Although only a few years have elapsed since Chinese pianist Xiayin Wang first made her mark in the U.S., interest in her artistry has been swiftly growing since her first Marquis disc, Introducing Xiayin Wang, appeared in 2007. With the release of her third disc and debut on the prestigious Naxos label it seemed like a good time to catch up with Xiayin Wang. When one listens to Wang, one is not thinking about questions of technique, interpretation or performance tradition -- she dedicates her pianism to feelings and emotions alone. It's deeply affecting playing and difficult to describe in words; perhaps it is best to allow Xiayin Wang the opportunity to speak for herself.
AMG: Although your Scriabin disc for Naxos is your third release, you are a relatively new face on the classical recording scene. Can you give us a little background on yourself?
Xiayin Wang: I understand that my name is new. I am trying very hard to move it little by little so that the public can know me more. There are a lot of wonderful musicians out there, and in order to stand out in the crowd you have to have something special to offer, some that comes from yourself. For me, my music comes from my heart. Scriabin is a composer that has always been a favorite of mine. His music is so dazzling and full of color. If you know me, you know I love color: just come to my apartment and you will see colors everywhere, in the clothing and everything. I started my training back in China when I was very young. My father is a virtuoso on the erhu, which is a two-stringed Chinese traditional instrument, and a very melodic one. Listening to my father and experiencing the music he made was very helpful in my studies of rhythm and phrasing, though I guess you can blame it partly on good genes!
Of course, to be a classical pianist is to work in a very competitive field. However, I believe that if you work hard, people will get to know you. It's difficult to grow in this great world and not easy to make an impression. I'm very grateful that I have managed to get this far and I also appreciate that in some ways I'm lucky.
AMG: With your first disc, Introducing Xiayin Wang on Marquis, it crossed my desk for the first time and I thought, "Hmm... another pianist. What's her angle?" What won me over, was your Bach; that really moved me. What can you tell me about that first experience, the one with Marquis?
XW: I love variety. I love putting different kinds of music together, and thankfully Marquis was very open to the idea of it. I thought since I was just starting out on recording that I would start from what for me is the beginning of the keyboard, with Bach, and move forward through Mozart to some more modern choices, ending with George Gershwin. The second movement of that Bach transcription really moved me. It makes you want to cry, it is so beautiful. Bach is usually played on the harpsichord, and I respect the way his music is played on that instrument; though when it comes to my playing him on the piano, I tend to adopt a slightly more romantic touch in my interpretation. I think I struck a good balance between the two, combining the concise cleanliness of the harpsichord, yet to find the more romantic space between phrasing. I think I made both sides shake hands, so to speak.
There is more to that album, naturally -- Mozart Ravel, and Gershwin -- and I think it was a good variety for people to get to know me by. What I am doing now is more specific. First with Brahms, and now Scriabin.
AMG: With the Brahms disc, you work with a chamber group called The Amity Players. Are you still involved with them?
XW: Oh yes! Definitely. They are my dear friends, and we come from all over the world. I'm from China, and the others are from Hungary (violinist BÃ©la HorvÃ¡th), Israel (violist Tom Palny), and Canada (cellist RaphaÃ«l DubÃ©). All of us are very passionate about music making. You should come to the rehearsals. They are very loud, vibrant, and enthusiastic, and sometimes things get a little heated, such strong opinions. But we work very hard, and we have played together quite a bit. On January 9th, we played the Brahms at Weill Hall, which is as you know in Carnegie Hall. In August, we will be recording all of the Schumann chamber music on CD for Naxos. I really look forward to that. In my opinion you are not a complete musician unless you play some chamber music. It helps me to be able to listen to stringed instruments. It is like listening to my father, and it is like a color I cannot get with my piano. When I listen to the string players it helps me to concentrate on the melody line more.
AMG: Your two Marquis discs, safe to say, contain material from standard repertoire composers -- Brahms, Bach, Ravel, and even Gershwin can be viewed as belonging to the core. With Scriabin, however, you have a composer who is both "standard rep" and not so. How was that a challenge?
XW: I picked the pieces I did partly because I wanted to encompass Scriabin's whole career from beginning to end. I wanted to cover it in its entirety and to follow all of the changes in his life and music. For those who don't know him, the changes -- from a roughly Chopin-like sound through a post-romantic approach, and then into something uniquely his own -- are not recognizable, especially if you choose a lot of his short pieces and play them all out of historical sequence, as is done sometimes.
AMG: Some of the offbeat choices really do stand out. I am a dyed in the wool Scraibinist, and I'd thought I had heard everything, yet I can't ever recall hearing his early Polonaise in B flat minor, Op. 21. You make that sound like a little masterpiece.
XW: Yes, the Polonaise -- it is obscure. I could only find one other pianist who had recorded it, a Russian pianist. It is a very interesting and good piece, and nobody plays it. Of course, the Polonaise is a very dense rhythm and, compared to a typical Chopin Polonaise, it is very romantic, more Russian and, I think, sadder than Chopin. It has bitterness and sweetness together, and I love music that makes me cry.
AMG: I was at a lecture that John Cage once gave, and someone in the audience asked him if he meant his music to be funny. And Cage answered, "Well, I'd certainly rather inspire laughter than tears."
XW: [laughs] Smart man! But I think that there is something to be said about something that moves you so you deeply in an emotional sense. I love some of the small, little [Scriabin] poÃ¨mes that you don't often hear in concert. They are not "classic," at least not in the sense that every Chopin Polonaise or every sonata of Beethoven is considered to be. You are right. Scriabin is standard, but he is also not so, and it is nice to be able to let people know him more. The complicated late style, with all that craziness, I love that about him also -- you know I do! There is SO MUCH color; endless colors, and every time I play it I feel it inside more and more. We did a video shoot that you can watch on YouTube, and for the first of it I was playing Mozart, so I had my hair up, and everything about it was very prim and proper. But by the time we got to Vers la flamme of Scriabin, I just wanted to go wild -- I didn't refresh my makeup, and I took my hair down and just went for it. And you see that all in the video.
AMG: That sounds intense!
XW: I like fire -- whenever there are moments where I can put on some fire I try to find its glow and to make it burn. I can see so much going on in a given piece, but there is fire somewhere there, and it is different in each [Scriabin] piece, whether it is red, blue, gold, or another color. I really wanted to magnify it, and to me that's what counts. If the fire comes into your heart then you never forget it.
AMG: Of course, there was some Scriabin on your first disc too. All of the things on your Marquis discs you had down cold and came in and laid them down. With the Scriabin disc you had to learn some things especially for the album and perhaps had not played them so long, but I didn't detect any lack of passion on your part in any of the tracks there. These are hard pieces which require a lot of stamina. How do you do it?
XW: Of course, there is a slightly different feeling in each one of the recordings I've made of Vers la flamme. The one for Marquis, for Naxos, and even the YouTube video. It has definitely grown since I first recorded it. I do not get tired of it, but also I try not to get too used to the music, especially when I have to repeat it a lot. Most times I'm a hundred percent with it, but there are times when concentration is lost. I feel that too. I think I know how to adjust myself, to get back to the mindset, back to the mood. One very important thing about being a pianist is that you have to find the difference in what is "the same" -- when you do, you will have something everybody will want to listen to.