At 30, pianist Yuja Wang has performed at Carnegie Hall 13 times, has played in more than 35 countries, and is Musical America’s 2017 Artist of the Year award winner, joining previous recipients Yo-Yo Ma, Audra McDonald, and Leonard Bernstein. Encouraged by her dancer mother and percussionist father, the Beijing-born classical pianist first began taking lessons at age six. By 15, she’d moved to the U.S. to hone her skill at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, and by 20, she was playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Wang, whose secondary claim to fame is the bold, look-at-me dresses she wears to perform, has been a Rolex ambassador for eight years and occasionally sports her own during performances.)
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We caught up with the pianist as she embarked on a 13-city spring European tour.
What are your favorite pieces to play these days?
I’m doing all three [of composer Béla] Bartók’s piano concertos. The first one is hard for conductors because it’s nearly impossible to achieve perfection. I think Bartók’s a masochist. It was the first piano concerto he wrote, and it’s really intricate. No. 3 is the last thing he wrote before he died, so it’s very sparse and hard—in an emotional, spiritual way.
Do you prefer to play music from particular periods or composers?
I loved playing the Russian [romantic] stuff, especially in my twenties. It’s more passionate and cathartic. The German can be a little square and serious, but it reaches deeper. Last year, I did the most monumental sonata by Beethoven, the Hammerklavier. It’s almost an hour of music, and it’s challenging to concentrate for that long.
Does performing take a physical toll on you?
I’ve been playing the piano since I was six, so I never think about feeling tired. I find going to the airport and trying to catch a flight way more tiring.
What pop music do you listen to?
I listened to so much music in my teens and early twenties—Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Bruno Mars. Right now, I listen to podcasts, so words rather than music.
What are your thoughts on pop artists like Gaga who play the piano?
I’m totally impressed. I play what’s written—80 percent of the process is interpreting the score. They hear their own music in their heads and translate that to the keyboard. How do they do that?
How do you choose your fantastic dresses?
It’s hard to find clothes because I’m so petite. In my twenties, I’d put on my tight Hervé Léger dress and heels, and it looked like I was going to the bar. Concertgoers think, Classical music—it’s really serious. There are lots of rules, and the dress code, which I broke, was one of them. It’s irrelevant to what we’re doing. It’s just a piece of cloth, but once it’s on my body, it boosts my confidence, and that translates to the music.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of ELLE.