yuja wang

Photo: Rolex

It is a fine fall afternoon in Milan, and superstar pianist Yuja Wang is remembering the first time she performed in the Italian city’s legendary opera house, Teatro alla Scala (also known as La Scala). With a throaty laugh, the 36-year-old musician recalls the concert held in 2009, where she performed a Profokiev concerto with conductor Antonio Pappano and the Filarmonica della Scala: “I definitely remember my debut here. Years ago, with Pappano. I didn’t know purple was unlucky, and of course, I wore purple.”

Leave it to the Beijing-born pianist, who has been based in New York since 21, to have a sartorial memory of that career milestone. Wang, who began playing the piano at age six and made her European debut at 16, is known as much for her powerful and dazzling performances as for the flamboyant outfits she wears on stage. “(What I wear) does make a difference,” she muses, reflecting on how she chooses her outfits to reflect her mood and what she desires to convey about certain compositions. “In a concert, the visual is part of the experience.”

Invited by Rolex, The Peak was in Milan in October to attend Wang’s performance of the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen, alongside Australian conductor Simone Young, ondes Martenot player Cécile Lartigau and the Filarmonica della Scala. Wang has been a Rolex Testimonee since 2009.

In a concert held the previous evening — the second of three scheduled performances — Wang had taken to the stage in a dress in a blazing shade of orange, accented with mesh-covered cut-outs and a crystal-studded neckline. The boldness of her outfit perfectly complemented the rousing performance of a milestone work in contemporary classical music.

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Rolex Testimonee Yuja Wang is known for her virtuosic playing as well as her flamboyant style. (Photo: Rolex)

About 80 minutes long, the Turangalîla-Symphonie is an exuberant and audacious piece that its composer once described as “a love song, a hymn to joy”. Comprising 10 movements written for a large orchestra, it is lengthy and highly layered. Wang shares that while playing compositions such as the Turangalîla-Symphonie can be a challenge (“I keep reminding myself to be in this moment, in this spot, rather than thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s 85 minutes’”), she never fails to be energised by the music itself, as well as the heritage of venues such as La Scala.

Indeed, when one steps inside its grand interiors, one can see and feel the history of La Scala, which opened in 1778. Located in the heart of Milan, a stone’s throw away from the famous Duomo, the theatre has hosted many of the greatest names in classical music, including composers such as Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and opera stars Maria Callas and Cecilia Bartoli. 

Completed by the architect Giuseppe Piermarini in 1778, La Scala has, in recent times, gone through extensive renovations. Between 2002 and 2004, and 2019 and 2023, the opera house underwent major works, led by Swiss architect Mario Botta. Today, while the theatre still retains many elements of its past, such as the ornately decorated boxes that used to be owned by aristocrats, it is also a fully modern space: Its impressive features include an adjoining 17-storey structure, six of which are underground, that houses space for performers as well as stage props for up to three productions at a time. 

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Inaugurated in 1778, Teatro alla Scala retains many of its original elements. (Photo: Rolex)

During a backstage tour, we get to see these spaces and props up close (“There’s the balcony from The Marriage of Figaro,” says our guide cheerfully at one point, pointing out a huge structure used in the Mozart opera). As part of its Perpetual Arts Initiative, Rolex has been the Exclusive Timepiece of La Scala since 2006. The brand has also been a supporter of the Museo Teatrale alla Scala, or the La Scala Museum, since 2020.

Back at our interview, Wang points out that because La Scala is first and foremost an opera house, the acoustics are excellent for singers, but can be “dry” — or have fewer reverberations — for a pianist. Even though it can be a challenge, she enjoys the fact that the venue requires playing that is “crystal clean and clear — it doesn’t hide anything”. As we learn during our candid two-hour chat with Wang, a similar sense of transparency characterises the pianist herself. Here, she shares more about her craft, her role models, and what female empowerment truly means to her.

How did you start playing the piano?

My mum’s a dancer, so the first thing I heard was Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. And I was like, oh my goodness, it’s so beautiful. And then she wanted me to be a dancer, so I pretended that I loved the piano so I didn’t have to dance. And I actually really did like piano after I started playing.

How much time do you spend practising?

