A Vision of Music
Pianist Amy Yang plays and absorbs music in an unusual way. Touch, listening, and her own visualizations give her a unique perspective on the sound she is producing.
Amy Yang is a renowned classical pianist and chamber musician.
Born in China, Yang moved to the United States with her family in 1995 at age 11. Her father, mother, and grandfather were trained musicians and she began to play on her father’s piano at an early age. She studied at Curtis Institute of Music, Juilliard School, and Yale School of Music, and returned to Curtis in 2011 as a piano teacher and program director. She is also a chamber music coach at the University of Pennsylvania and a teaching affiliate at Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges.
As a chamber musician, Yang has appeared at music festivals in Europe and the United States and performed at many of the world’s major concert halls. Her repertoire ranges from the baroque era to the present day; she has premiered works by numerous composers. Her debut album, Resonance (2018), features music by Bach, Shuman, and contemporary Pulitzer-winner Caroline Shaw. She has also recorded with violinists Tessa Lark and Itamar Zorman, clarinet player Jose Franch-Ballester, and trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulos.
The Washington Post has called Amy Yang “a jaw-dropping pianist who steals the show…with effortless finesse.” But Yang has a secret: when she plays the piano, she is also singing and painting.
Amy Yang: You know, there are so many inscriptions in my scores that just say, “Sing, sing.” It’s basically open your heart and sing. It’s such an amazingly powerful yet simple, liberating and empowering idea. Yeah, it’s the permission to let your voice be heard.
And for Yang, performance gives access to complex ideas and feelings from within and beyond herself.
Yang: That’s the ultimate goal, is how can I play a sound that really can be transported through space in an emotional way.
And Yang has spent her life finding deeply human connections through music. As a soloist and chamber musician, she’s performed on some auspicious stages, including the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and the White House. She has premiered dozens of new works, and she released her debut album in 2019.
Hers is the story of a musical life born not from wealth or privilege, but from soldiering on through hardship with hope that spans across time and cultures. Born in China in 1984, Yang remembers first poking the piano keys from a step stool. Her father was a composer, her mother a soprano, and her grandfather conducted her in a children’s choir. But Yang’s musical life would not begin for many years and thousands of miles away. When Yang was eight, her father moved to the US to secure a more hopeful future for his family. She and her mother, alone in Beijing, survived with little means. But for Yang, soldiering was in her blood. Even at such a young age, she was aware of the hardships her family survived before she was born.
Yang: Especially on my father’s side, they went through the Cultural Revolution, and through famine, through poverty. Everything that was a disaster that it was.
The Cultural Revolution was a campaign to ban art, literature, and music that was tied to the West and traditional bourgeois values. Under Mao Zedong’s rule, instruments were destroyed and musicians and professors of classical music were actively persecuted. Yang’s family came through it with wisdom born of extreme difficulties.
Yang: But I think that’s always on the back of my mind, just first of all, how lucky I am to be their child, but also that the lessons that they learned are actually ones of optimism and hope for life rather than, you know, I’ve been tortured so much, and saying life is not worth living.
After three years, Amy Yang and her mother joined her father in Houston. It was a happy reunion, but as a shy 11-year-old, navigating a foreign culture was confusing. Her father began taking her to concerts and the excursions became her favorite escape. One evening, she attended a piano recital by one of her father’s friends, Timothy Hester. It was a life-changing event.
Yang: My dad said after the concert, I asked him if I can take lessons from him and they happened to be good friends. So my dad brought me over and I was so lucky that he accepted me.
Like a dam breaking, music began to flow through Amy Yang, and she became diligent in her practice. Her dedication would eventually lead to a full scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, then onto the Juilliard School, and then the Yale School of Music. Mastering difficult compositions was fun, but there was something much deeper that captivated her. Through the composer’s notes, she could explore their internal lives.
Yang: It is so extraordinary because you’re doing it in notes, in sound. How does that translate? How do we get to be a part of someone’s emotional world through sound waves and through their collection of notes and how they structure things? It is extraordinary to me.
When Amy Yang plays, she is free. Free to express the emotions of the music. Free to transcend her past. And with that freedom, her voice emerges and she honors the calling of the music by engaging all of her senses, and her imagination allows her to criss-cross sensory experiences. The lines of a drawing can dance and music can have color. Sometimes she paints music as she imagines it.
Yang: I could see it changing color depending on the context. And yeah, for me, it’d be more harmony related rather than single notes. But certain harmonies and even in their inversions had different colors. I think there is a polarity in this piece, that harmonic relationship between, you know, G flat and F sharp. Yeah, again, same notes, but in different contexts. It has a different coloring, different meaning. I try to really tune into the lifespan of the notes. The note can exist right before it’s played, in I think your imagination, and as you’re kind of bring it to life, it has that lifespan. I mean, once it sounds, how does the sound decay? How does it kind of carry it’s way to the next note? When I do feel like the chemistry is right, when I’ve put in enough work, when I’ve grown to understand what I’m doing in performance, it is, it is like, yeah, channeling, traveling. Yeah, at that moment, I do feel like, yeah, I’m doing something worthy. I’m making this music sing, that I’m, I’m perhaps helping to give, give its voice its due.
AJC: But is there any sense of it being, you’re almost above it? Like, you’re not…
Yang: Mmhmm yeah.
AJC: Do you allow yourself that?
Yang: Yeah, above it as in like it’s not, actually not quite made by me. It’s like it’s, yeah, I had a recent experience performing for Philadelphia Chamber Music Society where I did feel like, well, towards the end of the program, I was entering another realm. Like it was, yeah, I was playing the music, but it was deeper in space.
AJC: Did the people who were listening to you, do you think they understood that?
Yang: I certainly hope some of that freedom could be felt by them and therefore they could help them to feel a certain level of joy and freedom in their lives, even if it’s just for the duration of the concert.
There’s no doubt that Amy Yang’s performances can feel otherworldly, but there are people who rely on her to attend to more temporal matters. Her husband John, also a pianist, and their son Saron, who is asserting his independence, just as toddlers do.
Yang: I hope that as he gets older, that so many of these wonderful ways of looking at life and persevering through difficulty that I’ve learned from, you know, my family and certainly from mentors over the years, I’m able to somehow model that for him.
And her parents are never far from her thoughts.
Yang: For them to rise above the ashes and hold such a light in their minds, in their psyche and in their heart and such hope for the future generation for me, for me, my son is such a beautiful gift that I try to remember.
And to honor this gift, Amy Yang lovingly gives voice to and insight into the deepest human emotions: hers, her listeners, ours.