Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 — "Rach 3," as fans fondly call it — is one of the most famously difficult pieces of music there is. The sheet music goes on and on, with notes so dense the pages start to look like modern art.
The piece is so challenging that some noted pianists have declined to perform it — but Yuja Wang has recorded it for her newest album. The 26-year-old, Chinese-born pianist says there's something about the Rach 3 that reminds her of legendary improvisational jazz pianist Art Tatum. Wang says she's positive that Rachmaninov, a turn-of-the-last-century Russian composer, must have started out improvising alone at the keyboard the way a jazz musician might.
"I'm always amazed by improvisations, because of how they turn around a motif, and can just be all creative about how everything is connected," Wang says. "And that's how the piece is written: It's a huge work for 45 minutes, but everything is interconnected."
A pianist since the age of 6, Wang says she was inspired to enter the classical world after hearing another striking piece of music.
"The first thing that really got me was [Mauricio] Pollini's recording of Chopin's etudes. I just really wanted to have the same sound. You know how girls really want a doll or a toy? I really wanted to play the way I wanted to play. So I was really working towards that."
And work she did. Her first exposure to the instrument was an upright piano that her parents received as a wedding gift. As a teenager, she studied in the United States at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, and then burst onto the concert scene.
Wang currently lives alone in New York — where, she says, she embraces the opportunity to reflect in a personal space.
"Being a musician is almost like a very isolated life, and the only time you actually get to communicate is on stage with music," Wang says. "It's not a bad thing. People say, 'Oh, are you lonely?' I think being solitary, it really allows us to think about life and to think about why people write this music. Or, why those people are moved by certain melodies. It makes you start to wonder about things that are beneath the surface."