Yuja Wang, the Chinese-born piano virtuoso, turned 30 last Friday, but she’s already spent half of her life as one of classical music’s most celebrated young musicians.
Tackling some of the most demanding works in the canon, particularly Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 29” (the “Hammerklavier”), her fluid and preternaturally mature performances inspire critics to rapturous superlatives. Meanwhile, Wang continues to expand her repertoire and her audience, which has multiplied exponentially via Youtube.
She alights in town for an unprecedented two-day engagement with the Santa Cruz Symphony Orchestra, performing Saturday night at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium and Sunday afternoon at Watsonville’s Henry J. Mello Center. The program features Brahms’ emotionally expansive “Piano Concerto No. 2” and Prokofiev’s boisterously magisterial “Piano Concerto No. 5,” which she recorded with the Venezuelan Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
“The fact we’re able to showcase the very final piano concertos of two famously pianistic composers is so exciting,” says Daniel Patrick Stewart, the symphony’s music director and conductor. “This would be an event with any of the world’s great venues or symphonies.”
Indeed, Wang is usually heard in the company of legendary orchestras like the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic. She comes to Santa Cruz to join forces with Stewart, a friend from their student days at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Since taking over the symphony’s reins four years ago, he’s brought in a number of world class artists, but Wang “is the most high-profile concert in our history,” Stewart says. “She simply doesn’t play with regional orchestras. In the classical world, it’s the equivalent of Beyoncé or Taylor Swift playing a small club.”
Born in Beijing to parents immersed in the performing arts—her mother is a dancer and her father a percussionist—Wang demonstrated extraordinary keyboard facility as a child. Only 15 when she enrolled at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she spent five years under the tutelage of storied pianist and teacher Gary Graffman.
She’s earned numerous awards and distinctions, and Wang seems to embrace the drama of her genius. In a Hollywood-worthy breakthrough, she gained international attention in March 2007 as a last-minute replacement for the brilliant and famously temperamental Martha Argerich. Stepping in, Wang performed Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” and before long had signed a recording contract with classical music powerhouse Deutsche Grammophon.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18 at Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19 at Henry J. Mello Center, $27-$75, santacruztickets.com.