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Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Yuja Wang at Symphony Center | Concert preview

The Beijing-born piano prodigy wows with Prokofiev.

Yuja Wang

Raw, naughty and sarcastic are the words that spring to Yuja Wang’s mind when she thinks of Prokofiev. “His music is just so rock & roll. It can be nasty but still have a twist of humor,” she tells me over the phone from her Manhattan apartment, which, she says, contains only a bed, piano and several suitcases. “I’ve lived here for five years but have probably only been here for five months of that time!” she adds with a laugh. “I’m on the road constantly.”

The Beijing-born piano prodigy’s steady upward trajectory began at age seven when she entered that city’s Central Conservatory of Music. Now 26, the upbeat ivory tickler has built a glittering reputation based on her blistering technique, rock-star charisma and fierce fashion sense. Comparisons to Lang Lang abound (the two share former instructors in China and Philly), but the sheer fire and brimstone of Wang’s playing pushes her to another level.

The last time Wang played Chicago, in 2007, she caused a stir with a stunning performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. She recalls the experience clearly. “I remember feeling particularly exuberant about the brass section. That music requires such intense brass playing, and the energy of the whole orchestra was amazing.” Six years later, she returns to perform the Russian master’s Third Piano Concerto under the direction of Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo. “Finally I get the chance to play Prokofiev in Chicago again!” Wang says.

It’s a wild ride of a piece, and the perfect match for Wang’s virtuosity and youthful energy. “I love how smoky and sexy his music can be. It’s totally a language of its own, and I can speak that language,” she says. “This is a good piece to play while I’m still edgy—I won’t want to play it when I’m 60 years old!”

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