In defence of Yuja Wang

In defence of Yuja Wang


norman lebrecht

June 24, 2019

Our collaborator Zsolt Bognar has been upset by the griping of some readers at the Chinese-American pianist, her minimalist clothes and her flamboyant lifestyle. He has written this riposte to one of the sourpusses.

The day I met Yuja was the day I filmed a feature about her for the show Living the Classical Life. She entered, as joyful and grateful as possible, so willing to submit to a format of introspection and deep consideration. She came across as one of the deepest, most vulnerable yet strong, and sincerely kindest human beings we have ever featured. And there was no trace of arrogance or entitlement to any aspect of her life. Her deep commitment to her art and to her mission to share great music with the world was astonishing. We explored her work ethic, and the demands she places on herself. Hers is a probing spirit, always searching for new answers and deeper meaning, and one who is open about just being herself. You would also be flabbergasted by how self-critical she is.

Some people cannot seem to see past her concert attire. She loves these clothes and has fun collecting and wearing them. Many said the same about Liszt’s over-blown attire, ostentatiously decked out with all of his medals and decorations clanking together, his theatrics, his gloves that he would toss aside, his sex appeal, and his intentions. I notice that the most savage criticism directed at Yuja comes from a very specific demographic and age group, absolutely without fail.

You dismiss her as a loud virtuoso. When she came here to Cleveland for performances of Rachmaninoff 3 and Bartók 1, what astonished the audiences here, of all my musician friends, teachers, and colleagues, was the heartbreaking, even understated lyricism. I don’t think I heard the Rachmaninoff so arrestingly melancholic, and much of it even seemed at sotto voce. The Bartók was prismatic in its musical grasp and range. I have heard her elsewhere in the world, and am surprised by the sense of discovery and freedom. Her Brahms 1 in Tokyo was introspective and tragic in the very least.

Most of the guests I feature on Living the Classical Life do not keep in touch as friends, and that’s fine. Yuja became one of the most devoted and caring friends I have ever met, and this has gone on for years. Full of life and humor, she goes above and beyond to be there for her friends. But there is no need to defend her character or sincerity as a musician. What I am saying is that she is doing what she loves doing, fully and with great conviction, musically and in life. What is clear is she is a musician and human being who cares fully about everything. You didn’t like her Hammerklavier? Fine, go and listen to any number of others out there–the world is full of choices and the perspectives of devoted artists.

I do happen to know she was made aware of your comment. Look what you wrote–you made your opinion clear, but expressed it in appalling, embarrassing terms that only reflect on you.

Krystian Zimerman once said of the best criticism: for it to be truly perceptive, like a radio station the transmitter and receiver must be equally tuned. Otherwise, one perceives only the effect, not the cause. Sergei Babayan said of Glenn Gould: sometimes we play for listeners who are not present–our message is addressed to another audience.

Watch Zsolt’s Yuja interview here.



  • The View from America says:

    Thank you for posting this.

  • Andy says:

    Good for him. Zsolt Bognar seems to know her as a friend, and he is a wonderful pianist and knows far more about music and pianists than many of of us, so I’d take him at his word.

    ‘Living the classical life’ is absolutely one of the best things out there, I could listen to Zsolt and his guests all day! Hard to pick a favourite episode but I keep going back to the ones with Joshua Bell, Joyce Didanato, Stephen Hough and Vladimir Ashkezanzy. Anyone who hasn’t seen ‘Living the classical life’ really really needs to go and watch some. It’s a real treasure trove.

    • The View from America says:


    • Zsolt Bognar says:

      Many many thanks Andy–and thanks for also saying kind words about my being a pianist too! I’m so glad you enjoy Living the Classical Life–it’s a labor of love and requires hundreds and hundreds of hours, and is largely funded out of our own pockets. The fact that we reach some people who appreciate it makes it worth it.

      • The View from America says:

        You reach more people than you know, Zsolt. Each edition of “Living the Classical Life” is eagerly consumed by many of us — and shared liberally as well. I can’t think of anyone better to do it — so carry on!

