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Exclusive Interview with Xiayin Wang: November 30, 2010

Xiayin Wang
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On Wednesday, November 17, 2010, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with budding Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang, whose debut Chandos release is dedicated to the piano music of Earl Wild - most especially his transcriptions of music by George Gershwin, but also his quite original Piano Sonata. In this fascinating interview, Ms. Wang discusses the path leading to this rather unusual choice for a solo disc, and her great enthusiasm and natural affinity for the jazz-hued music of this distinctly American composer, who passed away earlier this year. The two also discuss Ms. Wang's highly acclaimed previous solo piano album - an all-Scriabin program on the Naxos label that brought out her self-described "evil side"; as well as her invaluable pedagogical background in both Shanghai and New York, her upcoming recording plans, her passion for raising awareness of classical music to a younger generation, and much more. Don't miss this great interview with a forthcoming piano titan.

“People say that an artist always plays the way they are, but it's also an art of acting – an art of performance. I'm a nice person in “real life”, and so my “evilness” only comes out in the music, which is harmless enough.”
– Xiayin Wang

Nolan Gasser: Xiayin Wang, welcome to Classical Archives.

Xiayin Wang: Thank you.

NG: Let's start with your latest album - your debut on the Chandos label - dedicated to the solo piano music of [American composer / pianist] Earl Wild, who passed away earlier this year. It's a very impressive album, filled with plenty of virtuosic display and the great expressive control for which you've been praised; but for many this might seem an unusual choice for a young pianist in the early stages of an international career. I know that you included two of Wild's Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs ["The Man I Love" and "Embraceable You"] on your debut album on the Marquis label; but still an entire disc dedicated to a composer who, even for Americans, is relatively obscure, and who operates in such a strong jazz idiom is a bit surprising. And so, how did you come to decide upon this as your debut release with Chandos?

XW: I'm always looking for a variety of directions with regard to repertoire: already, I perform music of all eras, from Baroque to Contemporary. To be a complete pianist, one needs to know the market, and what trends are taking place, but one also needs to expand into fresh repertoires. I fell in love with the music of Earl Wild a few years ago when I recorded my first album; the first time I heard his music was when a friend of mine played his etude on "The Man I Love". I had never heard his name, but I soon learned that he had transcribed so many wonderful Gershwin songs. So I started to research his music, and I began to include some of his music in my solo recital programs. After hearing the standard repertoires of Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, and the rest, Wild's music is very refreshing; it also shows the variety of masterful styles possible on the piano. His music is not technically easy, but it's very pianistic - he was a great pianist himself, and he knew how to manipulate melody into a luscious musical world.

As you mentioned, Wild sadly passed away earlier this year [January 23, 2010, at the age of 94], and I thought it would be a great opportunity to record a tribute album for him. I love Gershwin as well; so, I proposed the idea to Chandos, and they said "yes". I feel very good about being able to offer Earl Wild a kind of memorial ceremony with this record.

NG: And did you ever get a chance to communicate directly with Wild about performing his music?

XW: Unfortunately, I never was able to meet him in person, but I did go to one of his last recitals - at the International Peoples' Festival in New York; I think he was at the age of 91, but he gave a brilliant recital!

NG: Isn't that amazing!

XW: It was beautiful, and yes it was amazing: at 91, he could still play with such power; but that was my only personal encounter with him. I've read a lot about his life, and have researched his music quite a bit - so it's sad that I never had a chance to talk with him.

NG: I think it's a very fitting tribute; and best of all, you're giving listeners an opportunity to explore Wild's music in a fuller way.

You mentioned George Gershwin; I know you recorded his I Got Rhythm Variations on your first album - and you regularly perform his Preludes and the Concerto in F. Wild was clearly fascinated by Gershwin as well, and focused a lot of his creativity on adapting Gershwin's music in various virtuosic ways; perhaps the most celebrated such work is Wild's Grand Fantasy on Porgy and Bess, which you've included on your disc. Of course, this and the other Gershwin variations are fully written out, but they have such a definite jazz - or swing - sensibility, which you capture so naturally. Can you give us a sense of how you came to feel so "at home" in such a vernacular jazz style? Am I right to assume that you didn't hear too much jazz growing up in Shanghai?

