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Joyce Yang: Young, Restless, and Being Heard

July 5, 2010

In some ways, pianist Joyce Yang is merely getting started. She graduated from the Julliard School in May, and is still only age 23. When you look at her accomplishments to date, though, you’ll find that hard to believe. For one thing, she became the Silver Medalist in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Competition, at the tender age of 19, and also received both the Steven De Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music with the Takács Quartet and the Beverley Taylor Smith Award. In addition, she’s the recipient of the 2010 Arthur Rubinstein Prize from the Juilliard School, received an award in memory of the legendary pianist Samuel Sanders, and is an Avery Fischer Career Grantee. She’s performed around the world, making a name for herself with her interpretations, her innovative approach, and her striking collaborative efforts. San Francisco audiences will be able to hear this talented pianist, called “the most gifted young pianist of her generation,” later this month when she performs with the San Francisco Symphony on July 23.


You’ll be performing in San Francisco with the Symphony. Have you been here before?

No, I’ve never played in San Francisco, only in Berkeley and Walnut Creek. It’s my first time playing with the San Francisco Symphony.

Do you have plans, other than playing, for while you’re here?

I’m looking forward to it. I have friends who live there: one in the orchestra and another who grew up there. I’m staying an extra day before I go to Aspen.

Listen to the Music

What do you like best about performing the Rachmaninov Concerto (for piano, No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30)?

I not only have to be a soloist, but also have to work with the whole. It’s like having about 18 things going on at once. The concerto not only is fantastic for melody, but it allows you to have a conversation with the orchestra. You’re leading, but also following. The interweaving process is amazing. There are all these inner voices that make the melody happen. It’s not only spontaneous, but there is so much tension and release that each performance really varies. There’s so much room to have that extra breath, and so many options with Rachmaninov. The other Russian composers are more compact, with not as much freedom.

I never know exactly what will happen until I meet the conductor and orchestra. It then morphs into a different realm.

Where are some of your favorite places to perform?

I enjoyed playing at the Kennedy Center the times I played with the National Symphony Orchestra. Their sound meshes well with mine. My interpretation and sound is more color-based and more liquid than solid, and melds better with orchestras that are less thin, more liquid. Disney Hall [in Los Angeles] is incredible. It’s a great hall, if you know exactly what you are doing. It’s very intimate, with great acoustics. You don’t have to think about being heard, which can be a problem for me. I don’t have 200 pounds of vertical power. I can really whisper.

You began piano at age 4, when your aunt, who also became your teacher, gave you a piano as a gift. What made you fall in love with playing the piano?

My aunt really knew how to get me excited about the instrument. It was a massive, incredibly special toy. I didn’t get to play unless I had done chores, like clean my room. It was a prized possession. I also have a whole line of relatives who gave me lots of support: “Look what you did! That was great!”

I spent a lot of time with my aunt, as my parents were both professors, but there was no pressure to become a pianist. There are no horror stories. It’s more like, “Really, we have a musician in the family?”

My aunt was great with kids. And then, when I was about age 8 or 9, there was one special moment. I was playing Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto for the first time, and for about five minutes I was in complete bliss. I was by myself, doing it over and over in complete ecstasy, excited about what I heard rather than just pressing keys.

The first time I cried in a concert hall was at age 14. It was during Tchaikovsky’s Fifth [Symphony], and I was weeping for half of it. It gave life to something, something that connected with me for the first time.

I hoped to do that for someone else, and it did happen. I was playing Tchaikovsky’s first movement (from Piano Concerto No. 1) for about 1,000 third graders in Forth Worth. Every time I took my hands off the keys, the kids would howl, especially the boys. A girl came up to me afterwards, weeping. She said, “I have no idea why I’m crying.” I knew I had reached her.

What prompted your move to the United States?

At age 9, I went to New York on vacation with my mom and aunt and auditioned for Yoheved Kaplinsky at the Juilliard School. Two years later, Mom and I came back to New York for her one-year sabbatical. She was teaching, and I went to the Saturday school at Juilliard. Within a year, I started to have concerts. I met my manager when I was 12, when I was about to go back to Korea. I had thought this was temporary.

Was it hard or easy to make the transition?

It was difficult just for a few weeks; I even took the wrong bus once. But I started to talk on the phone after three weeks and sort of adapted. I was in the fifth grade and still OK to make the transition. I only had one teacher, and was in the same class. Not like high school.

Then you stayed. And, at age 19, you entered the 12th Van Cliburn International Competition in 2005, where you were the youngest competitor. What was that whole process like?