  • Costa Pilavachi says:

    I am really happy you posted this. I had the pleasure of presenting Yuja at the Athens Festival last week- with the excellent Luxembourg Phil and their super talented maestro Gustavo Gimeno. Yuja played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the 2nd concerto of Shostakovich as well as 3 solo encores. She was sensational! She truly conquered the difficult Athens audience which did not know her prior to this concert. The many pianists attending were flabbergasted at her technique (she can do anything and everything) as well as her superb taste and overwhelming musicality. But beyond her pianistic abilities, Yuja has that undefinable “something” which excites her public, it is what we call “star quality”. Her imaginative fashion sense simply adds to the overall effect, it is a part of the total package. I am still walking on air after such an amazing concert and, I am sure, so are the 4000 or so who attended the open air concert at the Odeon of Herod Atticus with me.

    • Alan says:

      I was in Athens the previous week and was really annoyed when I found out I was missing the concert by a few days! Saw her do the Gershwin in Salzburg a few years back and it was great. She’s playing the Rach 3 with the Statskappelle Dresden next May in Dublin and I already have my ticket.

      There are some really nasty keyboard warriors on this site who really would want to take a long, hard look at themselves.

    • Zorba says:

      LOL @ “the difficult Athens audience”!

      Ah yes, the Greeks!
      If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere! :)))

  • Christian says:

    Hey Zsolt, I would actually love to know, what is the main idea behind Yuja’s concert attire? It sparks a lot of attention the last 10 years or so, and she sure looks good on Youtube, but what I really find puzzling, is whether there is some kind of deeper thought behind it – not simply a PR/marketing stunt…..

    Does her outfits make her feel more serious or less stressed about going on stage? Does performing while showing more skin, give more life (or esprit) to the “old” music? Is it that Yuja wants to connect more intimately with music lovers, or does she want more (young) people to click on her videos and experience her live on stage?

    Surely, Yuja Wang will always be more a subject than an object. She is a very talented and good-looking indivdual. It’s just a few questions that I have been pondering. There is nothing sexier (coming from an artist) than big ideas.

    • Westfan says:

      I think she likes to wear fun, sexy clothes! She’s a clothes horse, many women are, and some men too. She looks great in them, I’m assuming they are comfortable and freeing to perform in, so why not? I remember the days when men all wore tails and white tie or tuxes to perform in, now more casual, comfortable attire is the norm. Joshua Bell was one of the earliest, but there are many out there now. I tend to listen more than watch anyway, at least after the first few minutes.

    • Robert Groen says:

      Do I detect a tiny tone of prurience here?

      • Christian says:

        Maybe. I won’t deny, I’m easily distracted by visual effects. But I’m actually hoping that this comical debate about Yuja’s concert attire will soon end forever.

        Musicians and music lovers should be discussing music and big ideas; not dresses, shoes and stockings.

        It might be up to Yuja to actively do something to STOP this decade-long debate.

        And there is the unanswered question: Will she be remembered by the end of this century as a great pianist?

        Maybe the solution lies in putting the music first, and this could really take her pianism to a whole new level.

        Or: Maybe the solution is quitting the music business, like she stated the other day, she might quit at 35 and have a baby…?

        I don’t know what is best for Yuja Wang, but the 2010s are soon over, and it’s time for new ideas and new ways of presenting classical music.

        I apologise if my earlier comments and questions have made some people angry.

  • Been Here Before says:

    Is this for real? Yuja Wang follows SD and gets so annoyed by a single comment that her buddy Bognar has to post a response?

    I thought highly of her, but this totally brought her down in my eyes. How can anybody take this site and comments seriously? I thought this was just a guilty pleasure for music lovers.

    • Andy says:

      It doesn’t say she follows SD, it also doesn’t say that she was annoyed by the comment. I expect she wasn’t – it happens a lot.

      Neither does he *have* to post a response, but the criticism she gets on this site is frequent, and often just cruel, and speculates on what she’s like as a person (from people who have never met her), and much degradation on her worth as an artist.