XW: Actually, we did have a bit of contact with jazz music in Shanghai, which is a very open city to the Western world, as you know - and even more so today. I always loved pop music and jazz; I used to play pop music with friends in school all the time - though only in our spare time, since most of the time we were practicing the "serious" stuff. But I have a very natural feeling toward pop and jazz music; I also love [Brazilian] bossa nova and Latin music - it's just easy for me. Now, I'm not saying that I immediately get into the "soul" of the music, but I can get myself into the music very easily; and I love it every time I hear it. I listen to all kinds of music, not just classical. In fact, I've told myself many times that when I have the time, I really want to sit down and take some jazz piano lessons - especially as a rhythmic exercise: jazz rhythm is not easy, with the hands doing very different things; you can feel it, but it's an entirely different technique from classical.

NG: Yes, it clearly is a distinctive style; there's a famous story of Louis Armstrong being asked to define jazz, to which he replied, "If you have to ask, you'll never know." It's something you have to feel inside you; syncopation, for example, is not just dotting the rhythm, it's sort of bending it, and this is something that has to be "in the ear" in a natural way. So, as you were preparing, did you listen to some of Gershwin's own recordings, or perhaps to great jazz pianists like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson? And did you hear earlier recordings of Wild's Gershwin transcriptions?

XW: Oh, yes, I listen to Oscar Peterson and other great jazz pianists all the time; I have my favorite jazz playlists on my computer - I put them on when I have dinner parties with my friends, and that kind of thing. For this recording in particular, I did check out Earl Wild's own recordings of all of these pieces; but I must say that I have a different take from his. I'm staying within the frame of his ideas, but putting in a bit of me as well. I think that's the essence of being a unique pianist - not right, not wrong, just different. I so enjoyed the process of preparing this CD; this is all such great sounding music; some of it funny and sweet, some of it bitter and sour - but the whole process is very natural to me, and I really enjoyed it.

NG: I assume that you're now planning on doing some concerts with a predominantly Wild program?

XW: Yes, I'm definitely going to include some of these Earl Wild pieces in my future concerts - first, because I want to promote the CD, and second, because I always go for diversity in my concerts; I always try to make my programs as colorful as possible.

NG: Yes, I've seen that. Now, one last question about the new disc: Earl Wild is perhaps most famous for his Gershwin adaptations, but he also did a number of transcriptions of works by more purely "classical" composers - ranging from Buxtehude and Handel to Berlioz and Chopin to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Yet, beyond the Gershwin adaptations, you chose a fairly obscure original work by Wild - his Piano Sonata from 2000. This work itself is rather Gershwinesque, with hints of Bartók and Ravel - even in the third movement, subtitled "Toccata a la Ricky Martin".

XW: Yes, that movement is a lot of fun - it's like a roller coaster ride for the pianist.

NG: Right, it's a driving moto perpetuo - I assume based on [Latin-pop singer / songwriter] Ricky Martin's "Livin' la vida loca," which was a big hit in 2000. What made you choose this Sonata, and not something to balance the Gershwin adaptations, perhaps Wild's variations on music by Handel or Rachmaninov?

XW: Well, the overall idea of the CD is a tribute to Wild, but especially featuring his arrangements of Gershwin's music; and when I was researching his music, I found this Sonata. I had never heard the work before, but when I got the music and began to play it, I thought, "Wow, this is great; more people should know about this piece." It's a major work, and actually follows the outlines of sonata form, though in Wild's own musical language. The work is atonal, but yet there are beautiful melodies and great rhythm - I love all the rhythm in his music, as well as his great harmonies. The second movement [Adagio] is especially wonderful: it tells the story of memories he experienced as a young man during wartime, flashbacks of his youth; and you hear these really touching moments - it's really beautiful and breathtaking, but also dark. I have said in previous interviews that I love the darkness in music - the darkness of suffering, the bitterness of the music; and you can hear that a lot in this movement, which I'll play next week at Alice Tully Hall [on Tuesday, November 23, which was very favorably reviewed by Allan Kozinn in the New York Times].

NG: There's not too much darkness in Wild's music - least of all in the Gershwin; but you're right, the Adagio of his Piano Sonata does have a fairly dark and brooding quality. It's really impressive that this Sonata, which has quite a few technical demands, and is rather adventurous harmonically, was written when Wild was 85 years old.

