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A Mentorship That Sparks Musical Fireworks

A former American prodigy recognizes himself in a young Chinese pianist


Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report

(This transcript appeared previously on PBS NewsHour.)

Ever since a ban on Western music was lifted in China almost 40 years ago, the country has produced a number of artists for elite music conservatories in the West.

Jeffrey Brown has the story of one such pianist who’s taken the leap from prodigy to international superstar with the help of an American mentor and a former prodigy himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: He is 70, the grandson of Yiddish theater stars, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and a major figure on the classical music scene for five decades. She is 28, a virtuoso from China and a spectacular new presence on the international circuit.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Yuja Wang have been collaborators, as conductor and pianist, for 11 years now.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS, San Francisco Symphony & News World Symphony: This is a little part of a Schubert Rondo, which is subtitled, “Our Friendship is Unchanging.” It’s forever.

(LAUGHTER)

Mentoring takes many forms, including teaching Wang, a young woman constantly traveling the world, how to prepare healthy meals.

— Jeffrey Brown, PBS NewsHour

JEFFREY BROWN: Up close, it’s clearly a relationship based on musicianship and a sense of humor.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: There is an element of excitement and danger to it, because it reminds me sometimes as if you were watching the circus and you’re watching a trapeze act. Somebody is jumping and doing flips in the air, but also somebody is catching the person who is doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And who is who in this case?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: In this case, I’m the catcher.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And you’re the?

YUJA WANG, Pianist: I jump around.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You jump around.

Yuja Wang took her first piano lesson at age 6. Soon after, she was accepted at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. At 14, she left China without her parents to study classical music, first in Calgary and then at the prestigious Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, from which she graduated at age 21.

These days, when not on the road, Wang lives in New York, as addicted as the next twentysomething to her digital devices.

When you put on the headphones, you’re listening to?

YUJA WANG: It really depends on my mood, because, like — today, I feel like Brahms, or today I feel like Eminem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brahms and Eminem, right?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: They go together. Yes. Yes.

Her fiery, youthful style and sheer talent quickly attracted attention in traditional classic music circles and beyond. YouTube videos, like this one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the Medici TV site have gained millions of views.

For his part, Michael Tilson Thomas was himself a classical music prodigy. In Los Angeles, he played piano alongside legends like Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. When he first heard then 17-year-old Yuja Wang play, he recognized some familiar traits.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: There’s that expression, it takes one to know one. And there is that certain thing I spotted in her from the beginning of, ah, right. And it was remarkable, because here was this very young woman playing, and she was listening. She was listening to the harmonies and she was playing in a way that was following and sympathetic, as well as asserting herself.

JEFFREY BROWN: We watched the two rehearse Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number Four with the San Francisco Symphony.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: And then kind of resolving in — does that sort of make sense for you?

YUJA WANG: Yes, but it’s hard to control the sound.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I know. It’s hard playing — playing slow and quiet is the hardest thing, for a thoroughbred like you, anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Hours later, issues resolved, they performed for a packed house in Davies Hall.

YUJA WANG: We played it three years ago, and now we’re playing it again. And I feel like it’s more relaxed and more free. And he caught up on that in the rehearsal like after five pages. It was just so sensitive.

And it just had this really subtle adjustments right away. And he will tell the orchestra, and they change the sounds, the tone, the phrasing. Everything just kind of takes care of itself, because the overall mood and atmosphere is a little different.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mentoring, in this case, takes many forms, including, over the years, teaching Wang, a young woman constantly traveling the world, how to prepare healthy meals.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: We’re going to make croutons. No, no, no, wait. Don’t put them in yet.

YUJA WANG: No? Oh, OK.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: You’re not done with them. Take them out.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But, beyond the salad-making, Tilson Thomas says, there’s the deeper satisfaction to his mentoring role.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: It’s essential for me, the sense of contact with a new brilliant spirit of another generation, with whom I feel so much in common.

JEFFREY BROWN: But why is it essential?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Because it reminds me, too, of the relationship I had with mentors of mine who were 50 years older than I. My major piano teacher was a pupil of a guy called Moriz Rosenthal, who had been a pupil of Liszt, who was a pupil of Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven.

JEFFREY BROWN: With Yuja Wang, along with her musical prowess, her style, very much including clothing, has also gotten plenty of attention, and sometimes raised eyebrows in the tradition-bound world of classical music.

Of an orange mini-dress she wore for a performance at the Hollywood Bowl, The Los Angeles Times wrote — quote — “Had there been any less of the dress, the Bowl might have been forced to restrict admission to any music lover under 18.”

Do you like to make a statement with your clothes, as well as with your music?

YUJA WANG: Well, the clothes go with the music. Like, tonight, it’s Beethoven. It’s something elegant. Tomorrow, I will have something very jarring and blatant for Bartok.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I have certain ideas of where that borderline is of just how daring her fashion sense can be relative to the piece that she’s playing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Tilson Thomas also recognizes an added benefit.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: She’s very appealing to young people, of course, because she is so young, she’s so attractive. Her playing is so brilliant. All the controversy concerning the way she appears, fashion-wise, this is all part of it, and yet there is no one who remotely suggested that anything about her music-making was less than totally serious.

JEFFREY BROWN: Soon after our visit, Michael Tilson Thomas, Yuja Wang, and the San Francisco Symphony took their show on the road for an extended European tour.

After that, Tilson Thomas returns to San Francisco to launch a new season. And Wang continues her peripatetic musical ways with a new album of music by Maurice Ravel out in October.

From San Francisco, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

This story was produced in collaboration with public TV station KQED.

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