Though she’d disagree, pianist Joyce Yang would make a terrific next-door neighbor
I’ve interviewed the world-renowned pianist Joyce Yang two times now by phone, and both times I have concluded the conversations with big, silly grins on my face. She just has that kind of energy. Yang comes across as whip-smart, slightly neurotic, hugely talented, self-driven, unselfconsciously funny and quintessentially nice.
In 2011, when I interviewed her in advance of a Fresno Philharmonic concert in which she played Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto, I asked her if she stresses out before a performance. I’ve never forgotten her answer.
“I get incredibly nervous,” she told me. “Somehow I can camouflage this extreme, Adrenalin-driven freak-out into something people see as total relaxation.”
When I catch up with her a few days ago in advance of her Sunday Masterworks concert with the orchestra — she’ll be playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 — I ask if her nerves have calmed down during the interceding years.
“If anything, it’s gotten worse,” she says with a laugh. “I think that never really goes away. Now I have accepted the fact that I get that nervous because I care.”
The Korean-American pianist made her solo debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra the day before her 13th birthday and went on to win a silver medal as the youngest competitor at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. So she’s definitely a concert veteran. And she’s looking forward to performing again in Fresno, where she’s also played several performances with the Philip Lorenz International Keyboard Concerts series.
(The orchestra, conducted by Rei Hotoda, will also perform Strauss’ “Don Juan” and the Brahms Symphony No, 2.)
Here’s a quick recap of our conversation:
The Mozart concerto is an old favorite of hers. Yang learned it in 2008 and has played it several dozen times since. The piece is in C minor, which gives it a certain weight, but it’s also a delicate piece that can feel like an intimate piece of chamber music rather than a full-fledged concerto. “Sometimes it’s almost like we’re improvising,” she says of the pianist and orchestra.
The piece is much admired. Beethoven is reported to have said he never could have come up “with anything like that.” Yang says the concerto defies the expectation that Mozart was stuck on symmetrical, predictable melodies. It’s delicate. “We have to somehow make it sound like it’s a miracle,” she says.
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The cadenza will be a highlight. We don’t have Mozart’s original cadenza (an often improvised passage called for in the score), and Yang has experimented with various offerings over the years. For this concert, she plans to go with an old favorite — a cadenza based on the one played by the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha. Yang listened to it on a recording as a little girl (and thought for a time that Mozart had written it himself), and she’s come up with her own version.
It can be tough to learn a piano concert. Yang schedules two new ones for herself a year. She’s up to about 40 in her repertoire. (And, yes, she gets uptight about the first time she performs it in public. (“You want to make it sound as good as something you’ve performed 50 times.”)
Life as a touring concert pianist continues to be great. One big change in Yang’s life was getting married a few years ago and moving to her husband’s neck of the woods in Birmingham, Alabama, after living for 20 years in New York. Not only does she get to avoid New York’s famously congested airports, she lives on a golf course and — drum roll, please — she can practice to her heart’s content without worrying about bothering the neighbors next door.
I had never thought what it would like to be a pianist in a New York City apartment. Yang says it could be hellish. There were two potential problem kinds of neighbors: the ones who got irritated at all the noise; and the ones who became fans. “If they start loving it, then you know they’re really listening, and that’s a problem, too,” she says. “I was rehearsing, not performing.”
What a difference: Now she can play day or night, jet lagged or not, whenever she wants. “Knowing that no one can hear you practicing, I can’t tell you how good that feels,” she says.