XW: Absolutely; and I think a lot of people will fall in love with this piece. It was recorded by Wild himself, but many more pianists should enjoy playing it.

NG: I always say that it's one of the obligations of artists who reach a level of celebrity - to help the audience discover music that they otherwise wouldn't know; and I think it's wonderful that you're doing just that with the music of Earl Wild, and so early in your career.

Now, I had read in a couple different places that for the follow-up to your 2009 Naxos recording of piano music by Scriabin, you were going record the two books of Preludes, subtitled "The Enchanted Garden", by American composer Richard Danielpour; is that something that's still on your schedule, or has it been postponed?

XW: Oh, it's already been recorded, and it's coming out early next year. Richard Danielpour is another great composer, writing a very different kind of contemporary music - with a lot of darkness in it as well.

NG: How did you get connected with Danielpour, to be the premiere pianist for this work [specifically, the 2nd Book of Preludes, which she premiered at Alice Tully Hall in May 2009]?

XW: I was very fortunate; I was actually playing one of his student's works at the Manhattan School of Music [where Wang is currently pursuing a doctorate], and the student asked me, "Could you play this piece for my teacher during my lesson?" And that's how I got to know Richard, who later asked me, "Would you be interested in premiering my Preludes?" It was very interesting: he said, "These pieces are like babies inside me, and they need to come out right now!"

NG: Wow, that's quite a visual; so you were like his musical midwife?

XW: Yes, he said, "I'm like a pregnant person with these Preludes; I have this concert scheduled, and you'd be perfect to perform them." This was for the 2nd Book, and I was honored to do them. After the concert, we thought it would be a good idea to record both Books, because it had been awhile since the first had been performed [by pianist Christopher O'Riley, in 1992].

NG: Well, we'll look forward to featuring that recording here at Classical Archives.

I wanted next to move on to the album that put you on the map, so to speak, and that's your 2009 disc on the Naxos label, dedicated entirely to the music of Scriabin. This too seems to have its roots in your Marquis debut disc, notably with a recording of Vers la flame, Op.72, but also the 2 Poems, Op.32 and the Valse, Op.38 - it sure seems that this was a fruitful debut disc, giving you lots of seeds for future projects. Now, Scriabin's music is not only a world away from Earl Wild, but he's likewise very distinct even among his contemporaries in early 20th century Russia - very dark, very personal and abstract, and even a bit insane at times…

XW: Absolutely, he did go insane.

NG: Your Scriabin album was praised for your understated, "non-rhetorical" approach, and great insight into the music. I read a comment you made, how you say you're a "nice person," but that you were attracted to the "evilness in the music." So, now that you've recorded the album, and have played many Scriabin recitals, have you come to understand a bit more what it is about his music - and his aesthetic - that speaks to you on such a personal level?

XW: First of all, that's an accurate statement - I am a very nice person [laughs]. I'm also a big fan of Scriabin's music, which does have its "evil" side. People say that an artist always plays the way they are, but it's also an art of acting - an art of performance. I'm a nice person in "real life", and so my "evilness" only comes out in the music, which is harmless enough.

The first time I heard Scriabin's music was a videotape of [pianist] Vladimir Horowitz playing Vers la flame; I didn't know it was possible to do something like that on the piano, and I immediately thought, "Wow, I'd like to do that." It's not a "show-off" thing; the piece just makes such a big effect - like the piano is on fire, and I wanted to create that kind of "fire" on stage. I then started to research Scriabin's music, and to find other recordings by Horowitz - such as the 2 Poème, Op.32: so beautiful and delicate, and very different. I began to see that Scriabin's music was dramatically different between his early, middle, and late stages - and I thought that it would make for a nice CD program to choose repertoire from his entire career, so that people can come to know more about this great composer. It could even be useful for a university professor to play this CD while giving a lecture on Scriabin.

I proposed the idea to Naxos, and they said, "Sure, just pick out pieces that aren't already in our catalogue, so we don't have duplicates." I totally understood that, and said, "Sure, no problem." I came up with about 60 minutes of music that covers his output from Opus 1 through Opus 74. When I play Scriabin, I feel the struggles that he went through, the unusual treatment he received from the society of his time - and you can hear that in the chords, in the colors he creates, that he was not happy; even in the "happier" music he wrote, there's a bit of pain and sadness. In his piano music, he mastered all possible harmonies of his time, and reached the highest state of "mystery" - which I love very much. It's not that I'm a mysterious person - I'm an open book… Maybe I should evaluate myself a bit more: I'm kind of the opposite of the music I play - or at least very different from much of it.

