Yundi is not your typical child prodigy turned classical music star. He is cool and centred, without any hint of being overwhelmed by where his talent has taken him: he is in complete control of all his excellently-honed faculties. His calmness is a testament to the old adage of proper preparation and I felt somewhat like I was in the presence of a Jedi – composed and reserving the full force of his power for the performance.
His story is atypical too, he was not being tutored at three and a half and forced to practice ever hour God gave him by his tiger mother. Although he was the youngest contestant to ever win the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition at the age of 18, he first encountered the piano when he was seven as a natural extension from the accordion which he was given at four. It was love at first sight and the one thing that has kept him going ever since has been the fundamental position that,“I never want to give up.”
Brilliance is a particular mix of nature and nurture, and not something that is easily achieved. It is clear Yundi has a genuine passion for music, which extends to the charity work he does to encourage children to develop their own talents. What makes him the perfect ambassador is that he was never forced to play, “there was a basic line from the beginning: I never wanted to give up. I feel happy and excited when I am on the piano. I feel like I am myself. When I play the piano it is easier for me to communicate – I really can say what I want and feel more confident when I say it on the piano.” This communication is what makes his performance so electric and how he transcends all the barriers of language and culture so effortlessly.
This tour is to promote the first recording that Yundi has devoted to Beethoven, having become an internationally renowned master of Chopin. It will herald a departure from the repertoire he is so well known for, as he moves from Chopin, of whom he is arguably the world’s expert, onto Beethoven, beginning with three sonatas from the Romantic period. To Yundi, these composers represent two sides of the same coin, “Beethoven is a Romantic. He has a different, Germanic side of the Romantic style to Chopin. Those three sonatas show his passionate and romantic side. For me it is about finding the right tempo, structure and most importantly what I bring to the piece: they are very well known which presents a great challenge.”
The word “challenge” is reiterated frequently throughout our brief time together and it becomes apparent that the reason why he is a master is because of his attitude to it – he relishes it. The Sonata No 8 in C minor Op 13, commonly known as the Pathetique was composed in 1798 and is considered the first of Beethoven’s truly great works in the genre, and certainly one that would have touched Chopin who initially composed in his shadow. What is significant about this piece is that it is that its explosive chords and dramatic colouring were not conceived to be played in the harpsichord as with the earlier sonatas.
It is a wholly pianistic piece, famous for both its beauty and its historical significance, a “challenge” Yundi feels ready to take it on at this point in his career. “I hope I bring the energy of my generation to the piece. Beethoven was a very dynamic and dramatic composer which allows for the big performance, it’s cool, even the audience can really get the atmosphere. Of course every piece has its standards, but the chemistry of the performance and how the player interacts with the audience and the acoustics is different every time.”
A major star in his native China, where his performances live and on TV are admired by billions, Yundi seems to move comfortably between the two worlds he inhabits – East to West, fame and anonymity, performer and sage. His concert career began when moved to Germany at 18 after winning a Chopin competition, giving him the opportunity to understand the culture of Europe and where the music came from. But music is an international language which he speaks very well and afforded him a very fluent working relationship between the top musicians and conductors in the world. “The most important thing is the communication with the audience when on stage.”
“We have the same feelings as humans despite our different languages. Music is a great unifying force, it brings people together. Younger people have so much information they have to get through – the idea is just to let people know about it – I feel it is my responsibility to introduce them to it. It’s ok to be young and switched on and love classical music.”
What I find deeply compelling about this artist is that he is focused on one composer at a time, bringing us along with him rather than having a really complicated repertoire that alienates all but the classically trained. Having focused for years on Chopin’s Sonatas, Nocturnes, and the Polonaise he is now moving into new territory. “You should find the thoughts, the ideas, so you can start to know the person, you should stay some time to understand and give some space to the composer. To get the right harmony and the right composition – it gives you time to develop your own repertoire and a deeper relationship with the composers.”
It’s not so much about him, it’s about the music, and as we talk I regret only that I have this interview in which to get to know this incredible maestro. He is someone you could follow for a whole lifetime. Before meeting Yundi, I had been somewhat primed to expect someone who was preoccupied with their personal style as the media really highlight the fact that he has a very keen sense of fashion and is the poster boy for his generation in China. But he has a much more balanced perspective, “It’s natural, it’s just a lifestyle, besides being a pianist I am also a young person and I enjoy what any other young person would do, like using social media to communicate with my fans. The new generation which you are from: you still live in this generation.”
Playing classical music does not preclude him from being a very modern man, and it is this very thing that brings such vitality and energy to his performances, switching on an entire generation to the music of Chopin, then Beethoven and perhaps in the future some of the classical Chinese composers for the red piano too. “There is a kind of combination that makes it more exciting and a challenge for a young audience: we are not living in the past but bringing the music back.”
But how does he handle the pressure of the schedule and manage to remain so focused? Something else that keeps resurfacing throughout the interview, with regards to both his preparation and his attitude to each composer is that one must “take time and concentrate yourself”. When he practices he stays alone with the music and the piano for up to five hours at a time in a kind of pure concentration without any interruption. It is about taking the time to listen – something I hope I can do more, especially if it is listening to Yundi.
by Nico Kos Earle
Yundi’s European tour continues – Strasbourg April 28, Mulheim May 5, Palermo May 7, Ravello May 11 and Berlin May 14. This year’s his spring performances also see Yundi debut at the Abu Dhabi Festival in March and his return to the Gewandhaus zu Leipzig (May 3).