      Sometimes enough’s enough – and as Mr Bognar actually *knows* that much of what people say about her isn’t true, he’s quite entitled to defend her.

      It’s a shame to see discussions about some of the world’s greatest artists, and of music that has lasted for centuries, degraded to the level of some kind of sports-style tribal insults, and a good thing for people to speak against that.

    • Keen Ned says:

      Read the attack that was posted on her. It’s not only deeply offensive, but also creepy, and written by someone who is far from mentally stable. Have you ever seen thefilm ‘Play Misty For Me’? The syndrome in which life’s failures and has-beens morph into psychopathic crazies is well known.

      • Karl says:

        Just because the women doesn’t like Yuja Wang doesn’t maker her mentally unstable. When you’re famous you’re going to get harshly criticized sometimes.

        • Keen Ned says:

          [[ I find Yuja Wang and the media hype around her embarrassing, as a woman I am ashamed of her stupidity: ]]

          Wrong, Karl, wrong. That’s not ‘harsh criticism’. Criticism in any form needs to be objective – to be about some topic or issue. This isn’t ‘criticism. It’s calculated psychological abuse. No-one, professional or not, deserves to be subjected to this kind of beat-down.

          • John Rook says:

            We cannot control what others think of us and pathetic comments such as the one you quote above says everything about the writer and nothing about Yuja Wang. We’re only ‘subjected’ to something if we choose to let it touch us.

          • John Rook says:

            ‘say’ everything; not ‘says’. Sorry.

          • Barry Guerrero says:

            Wrong – a pedantic point. “Says” is perfectly acceptable in that context. Language is a living ‘thang’ that is ever evolving.

          • John Rook says:

            No, sorry. ‘Say’ refers to ‘pathetic comments’ so is plural. Language does evolve but there’s correct and incorrect grammar.

          • Karl says:

            ROFL. Snowflakism. Thanks for the laugh. I’ll send you a MAGA hat.

  • Piano Fan says:

    Zsolt Bognár’s comments were entirely on point. The petty gripes about Yuja Wang’s attire and slaps at her musicianship are the result of envy of her looks and her chops, along with a misguided puritanism which is just why so many think classical music is “boring.” And, as Bognár pointed out, criticism of Wang emanates almost exclusively from a single demographic. He didn’t name the demographic, I will: elderly Caucasians, particularly bitter post-menopausal women.

    If you don’t like Wang’s attire, close your eyes. If you don’t like her playing, don’t go to her concerts. Nobody will complain that you’re not in the audience.

  • Keen Ned says:

    100% agreed with the author. I was astounded to read the deeply offensive and profoundly IGNORANT posting which provoked this exchange. Its author clearly hasn’t the slightest clue about classical music, and is obviously themselves an embittered, failed performer, whose disturbed mind is utterly consumed by jealousy of the success of others. But she doesn’t stop at mere jealousy – her twisted diatribe turns into a frenzied personal assault on Yuja’s every aspect – from concert dress to personal demeanour. A disgraceful posting from a disgraceful individual, who has FAILED at every step of her life. Clearly a religious nut, determined to foist her Calvinist mores on all around her. Almost certainly a church organist who fumbles her way each week through hymns in keys with no more than two flats or sharps in the key-signature, and written in plod-plod 4/4 time.

    • The View from America says:

      The original posting was pathetic, but I’m not sure giving him/her the same kind of pasting as s/he did Yuja Wang is the best way to move the ball down the field.

      What we’re talking about (and hoping for) is more respect all-around. That rule is golden for a reason.

  • LondonPianist says:

    Completely agree. Thank you to Zsolt Bognar for writing this.