NG: I think we're all complex amalgams, or combinations of various emotional types and characteristics; we all have a darker side, and getting in touch with it through music, as an outlet - as a catharsis of sorts, can only be a healthy thing.

XW: Absolutely.

NG: You've included some great works by Scriabin on this disc; yet, there are many other, perhaps better-known, works - his etudes, sonatas, and preludes, for example - that are not included. Have you spoken with Naxos about being able to continue your exploration of Scriabin's world with some of these pieces, even though other pianists on their roster have recorded them?

XW: For my own purposes, I will definitely learn more of Scriabin's repertoire, including the sonatas, preludes, and etudes. As for a recording project, you have to balance different things: there's a marketing angle, and it has to work for me and for the label. I understand clearly from Naxos that they don't want me to duplicate - and so it will have to be a discussion; but we haven't yet put anything on the table. I know that I'm going to explore more music by Scriabin, but I'm also a big fan of French music - and especially Ravel; I always include Ravel in my concert programs, and his music will definitely be part of some future project.

NG: You actually just moved to my next question: I was going to mention that another aspect of your playing that critics have praised is your handling of musical color and timbre; and this is perhaps nowhere more required than in the music of Ravel. You recorded his own piano transcription of La valse on your debut CD, and have pointed to this as one of your all-time favorite works; I also see that your repertoire includes his Gaspard de la nuit. So, is it safe to assume that an all-Ravel disc is in the works?

XW: Well, I still have to put a program together, but I would definitely want to work on an all-Ravel CD if it's something a label would be interested in. My very next recording project is actually with the Fine Arts Quartet - we're celebrating the music of Schumann, by recording the Piano Trio, Op. 132, the Piano Quartet, [Op.47] and Piano Quintet [Op.44] for Naxos. But yes, Ravel is another composer I want to explore after that. There's so much to learn there, and so much that's sensational… I love that word, "sensational", it's so colorful! I like to be sensational - you can feel it not only in the sound; it's almost a physical thing.

NG: Yes, you definitely seem to be drawn towards composers who create their own sonic worlds, and who have a distinct voice and musical language - which comes out clearly from your albums to date; and we'll look forward to seeing what you come up in the future - I'm sure you'll be introducing us to lots of interesting music.

So, let's back up a bit; you grew up in China, in and around Shanghai, and received your initial musical training there. Then in 1997, you came to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, where you're now working on your doctorate. I'm sure our readers will be curious to hear your reflections regarding some of the differences you've experienced in terms of aesthetic priorities and pedagogical techniques between Shanghai and New York; can you share what you feel are some of the most interesting distinctions?

XW: I was at the Shanghai Conservatory for 9 years, from my fourth year of elementary school until I finished high school. There's no doubt that China has a much stricter system than here in the States; for example, we have a certain number of hours for practicing every day - it's like a course, and otherwise you don't pass. There are teachers walking around checking to see that you are on the piano, and if not you get a bad mark. It's very strict, which I think is great for kids at that age; because that's the only time you can really develop physical and technical training - along with the other kinds of training you need: theory, ear training, dictation, sight reading, etc. I had very strict training in China, and I cannot thank my teachers enough, because they gave me a great foundation - which is irreplaceable. They prepared me for everything I needed to come here to this "freer" musical environment, where I could develop my musicality. This is something that grows with one's life experiences, and as we get older, we have more experiences - which we can use in our musical performances.

I think it was a perfect balance for me: in Shanghai, I learned my technique, and all that a teenager is supposed to learn. This fully prepared me to come out here in this "freer' world, to New York, to be able to come up with my own thoughts on music: that it doesn't have to my teacher's way, but could be my way. And I was ready for that. The progression couldn't be reversed, if you know what I mean - the technique must come first, then the musicality. Technique serves the other purposes of music, and if you don't have it at the beginning, it's hard to get later.

