[Scene Magazine] All-American, with Chinese Roots
Rising start pianist Xiayin Wang makes her Santa Barbara debut with the Santa Barbara Symphony this weekend
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
For this weekend’s Santa Barbara Symphony concert agenda, the programming focus turns to us Americans. The Symphony has periodically broached the all-American plan in concert, as with last year’s concert featuring music of Dave and Chris Brubeck, Gershwin and the greatest American composer, Charles Ives. It’s a fine and commendable tradition, giving an occasional American accent into the inherently Euro-centric business of western classical music, orchestra division.
This time out, maestro Nir Kabaretti will lead the orchestra in something old, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, something brand new–a world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Cocnerto Grosso–and something older, a return to the world of Gershwin. Last year’s Gershwin model was Rhapsody in Blue, and this season turns to another jazz-colored piece, the Piano Concerto in F, with fine Chinese-born, New York-based Xiayin Wang in the solo spotlight.
Ms. Wang is a technically bold, sensitive and ascending pianist, who holds degrees from the Shanghai Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music. She has been making rounds of orchestral work, and has played Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall as soloist, in which role she has also released two fascinating contemporary music CDs, showcasing music of Richard Danielpour and the late Earl Wild. Among other corners of the music world, American music comes naturally to her.
She spoke to us on the phone last week from her home in New York.
News-Press: You will be playing the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F. This is a piece, and a composer, you’re closely connected to aren’t you?
Xiayin Wang: Yes. I love playing this piece. It’s lots of fun and very jazzy. Personally, I like classical music, but I listen to other types of music, too. Jazz is something I always want to listen to, and this piece is full of jazz feeling and a feeling of New York.
NP: And you have been a New Yorker for how many years?
XW: I’ve been a New Yorker for 15 years.
NP: So you’re official now.
XW: (laughs) Yes. Deep down, still Chinese.
NP: Of course. Is this one of those pieces that you learn something new about each time you play it?
XW: Absolutely. It stays with you your whole life. You go back to it at some point in your life and discover new things, and you feel a different way and have a different interpretation. These things happen. This concerto is, I think, a very special one. First of all it is a jazzy one, with jazz and blues together. It was written by Gershwin, and he actually orchestrated the whole thing by himself, unlike the Rhapsody in Blue, which was orchestrated by someone else. But with this one, he really followed the structure of a classical concerto and brought his own ideas about jazz into it. The orchestration is amazing.
It’s very challenging for the orchestra. It’s a very delicate feeling between the pianist and the orchestra. The swing kind of feeling has to click right now. That’s very crucial.
NP: There is that question of how well a given orchestra can swing, in the jazz sense. I’m sure you have found that to be true.
XW: So far, the ones I have played with all swing really well (laughs). And I’m sure in Santa Barbara, in this beautiful place full of beautiful scenes and people so full of imagination, I’m sure the orchestra will swing beautifully (laughs).
NP: Yes, I can attest to that, having heard them many times. You play in orchestra, recital and other situations. Do you favor one over the other?
XW: It’s different. I also play chamber music…It’s one person’s job, compared to a few people versus the whole orchestra. It’s really collaborating if there are more people playing. It’s more fun. You’re not playing on the stage all the time. And when you travel, you don’t just travel by yourself, but with a whole lot of people. It’s more fun. The more people, the more fun.
But the solo recital is important, too. It’s a direct way to identify oneself, as an individual artist and as an individual musician. In that way, it’s the most direct. I used to play a lot of recitals and I do have some recitals coming up, but now it’s more and more orchestra gigs and recordings.
NP: Speaking of solo playing and Gershwin, your Earl Wild CD is quite beautiful. His “Variations on ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’” is an imaginative piece of writing–and playing, on your part.
XW: Thank you. These tunes never die out. They are favorites. I call them “master tunes,” that everyone hears and (that) bring tears to peoples’ eyes. It’s just very moving.
The entire CD is about Ear Wild, who was a great pianist, and who absolutely knew ho to have the maximum sound from the piano, using various and challenging techniques to bring out the very lush sound of Gershwin’s music. I think he was great at that.
NP: How did that recording project come to be? Was this an idea of yours?
XW: At the time, I was actually proposed the CD project by Chandos (Records). That was my first CD with them and they were considering what the subject of the CD could be. At the time, unfortunately, Earl Wild had just passed away. We came up with the idea of making a CD in tribute to him. It is also something that was not in the Chandos catalogue yet. They were very intrigued, because they’re always looking for something they don’t have yet.
