Joyce Yang-Pianist to play fiery, dark, playful Beethoven

by Richard Carter

Special to Wichita Falls Times Record News USA TODAY NETWORK – TEXAS

Joyce Yang discovered piano at age 4, but wasn’t truly moved by music until she was 14 and heard Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

“It really brought me to tears,” Yang said. “At that age, I didn’t know music had that kind of power over peoples’ emotions. I was overcome by the beauty of it. Until then, it was just about me playing the piano and enjoying to play piano, not about the music.”

It began her commitment to becoming a musician and spreading the powerful force and joy through music. “Until you fall in love with music, you do it to show off for your own good and to be like, ‘Look, what I can do,’ but then you suddenly realize you can serve a higher purpose with it.”

Yang will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra at Memorial Auditorium as the WFSO opens its season. She performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor three years ago with the WFSO.

Currently living in Alabama, by way of New York City, Yang began playing at 4 and was her aunt’s first student in Seoul, South Korea. “She has a natural flair for teaching young children.

Her aunt is still teaching in Seoul, but is now working with teachers to help implement her method in schools. “I am sort of bigger than life when I visit her school,” she said with a laugh.

Yang learned the Beethoven Piano Concerto when she was 16 or 17. “It’s in this dark C minor, and all the great dramatic C minors, it’s the drama that grabs you in the beginning.”

When she was learning the concerto she thought it was fiery and dark and playful, all at the same time. “The melodies were so gripping: I couldn’t get enough of it.”

The piece transformed in her mind at age 18 when she heard pianist Yefim Bronfman perform it at the Aspen Summer Musical Festival. “There was intimacy and such breadth of poetry in it that he brought out that I couldn’t believe my ears. It was not the same piece.”

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Joyce Yang will play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra at Memorial Auditorium as the WFSO opens its season. COURTESY

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She remembers walking home in the rain, having forgotten her umbrella, “and thinking how my life was basically changed by that performance. I will really spend my life trying to find all the treasures in this piece. It’s the greatest thing I have ever heard.”

The next year, at age 19 she won the silver medal at the Cliburn Competition, and the Beethoven piece was one of two concertos she presented in the final round.

Since then, the concerto has continued to become more personal to her. “I end up working on soft hushed chords for hours, because it’s no longer about the flashy runs. I’ve been doing them for 15 years. I should be able to do them.

“But, finding that inner meaning that is many shades from the obvious. I think that’s the treasures we need to find: how to voice the first chord of the Second Movement in a way that I hope people really experience what a key change is for the first time.

That one piano chord has six notes and there’s nothing complicated about it, she said. “But that’s the chord I heard by Bronfman that will never leave my mind. I could not believe my ears. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard and I felt like I was hallucinating.”

“It should go directly to your psyche, your heart. It remains timeless in my mind. It has to be just heartfelt enough; that balance between something so cerebral and something that is so emotional.”

Yang’s performance with the WFSO will be the first concert of the season for her after some time off this summer. She has a new chamber music recording out this week with the Alexander String Quartet.

If you attend the concert, please take note: “In the first movement, when I am done with the cadenza,” Yang said, “and the orchestra sort of creeps in playing what sounds almost like a heartbeat (that was there the whole time), I think that moment, til the end of movement which is not even a minute, I think that is the greatest writing of all time. It’s how Beethoven comes out of the piano cadenza and then brings the piece to a dramatic finish.

“I really hope all the hairs stand up on the back of your neck because that’s the moment I buy tickets to Beethoven 3 for is to hear how pianists do that differently. Just on that measure, the 10 seconds after the cadenza, I probably poured 100 hours in trying to get that right. I don’t know what it’s so significant. It’s so eerie and so mysterious and so mystical in a way.

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