NG: I also understand that you come from a musical family, that your dad plays the erhu [the traditional 2-string Chinese "fiddle"], and that he even joined you on stage at one of your performances at Alice Tully hall. This can't help but remind me of another gifted Chinese pianist that I had the privilege of interviewing: Lang Lang - whose father also plays the erhu and who likewise has joined him on stage. Of course, you two are very different performers, from very different regions of China [Lang Lang is from Beijing]. I'm wondering if you've gotten to know each other, and if you've taken any cues from him in building your own career?

XW: I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but of course I have heard his performances many times. As you said, we're very different people, with different backgrounds. I've learned things from his performances, as I learn from everyone I hear - in person or in recording; I even learn from my students sometimes. I don't know Lang Lang personally, but I think he's doing wonderful things in the performance field - he has the talent and the charisma to grab the audience's attention.

NG: He certainly does. One thing that you two share as well, I believe, is an interest in promoting native Chinese music, and exposing it to Western audiences. I know, for example, that you both perform Peixun Chen's arrangement of "Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake." Do you have any plans to collaborate with contemporary Chinese composers?

XW: That transcription is based on a famous Chinese folk tune; and I include it in my concerts for the same reason that I include the music of Earl Wild or Gershwin: to give the audience a refreshing break. Also, I grew up listening to my father play these tunes on the erhu, and so it comes very natural to me to perform these pieces - it's in my head all the time - it's in my blood, and I play them with my father all the time at home. I haven't yet had a chance to really explore contemporary Chinese music, but I hope to do more of that as well.

NG: Well, it's wonderful that you can share this music with your father, and to be on stage together - I'm sure it's a joy for him.

XW: And he was very nervous, he told me; he was very cute [laughs]…

NG: I'm sure he was. Now, you mentioned how your next recording, for Naxos, will be a recording of chamber music by Schumann. It's often a challenge, as one builds a solo career, to keep up playing chamber music; but this seems to be something that's important to you?

XW: Absolutely; solo, chamber, orchestral - it's all very necessary for any artist to do. Chamber music is, for me, a very intimate experience; you really learn from one another - it's like socializing, but with music. It's also healthy for the ears, because you have to listen carefully to one another; you have to communicate with your chamber partners, but without saying anything - it requires real bonding among the players; so, yes, it's always going to be a part of my repertoire. And I'm also going to be looking to make a concerto recording with an orchestra.

NG: Ah, and is there something in the works for a concerto project for you?

XW: There might be something soon, but nothing yet is definite…

NG: Well, we'll look forward to featuring all these future projects at Classical Archives.

One last question: I couldn't help but be struck by the many interviews I saw you give to local television stations - in conjunction with your Scriabin tour last year. You were always very gracious re-telling the story of your Kindergarten teacher and your first piano encounter - which I won't ask you to repeat here [see attached video]. But in general, it demonstrates to me that you really enjoy being an advocate for classical music for those that are perhaps not so well versed. It's such an important role, and it seems that you come very naturally to it - to being a kind of classical music "ambassador". I'm wondering if you have any particular aspirations or goals in this regard: to help widen the audience of classical music, and to be a spokesperson of sorts for it?

XW: I would love to do that, because it's very important for me to be an artist who is not only on the stage, but is "out there" in other ways as well. I think it's also a good way to let people know who you really are; even if it's just the way I speak, or the words I use. So, I will keep doing this, and share my love and knowledge of classical music to the next generation - because music is important to becoming a complete person. I think it's very healthy for kids to at least know about classical music - and to be able to sit down and really listen, and learn about the benefits it can give them in their mood or their thoughts. I also love to teach, and whenever I perform at a university, I try to see if I can communicate with the students - perhaps to give a Master Class. And at some point in my life, I will definitely do more teaching; right now, I'm focusing on the performance side of my career, but the teaching side will definitely come at a later stage of my life.

NG: That's wonderful, and I think it's a natural evolution for an artist: to give back to younger musicians - and to help them get in touch with their own "evil" side.

XW: Yes - thank you, I won't forget that [laughs]! I'll make it a class subject: "Get in Touch with Your Evil Side."

NG: Well, Xiayin, thank you so much for your time. I wish you all the best with your career; and we'll look forward to talking with you again sometime.

XW: Thank you very much for your time, and for the great questions.

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