As a Norfolk faculty member for several years, pianist Wei-Yi Yang can often be heard filling the Festival grounds with works of Schumann, Schubert, or other masters, or coaching fellows on aspects of rehearsing, listening, and performing. Yet what some might not know is that at one time, Yang was on the other side of this intense experience. A Norfolk alum (NCMF ’94), Yang has since enjoyed an impressive career, but he recalls with clarity his time as a fellow.
Although it was a different time with musicians of a different generation, Yang still holds dear the lessons he learned. It was during one such session while working with pianist Claude Frank and his wife, pianist Lillian Kallir, that he learned to go beyond the page when performing. Kallir, who at the time was losing her sight, taught Yang to imagine that there were more than just notes on the pages: “she showed me how a phrase bends to a feeling beyond the notation written,” he explains. It was a profound piece of advice he never forgot, and going beyond the page is something Yang now strives to share with the fellows here at Norfolk.
Another lesson Yang recalls is the value of learning from tradition: “the more we respect tradition, the more room there is for freedom,” Yang says. Indeed, that is what infuses a program with vitality: its seamless blend of old and new. For Yang, the purposeful programming is what he admires most about Norfolk concerts: “I admire very much this attitude of thoughtfully curating the programs so that it has more of a personality behind it, more of a face.” Yang explains that it is not only important to value tradition, but also to explore a broader spectrum of the standard repertoire, and he hopes that audience members appreciate the importance of discovering new works.
For his upcoming performance on July 8, Yang is performing a particularly emotional and moving piece: Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44. It’s a piece written after the marriage of Robert and Clara and thus, according to Yang, is even more personal and heartfelt than some of his other compositions: although it is brimming with bliss and love, there is a bittersweet aspect to the piece as well. Yet because of this, the ending is all the more joyful. It is the only piano quintet Schumann wrote, and Yang describes the piece as almost a small chamber concerto, one where “there is a unique synergy of the players working together, of playing off each other, then immediately playing individual parts and lines... a constant, wonderful vacillation.”
The quintet is a piece he gets to perform on Saturday with, as he calls them, some of his favorite people, the Brentano Quartet. Having formed a deep friendship with the Quartet over the years, he continues to admire and learn from them throughout years of playing together.
“Music is always better when friends play. And that’s what Norfolk is: a place where friends make music.”