What began as a sublime quest last October is racing toward a huge finale on March 20 when Wenting Yu takes the Harborside Ballroom stage in Baltimore, Maryland. Yu will be one of seven finalists competing for the top honor among the nation’s best performers in the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) Steinway Young Artist Piano Competition.
“It’s certainly been like a marathon,” Yu says. “It seems this competition has taken forever. It was like an entire presidential primary and election.”
Yu has successfully claimed a string of victories which most recently included a stellar performance at division finals at Central Michigan University. In fact, the only thing this 23-year-old Capital University senior has lost in the last five months has been his wisdom teeth, which inconveniently had to be removed three days before his state competition performance at Oberlin Conservatory of Music.
“I had my surgery and was in so much pain on the competition day,” Yu recalled. “I had a terrible fever on stage and everyone was asking me if I was able to perform.”
Fortunately, Yu fought through the pain and took first place in the Young Artist Performance category, becoming the representative the East Central Division and receiving the invitation to compete in the national finals in Baltimore. He credits his perseverance through difficult situations to the hours of mental preparation he spent specifically on times like these, on stage, when things don’t always go as planned.
Wenting Yu will be performing pieces from four different periods: a Baroque-style keyboard piece Les Sauvages, by the father of the French Baroque music, Jean-Philippe Rameau; then the Classical Period, Piano Sonata No.26 in E-Flat Major "Les Adieux" Op.81.a by Ludwig van Beethoven; and the monumental sonata in Romantic Period by Frederic Chopin, Piano Sonata No.2 in B-Flat minor, Op.35.For his choice in the contemporary period, Yu will perform a jazz-like piece by Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin, Variations.Total duration of his repertoire for the National Final will be 50 minutes, without interruption.
He adds, “Musicians sometimes rely too heavily on muscle memory, but many times, it doesn’t work or fails on stage when you’re nervous or have performance anxiety.”
When looking at his impressive musical pedigree, it’s hard to imagine he would ever experience performance anxiety. The Chinese-born Yu comes from a musical family who provided frequent and intentional exposure to music from very early childhood. His father, Xueyou Yu, is a classical music composer who works in the Shenyang Conservatory of Music, and his mother, Yue Kong, is a piano teacher.
“I started my first piano lesson by age 5 and received it well. The biggest struggle with learning at that age is that you’re only 5,” laughs Yu. “You just can’t sit there for too long by yourself because you want to be doing other things. But if you ever imagine having a future in piano performance, you have to practice from early on. The piano is not like the oboe, clarinet, or saxophone where you can learn well at an older age.”
Yu’s first piano teacher was Yafen Zhu, who is also the same piano teacher of Shenyang native, Lang Lang, a superstar contemporary pianist. And during his inaugural season as an Aspen Concerto pianist, Yu has been on stage with world class performers like the famous cellist Yo Yo Ma, the Juilliard String Quartet, Emerson String Quartet, and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He has performed throughout China and on concert stages in London, Moscow, and Carnegie Hall.
Yu’s talent eventually led him to the United States, where in 2011, he was accepted and offered full scholarships to some of the most prestigious music schools in the nation, including The Juilliard School, Eastman School of Music, New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, and The Mannes College. Ultimately, Yu chose The Juilliard School in New York City where he studied under the guidance of renowned and prolific maestro Jerome Lowenthal. At 85 years old, Lowenthal has worked with an extraordinary number of gifted pianists and continues to record music and teach at Juilliard today.
– Dr. Tianshu Wang
With an already extensive and impressive résumé, Yu came to Capital because he really wanted to study with Dr. Tianshu Wang, a distinguished Capital University professor who is among an elite group of Steinway artists. According to Yu, Wang provides the perfect balance of teaching the relationship between the stage and the classroom. Her emphasis on preparing her students to become piano scholars and well-rounded artists - not just good players - is greatly appreciated by Yu who admits he lacked the attention in other areas of his academics before studying under Wang.
“She’s very inspiring and gives students a lot of space and freedom to choose their own repertoires,” said Yu of Dr. Wang. “She realizes that creative and independent thinking is very important to the survival of a musician after graduation.”
Yu also says that similar backgrounds to his teacher helped him bridge the gap between China and the United States. He said, “Since we share the same background, I can gain a lot of things I don’t know; like how to overcome the challenges like the ones she experienced when she first came to the United States.”
Dr. Wang met Yu in China nearly 10 years ago and had been giving him lessons during her summer visits. In 2010, she watched him become a national champion in China and hopes history will repeat itself soon in the United States.
