Yuja Wang, Tiger Moms, and the Ascendency of China

Written by

I recently got the latest Rachmaninov album by the 23-year-old piano sensation, Yuja Wang. On it she tackles two great Russian warhorses, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 and Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18.

Depending on what she’s wearing, Yuja can look like a teenager, movie star, wunderkind or gamine. She casually talks about Rachmaninov as being tough but fun. Yet you realize while listening that she possesses a profound understanding of the music she performs. She follows in the footsteps of other great Chinese pianists like Lang Lang and Yundi Li but doesn’t play second fiddle to them. Critics are amazed not just at her technique but the emotional wisdom of her playing. And that little orange cocktail dress she wore at the Hollywood Bowl last summer got her some notices, too, from not only the press but from the audience and the orchestra alike. Just look at the eyes of the first violinist!

We see similar successes every day in the newspapers on a larger, more global business front. China is growing and growing while the United States is no longer the world power it once used to be, especially in business and trade. China is definitely on the ascendency both economically and culturally. Democracy? Not yet. Maybe never.

The piano isn’t a Chinese instrument. I once read that when the British first introduced the piano to the Chinese in the 19th century, people were afraid of it because it sounded to them like bones rattling inside. Many young Asian artists take up the violin. Less so the piano, but even that’s changing nowadays.

After my Music Salon the other night, some of us hung around talking about playing music. I recently resumed flute lessons after a long hiatus. It’s tough work hitting those high E’s and F#’s. My high notes sound like a door in need of some WD40. Two women in the class told me they’d been forced by their parents into taking piano lessons early on and had to practice for years until they were finally allowed to quit. They were sick of it all. I asked if they had Tiger Moms. Yes, they said. I told them I wish I had had a Tiger Mom, a white Amy Chua, because then I would be a much better player now than I am. That goes for both piano and flute. One of them told me that she loved Chopin. How I wish I could play Chopin. Or Debussy, Ravel, even Satie.

I don’t know if Yuja Wang had a Tiger Mom, but she is an amazing and stunningly accomplished new artist. Unlike China, she may not be taking over the world (yet), but she certainly is carving out a niche for herself as one of the most gifted newcomers on the international classical scene.