The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: NPR plays musical anthropologist and goes into the field to bring back a live recording of glam pianist Yuja Wang playing Prokofiev at the Steinway Factory in New York City.

February 22, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has to hand it to NPR’s terrific classical music blog “Deceptive Cadence” and to NPR’s “All Songs Considered.”

For quite some time now, NPR has featured “Tiny Desk Concerts” — classical, jazz, folk, roots music — during which major performers play live in the crowded NPR studio. They are easy to link to and stream over your computer or maybe even your TV set these days. (NPR books great guests, including, below bottom, superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.)

Tiny Desk Concert set at NPR

Yo-Yo Ma and Tiny Desk Concert

You can also find NPR links to and archives of other live performances -– often through radios stations such as WQXR-FM in New York City and WGBH in Boston –- and include a recital of live music in major halls and venues, including one of Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Debussy and Frederic Chopin by the acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at Carnegie Hall (below). And there are many, many others.


And now Deceptive Cadence seems to be acting like musical anthropologist. The time they went out “into the field” – that is, not in the usual venues and concert halls.

That’s not unheard of, of course. That is how the great composer Bela Bartok (below) started out as a musical anthropologist or ethnologist of Hungarian and Romanian folk music, and then used his research to morph into one of the pioneers of musical modernism. Chopin used Polish music like the mazurka to create a new Romanticism. And in American folk music, the musical anthropology of Alan Lomax is legendary.


Specifically, NPR went to the piano factory of Steinway and Sons in New York City and recorded the red-hot glam pianist Yuja Wang playing the fiercely difficult Toccata in D Minor, Op. 11, with all its hypnotic repetition of a single note, by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev on a brand new Steinway concert grand. (You can see and hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom. Don’t forget to click on the icon that is second from the right to enlarge the video image to fill your computer screen.)

The music and the physical virtuosity or dexterity is amazing to behold.

It is also kind of cute and informal to watch the diminutive figure of the glamorous Wang playing difficult cert music in a cold, wood-strewn and equipment-strewn warehouse in fingerless wool hobo gloves that go up her forearm –- but only after she uses the reflective fallboard above the keys to put on glossy lipstick and so complete her outfit of black fur-like boa, black stiletto heels and geometrically high fashion black-and-white dress.


Ah! Those tribal ceremonies and native attire!

Anyway, here is a link to the performance by Yuja Wang at the Steinway and Sons factory in the borough of Queens, not the usual Steinway showroom in Manhattan where most pianists test and choose pianos for their performances.

The Tiny Desk Concerts archive has lots of kinds of live performances.

For example, here is the famed Kronos Quartet (below) doing a recent Tiny Desk Concert featuring its latest recordings. Many other such concerts by other artists have been archived and are readily accessible:


And here is a link to the archive, with links to other older archives, of music Live in Performance housed at NPR. It includes chamber music, orchestral music (below is the Mideast peace-promoting Palestinian-Israeli West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under co-founder and director Daniel Barenboim in Carnegie Hall), operas and recitals:

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Carnegie Hall

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Classical music: Sexy phenom pianist Yuja Wang sees Rachmaninoff rooted in improvisation and compares him to jazz giant Art Tatum. Hear her talk – and play — on NPR. Also, Marvin Rabin, founder of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, has died at 97.

December 7, 2013

NEWS ALERT: Marvin Rabin (below, at an award dinner in 2011),  the man who founded and directed the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra back in the 1960s, after a similar history in Louisville and Boston, died at 97 (NOT 95, as I erroneously first stated) on Thursday night. He was a giant in the field of music education, and had a national and international reputation. Look for a longer blog posting tomorrow, on Sunday. He was an amazingly talented, devoted and humane person who affected tens of thousands of lives for the better.

Rabin portrait USE

By Jacob Stockinger

Was that refreshing or what?

Maybe it even shows that there is more of an NPR audience for classical music than for some of the hip-hop and Latin stuff they cover to attract younger audiences. One can always hope.

Twenty-six years old and already a superstar, piano phenom Yuja Wang proved playful and articulate as she promoted her new recording (below) for Deutsche Grammophon. It features Sergei Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, both with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under its superstar former conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who now is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. (The Madame Butterfly eye lashes on the CD’s cover are a bit much, no? It’s guilding the lotus, The Ear would say. Wang is attractive and sexy enough just as she is.)