“Wenting is an exceptionally talented young man who has already achieved a great deal before his journey in the US,” says Wang. “We seem to have a special bond. To see him growing from a child into a mature musician is such a joy.”
Wang continued to speak of her student’s character and passion.
“He is warm-hearted, sensitive, and polite, and his good manners are reflected in his piano playing. His performances are well polished and attentive to details, at the same time it never lacks of fire.”
– Wenting Yu
According to Yu, Capital also does many other things well that are every much at par with the distinguished Juilliard School. For instance, he credits the NOW MUSIC Festival with being of critical importance the the music performance industry. This festival is a celebration of contemporary music and one of the most comprehensive and diversified celebrations of modern music and its composers in the region.
“The NOW festival is really good every year,” Yu begins. “Capital has wonderful composers like Rocky J. Reuter and Dr. (Mark) Lochstampfor who know how important it is to continually discover new music. The world is always changing. The Julliard Focus! Festival is very similar to what we do here. Both schools know this is very important stuff.”
Yu emphasized the critical role performance plays in keeping music alive and vibrant in today’s contemporary setting. He maintains that while the golden age of performance may have occurred in the last century, today’s landscape is still fertile if performers want to give the extra effort.
“You have to get your audiences involved in your performances, otherwise, this industry will die. I think this is very important for our generation to think about. That’s why you need some creative space.”
Allowing creative space is another pedagogical aspect that Yu thanks Dr. Wang for. He has grown to love improvisational thinking and has found ways to bring it to the stage. Though he is widely known for his prowess in classical music, Yu expressed his appreciation and enjoyment of jazz and pop music and is always exploring new music and different genres.
“The charming point of performing arts is that performing arts are live. You become emotionally involved with the interaction between performers and audiences. So that stimulates you. That’s very important to me. I’m always trying to catch that moment in every performance, even though its not always possible.”
According to Yu, one of his greatest satisfactions come when the audience is receiving what he is expressing in a very intimate and personal way. This is often what elevates the performer to a larger-than-life figure and what is the essence of the great performers of the last century’s new golden age.
When considering all of the iconic concert halls and venues where he has performed, there’s still no place like home, at Capital, where he feels at his performing best.
“Personally, I have to say Huntington Recital Hall is my favorite,” says Yu. “I know its not the most famous concert hall in the world, but this hall always gives me good concentration, which is always important to a performer, and the acoustic environment is very good. I can hear so clearly that my sound can speak to the audience very well.”
It couldn’t be more fitting that Yu’s senior recital on April 25 will be at the Huntington Recital Hall. He sadly considered the idea that since he is anticipating graduation in May, this may be the last time he performs at Capital. He certainly hopes it is not.
Over this past spring break, he explored several graduate schools, all in New York City. This is like a second tour of the Big Apple as he first experienced the city nearly seven years ago when all these same schools were courting the young and talented teenager from northeastern China. However, he is quick to point out the biggest difference from then to now.
“It’s much different than four years ago. When you’re older, you have more pressures on you. All in all, I feel satisfied about my auditions though. It’s so competitive, especially the Masters of Music program.”
Fortunately, Yu will hear back from all the schools by April 1, so the wait won’t be long. This is welcome news to the spring graduate who admits that his biggest anxieties occur while waiting. Especially before a competition.
“The most horrible moments of my life happen backstage. Because every time when I have to wait on the backstage I feel nervous. The waiting is painful.”
Above, Yu performs Slavonic dance No. 2 in E minor op. 72 at Mees Hall with his girlfriend Jingci Liu, an alumna of Capital and currently pursuing her Master of Music degree at Mannes College of Music, NYC.
As one might imagine, his approach to dealing with anxiety is as disciplined as his practice regimen. Yu highly recommends yoga for everyone, especially musicians, to release unnecessary tensions and performance fears. He emphasized the connection is both a spiritual and physical, very much like the Alexander Technique, which he describes as optimizing movement in the body and discovering the balance in everyday movements that often create unnecessary tension, like sitting, standing, walking, lying down and lifting.
For young musicians who aspire to pursue music performance, Yu has some simple and useful advice. First, he maintains that practice is, and always has been, at the forefront of all great performances. Next is taking the time to listen to the music because this is where your creative space is explored.
And finally, Yu concludes, “No matter what happens, you have to focus on the performance. That’s the musician’s life. It’s important that you love what you do to make good music.”