Yuja Wang
Yuja Wang | Credit: Norbert Kniat

History tells us that when Hungarian composer/pianist Franz Liszt performed, there was an intense fan frenzy surrounding his appearances, a phenomenon that the German poet, writer, and literary critic Heinrich Heine described as “Lisztomania,” or Liszt fever. The same could be said of the acclaimed Beijing-born pianist Yuja Wang, whose red-hot career has garnered critical superlatives and wild audience ovations since she burst onto the scene in 2007, replacing Martha Argerich as soloist with the Boston Symphony.

On Jan. 27–29, Yuja will play Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony. Having made her debut with that orchestra in 2006 — and becoming a Shenson Young Artist later that year — the pianist has since been celebrated for her charismatic artistry, emotional honesty, and captivating stage presence. Turning 35 next month, Yuja has seemingly racked up more accolades than she has Instagram followers, some 210,000.

Seriously, the child prodigy who was born into a musical family and moved to Calgary, Canada, to receive advanced training when she was 14 before studying at the Curtis Institute of Music under Gary Graffman has continued to draw raves in the classical world. Of a 2018 recital at the Barbican, the Financial Times’ Harriet Smith wrote, “Her combination of technical ease, coloristic range, and sheer power has always been remarkable, as has the sense that she is entirely at one with the instrument, but these days there is an ever-greater depth to her musicianship, drawing you into the world of each composer with compelling immediacy.”

Yuja, who was named Musical America’s Artist of the Year in 2017, has also been a featured soloist with some of North America’s leading orchestras, including The Philadelphia Orchestra with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. Indeed, the pianist received an Opus Klassik Award for her world-premiere recording of John Adams’s Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? with the LA Phil and Dudamel last year.

In a wide-ranging phone conversation from her home in New York, Yuja discussed, among other topics, her attraction to Liszt, playing concerts versus recitals, and, yes, her sartorial choices, which embrace vertiginous stilettos and performance attire that ranges from striking micro-mini dresses to slit-up-the-side, thigh-exposing sequined numbers, her energy alternating between giddy and serious.

This seems to be the year of Liszt for you, with performances of his first piano concerto upcoming in San Francisco, New York, Munich, and Hamburg. The work debuted in 1885 with Liszt at the keyboard. What draws you to the composer and have you seen Ken Russell’s 1975 film, Lisztomania?

I did see the film and I also saw [Russell’s] Mahler, which I did like better. The Liszt film, I thought, “Oh, my God, how can you cheapen Liszt like that?” My first album [on Deutsche Grammophon in 2009] was Liszt sonatas and etudes. There’s that soul-searching quality, especially in his later works. This concerto is startling and I don’t really have anything to say about it, except I keep fighting with presenters — “Can I please change it, especially with a program [in San Francisco] that has Mahler on the second half.”

Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall
Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall in 2020 | Photo: Chris Lee

The concerto is on the shorter end [20 minutes], and it’s sparkling and quiet, with lyrical and recitativo moments. There’s a little color and drama, and, of course, everyone knows about the triangle, which is why I just premiered my friend Teddy Abrams’s new piece with the Louisville Orchestra [Abrams is also that organization’s music director]. It’s 38 minutes and it’s over the top jazzy and romantic. You either go to that extreme or go light and sparkling after this whole year.

And what a year — nearly two, actually — it’s been, COVID-wise. How does it feel getting back to live performing again? In October, you opened Carnegie Hall, which had been closed for 572 days, and in November, as part of a North American tour with violinist Leonidas Kavakos, you played Walt Disney Concert Hall. And as an aside, you’ll be back in Disney Hall on April 6 performing a solo recital.

It’s been scattering. For example, last week I didn’t go to Calgary, because some things are happening, some things are not. It’s always like this last-minute unsureness: Am I supposed to prepare this; should I go 100 percent improvised? After the Leonidas tour — that was a tough program, by the way — I was supposed to be in Europe for the whole month, but everything cancelled. I was home and then I was in Louisville and now it’s San Francisco with MTT. It makes everything more personal.

Speaking of personal, you’ve said that Tilson Thomas is one of your dearest friends and most influential mentors. Can you elaborate?

What a great human being. He’s what I call either the Buddhist or Zen or Socrates of our age. He is one, Yo-Yo [Ma] is one. Humanity is more important, although they’re both extremely creative and original. The first time I played with MTT was when I was 17. That was half of my life ago. And we’ve been through a lot. We had all these tours and [when] we talk on the phone he’s unbelievably encouraging and you can be as open and vulnerable as you want. He’s not there to judge, he’s just there to support and help.

How lucky to have someone like him in one’s life. He’s amazing. I’ll be elaborate in saying something and he’ll summarize things in one phrase. It’s simpler, but also there’s so much meaning and wisdom. When he won the Kennedy Center Honors [in 2019], as a surprise, I played one of his pieces that he wrote for me called, You Come Here Often?

