Tom Strini

Rachmaninoff, channeled by pianist Joyce Yang

Joyce Yang's relationship with music? It's complicated.

By - Mar 1st, 2013 04:00 am

Joyce Yang. Larry Ford photo courtesy of Joyce Yang’s website.

Joyce Yang has played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Piano Concerto No. 2 and with the Milwaukee Symphony since 2009. This weekend (March 1-3, 2013), Yang will play Rachmaninoff’s rarely aired Piano Concerto No. 1 with music director Edo de Waart and the MSO.

This will be the fourth installment of Yang’s five-season Rachmaninoff cycle with the MSO. (She’ll be back April 25-27, 2014.) I thought it fitting to republish an interview I did with this charming and talented young woman a while back. Here it is, slightly amended to note the passage of time:

“Are you sure you’re not Russian, Joyce?”

She laughed and kidded right back at the start of the interview.

“I’m always surprised to see an Asian girl in the mirror,” she said. “Maybe the old Russian soul in me finds comfort in this music.”

Of course Yang, born 26 years ago in Seoul, South Korea, plays a wide variety of music, and some of us are interested in hearing her take on Mozart, say. But the big, Romantic Russians have been her calling card in Milwaukee, and she has been brilliant with them.

“Pianists’ lives would be very different without Rachmaninoff,” she said. “I’m happy to be doing this cycle, and to be doing it in Milwaukee. It’s great to have the trust of Edo de Waart.”

The relationship began in Hong Kong in 2009. De Waart was then music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic as well as the MSO. That orchestra needed to replace a pianist and summoned Yang, a New Yorker since 1997, to play the extraordinarily difficult Rachmaninoff Third on two months’ notice. The concerto was not in her repertoire at the time.

“That was six weeks of total agony,” she said. “And then flying to Hong Kong and being totally jet-lagged….”

“My management ordered me not to tell Edo that this was my first time playing the Third. The last thing I needed was to freak out my conductor. It didn’t come up until we were just about to go on stage. Edo looked to me and, ‘Oh, you’ve done this before, you’ll be fine.'”

She recreated the stunned and panicked expression she made at the time. Fortunately, she was speechless in Hong Kong.

“After the concert, I admitted to Edo that it was my first time,” Yang said. “He looked at me and said: ‘The first time for what?'”

Yang enjoys a warm relationship with de Waart and appreciates his mentoring. She tends to be obsessive about exploring every conceivable interpretation of just about every phrase of a piece, and she has a hard time deciding among all the possibilities. She said that can sometimes lead to a kind of musical paralysis.

“I over-analyze everything,” Yang said. “If I’m staying in a hotel somewhere, I’ll read 4,000 hotel reviews and then not decide until I get there. I need someone like Edo to say, ‘Stop thinking. Just sing.’ I feel so good about my instincts when I’m playing with Edo. I’m grateful when he says, ‘Joyce, just do it.'”


Rachmaninoff, about age 27. Public domain via Wikipedia Commons.

Yang was a prodigy and gave many public performances as a child in Korea. She moved to New York at 15, to study in the Juilliard pre-college program and soon after became a star in Juilliard proper and the a Juilliard grad. Yang was the youngest competitor in the 2005 Van Cliburn Competition, where she won the silver medal. Her career took off after that, and she is already a fixture with major orchestras on the international circuit.

Yang is charming and funny, especially about her own insecurities. She is still coming to terms with a relatively new distrust of the intuition that made playing the piano a joy in her childhood.

“It was easier when I was 12,” she said. “Until the Cliburn, I was a happy camper. It was pure instinct and I trusted it, it was about the moment. After the Cliburn, just enjoying it was not good enough. People started asking me what I wanted to say through my music.”

Uh-oh. She didn’t know. That’s when the over-analyzing began. Many artists go through such a phase; it’s a healthy one. Eventually, all that analysis, thoroughly absorbed, transmutes into a higher form of instinct. Joyce Yang will be just fine.

“Can I say what kind of player I want to be?”

Of course.

She rambled and probed, trying to find just the right words. She invoked Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and architecture. To paraphrase:

I want my playing to be like a 1,000-page novel in which every word just has to be there, or like a beautiful building in which every brick has to be exactly where it is.

Tell the story, sketch the bold outline. The words, the bricks and the notes will fall into place.

Yang’s latest all-Rachmaninoff MSO program includes two rarities, the youthful First Piano Concerto – premiered just before Rachmaninoff’s 19th birthday – and The Rock, a 15-minute tone poem also from his younger days. The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus will join music director Edo de Waart in The Bells, a choral symphony on the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

(For more on these rare and fascinating pieces, go to Roger Ruggeri’s excellent program notes.)

Soprano Twyla Robinson, superb in previous visits, and baritone Hugh Russell, excellent in Carmina Burana 13 months ago, will be the soloists, along with newcomer Richard Croft, tenor. (Russell replaces Grigory Soloviov, a last-minute cancellation.)  8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (March 1-3) in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. For tickets, visit the MSO’s website, call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605, or the Marcus box office, 414-273-7206.

0 thoughts on “MSO: Rachmaninoff, channeled by pianist Joyce Yang”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Joyce Yang is also giving a short masterclass to Wisconsin Conservatory students on Saturday morning (11 AM). I love her playing, and will be really interested to hear her class!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Nice article, Tom. Sounds like a young woman on top of her game.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I admire Joyce Yang’s art and I like her very much as a person.

  4. Anonymous says:

    that would seem a bit risky launching Rach 3 as described, although it has a comforting regularity about its rhythm and tempo which might helped serve it up with less danger than expected.

    We really need a little blue pamphlet of Edo jokes.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “This will complete Yang’s years-long Rachmaninoff cycle with the MSO.”

    Doesn’t it continue next season” She’s playing the 4th in April 2014.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jeff, you’re right, one more year for Joyce and Rachmaninoff. I amended the story to note the 2014 appearance — which is at the end of April 2014. — Strini

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