by Steven Pisano
The pianist Yuja Wang has been wowing audiences worldwide for over a decade. Her exuberant virtuoso technique has always been one of her hallmarks. So it seemed an intriguing idea for her to perform at Zankel Hall earlier this week with the musical comedy duo Aleksey Igudesman and Hyung-ki Joo.
Igudesman, a violinist, and Joo, a pianist, first met as 12-year-old music students at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England. Much later they decided to perform together, following in the footsteps of classical musicians such as Victor Borge and PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele), and have been performing their act now for about 15 years, often with some leading orchestras. Their You Tube channel has over 50,000 subscribers.
Yuja Wang is known for her flashy fingering technique on the piano. But what earned her as much attention early on, and still does partly, is her penchant for wearing very, very short dresses, and for showing off eye-catching swaths of skin. She is not a demure and sober musician like the younger Daniil Trifonov. She is a showwoman of the highest order and clearly loves to dazzle her audiences, with her costumes as well as her playing.
Still, pairing up with the often goofy antics of Igudesman and Joo seemed a little bit of a departure. To be clear, Igudesman and Joo are very good musicians. They also compose some of their own original work in addition to playing, and spoofing, the classics. A lullaby for his child that Joo played solo on piano was particularly touching.
The theme of this show was called "The Clone," and the premise is that the real Yuja Wang could not appear so they had ordered a clone, while Joo, in a black wig and dressed like Wang, pretended to be her.
For the next almost two and a half hours (including an intermission), the three of them performed various skits, sometimes letting Wang show off her skills, other times forcing her into cringe-worthy skits that frequently skirted along the edges of being racist and sexist. There were too many comments about things being made in China, and jokes about "turning on" Wang (since they treated her like a robot, not seeming to understand what a clone is).
The evening reminded me of watching TV variety shows with my grandmother when I was a kid in the 1960s. A look around the audience also showed a sea of white hair and balding heads. But there were also a surprising number of young kids in attendance. The two kids sitting next to me were particularly amused by Joo pointing at Wang and saying "You shit!" Then Joo turned to the audience and said, "You crap." Everyone seemed stunned at first. Then he said, "When she shit, you crap. Now pray." So of course Wang looked as if she had started a prayer rather than starting to play.
A long section with the three of them performing selections from West Side Story was painful to listen to. They seemed to be pandering to the New York audience and there was nothing new or creative about their performance. And while her skills as a pianist are stratospheric, Wang does not have a career on the side as a singer.
But that being said, Wang might find a second outlet as a Chinese rapper, because she was actually superb in a rap in her native language. She also creditably performed some break dance moves, including a baby freeze. (Let's see Trifonov do that!)
Ultimately, there was a lot of light-hearted musical comedy that people of all ages could appreciate, and Yuja Wang, to her immense credit in her position as one of classical music's superstars, proved herself to be a very good sport to go along with it all. She even played the piano with her bottom. But it would have been much better if the racist and sexist comments were trimmed out.