  • It really doesn’t matter what anyone wears. What does matter is having a continuum of anything that matters bridging the past through the present toward the future. My teacher was Adele Marcus who once said, “Technique is like money: it isn’t everything, but without it, you can’t do anything.” Yuja has physical gifts beyond the norm, yet she is evolving into a beautiful artist. Every young lion and lioness of the keyboard has visceral energy which is an important foundation. When I watched the video of Yuja’s performance of the Schumann concerto, she played it with sensitivity and excitement. She is daring and dedicated. That’s what matters most over the course of a career. I look forward to watching her evolve even more on her journey.

  • YS says:

    Sorry, but her appearance is cheap, does not suit the level of the clasdical music but to the contrary makes one wish to switch the tv off, as happened days ago when she appeared at Schoenbrunner Sommerkonzert.

    If she wants to wear such clothes in her private life, this is her decision. But as a professional musician this is simply disgusting.

    • Jack says:

      You should be sorry. If her appearance bothers you, do yourself — and the rest of us — a favor by ignoring her. Don’t waste your time reading Norman’s posts about her. Go out of your way to not watch her many performances on YouTube. I know we can be confident that you’ll never purchase a ticket to one of her concerts, so you’ve got that base covered.

      But really, why waste your time on Yuja Wang? She is an artist of international stature, but there are others you can seek out and enjoy. Yuja and the rest of us won’t miss you.

    • Paul Carlile says:

      So switch off, and miss the music! Strangely, i heartily dislike Yuja’s look these days, being allergic to hi-heels, glossy makeup, etc, but this doesn’t stop me listening and going to her concerts. Even if i haven’t always equally liked everything she’s done, there’s always at least an amazing vitality and natural passion in her performances, more than compensating for the (for me), ghastly visuals. For most of my life my favorite soloist was an impossibly ugly person with some distracting tics. Did this stop me enjoying some of the best music-making ever? Don’t get so fixote on the superficial aspects.
      I hope in due course, Yuja will calm down (visually!), take a sabbatical and return even better. For the moment tho, she remains a vital and fascinating presence in the musical world.

    • Karl says:

      Are you keeping up with the Kardashians? Now THAT’S lowbrow. Yuja is stylish.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Let’s face it, when you get a good looking young person who is as successful as Yuja Wang there are bound to be those who snipe and criticise, mainly because they haven’t had anything like the same success themselves and they envy her. Of course, the fact she is trendy and sexy and actually appears to enjoys life fills the gripers with double the bile – especially as she is an exceptionally good pianist to boot!

  • Karin Becker says:

    I am glad that Miss Wang has a true knight as a friend. They rave about her in the highest tones, no shadow that could fall on her …
    Two remarks: In his concerts, which were also attended by women who swarmed around him, did Liszt move so far that 50% of his body was naked? Did he undress so much that women speculated about wearing underwear?
    Yuja Wang male fans do this …

    It’s nice that Miss Wang enjoys her various wardrobe parts. It would be even nicer if she would wear them where they fit: at parties, in the bar, on the beach.
    A US critic has accused her, your wardrobe was so that you can not take children to the concert. I agree with that. Watch recordings of her concert in Istanbul.

    • John Rook says:

      A US critic has accused her, your wardrobe was so that you can not take children to the concert.

      Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…

    • Karl says:

      I can’t find those recordings. Links please!! I want to see!!!

    • Paul Carlile says:

      Well, you don’t seem at all interested in music, or very observant of history, just obsessed with superficial visuals. Liszt performed at a time when even an ankle showing was exciting, (or, to you, shocking), so one can’t compare the different styles.
      Now, are you sitting comfartably…..? (). Hans von Bülow said he could always tell where the ladies had sat by the wet patches on the seats after a Liszt performance….(“ooohhh..disgusting, kindly delete….” -Karin B.)…no disrobing required.
      In the mid-20th century, Eileen Joyce was often critiçose by the Karin B’s of her time for changing dresses between concert items, people as uninterested in music as yourself. Her performances, (as recorded, i regret i never heard her live), were splendid.

  • Robert Groen says:

    I wish these dried-up, shrivelled members of the dress police would find another forum for their venomous invective. Yuja Wang doesn’t need defending, she is a pianist of the very highest order. Thanks to Zsolt Bogdan for speaking up. What are the Amish doing in a music blog anyway?

