Joyce Yang is well on her way to a major career. In a world of dime store piano virtuosi, all with impeccable technique, she seems like something out of Tiffany's special collection. She ponders her music and has a well thought- out reason for everything she does. If you are interested in her thought process when putting together this program, you can read it here. It is mystifying and logical; all at the same time.
This rare, stellar sheen was on display Tuesday when she took the stage for the Cliburn Concerts series at Bass Performance Hall, where she won the Silver medal in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
This is not to say that everything she played was pristine. It wasn't. This is also not to say that all of her interpretations were definitive. They weren't. What this says is that she brought a unique voice to everything she played and that I am willing to offer Mitt Romney's $10,000 bet that she will play this exact same program differently as her thinking progresses and her musical mind matures.
I can hardly wait.
What she presented was a blindingly honest version of four masterpieces of the standard repertoire and one contemporary candidate for that exulted rank. It was like a photograph of her musical mind at this exact given moment, standing in front of a Rushmore with Debussy, Bach, Schubert and Schumann carved on the mountain instead of the familiar presidential faces. "This is what I think about these pieces right now," she communicated, "and don't hold me to it tomorrow."
This means that her version of the Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor (BWV 903) had noticeable romantic leanings, to say the least. Far from the coolly clinical Bach that is more common these days, her version moved at a blindingly fast pace except when it didn't. She was as apt to rush things along as to pine over a resolution. The fugue started as though it was afraid even to begin the arduous journey ahead.
Claude Debussy's Estampes, Lowell Liebermann's unjustly marginalized Gargoyles Opus 29 and Robert Schumann's Fantasiestücke met a similar fate. All three sets of piano pieces are Technicolor in nature and Yang painted them even brighter. The fast was too fast and the slow was too slow, but it all made perfect sense in the context of Joyce Yang playing in the right now. Even her surprising encore, pianist Earl Wild's arrangement of George Gershwin's "The Man I love," smacked of originality.
Everything she played sounded new and different, even the old and tired. Schubert's Impromptu Op. 90 in G flat Major sounded, well, improvised. A little slurpy maybe, but so what? It's Romanticism at its zenith. All of her selections, well maybe not the Liebermann, have been trotted out on mind-numbing recital after recital and competition after competition. "Very nice" being the most common adjective.
With Yang, to revive Romney's bet, there will be controversy throughout her career. "Too slow," will say some. "Exaggerated" will mutter others. "Too fast" some will counter. "Too conservative." "Too many liberties." "Too too."
What this all boils down to is that Joyce Yang is wonderfully and exasperatingly Joyce Yang. She plays the repertoire with impeccable technique. But more importantly, she plays these pieces her way and makes no pretense that she will play them that way ever again.
That is the mark of true genius.