Yuja Wang Rach 3 CD coverGD

Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel make a great team, as you can hear in the excerpts in the YouTube video at the bottom. And watch how, since she is wearing s strapless dress, you can see how her shoulder and chest muscles get that big sound from a small woman.)

Relaxed and freewheeling, Wang herself proved a great improviser in an interview with NPR’s “Morning Edition” co-host Steve Inskeep as she deconstructed and eve performed parts of the “Rach 3” (below, in the NPR studio in a photo by Diane DeBelius).

yuja wang at npr Denise DeBelius NPR

Wang also emphasized the improvisational qualities of the music and compared Rachmaninoff (below top), one favorite of Vladimir Horowitz (below middle), to the blind jazz giant Art Tatum (below bottom), another favorite of Horowitz. I myself think it is very controlled improvisation, much like the music of Frederic Chopin.


Vladimir Horowitz

art tatum

You may recall that the work in question is the titanic, knuckle-busting and wrist-taxing Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor that ruined pianist David Helfgott’s sanity or at least triggered his nervous breakdown in the 1996 Australian film “Shine.”

Be sure to listen to Wang’s expressive voice and to read the Readers’ Comments. There are quite a few – and just about all positive.

Many of them see Yuja Wang as a new Vladimir Horowitz — an obvious comparison reinforced by both the way she plays and the repertoire she plays. (Why not see her as the new Martha Argerich — whom Horowitz himself said had learned much from him.)

But the readers also clearly encourage NRP to do more stories along these lines.

And guess what?

There was no talk about her attractive looks and the sexy micro-skirts and black gown with heels and thigh-slits (below) that have sparked such controversy when she played in them at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall, respectively.

yuja wang dress times 3

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Ruby Washington NYTimes

Classical music: Pianist Yuja Wang’s controversial and sexy micro-skirts are all part of her musical performance, says New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe in his rave review of Wang’s Carnegie Hall recital last week.

May 21, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear recently wondered about the relative silence and quiet of the young pianist Yuja Wang.

No more.

Wang has own more than her fair share of rave reviews and Grammy nominations for her intense and virtuosic playing. But she has also sparked controversies with her sexy and minimalist fashion that some people deem inappropriate concert attire that distracts from the music-making.

Witness Wang’s performances in the Hollywood Bowl of Rachmaninoff’s man-eating Piano Concerto No. 3. Here are photos and also a link to another post I did about Wang — you can find many more about Yuja Wang by using the search engine on The Ear blog site –that drew a lot of responses and comments from readers:’s-concert-skirt-too-short-what-is-inappropriate-concert-attire-for-a-performer-male-or-female/

yuja wang dress times 3

But last week New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe (below op) found Wang’s controversial attire to go beyond marketing and hype to be an integral part of the effect of her terrific recital — a true “performance,” Woolfe says, in part precisely because of her short skirt and spiky heels attire . It was in Carnegie Hall (below bottom in a photo by Ian Douglas for The New York Times) and featured  big and sexy post-Romantic works by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ravel, plus Chopin and other composers including Lowell Liebermann. (At bottom is a YouTube video of some shorter Scriabin works that Wang performed in Santa Fe.)

zachary woolfe ny times critic

Yuja Wang Ian Douglas NYT May 2013

Here is a link to Woolfe’s review:

The Ear also thinks that Yuja Wang’s taste in fashion not only helps her with PR and promotion or publicity, but also serves as a mirror of or natural accompaniment to her high-powered way of playing. She surely is a major pianist for a new century. (Below is another photo, by Ruby Washington of The New York Times, of Wang wearing a long black gown with a thigh-high slit for her Carnegie Hall debut, which also won a rave review from the Times’ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini.

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Ruby Washington NYTimes

What do you think of Woolfe’s point, his linking the fashion and the music? Are you convinced?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music review: Phenom pianist Yuja Wang plays as sexy as she looks, but her new “Fantasia” CD is more nightmare than dream, and a waste of a major keyboard talent.

April 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of pianist Yuja Wang (below). I like her and I like the way she plays – not just the alluring or controversial way she dresses.

No wonder, I say, that at 25  she is in constant demand on the concert circuit and has already been nominated for two Grammys out of the first three CDs she did for Deutsche Grammophon. She is the Real Deal. Just use this blog’s search engine to check out interviews and other posts about her.

Now comes her fourth CD, “Fantasia,” which was released last week.