  • Robert Groen says:

    Sorry, Bognar!

  • Janos Gereben says:

    Zsolt is exactly right. From my own limited personal and extensive public experience of Yuja, she is in the András Schiff class of musicians and human beings.

  • Leon says:

    There is much prejudice in this world…has always been. No one is exempt from criticism, and certainly, freedom of opinion and press still exist. In my experience of 70+ years, there have been many flambuoyant performers. Iturbi was lambasted for raising his hands so high in the air, Liberace for his clothing, winking at his audience, One pianist for wearing flaming red socks, another lady for showing cleavage, etc.
    It boils down to this…a show of any king must have an audience…in today’s world, whatever it takes is necessary, simply to jar people lose from their technology..short of total nudity…perhaps males might appear in underwear or skimpy briefs? Any guess is possible!

  • William Duff says:

    There are many fine musicians playing today; there are many kind, wonderful individuals in the world. Rarely have I found as many splendid attributes in one person as Yuja; to also be as full of fun and sharing this seems unique to me. She is a life-transforming individual.

  • M2N2K says:

    Reasonable people tell me: her outfits are inappropriate for classical concert stage. My response to that: definition of what’s “appropriate” changes with time. A few decades ago all male conductors and soloists were dressed the same – black tales with white tie. Now very few successful ones are dressed that way; some look better than others but I don’t hear anyone complain about any of them. So, if YW is dressed sexier that what we were used to seeing on classical concert stages, maybe she is already establishing new trend and is simply ahead of us in that department. She looks good and, what’s much more important, her playing sounds at the very least very good but often outstanding – so let’s just enjoy her fine artistry and let all other matters alone.

  • christopher storey says:

    Zsolt Bognar needs to learn the virtue of brevity

  • Mark says:

    “Fleet-fingered”, of course, not “feet” 🙂

  • Marshall says:

    This is really an amusing set of comments. The very fact that there is a defense and discussion of what a pianist is wearing says it all.

    • Karl says:

      The guy who was playing armchair psychologist and diagnosing someone he never met as mentally unstable was a real hoot.

  • Christoph Müller says:

    Yuja a loud virtuoso? In my ears since Benedetti Michelangeli no pianist had a pianissimo like her!

  • Music and visual appearance are orthogonal.

    I used to quip to my fellow music students that music videos are great: now deaf people can also enjoy the music!

    And the old corny joke is relevant: The definition of a true music lover is one, upon hearing a soprano singing in the bathtub, puts his ear to the keyhole.

    I’m glad that Yuja is as attractive on the outside as she is on the inside. And her decision to put all her talents on display is a testament to her convictions as a human being who delights in herself. Bravo!

  • DYB says:

    The obsession with what Yuja Wang wears is fascinating. She is a grown woman and does not need anyone’s approval on her wardrobe. She has control over her own body and if some misogynist (and yes, women can be misogynists) objects to it, too bad. You don’t like? Gouge out your eyes.

    Recently Madonna was criticized for something she wore and she responded: “Desperately seeking no one’s approval.”

  • Johan VanLeer says:

    The same critics that now marvel also at Ms. Wang’s attire, vilified Eileen Joyce for changing dresses !

  • Tony says:

    I don’t know if you’d read this yujia, meet God,let him guide you..

  • Christine says:

    People can be so cruel…these people must live very sad and empty lives to be so critical of another human being.Somewhere down the line their humanity was lost.I can only hope that Yuga does not take it so hard . There are many more decent kind people who love her as she is . On a more personal note hearing you play Chopin the other night brought me to tears as many years I also played this piece . It brought back many wonderful memories. Your interpretation of this beautiful song moved me to my core! Carry On Yuga Keep Sharing Your Gift

  • mark says:

    It would be insane to claim that she’s not a gifted pianist. The problem is that she’s not a very interesting one, except when she mixes up programs, or stands on her head or whatever. I find the playing very cold and weirdly detached.