Joyce Yang in Recital

Joyce Yang photo by K.T. KimWhat is it that lifts a piano player into the realm of greatness? This was a quandary that came to mind when Joyce Yang completed her introduction to her program with the remark that like every great pianist she hoped her audience would enjoy her program.

Born in Korea, Joyce Yang’s aptitude for the piano emerged early. When she was about to turn four her aunty decided that Joyce would be her first music student and persuaded her parents to buy her a piano for her fourth birthday.

By the time Joyce was 15, although too young to enter the Julliard pre-college Concerto Competition, she nevertheless set herself the task of learning the assigned repertoire: Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

By age 19, as the youngest competitor in the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Joyce began to attract international attention by winning not only the silver medal but two other awards as well.

In the 19 years since, Joyce Yang has travelled the world forging her career and cementing her reputation as an extraordinarily talented concert pianist, performing with the most prestigious symphony orchestras and earning herself a Grammy nomination along the way.

For this concert, which she performed in the Snow Concert Hall prior to her performances with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Yang chose a program of works by Russian composers, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky.

By delightful happenstance, she performed on the Snow Concert Hall’s newly acquired Steinway Model D Concert Grand. Known as “The Olley”, this piano was originally purchased brand new for the Sydney Conservatorium in 2005, the year Yang won her silver medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Yang opened her program with six short piano pieces selected from a series of twelve, written by Tchaikovsky under the title of The Seasons Op.37a. Tchaikovsky composed these pieces on commission for an innovative magazine editor who had promised his readers a different Tchaikovsky composition each month. He wrote these twelve pieces at the same time as he was also composing Swan Lake.

From the twelve works Yang chose No.1 January: By the Fireside, No.2 February: Carnival, No. 4 April: Snowdrop, No.5 May: May Nights, No.6: June: Barcarolle and No 8. August: Harvest.

As the titles suggest each of these little piano sketches represented a different season or inspiration. They’ve achieved popularity  among recitalists as encores. For Yang however, they provided a charming introduction, allowing her to demonstrate her impressive technical prowess and emotional connection with the music, while introducing her to her audience and allowing her to explore  ‘the Olley’.

Following the Seasons she deepened the mood with three Rachmaninoff preludes selected from his 13 Preludes Op.32 and 10 Preludes Op.23. Producing a warm bold sound with dramatic extended pauses and rich voicings she explored the lustrous sonority of the instrument, before letting loose the fireworks with a dazzling performance of three movements from Stravinsky’s The Firebird.

It was in The Firebird that Yang’s virtuosic technique was on full display. Despite the obvious complexities of the work with its crashing dissonant chording, Yang appeared in complete control, demanding and receiving from her instrument a huge, clearly defined sound with which to fill the Snow Concert Hall. It was a thrilling performance which received thunderous recognition from her  excited audience.

Following a short interval Yang performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which like the Tchaikovsky, allowed her to demonstrate the full range of the effortless technique for which she is justly celebrated.

But demonstrating technique was not Yang’s interest. She obviously takes her technique for granted, for as she worked through her program she appeared serene, allowing herself  the occasional gentle smile, even finishing a piece with a flourish.

By selecting such a wide-ranging program Yang’s purpose was to put her technique to the service of the music to enable each member of her audience to discover what it was that each composer wanted them to experience while listening to their music.

In that she certainly succeeded, and rewarded herself by pleasuring her audience with an encore by one of her favourite composers; a gentle nocturne by Grieg.

After this performance, was there anyone present who would disagree that Joyce Yang should be labelled a great pianist?

Joyce Yang: Kaleidoscopic Colours
Snow concert Hall, 40 Monaro Crescent, Red Hill (Canberra)
Performance: Tuesday 14 May 2024

Joyce Yang will perform the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Concert Hall – Sydney Opera House on 18 & 19 May 2024.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra will present Joyce Yang in Recital (Kaleidoscopic Colours) at the City Recital Hall on Monday 20 May 2024.

Image: Joyce Yang – photo by K.T. Kim

Review: Bill Stephens OAM