Playing Tchaikovsky On Spring Break Yuja Wang, 20, recently played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Her chance came after 65-year-old pianist Martha Argerich canceled at the last minute. After just two rehearsals, Wang wowed audiences and critics.

Playing Tchaikovsky On Spring Break

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Many college students are on spring break. When they get back to school, they may talk of partying at Daytona Beach or doing bags and bags of laundry at home. Twenty-year-old Yuja Wang will be telling her classmates at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, "I made my debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra."

Sean Carberry of member station WBUR reports.

SEAN CARBERRY: On the surface, Yuja Wang seems like any other college student. But her pink cell phone, infectious giggle and blond highlights belie her award-winning virtuosity as a pianist.


CARBERRY: Wang says she was surprised to get a call from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

NORRIS: My manager mentioned there's a chance that I am going to play. I didn't, like, expect anything, and then they told me I was going to play Tchaikovsky One.


CARBERRY: That was just three days before her debut performance with the BSO last Thursday. The call came after 65-year-old pianist Martha Argerich cancelled at the last minute due to exhaustion. That left the orchestra's managing director, Mark Volpe, with a decision to make.

NORRIS: For someone who we think is at a level of artistry worthy of our subscription audience in the orchestra, you're talking about two dozen pianists in the world, maybe 30. But most them are engaged. You know, rather than having a B or B+ pianist who has been around for 20-25 years, we engaged someone who is young and just beginning a career and has enormous potential.


CARBERRY: Wang's potential has been evident since she took up the piano at the age of six. She performed publicly in China where she grew up and in Australia before her 10th birthday. She left China four years later, and she has performed as a soloist and with orchestras in Europe and the U.S. She's played Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff - and now the Tchaikovsky piano concerto.

NORRIS: I actually swore I will never play, because every pianist play that. And then this season, I got a concert, actually, last month with St. Petersburg, and then they asked for this piece. And last month was basically the first time I played it, and this was the second time.



CARBERRY: She only had two rehearsals with the BSO before her debut. While it's not unusual for a young classical musician to be intensely focused on performing - given the temptations of MySpace and text messaging, college parties and shopping malls - it raises the question how a 20-year-old can concentrate on her music without being consumed by the noise of the day.

NORRIS: I don't know. It's just so many distraction, and I don't know if they're actually harmful, actually. I mean, a lot of times when I had a rehearsal and after concerts, I need to have party, I need to shop. If I'm having a party I'll just have fun and not think about music. And then when I'm rehearsing, I'll just concentrate on music and practicing.

CARBERRY: And concentrate she has, says Anthony Fogg, the Boston Symphony's artistic administrator. He says that while it's unusual to have someone so young debut with the BSO, Wang wouldn't be on stage if she couldn't deliver the musical goods.

NORRIS: She's a very slight and tiny, birdlike figure, but she has great power. She also has quicksilver approach in a lot of the very fleeting passage-like work, and that's a marvel to hear.


CARBERRY: After her debut performance on Thursday, the audience gave her a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. Friday's audience seemed equally moved.

U: I actually wanted to hear Argerich, because she's a phenomenal pianist, but I just feel as though - this is stupendous. I'm weak in the knees.

U: The fun part was watching her hair and hitching up her dress, which would have been like any of our daughters at the same age, you know.

CARBERRY: After Yuja Wang's second performance here, it was finally sinking in that she's been playing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

NORRIS: Feels great.


NORRIS: All those amazing musicians behind me. And also this piece is a great joy and delight to hear. Personally, I love playing that piece.


CARBERRY: Even though you swore you were never going to.


NORRIS: That's right.


NORRIS: Now I see why everybody plays it.


NORRIS: It's - it feels good. It's a feel-good piece.

CARBERRY: Yuja Wang will perform with the Houston Symphony this weekend and then heads to Chicago. Her teachers at the Curtis Institute will have to wait a little longer for Wang to return from spring break.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Carberry in Boston.

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