The article below was originally posted on The Hal Leonard Classical Blog under the title ‘5 Pianists Who Are Winning the 21st Century’. What was most striking about the article is that four of the five pianists mentioned, were women. A stunning and empowering list to read, the article below has been re-posted with the exception that Yuja Wang has been added by the editor of this blog. All credit to Brendan Fox for the original article.
It’s safe to say that people are experiencing classical music differently today than in the past. The internet has put music resources immediately at hand that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. I can search for a really obscure piece of classical music on YouTube or whatever, and chances are I’ll be able to find it, and maybe there will even be a little discussion in the comments, with people giving a timecode for their favourite part (“that climax at 7:46 – OMG”) or arguing about aesthetics (“more modernist rubbish”). Blogs, forums, and news websites help to maintain classical culture for the growing demographic of people who like classical music but maybe can’t go to concerts, whether because of cost, location, or dislike of the concert hall environment.
Social media is another hugely important outlet for engagement with classical music. Musicians can now give fans a window into their lives on the road, share little clips of practice sessions, and help to cultivate a personal brand, whether funny or sexy or mysterious.
So I wanted to recognise a few concert pianists who stand out in a crowded field because of how they’ve used these exciting new tools of the twenty-first century to promote themselves, and subsequently the music, and enhance the piano lifestyle.
Yuja Wang: The Performer
Having worn some of the most controversial fashion for classical performances ever to grace the stages of the world’s most grandeur halls. Yuja Wang does not care for toffy traditions. She once responded to a London journalist’s comments about her attire with “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am forty.” But what is most remarkable is how much her skin-tight, petite outfits draw a stark contrast between how small she is physically, and how incredibly huge her performance prowess is. Her attention to detail, the small intricacies that detail her melodies like the finest of needlepoint; Wang not only plays these masterworks to perfection, but she UNDERSTANDS them. Watching her play is like being show how to read one of your favourite books with a fresh set of eyes. Everything feels clearer, more meaningful.
Wang is a real inspiration to young pianists around the world. Showing them that perhaps the step one to presenting a truly personal and introspective performance is to first just be yourself. Check out this absolutely stunning rendition of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op.18 below. Filmed in mid 2021, an accompanied by the Munich Philharmonic (con. Lorenzo Viotti), this performance just oozes a hot pot of emotions. The connection to the work is truely breath-taking.
Vicky Chow: The New-Music Specialist
As the pianist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, one of the most beloved contemporary music ensembles, Vicky Chow has become a fixture of the Manhattan new-music scene. She’s been willing to take on some of the most punishing contemporary repertoire, like Tristan Perich’s Surface Image, which she premiered, and Michael Gordon’s Sonatra. She has performed at hip venues like Le Poisson Rouge, and sometimes these performances find her reading music on a tablet, eliminating the old-fashioned construct of a page turner and heightening the solo element. She’s comfortable with click tracks and electronics, even to the extreme of Surface Image’s setup of forty 1-bit speakers. Suffice it to say, she’s a pianist of the future.
Like Trifonov, Chow has experimented with music videos. Look at this video collaboration with composer Andy Akiho, who wrote the piece Vick(i)y for her.
Capitalizing on the dark timbres of the prepared piano, the video places her in a dim warehouse space and then playing a chipped-paint piano in some quiet woods. Composer Akiho appears several times as a foreboding figure, sometimes wearing tribal paint. Overall it’s a pretty exciting media experience that makes me think more deeply about the music, and about issues beyond the music.
Tiffany Poon: The Quirky Vlogger
I discovered Tiffany Poon’s channel by accident. I was looking for a good video of one of Scarlatti’s sonatas, and her performance just blew me away.
Then I saw that she had dozens (maybe hundreds) of videos documenting life at Yale, topics in practicing, discussions about different composers, and travels. It all adds up to a charming look behind the scenes of being an emerging pianist. She’s enthusiastic, cute, and thoughtful. Her editing style focuses on funny details or adds self-deprecating touches. Besides the Scarlatti video, she has some other performance videos that show her talent, like this scintillating performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata. One of her best continuing segments is a “sightreading challenge,” where YouTubers send requests and she sightreads pieces and comments on them. It’s such a great way to engage with an audience. In the last year or so, she has gotten some big performance opportunities, which have generated great new videos about the preparations, like the one below:
Tiffany has also posted some thoughtful videos about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, as she is a Hong Kong native. With 133,000 subscribers, she has created a real community and it will be exciting to see her career grow.
Cathy Krier: Perfect Promotional Videos
Who is Cathy Krier? A pianist from Luxembourg that you probably haven’t heard of. I’m including her here on the strength of two promotional videos that deserve more of an audience. First, to promote her Janacek album, she’s got this video that beautifully sets the mood and draws you in, letting you focus on the music while she talks about it. Like a true European, she has a version of the video in both English and French.
Her more recent video for an album of Rameau and Ligeti emphasizes playful qualities in the music. We see her tapping out the notes of the music on a bench, railing, or in a patch of flowers. One great moment is when she plays a simple alternating note pattern from Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata on a water surface, sending ripples. It evokes a childlike sense of play. All of these images convey a feeling that the music is part of you, in life, outside of a concert hall. At the end, an energetic bit of Ligeti forms the soundtrack to a shot of Krier heading out into a city at night, connecting Ligeti’s rhythms to the pulse of nightlife. I truly had never thought about the music that way. Imagine if other pianists promoted themselves this way, showing what the music means to them. I mean, that’s the whole point, right? We get into this business of classical music because we find personal meaning in it, and the best we can do is to show audiences why we love it.