I started touring when I was 16. Before that, I tried to play for two to three hours a day when I was younger. Arthur Rubinstein used to say that after three hours, you should enjoy life (elsewhere). And your brain also needs other arts to stimulate it. When touring, it’s not easy to find a piano. So I started learning how to practise mentally, read the score, think about the music, and the structure of the piece, and plan. And then, when I have a piano, I really concentrate for two to three hours.

What is your biggest motivation?

Music itself. I feel like people think it’s so glamorous, that you travel around, but the reality is that you’re in a practice room, downstairs in a building, and trying to practise. And then you’re in a hotel and have room service, and then you’re at the airport. 

It’s a lot of discipline, patience, and hard work. I keep going at it if I have a vision of how a piece should go. Sometimes, it’s easy. Sometimes I take a break, come back, and it gets better. But sometimes, you really have to go at it until you get it.

What have been the best moments of your career so far?

My motto is that the best concert is always the next one. But there are, of course, memorable ones. Like when I was growing up in China, there were people who were on my CD covers, like Claudio (Abaddo), and (Charles) Dutoit. And then I played with them in real life, and it was both scary and exciting. I was 22 the first time I played with Abbado, who chose me to open the Lucerne Festival with his festival orchestra — usually, he would play with (Maurizio) Pollini, who’s much older. (This was) right after I joined the Rolex family, actually. Those were really fun times.

You’ve been play-conducting with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and you recently performed at London’s Lightroom in an immersive showcase inspired by David Hockney paintings. Why is it important to you to engage with different aspects of classical music?

There’s just so much to learn in classical music. With Turangalîla, I played it in 2017, and there are things I knew but had forgotten. And then you play it again, and you’re aware of things in a different way. That piece has so many layers; the more you know it, the more it reveals itself, like a person.

The artistic collaboration with David Hockney was really cool. He’s so colourful. When I look at his paintings, I feel the same way I feel when listening to Messiaen’s piece — this joy of life and curiosity. Hockney is 86, but he is full of humour and really fun. His style changed whenever he moved: He was into portraits and still lifes, but he also did stage sets for music. He reminds me of Stravinsky, who wrote three ballets before 30 and kept learning and trying different styles all the time.

Even though we see more diversity, the classical music scene is male-dominated. Have you faced any challenges as a female pianist?

People ask me how it feels to be a woman as a pianist. But I just feel like a human. In the beginning, I used to get a lot of comments like, “She complains a lot” and “She doesn’t know what she wants.” On top of that, because I’m Asian: “She only has technique”, “She doesn’t understand music”. Or “She’s too young”, and “She looks too good, so nobody is actually listening” — which is actually a compliment (laughs). You just have to take that noise away and be like, “Okay, what do I really want to do? Why am I doing this?”

So much of it comes from the inside. Some things, like when people talk about women’s empowerment, feel kind of forced to me, because I didn’t have to be empowered — I am a powerful woman. It’s natural and organic.

Who are your female role models?

I love Maria Callas. And because I watch so many movies, Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron. Those are the people I think of to get my confidence up. Rihanna — and Billie Eilish, who’s probably half my age.

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Rolex Testimonee Yuja Wang wears a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Lady-Datejust. (Photo: Rolex)

In the conservative world of classical music, your glamorous dress sense stands out. How does it make a difference to your performances?

It does make a difference. Like the first night, I was wearing something aquatic, in blue and sea colours. Also, it wasn’t shiny, and I felt like my playing was much softer. And yesterday (in my orange dress), I felt like a goldfish (laughs). It’s a bright colour, with crystals, and I felt edgier.

Do you always feel confident, especially when faced with a huge audience?

If I’m not feeling confident, I’ll fake it until I do. You just never know how the acoustics (of a venue) will be or what the piano will be like. I started playing piano when I was six, and after half a year, I was already playing on stage. That was when I was really fearless. I remember playing with some older people, and they were very nervous, and I was like, “Why? You’ve practised already, and now you just have to play it once on stage.”

And when I got a little older and went on stage, I was like (makes a gasping noise); it was very different. I had long hair when I was younger because I was trying to block the audience. So I could pretend I was in my space. Like, I’m just practising! There’s nobody else!

Since you used your hair to block the audience then, why did you get it cut?

