On Music

Spare us the skintight sonata

If Yuja Wang were to strip everything right down to the music, she could be a sensation

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Onto a stage bounds a young woman in a backless gown slit up to the hip, or a micro-dress cut an inch below the butt. That’s right, I’ve turned into a fashion critic. And the moment these words appear I shall come under a social-media onslaught for committing the unforgivable male offence of reporting what a female artist wears, instead of how she plays.

My defence is that Yuja Wang does everything possible to draw attention to her appearance. She habitually changes costume in a concert interval to show more leg and she feeds the internet with a stream of selfies in halter tops and skimpy shorts.

I would not be wasting space on Yuja Wang if she was not an outstanding pianist

Tap “Yuja Wang” into your phone and you’ll get the full flaunty. Yet, under present rules of permitted speech, it is not supposed to affect our judgement of who she is and what she does. Well, let’s breach that taboo and see what happens.

First things first. I would not be wasting space on Yuja Wang if she was not an outstanding pianist, breathtaking in late-modern and post-modern music. She plays Prokofiev with a verve envied by Russians and Ligeti with a wit that eludes Hungarians.

In the post-Covid return to normal, she is a top draw at top venues. At Carnegie Hall’s reopening gala, it was Yuja Wang who got the star spot, not Lang Lang. That is how fast she has risen. Deutsche Grammophon, the premium record label, jumps to her bidding. If she wanted to play Stockhausen on a spinet, it would sell out within hours. She can do as she pleases. Why, then, does she use bare cheek to distract from the music?

The speed of her ascent may have something to do with it. Raised by party-member parents in Beijing, she went to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at nine years old and to Canada at fourteen to learn English. The venerable Gary Graffman at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute took her on as his protégée, as he had done once before with Lang Lang, though the pair could not be more dissimilar. Where Lang Lang was a born showman, Yuja Wang just wanted to get on stage, play fast and get off. Her discovery of skintight gear, made by the Canadian designer Rosemarie Umetsu (who also tailors for Lang Lang) may have given her the confidence to hang around for flashlights and encores.

She got her first break in March 2007 when Martha Argerich flunked out of a Tchaikovsky concerto in Boston and her second two years later when Claudio Abbado fell out with a famous soloist at the plutocratic Lucerne Festival and called for a pliant replacement. By her mid-20s, Yuja Wang was an elite artist in a confusing milieu.

Flitting from one agent to the next, flying from business hotel to branded festival, she had neither time nor guidance to acquire perspective. Like a summer night’s cat in five-inch Louboutin heels, Yuja Wang struts the classical scene as a precarious loner. Asked who her friends are, she could only come up with the nonagenarian Graffman.

To journalists who inquire about her outfits she says, “that’s what young people wear”. She’s not good at interviews, appearing easily bored or extremely naïve — which may be a diversionary tactic, a means to conceal whoever the real Yuja Wang might be.

“If the music is beautiful and sensual, why not dress to fit?” she teased Fiona Maddocks of the Observer. “It’s about power and persuasion. Perhaps it’s a little sadomasochistic of me. But if I’m going to get naked with my music, I may as well be comfortable while I’m at it.” The Freudian writer, Janet Malcolm, who met her several times over a year for a New Yorker profile, noted a tendency to depression.

Musical discussion quickly degenerates into “philosophical bullshit” (her term). Composers are packed off in clichés. Prokofiev is “a naughty boy”. “I’ve scrapped Schubert.” Mozart “is like a party animal”. Some find her irreverence cute though it cuts no ice with her own generation and fails to draw them in droves to her concerts. Older heads find her soundbites irritating.

If that is all there is to Yuja Wang, she won’t be around for long. She is 34 and there’s a sell-by date to consider. Workouts and makeovers can offer an extension but not past 40. She needs to find a new dimension, evidence of a soul that transcends her physicality. She attempted a Mozart concerto this summer, all the notes skittering at speed and not a trace of depth.

The music business treats her as tinsel

What she needs is time and space — time with Bach, Beethoven, Debussy perhaps and, yes, scrapheap Schubert — the late sonatas that offer so much more than instant audience gratification. As for space, a sabbatical would be in order.

Yuja Wang stands right now at a crossroads. Conductors — Gustavo Dudamel, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Charles Dutoit — use her as musical arm-candy. The music business treats her as tinsel. She cannot afford another change of management. What she needs is a comprehensive change of wardrobe.

Imagine this: Yuja Wang walks onto the Carnegie Hall stage in a Mitsuko Uchida castoff gown that covers her shoulders and in shoes that cost less than a working man’s wage. There is a gasp from the crowd, a shock of renewal. A last-minute programme change inserts three mid-period Beethoven sonatas, sugar-free. There are no encores, and no critic gets an easy laugh by writing that the Emperor Concerto has no clothes.

If Yuja Wang were to strip everything right down to the music, I have a feeling she could be a sensation.

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