Conversation with classical pianist Yuja Wang

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang on the stage of the classical music Festival George Enescu at the Sala Palatului Hall in Bucharest.
(Daniel Mihailescu / AFP / Getty Images)

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is widely admired for her astonishing technical skills at the keyboard and a charismatic stage presence. The 26-year-old also draws attention for her fashion statements and sometimes daring style choices on the concert stage. Her newest album, released in October, is a live concert recorded last spring of the challenging Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. Wang played them in Caracas with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. A favorite in Los Angeles who plays at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall in recitals and with the orchestra, Wang is on an 11-city tour that includes performances Dec. 19-22 with Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The concertos you recorded with Dudamel are powerful, emotional pieces that are rigorous and technically demanding. What drew you to them?

They’re definitely pieces for young people, for young blood and for people who are strong and passionate. I’ve been doing them for a few years, but I’ve wanted to record them for a long time. The Prokofiev is such a powerful work; it’s very dark and emotionally despondent, very profound. Also, I’m a small, petite woman and I think the contrast of these monstrous pieces makes it even more impressive [visually].

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times


The pieces kind of grow on you too. When you go deep enough and really analyze them and understand them, you almost go through a metamorphosis. Every time I come back to it, it’s like another layer is revealed.

What music, outside of classical, do you listen to — what’s on your iPod that would surprise us?

I have lots of Rihanna and Black Eyed Peas. Keith Jarrett and Ella Fitzgerald. I have Spotify and always just scroll through, looking for what’s new. It depends on what I’m playing, but when I play a concert — this raw, direct, in-your-face kind of energy — I play Rihanna before every show. I’m a huge fan, like her voice a lot.

You caused a stir at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011 with the little orange dress you wore onstage; this October, at Orange County’s Segerstrom Concert Hall, you wore a tight red dress and stilettos. Are you trying to shake up the classical music world with fashion?

I’m not trying to shake up the classical world at all. People think that, which is fine; but I just like fashion, I’m a girl, I love shoes and cute dresses. People want to look good onstage and I don’t think there should be a rule to always wear long dresses and be elegant. I think those short dresses fit my body better, so I just wear them.

RELATED: Liberace’s bling a legacy to classical music

You quoted Coco Chanel on your Twitter feed. Who are your fashion icons?

I like Alexander McQueen but I haven’t really worn anything by him. I like Miu Miu, Prada shoes and of course Christian Louboutin and Roberto Cavalli. I love Coco Chanel — not just her dresses, but her whole personality. She’s very daring. Whatever piece you wear is like a piece of music. Pieces of clothing, like people, have their own personalities — and you can only tell when it’s on your body. It’s really a matter of confidence in what I want — and who I am inside — and the [clothing] kind of represents that.

Your playing technique — your speed, agility and strength — has been described as almost Olympian. Where in the world does that come from?

I’m very flexible. My mother is a dancer and she wanted me to be a dancer. Also, I have very skinny fingers. My first teacher actually said, ‘Oh, she shouldn’t play piano. She’s flexible, but no strength.’ I’ve always had speed. But honestly, I think all of this is coming from what I want from the music. If the music demands that kind of sound, I just have to work at it.

You’ve performed all over the world and with some of the best orchestras in existence — and you’re only 26. What’s left, that’s not yet fulfilled for you, in your performing career?

“‘Only 26?’ I feel very old! Well, I’ve never played with the Berlin Philharmonic to be specific. Because my life is very much about performing music, I travel a lot; but I travel because I have concerts. So I don’t [sightsee much] — I want to actually discover the world a little more, there’s so much to see and to learn. Also, I left China when I was 14 and would like to go back to know more about my home country.

Your 2010 recital CD is called “Transformation.” How has international stardom transformed you?

Stardom, it’s just an external, superficial thing. I feel like in life, little things really catch me. Transforming always takes place when I least expect it; it happens unnoticed. You realize after the fact. It’s about being sensitive and aware of my own emotions and being open and receptive to what’s around me.