It was an accident: I was in Spain and had just gotten there, and my hair was so long. I needed a cut, and the hairdresser didn’t really speak English. I said, “I just want a trim; I want this much off.” Then I went to sleep, and when I woke up, it was like, “Nooooo!”

At the concert that night, I felt really naked. I was thinking, no dress can fix this (laughs)! Because I started so young, I didn’t know what I was doing, and so many things could happen. You just had to see the positive side and be like, “Okay, now we’ll go on this path.” But at a certain point, I felt I was too old to do this. Being on a rollercoaster is fun — in your 20s. Now I try to be in control of where I’m going and be more in the driver’s seat.

What advice would you give young musicians striving to achieve excellence?

I got the same question in another interview, and I said, “Just don’t be a musician (laughs).” But I hadn’t slept much, and what I meant was, take yourself out of it. Don’t think about your ego; you’re not doing this for yourself. If you love music enough, it’s for music.

Apparently, my parents told me not to be a musician, and at that time, I was like, “What? But I like it.” And now I know what they mean. Sometimes I want more time to myself, but there is a calling for everyone, and it’s about that thing — it’s not about yourself. In the end, it’s about the culture and the music, and it becomes timeless.

Who are your greatest influences?

As a pianist, (Vladimir) Horowitz and Rachmaninoff. I also get so much out of reading a book. I read a lot in my teenage years: Proust, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Ayn Rand. But back then, when I was reading all that, it was not for fun. It was for nutrition and energy — for me to have power and inner strength. 

I’m trying to read more nowadays because reading is better for the brain. But if I want to relax, I watch movies — it’s easier. I was reading The Three Musketeers and was like, “No, I’m just going to watch a movie.”

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The facade of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. (Photo: Rolex)

What attracted you to Rolex, and how did you decide to become a Testimonee?

I was so honoured. With Rolex, it was like, this is the Crown. And my last name is Wang, which means “the king” in Chinese (laughs). I love the commitment they have to supporting the arts and talents. (At Rolex,) everyone has such amazing ideas for culture and where humanity is going. It’s really about making the effort to make the world a better place in our own way.

What values do you and Rolex share?

Timelessness. I mean, not me, but music (laughs). This watch (points to the Oyster Perpetual Lady-Datejust on her wrist) is so perfect, forever. And once it’s made, it’s there forever. It’s the same with any piece of music, even though it’s made by humans with flaws. It’s about working until it’s perfect.

I have friends who ask how I find inspiration. I just get up, and I work; sometimes it comes, and sometimes it doesn’t. But if you don’t work, it will never come. The best thing is to show up. And this makes me show up.

Do you ever feel like you missed out on the things normal people do when they’re young?

I constantly think about how lucky I was that I did what I did when I was young, rather than running around doing nothing — and that I learnt all this repertoire (laughs). Because it’s so much easier when you’re young; your neurons connect differently. Thank goodness I knew right away, and took a narrow but direct path to what I would do with my whole life.

• Rolex Perpetual Arts Initiative •

Supporting music, cinema and architecture to perpetuate global artistic heritage.

Rolex has supported the arts for more than half a century through partnerships with illustrious artists and leading cultural institutions. The Rolex Perpetual Arts Initiative spans music, cinema, architecture, and a mentoring programme. The brand’s involvement in music began in 1976, when New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa because the first Rolex Testimonee from the realm of the arts.

Its commitment to this realm extends through opera, classical music, and popular music, as shown by its longstanding relationships with renowned singers, conductors, and instrumentalists. Yuja Wang, for instance, has been a Rolex Testimonee since 2009.

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The grand interior of the Teatro alla Scala. (Photo: Rolex)

La Scala is one of many prestigious cultural institutions supported by Rolex. They include the Royal Opera House (London), the Metropolitan Opera (New York), the Opéra National de Paris (Paris), Teatro Colon (Buenos Aires) and the Opéra de Monte Carlo.

In cinema, Rolex supports luminaries like directors Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, in addition to the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Oscars. Architecture is also a key focus for the brand, which has been a partner of the Architecture Biennale since 2014.

Cutting across disciplines, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative has meaningfully connected great masters with young talents in architecture, music, cinema, dance, literature, theatre, and the visual arts for more than 20 years.