My Dinner Party Guests 4 Yuja Wang

When I sold my Dunedin house last year I faced the common issue of what to do with myself while the open homes were on.

I chose movies, and the first week there was a film by NZ film maker Rebecca Tansley called Crossing Rachmaninoff. I chose it because I knew Rebecca – but I did also know and love the work it featured – the Russian composer’s Piano Concerto 2 – the one that starts with that bit that sounds like a river.
I loved it! In my 20’s I’d been introduced to classical music by a long-term boyfriend – a sophisticated older man [or what passed for sophistication in Christchurch in the late 70’s – chicken liver pate and Montana Bernkaisler riesling as I recall]. He had an extensive record collection and we used to go to symphony concerts at the Town Hall.
I enjoyed the music but my interest waned when the relationship ended. I’ve bought the odd CD over the years, that’s about it. So this reintroduction to Rachmaninoff was quite magical. It is a really good film and the music threads through it so beautifully. The following week I went to another music movie – this one by Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes called Concerto – a Beethoven journey.
If the first one struck a match, this one lit a fire in me. Beethoven’s story fascinated me and led to many hours of youtube watching and music listening. Apart from anything else, having a Beethoven symphony blaring in my ears seems to really revitalise my brain when it’s tired or overloaded. Like tidying a messy room.
All of which explains why I’ve only just come across Yuja Wang – my inspirational dinner guest this week. [Check here for previous guests]
She’s classical music’s equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence – a highly talented, mould-breaking but very grounded performer, who brings something fresh and interesting and altogether 21st Century to what has been a dying art form.
This is the piece I found of her’s – Gershwin’s piano concerto, which I love. I’m not a musician but there was something about her playing that seemed like more than I’d ever heard before. When I thought about including her in my dinner party list I set out to find out what that more was – my guests need to be both amazingly good at something and good at explaining it.
Unfortunately my initial efforts turned up a lot of fairly shallow interviews – people asking about her childhood in China and the cool modern clothes she likes to wear and whether she gets nervous before a performance. You could hear her throw out little breadcrumbs of deeper meaning, but few interviewers recognised them – her combination of beauty, talent and modernity seemed too much for most of them.
Then bullseye, an interviewer [from Listen Magazine] who still didn’t quite seem to recognise what he was dealing with, but who had nevertheless asked enough of the right kind of questions to give her confidence that he would understand.
Yuja Wang doesn’t just play the music, she engages deeply with the composer – even with the mad ones like Scriabin – and allows their music to change her. “The music is in my blood” she says of pieces she knows deeply – as she learned them she says “I underwent metamorphosis”.
To Yuja performing on stage is “living in a different state of being. So I have to keep doing that to feel alive”. This week’s inspirational guest is a creature of the Enlightenment, a global citizen who will reinvent an important form of human artistic expression by paring down to its essence and bringing it new life. Plus she’s super-cool.
[A note on Yuval Noah Harari who was supposed to feature in this week’s guest list – the jury’s still out. I listened to a podcast he did with Ezra Klein which explored some interesting ideas and also revealed a surfeit of mindfulness meditation to be part of his writing process. But then I read the first few chapters of Homo Deus and felt quite underwhelmed.

However I’ve bought the book and I will persist.