Just looking at the promising title of this concept album gave me fantasies.

Well, I thought, now we will get to hear Wang is some really great repertoire: maybe a fantasy by Mozart; maybe Schumann’s great Fantasy in C Major or his fabulous “Fantasy Pieces”; maybe one of Beethoven’s two Fantasy Sonatas, Op. 27, including the ‘Moonlight”; maybe Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy; maybe Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor or Polonaise-Fantasy; maybe Brahms’ set of Op. 116 Fantasies.

But no.

This really is about Fantasia, not fantasy. There is little great music on this CD, which is why I am so disappointed. It is made up of largely encore-like pieces.

True, a very few are terrific works, like Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” and the Sgambati transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

But, really, who needs a piano transcription of the Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? It only makes this CD’s title more reminiscent of the Walt Disney cartoon movie “Fantasia” than of the mystical and expansive genre that evolved out of the more formally structured sonata.

Wang plays as sexy as she looks. Her wondrous keyboard skills are evident in abundance. In her four Rachmaninoff pieces (three Etudes Tableaux and an Elegie), she goes go from calm and quiet to thunderously loud in practically no time.

Her single Scarlatti Sonata in G Major, K. 455, shows a wonderful sense of articulation, line and clarity, despite its fast tempo.

And the five early Chopin-like Scriabin preludes and poem, which she used to open her Carnegie Hall debut, show a masterly fluidness and lyricism as well as a refreshing transparency.

Every aspect of her astounding virtuoso technique is in evidence, as is her musicianship.

But why do we get the Bizet-Horowitz “Carmen” Variations, Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” a la Horowitz and a transcription of Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch” Polka? But do we really need another Horowitz (bel0w)?

Junk food and empty calories may be fun. But they are a terrible thing on which to waste such a major new talent. And this kind of repertoire just plays into the perception of Wang as a beautiful and well-dressed light-weight,more glitz and glamor than substance — which is NOT the case.

This is definitely NOT a CD The Ear will want to put on and listen through, though I occasionally might want to hear a piece or two at a time.

So I am still waiting for the concept album that her consummate skills – and her fans – deserve. I say Let Yuja be Yuja.

In short, The Ear gives this CD an A-plus for pianism and a D-minus for music.

Let’s hope the DG guys in Artists and Repertoire department let Wang do something more substantial in her next outing, though my bets are on the Prokofiev Third Concerto – coupled to a Prokofiev Sonata – which she recently performed and which is perfectly suited to her, as recent reviews proved again:

We’ll see what lies in the future.

In the meantime, stick to her first three CDs – etudes and themes and variations by Ligeti and Brahms plus big sonatas by Chopin and Liszt and concertos by Rachmaninoff — and you won’t go wrong.

What do you think of Yuja Wang and her other recordings?

What do you think of this latest recording?

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: Phenom pianist and fashion plate Yuja Wang opens up to The New York Times about her artistic goals and her personal lifestyle.

April 14, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

I will admit it: I am a big fan of Yuja Wang (below).

I find her playing assured and her stupendously fluid technique superb (see the bottom). I like her buoyant and infectious self-confidence. And I find her visual presence quite lovely and spicy, even edgy with the exactly the right kind of youthful energy that classical music needs right now to revitalize itself to a largely visual generation.

So I was particularly pleased to read a long profile written by Vivien Schweitzer of The New York Times.

In it, Wang explains a lot about her background and development as a pianist and as a public figure. It is hard to believe, for example, that a young performing artist with such charisma often finds herself lonely. But she admits that with the same openness that shows in her playing and in her stage presence.

Most of all, I enjoyed how unapologetic Wang is about her career and her treatment in the press, which has not always been kind or generous, especially about her sexy, provocative or even controversial manner of dressing for a concert, whether it is an orange micro-skirt or black gown with a thigh-high slit:

I also liked her relaxed attitude towards her own career – that is, she will enjoy it while she can and not worry about the future!

So I offer this to lots of others fans in the hope that also like it, and to those who aren’t fans in the hope that they might be persuaded.

Time and history, of course, will have the final say. But it seems to The Ear that we are in the presence of a major pianistic talent when we listen to Wang. Sure, she needs time to mature as a musician – and she admits as much is discussing the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. But she has already come a long way and she probably has a lot of time for the maturing part.

But read this profile, listen to her recordings and decide for yourselves.

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