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Yuja Wang Makes Classical Music Fashionable

Yuja Wang in performance. (Ian Douglas)

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Yuja Wang,
who makes her Celebrity Series of Boston debut Friday night at Jordan Hall, is one of today’s YouTube classical pianist sensations, along with Valentina Lisitsa. The hits number in the millions while other famous pianists — Jeremy Denk, say — number in the thousands.

Why? Well, to judge from the photo above and video below, there are probably a number of viewers who aren’t only coming for the Scriabin:

As one might expect, there is some debate in the classical world about whether little red dresses (or orange, black and purple) make for proper attire. And whether all those cameras with uploads on their minds should be allowed in the concert hall. (They won’t be at Jordan.) One of my favorite pianists, Krystian Zimerman has stopped concerts when he sees a camera, saying that YouTube is costing musicians recording contracts.

Nevertheless, whatever the 26-year-old Wang wants to wear is fine with me, as are her videos. Classical music needs all the help it can get these days and Wang is a force for good. What she’s doing for classical music is somewhat akin to what Leonard Bernstein did in terms of using the medium of the day (network television) to speak to audiences. Granted, Lenny never wore a Speedo onstage, but his charisma and talent introduced classical music to a new generation of viewers, myself included.

And Wang, who was born in Beijing and schooled in America, has talent to burn. She combines passion and intelligence with virtuosity and precision. Despite her attire, she is not particularly flashy at the keyboard (hi there, Lang Lang) but her focus is razor sharp.

Here’s what I mean as she attacks Igor Stravinsky’s “Three Movements from Petrushka,” which she’ll be playing Friday night, with a much greater contrast between fast and slow sections than you usually hear. The storytelling’s all in the technique.

She’ll also be playing the third piano sonatas of both Chopin and Prokofiev, along with other pieces by Chopin. Admirably, like many pianists and violinists of her generation, she doesn’t avoid contemporary music. Friday’s concert includes the jazzy “Variations” by Nikolai Kapustin, who doesn’t have quite as many hits as Wang. Pasta apparently doesn’t sell as well as Wang, though what the YouTuber was trying to convey is beyond me.

Wang will be back in Boston in March with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and more Prokofiev, the second piano concerto, which is also on her recent CD with Gustavo Dudamel. But Friday is all-Wang in what looks to be a smartly thought-out program and one that shows off her considerable pianistic talents. As for the other stuff she has quoted Coco Chanel saying, “A girl should always be two things: classy and fabulous.”

You be the judge.