BUCHAREST Reed-thin and tiny, Yuja Wang looks too small to handle a shiny black Steinway concert grand piano. Yet when she was done, her powerful, nuanced playing got her a standing ovation in Bucharest.
The critically acclaimed Wang, 26, often draws attention and headlines for playing in body-hugging dresses and stilettos, but what awed the audience at the George Enescu music festival on Tuesday night was her strength, accuracy and grace.
At Romania's biennial classical music festival, Wang played Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 to a packed hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck.
Although she is Chinese and the music was Russian, it is a repertoire she knows well, and about which she has fond childhood memories.
"That is the first music I heard, my mom brought me to a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake'," Wang told Reuters in an interview following a rehearsal on the day of the performance.
"There is no other music that speaks more directly to the heart."
Born in Beijing to a dancer and a percussionist father who inspired her love of jazz, she started playing at age six on the piano her parents had received as a wedding gift. She left China at 14 and completed her studies in the United States.
Since then, she has taken the music world by storm, touring and performing with prestigious orchestras and conductors including Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado.
Despite her Asian roots, she said she especially likes performing in Europe.
"I do like Europe because the music I'm playing is from here, there is a certain culture and tradition," she said.
"Paris is the first city I went to when I came out of China when I was seven. There is a huge childhood memory there.
"Vienna is also very beautiful. When you're there you just see how glorious it was, the empire and everything, kind of like Romania, but here there is also a juxtaposition with communism."
Formerly communist Romania joined the European Union in 2007. Despite being one of the most impoverished nations in the bloc, Romania has produced a host of famous classical artists and has supported the festival named for the famed composer since its founding in 1958, three years after his death.
Wang said she was introduced to Enescu's music by listening to recordings by Clara Haskil and Dinu Lipati, two Romanian classical pianists she hugely admires.
Another Romanian pianist, Radu Lupu, opened this year's festival, playing to an adoring audience with the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra and conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Wang joins a list of top-class musicians, conductors and orchestras appearing at the festival throughout September, including conductor Antonio Pappano, pianist Murray Perahia, violinists Pinchas Zuckerman and Maxim Vengerov, as well as the Royal Concertgebouw and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Paul Casciato)