Yuja Wang and Michael Tilson Thomas at the piano
Yuja Wang and Michael Tilson Thomas at the piano | Credit: KQED Arts

Okay, time for the wardrobe question, which has been on critics’ lips since you first performed in that “little orange dress” in 2011 for your Hollywood Bowl debut. What do you say to those who can’t stop writing about your garb, shockingly high stilettos included, although The New York TimesAnthony Tommasini seemed to sum it up best when he ended his 2011 review of your first Carnegie Hall recital with this: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it. What matters is that Ms. Wang has got it as a pianist.”

It’s weird. I’ve just really been kind of wearing pajamas at home for two years and for me dress is such a different kind of question. The hardest part now is, “What do I put in a suitcase?” Because back then [before COVID], it was more automatic, I was so much more efficient and once you’re on that road, on that drive — but it’s been stopped for so long — it’s really hard to choose.

In terms of shoes, I definitely love Louboutin because of the red [soles]. They’re very high and very skinny and I think that’s extremely hot. I also have very small feet and Louboutin makes size 34.

What — no Manolo Blahniks?

They’re not high enough! I’m so used to yoga pants and sneakers that I develop a different persona. I got this question the other day: “What are you going to do when you’re 35 and when you’re not hot anymore?” I said, “Define hot.”

[Regarding the critics], I think they should have a life. They should start using their ears in understanding. I think most of them are male, but if it’s not anything nice to say [about my wardrobe], you better not say anything, that’s what I’m thinking.

Yuja Wang with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Yuja Wang with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra | Credit: Geoffroy Schied

Amen! Now back to the music: What kinds of adjustments do you make working with so many different conductors — if any?

Wow. See, again, for two years I didn’t really play so much. But I like working with a very exclusive few — MTT, Gustavo, Andris Nelsons, Esa-Pekka [Salonen] which is coming up in Vienna. I kind of know their styles. I think I already started with [the late Claudio] Abbado. He never really said much. With him, everything happens in concerts, which is totally opposite of Michael, where everything happens in rehearsals. He explains with words a lot. That’s the most obvious to me, but the rest is, “Let’s see what happens in the concert.”

Which brings me to this point. How do you decide which works you’ll tour with and do you have a preference — recitals or working with an orchestra?

I did want to do Liszt and then the pandemic happened, and am now not so sure. No! What I like about recitals is [that] I’m kind of the boss of everything, even though I remember the last recital I was trying out new things by changing the order and the audience [flipped out]. I don’t know why. A concerto is the collective power of making music together. It makes you embrace [it] and there’s just much more joy when things are happening. I was listening to a Sibelius symphony yesterday and you’re aware of something larger than life. It gives you energy — it makes everything in perspective.

What is your practice regimen like?

I haven’t practiced for a year. I want someone else to tell me how to practice. I’m not very big on practice because I always have procrastinated. For the last 20 years I have learned how to prepare myself before a concert, so when concerts were done [because of COVID], I had no idea what to do. I had no motivation. Why would I practice? I’d rather cook or read, or watch a movie. MTT taught me how to cook a chicken. Cooking is very relaxing, but I cook for eating. 

Yuja Wang
Yuja Wang​​​​

What music would you like to play that you haven’t yet and who would you like to work with that you haven’t?

There are so many. I think [Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper] Kendrick Lamar is amazing. I love his stuff. Even Cardi B. If they can rap like that, that’s something I cannot do.

But as part of the Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall in 2019, you performed with the comedy duo, Igudesman & Joo, where you did yoga, sang, danced and rapped, even prompting The New York Times critic Joshua Barone to ask, “What can’t Yuja Wang do?”

 I did rap, but it was in Chinese. You never knew what I said. It was two lines and that was very much rehearsed. What I can’t do is fly — I would love to fly a plane.

And I’d love to be on that ride.

That’s a huge risk. I don’t even drive a car!

On another note, your Twitter handle says: “Musician living life with curiosity & passion.” What are you curious and passionate about these days?

How to get back to normal. I’m curious what’s going to happen. I mean, I’m not trying to sound too serious, but it’s going through everyone’s mind — it’s there unconsciously. Now when I leave my home I think: “Am I going to do exactly the same thing as before the pandemic? Are we just going back to that or is something going to be different or is it better before?”

I really miss so many things that I had. Now it’s still not exactly the same when I go back to play onstage. And it’s a big thing for performers, because we need to practice to be onstage, having experienced that myself. Again, am I going to come out and everything starts over again — like when I was 14, but except I’m older? There’s lots of questions. Who am I? What am I going to do? What am I going to do in the next 10 years? And how do I get there? What other projects will there be? I think there’s more connections with people, because I didn’t have that for the last two years. The short answer is that I’m curious about people, about humanity.