So that was a very quick decision, and we came up with the repertoire list and got it approved and booked a place and a recording engineer, and recorded everything and released it in the same year. It was like getting things done, one, two, there, there we go.
NP: Your Richard Danielpour album is another impressive solo piano project. Thinking of those two albums, you’re dealing with some interesting and also accessible contemporary music, maybe filling a void. Is that important to you?
XW: Absolutely. First of all, learning different composers and different types of music is a learning process of my own. One always says there is no end for knowledge. Every time I learn something new, or approach a type of music I have never done before, I look for improvement. That’s how artist can improve themselves.
It’s also just to produce a different kind of sound on the instrument. Beethoven is beautiful. Mozart is great, and Haydn is very gracious. Rachmaninoff is grand-sounding. But modern-sounding music is a whole different world. It is important to also mix that into programs, so people have a fresh sound, and it’s not just always the same music. Also for educational purposes, it’s important to carry on the modern trend.
Also, when you play music by someone who is still alive, you can have the benefit of talking to him, to get the exact idea of what he wants produced here, and to be able to negotiate between a soloist and composer. That’s a benefit that you didn’t get with Beethoven. You can’t really ask him (laughs).
NP: Except maybe symbolically.
XW: Symbolically is always good. And symbolically, you can answer yourself too.
Regarding Richard Danielpour, there was a concerto commissioned for me, written by him a couple years ago. We premiered that in Vienna. And last summer, I was asked to play one movement of it and made a recording with Gerald Schwartz, conducting an all-star orchestra. We made a DVD in the Manhattan Center, of the third movement of Richard Danielpour’s Piano Concerto and it will be played by Channel 13 sometime in the spring.
NP: Comparing your Wild and the Danielpour albums, Danielpour teaches more into areas of tonal tension and dissonance, but not going too deeply into that. It seems accessible in a way.
XW: That’s true. It is accessible. I think there is a still somewhat unclear picture of what he is creating. Also, he had titles for the pieces, which is very helpful. So ti is programmatic music. There is picture in your mind that you can create, together with music. But his music is very accessible. That is really important for the society right now. It’s easier to get yourself into modern music.
NP: With your interest in contemporary music, how did that work for you? Is this a relatively recent development, or have you always been that way?
XW: I have always been interested, but I started performing and playing it around four or five years ago, more and more in my repertoire. I met Mr. Danielpour because I am a friend of one of his composition students. He had a piano piece and once asked me if I would like to play it, to play for his lessons. That’s how I met him. Then we started talking about projects for me.
NP: Do you have other contemporary projects coming up?
XW: Not too much contemporary music, but I am learning the Barber Piano Concerto and the Copland Piano Concerto. The Gershwin, the Barber and the Copland will be on one CD with Chandos. I am going to record it in Scotland next month, with the Royal Scottish Symphony Orchestra. That’s my most contemporary project at the moment.
NP: There have been so many wonderful and notable classical musicians and composers from China on the international scene, especially in the last decade and more. Do you have an idea why Chinese musicians have become such a strong force in the classical music world recently?
XW: I think especially now, when you think about culture, it’s more of an international thing. America is home to talents from people from all over the world. In that sense, especially music and art is very international. Musicians and composers like to bring in their talents, not only working with their own country’s music, but perhaps other tonal modes from different countries.
I have never studied or researched why, but I assume that’s why a lot of Chinese composers can compose something in different genres. I’m sure there are composers from other countries doing the same thing. It all connects through music, and with music, you can work at one single idea approached from many different angles.
NP: As you were saying, you are into jazz and other kinds of music. As a player, as well?
XW: As a player, as soon as I get a chance. I was actually thinking about it, because I have some friends who are great jazz musicians, a pianist, a saxophonist, and a drummer. I want to take some lessons, as soon as I have some time. I can play a little bit. I can play some pop songs, and I love to listen to Brazilian music, bossa nova. I am going to Brazil and South American.
But playing-wise, I can’t take credit yet. I will start lessons and maybe the next time I go to Santa Barbara, I can make my own improvisation for the Gerswhin (laughs).
NP: I can tell by the way you play the Earl Wild piece that you have it within you. You just need to nurture it. It seems that things are moving along well in your musical career at this point. Do you feel that?
XW: I am. I do feel that I’m being in productive in some way, but I’m sure there is no boundary for learning more and more, I’m doing what I can do do the best, to accept projects and much as I can and to be in this field as much as I can. I just want to be involved.
NP: And it is a lifelong process, I guess.
XW: Absolutely. And you’re right about playing the same pieces 10 years after–it’s a whole different picture.