It was 10 months of intense preparation to get into the competition, and that was worth it. I had never practiced like that before. I needed five hours of repertoire, which was everything I could play! I was comfortable with chamber music, but the recital setting was foreign to me.

I wasn’t so nervous in the beginning, until I heard other people playing. I was 33 [in playing order] out of 35 in the first round, and my heart sank as I listened to other competitors. I was mortified. When I was playing, I kept thinking, “That was terrible, that was terrible, I messed up there, I almost had a memory miss, this is not good.” Then, when they said I was going on to the next round, I was, like, “Me?”

And people started asking me “What is it that makes your playing so exceptional?” and I realized that what I was doing was making people happy. I had a voice I could believe in. The biggest challenge was to define my playing, and to go with my instincts.

I was completely surprised when I got the silver medal. I had no idea why I got so much attention. If I had gotten the gold, I probably would have had a heart attack. Although the $5,000 Neiman Marcus gift certificate that goes with the gold medal would have been nice.

Winning the silver medal also forced me to define myself quickly, and honestly, on stage. I feel a lot more honest about my playing.

You’re also featured in the documentary In the Heart of the Music, which is about the Van Cliburn Competition. With all the pressure of the Competition, what was it like to have the presence of people filming at the same time?

Even before I began playing, people were following me around because I was the youngest contestant. That was pressure — when you’re stressed, and people ask you why you’re stressed, and it seems obvious. The film crew went everywhere with me; they even came into the bathroom with me to film me putting on makeup, getting dressed, to catch all the intimate moments. It’s startling, and tough when you’re really on the edge toward the end of the competition.

You’re very busy. There’s a final-round rehearsal, a recital at noon, a concert the night after that. I was almost late for a rehearsal because a driver stopped when the light was turning yellow, and everyone was flipping out. I wasn’t eating; I lost more than 10 pounds and had to take in my dress. I liked the film crew, but I felt like saying, “You need to go away because I’m going to start cursing.” Even so, I come across in the film as a totally bubbly creature, not nervous at all.

What were some of the highlights of the competition?

Playing with the Takács Quartet brought me to life. I was happy to get into the semifinal round, just for that reason. I’m their psycho fan. I knew the Beethoven quartets even better than the piano sonatas, from listening to them play.

What came out when we played was major. It wasn’t like any other chamber music concert I had done, with one person doing one thing and the others following. This was the first time when I was feeling something happen at the same time. It was simultaneous spontaneity. It validated what I felt about music at the time. I usually initiate (I’m a planner) and do things impulsively, and I would lose people. I was really floating. We get a rehearsal time that’s only the duration of the whole piece, so we can’t even run the full piece. We ended up making up the recipe on stage. They told me, “Do anything you want, go to that place, and if the movement is right, we’ll be there.” It was incredible. It felt inevitable: There was one way to do this. Each door opened, and there was only one door out. By the time it ended, I didn’t want anything other than the Best Chamber Music Award. I love collaborating.

When you’re not performing and traveling and rehearsing, what do you do for fun?

I like to travel. After traveling for concerts, I have a problem staying in one place. Taking the cab ride to the airport is always a relief. For a vacation, I just went to England, Spain, France, and Portugal last month.

I’m a foodie and a wino. I’m very specific about what I like, and I put a lot of effort into great dinner plans.

I read. These days it’s Oscar Wilde. I become obsessive when I find something I like. I like going to museums and plays. My mind boggles at plays; I can’t memorize words. I was busy with school until May; I just got my undergraduate degree, so it feels like I have a lot of free time. It took me a million years to get my Bachelor’s degree, because after the Van Cliburn competition, I was touring more than going to school. I’ve been at Juilliard longer than any other student—about 13 years!

I’m working out, working on the rest of my body. It seems only selected muscles are overworked. My back and shoulders are strong, but my arms are weak and other muscles are completely “tofu.” I’m doing some weights. I don’t want to be crippled in 10 years.

What music are you listening to on your iPod? It falls into three categories. Piano things; new repertoire. I can only listen to that, not do anything else at the same time. It’s active listening.

There are other classical music performances. My friends and I get together over wine and compare them, like nerds!

Then there are things I take to the gym: David Gray, David Bush, Coldplay, Sinatra (the old school in me), and Velvet Underground.

Other thoughts?

I like that, with the piano, if you touch a key, it goes in. With other instruments, you have to create a sound. The piano is so obedient. It’s always been there for me. I couldn’t be without it.

Marianne Lipanovich is a writer and editor based in Redwood City. A gardening expert, she is a lifelong music lover, having learned to read music before she learned to read.