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Fast Hands, Swift Rise

04.05.12
Wall Street Journal

By Ellen Gamerman

Yuja Wang became an Internet sensation a few years ago when a video of her playing "Flight of the Bumblebee" appeared on YouTube, her fingers moving so fast they blurred over the keys. Some viewers were so stunned, they wondered if the video was sped up.

Ms. Wang, a 25-year-old critically acclaimed concert pianist who makes her debut at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic Thursday, said she's gotten the wrong kind of attention from that video—so much so that she's banned the frenetic piece by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov from her repertoire, kept it off her new CD and rebuffed requests by orchestras and fans to perform the work as an encore. "I don't think that's a criteria or any standard for being a musician," she said of her fast playing. "It's not a sport."

Her former teacher, the classical pianist Gary Graffman, praises Ms. Wang's talent and another intangible quality: "She has something you can't really learn," he said, "and that's charisma."

For her four performances in New York, which the often-touring pianist calls home, Ms. Wang will play Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, a physically explosive work that she points out includes many hand crossovers. "[Prokofiev] knows exactly how to make it sound impressive, but look more impressive when you actually see it live," said Ms. Wang, the Beijing-born child of a dancer and a percussionist. She releases her fourth CD Tuesday, "Fantasia," a collection of 18 of her shorter, more lighthearted showpieces.

Ms. Wang, who drew notice last year for the short orange dress she wore for a Hollywood Bowl concert, sometimes listens to pop star Rihanna before playing Prokofiev; both artists, she said, channel a raw energy. But before walking onto the New York stage she will probably choose silence. She has been to Avery Fisher many times, but never as a performer. "I know the hall," she said, "but only from the other side."