Last Monday, January 23, in a master class at the Manhattan School of Music for five piano students willing to pit their confidence in their pianistic skill against what must be the withering terror of a public examination by one of the most acclaimed piano artists of her generation, Yuja Wang was unsparing in her critiques, as well as in her praise, her encouragement, and her example.
Sponsored by the A. L. and Jennie L. Luria Foundation, the master class was held in a packed-to-capacity Greenfield Hall. Ms. Wang, flanked by MSM piano faculty in the front row, initially told the audience she would not play, but as the need arose, she could not help rising to her high-heeled feet, and to the stage and piano, to demonstrate. For the first student, she stressed that the player always has to have their own intent, and to know where the music is going. And the audience must hear the melody, no matter how lush the surrounding voices. A pop quiz on use of the sostenuto pedal as a way to solve one technical problem seemed to catch the student unprepared; but in general, the students were all remarkably adept in varying their technique in response to Ms. Wang’s coaching.
Over the course of all the students, Ms. Wang decried several repeated “bad habits,” including the tendency to “take time” or “make time,” i.e., playing with rubato or delaying the melody by a fraction behind the rhythm; and starting or ending with a ritardando that could not be found in the composer’s written intent. This may have caused heat under the collars of some of the assembled piano faculty, but there was also the cooling praise of, “I love the notes you have written in the margins here. Who is giving you lessons?” She stressed above all faithfulness to the score and obedience to rhythm. “Pay attention to the score, and do it all the way.” “Play what is written in the score, and not how you are feeling that day.” “There is nothing non-musical about sounding mechanical.” “Imagine a ballerina spinning on a music box; don’t try to be too seductive here.” She spent several minutes with one student helping her to perfect (as she demonstrated perfectly) playing a right-hand passage of descending intervals legato, as demanded by the slur in the score, without using the pedal: “Even if you feel it, if I didn’t hear it, you didn’t play it.” Another repeated admonition was that the player must understand the composer’s overall purpose of the music. “Before you play, what is this saying? Where is it leading?”
And possibly the most general and helpful advice of all: “composers never make anything predictable, so stop if you are playing in a predictable way.”
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