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Canberra Today 3°/7° | Monday, May 20, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Stunned: How Tchaikovsky’s Fifth changed Joyce’s life

Korean-American virtuoso pianist Joyce Yang… “I find myself in Russian music, I feel I understand these composers and that’s helpful in being able to communicate the heart of these compositions.” Photo: KT Kim

Basking in the light of musical stardom, Korean-American virtuoso pianist Joyce Yang is about to descend on Snow Concert Hall to perform a concert of Russian music.

When I catch up with her via WhatsApp to Knoxville, Tennessee, where she’s on tour, I find her sense of Korean-ness is a work in progress.

A pianist since age 4, she moved from Seoul to New York at 11 to begin studies at the pre-college division of the Juilliard School. 

“When I went back to Korea, I felt distant, but in my 20s, I suddenly felt that I wanted to discover my Korean culture. My English is a lot better than my Korean, but it excites me to speak in my mother tongue,” she says. 

Now, at 38, she tells me she’s proud of being Korean, pointing to the success of K-pop around the world and to the many operatic Korean stars.

“I still have a Korean passport… I feel that I’m part of this great big moment for Koreans out there. I feel perked up when I say I’m Korean,” she says.

But as a performer, her soul is in Russian music and blames Rachmaninoff for her marriage, since she met her husband, the double bassist Richard Cassarino, while playing the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

She now calls Birmingham, Alabama, home, but will soon move to California with her husband, who’s joining the Pacific Symphony in Orange County.

Yang’s never been to Australia and this will be a kind of family trip – her parents are coming, too.

Here she’ll play Tchaikovsky (selections from The Seasons, Op. 37a), Rachmaninoff (Three Preludes from Op. 32 and 23) and Stravinsky (The Firebird Suite), followed by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Yang fairly bubbles over when she talks about the Russians, telling me: “I find myself in Russian music, I feel I understand these composers and that’s helpful in being able to communicate the heart of these compositions.

“I do believe they express themselves very differently from each other… I really like this music for its emotional intensity and it feels like the orchestra is trapped inside the piano when I play.

“I like to work with living composers, but the major part of my work focuses on Russian repertoire.”

That’s partly because as a little girl she started with Russian music.

“The more time you spend with it, the more nuances you discover… it holds my emotional vocabulary,” she says.

“They say you never arrive with music and I never get sick of it. I’ve been playing it on the concert platform for over 20 years.”

Yang is known for her interest in contemporary cross-artforms.

In 2018 and 2019, for instance, she joined choreographer Jorma Elo at the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to create the work Half/Cut/Split, a marriage of music and dance.

“I’m interested in lots of different arts, especially the art of choreography, and I had the good luck to spend eight hours a day, week after week, working with them,” she says. 

“I learnt so much about dance and music. What I heard and what the dancers heard was completely different, they’re two different forms, but we were putting them together.”

To her, deep listening is the key. 

“When I was young, I loved to play the piano, but it didn’t mean I was a serious musician. But then I went to see Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and something happened to me. It was as if I’d never heard music before – I thought it was the most incredible force I’ve ever had. I was stunned that something like this could exist.

“That was why I became obsessed with figuring out what music was all about.” 

Joyce Yang recital, Snow Concert Hall, May 14.

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Helen Musa

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