. I love to discover the greatness in any work and to bring out its emotional range and complexity as much as I can. My friends are quite used to it; affectionately, they refer to these little nudges in mood and texture as ‘Joyce-isms’.
10. YOUR RECENT CD, 'COLLAGE', COMBINES WORKS THAT WE WOULD NORMALLY FIND QUITE DISSIMILAR, MOVING ALL THE WAY FROM SCARLATTI TO THSE OF VERY MODERN AMERICAN COMPOSERS. YOU SEEMINGLY THINK OF THIS COMBINATION LIKE A LARGE PAINTING WHERE THE INDIVIDUAL PARTS MAY FEATURE MANY DIFFERENT COLOURS AND TEXTURES BUT, TAKEN TOGETHER, THEY ADD UP A REVEALING AND COMPLETE EXPERIENCE. IS THIS IDEA JUST SOMETHING YOU ARE INTO NOW, OR DOES IT EMBODY A MORE ENDURING ARTISTIC PRINCIPLE?
Putting works together this way is one of my long term goals in recital planning. First, you must understand that when I see a new score, I find it virtually impossible to memorize it with just the notes in black and white. Visualizing colour gives me an additional way of ordering everything and getting musical flow and phrasing right; any score becomes sort of a multi-dimensional painting. Of course, parts of a painting can be quite distinct but they all come together beautifully as a whole. If you can visualize any work that way, then why not apply the same thinking to combinations of seemingly-unrelated works!
11. WHAT WILL BE THE MOST IMPORTANT UPCOMING CONCERTS FOR YOU LATER THIS YEAR?
Well, I have never played Rachmaninoff in Moscow with a Russian orchestra, and that is coming up. I will also take the music of Leonard Bernstein to Berlin. In chamber music, I will play with the esteemed Emerson Quartet for the first time. I am also happy to say that I will return to Vancouver next February for a recital with violinist Augustin Hadelich.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012