All photos courtesy Arts management Group

The color of music

Text Stephen Fox
Thread music

Pianist Joyce Yang weaves spells of colors and scent with the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra this weekend at both the Maui Arts & Cultural Center and the Blaisdell in Honolulu. The statement smacks of overwrought poetics, but in Yang’s case, it is literally true: she experiences synesthesia, a rare condition where sensory experiences overlap.

“I see colors. I smell things listening to music,” Yang says between rehearsals in Honolulu. “Certain tonal centers have colors, like D Major has always been a land of yellow, and of course there’s smells that come with Gb Major.”

The piece she will play carries its own sensory palette. Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” suffuses the concert hall with the Alhambra’s sweet jasmine and conjures the Moorish gardens of Cordoba where the Sufi Ibn Masarra enlightened his followers.

“You listen to this piece and all your senses are wide awake,” Yang says. “And you start thinking and seeing and smelling, and you’re drunk with all of these senses interacting.”

A lush orchestration, de Falla’s “symphonic impressions” of his native al Andalus is unusual for a concerto. He was working on the piece as Stravinski’s “Rite of Spring” premiered, and as figures like Hindemith and Debussy redefined the language of composition. Alexander Scriabin, another synesthete, died the year “Gardens” premiered. The piano part is virtuosic, but more integrated into the soundscape than is usual for a featured instrument.

“It’s really like everyone’s holding a paintbrush and everyone’s contributing to a bigger picture,” Yang explains. “That’s one of the challenges of this piece: I never get to jump out of the texture. It’s much easier when the composer gives you a chance to shine, like it’s my diva moment,” she chuckles. “Nowhere in this music do I come out of the texture. I’m often the undercurrent, the waves behind how the garden flowers are moving.”

Yang may be overly modest, because de Falla wrote an expansive orchestration, oozing drama and placing the piano in a leading role, but Yang’s humility is charming.

“I make the melody shimmer, I play the textural role,” Yang describes. “I’m part of the drama moving forward, but I’m not the outcome. I help them rush to the cliff more dramatically, but we do it together. It’s not like they rush to me and I get to fly off the cliff.”

Yang’s career, on the other hand, has steadily ascended through a remarkable series of fortuitous events, beginning in Korea when she was very small.

“It was a time when my aunt became a piano teacher and she was looking for her first students,” Yang recalls. “She said I was the perfect age of four. She asked my parents to get me a piano and there began our journey, her as my first piano teacher and me as her first student.”

Yang was invited to play for a pianist visiting from New York, who arranged for an audition with Julliard’s Yoheved Kaplinsky. Yang recently asked Kaplinsky about the audition all those years ago and received a surprising answer.

“I was pretty good when I was 10, huh?” she recalls saying. “She said, ‘Actually, you were quite terrible. Your hands wouldn’t do anything, you had terrible technique. I had never seen a kid more frustrated than you because they couldn’t say what they wanted through the instrument. But the ideas were there and I felt a duty to help you speak.’”

She indeed learned to speak musically. By age 13, Yang had a management company and was concertizing professionally. She is still in the early stages of a very promising career, with a string of awards and performances with the great orchestras of the world. She first played “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” with the New York Philharmonic in a series of performances that drew rave reviews. She learned the piece at the request of the Philhamonic’s conductor.

“When I heard the piece, there was something in me that said yes, this is a piece I will play,” she says. “It was an immediate visceral reaction and I fell in love with it right away. It sounds like no other music and instantly, you’re transported somewhere totally different. I think that’s a sign of really good music when, after ten seconds, you have travelled to a place you’ve never been before.”

Other gems sparkle on this program, with the Symphony playing under the baton of Joel Revzen. “Don Juan” is a sumptuous Latin inspired feast from Richard Strauss, and Ginastera’s “Danzas Argentinas” will transport the audience to a different composer’s home country. The Spanish themed show closes out with a selection from Carmen which, despite being very familiar, lives on because it is, quite simply, really great music. This is a luscious program and a great chance to hear a world-class classical performer on her ascent.

Gardens of Spain
Joyce Yang with the Hawaiʻi Symphony Orchestra
Maui Arts & Cultural Center, One Cameron Way, Kahului, Maui
Fri., March 11, 7:30pm
Tickets start at $32
(808) 242-7469,

Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave., Honolulu
Sat., March 12, 7:30pm; Sun., March 13, 4pm
Tickets start at $34

(808) 768-5400,


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