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Wichita Symphony concert reunites conductor with star pianist

Joyce Yang will perform with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra for the third time next weekend.
Joyce Yang will perform with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra for the third time next weekend. Courtesy photo

Wichita Symphony conductor and music director Daniel Hege and pianist Joyce Yang have developed an artistic relationship that has flourished over the past several years.

But next weekend, for Yang’s third performance with the Wichita Symphony, she’s going back to the first piece she played under Hege, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, when he was with the symphony in Syracuse, N.Y.

“We’re going back to our first date,” Yang said with a laugh from her home in Birmingham, Ala., where she lives with her husband, a bass player with the symphony there.

Hege, in a separate interview, said he enjoys working with Hege as well.

“She has a really wonderful, big personality both on the piano and as a person,” Hege said. “It’s always a joy to work with her any time.”

Soloists and conductors, Hege said, sometimes build a strong rapport that benefits them both.

“It takes an openness in general to the other person -- something you have to start with the very first time you work together,” he said. “After that first time, you know those pathways are very mutual between the two of you. You’re very understanding of what the other one wants.”

Yang also feels a special kinship to the Tchaikovsky that she’ll be performing here.

“It’s an old friend at this point,” she said. “I get swept away by it every time I play it. I think it’s Russian music at its best. He just rolls out one beautiful moment after another. This is the kind of piece where you dive right into the pool of emotion the minute it takes off.”

Portions of the concerto have been played in venues as varied as the 2014 Winter Olympics and the films “Misery” and “Harold and Maude.”

“Some of the melodies are quite famous, but there are so many truly beautiful moments that can be quite poetic,” Yang said. “I think a lot of people just focus on the drama with Russian music, but there are all these hushed moments that can really stop time.

“The more I play it, the more I focus on these moments,” she added.

Yang said her biggest challenge in the piece is with the flow of the movements.

“If you don’t be careful, it sounds like it’s segmented, like it’s one little ballet after another,” she said. “All of these transitions are quite difficult to make sure it’s melding.”

Hege said the Tchaikovsky shows pianist and orchestra to be collaborators, rather than one accompanying the other.

“They have the role of protagonist whenever they’re presenting the concerto,” he said.

The daughter of a chemical engineer and a molecular biologist, Yang moved to the United States when she was 11 to study piano at Juilliard in New York. She entered the national spotlight at age 19 by placing second in the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

The transition from child prodigy to adult performer “was mandatory because of Van Cliburn,” says the 32-year-old.

“I was feeling very good about myself early on,” she said. “Then the competition happened, and all of a sudden, it’s ‘What do you want to say through your music?’”

The prestige brought on soul-searching, she said.

“There was confusion and a lot of self-discovery from 19 to 22,” she said. “You discover where your heart is, and I think that’s sort of when this love of Russian music came about. I learned most of the Rachmaninoff concerto and that’s when I started digging into the Tchaikovsky concerto.”

Yang said she loves the feel of Russian music.

“There’s something very extroverted and emotional in it that I found freeing by just diving into it,” she said, adding, “All artists think we’re introverts.”

The win not only shaped her performing but her life, she said.

“You’re not a little kid doing your little tricks anymore,” she said. “The only way I have to deal with that is to be totally honest with myself and say, ‘That’s what I want to say and that’s the best I can do at that time.’”

Now, “you have to make sure the product you’re leaving on stage is not a lie.”

The concerts next weekend also features “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” featuring principal flautist Carmen Lemoine, by Claude Debussy, whom Hege calls “one of my favorite composers.”

“It’s very colorful,” he said. “When you think of French music and French orchestration, you often think of color.”

Also performed will be “American Gothic” by composer Michael Daugherty, based on the Grant Wood painting of the same name. Both Wood and Daughtery are from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Although Daugherty, who will attend the Wichita Symphony concerts next week, bases his work on pop culture, “His works are far from being superficial or pop-sounding,” Hege said. “He just likes to use them as points of departure.”

WICHITA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, WITH GUEST PIANIST JOYCE YANG

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27

Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas

Tickets: $20 to $70, from wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office

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