Was Yuja Wang’s Concert Satirical or Offensive? It’s Complicated
A crude joke by the Korean-British pianist Hyung-ki Joo set the tone for the evening: “I know I’m not Yuja Wang, but some girlfriends do call me Huge-a Wang.”
Mr. Joo and his comedy partner, the Russian-German violinist Aleksey Igudesman, were performing with Ms. Wang, the superstar pianist, on Monday as part of her Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall. Igudesman & Joo, as they call their duo, are trained (and skilled) musicians who imbue classical music with laugh-out-loud humor.
But their concert with Ms. Wang was riddled with jokes about her sexual appeal and Chinese heritage that ranged from unpleasant (“God, she’s so hot”) to offensive. (“It smells of sweet and sour chicken,” Mr. Igudesman said of a box with Ms. Wang inside.)
In my review, I described some of the jokes and said they were a shame, especially considering that much of the evening was delightful: Ms. Wang was as impressive as ever, and Igudesman & Joo’s music-based comedy was virtuosic.
But this performance has come at a fraught moment in culture, in which an increased desire to confront stereotypes is meeting an increased sensitivity about racial characterizations. The Museum of Modern Art is reconsidering the inclusivity of its collection; New York City Ballet has toned down Chinese caricature in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker”; the Metropolitan Opera removed blackface from “Otello.”
Igudesman & Joo and Ms. Wang responded to interview requests with statements saying that the show’s jokes were intentional, and meant to satirize issues of race and sex in the music industry.
“In our view, the best way to tackle tricky subjects is to undermine them by pointing them out with humor,” Igudesman & Joo said through a representative. “Our goal is not to offend but to show the offenses for what they are.”
They added that “it was Yuja Wang herself who encouraged us and pushed for this approach.”
Ms. Wang, in a separate statement, said, “The amount of vile, sexist, anonymous (or sometimes not, when it’s in print) comments publicly directed at me and so many others — especially aimed at women and minorities — is astonishing.”
So, she added, “I have decided to take control of my own narrative, and have some fun while doing it.”
To an audience member, this is all understandable, if difficult to accept given how lewd the concert became. The three artists tended to perform in a stereotypical manner without clearly or thoroughly mocking the stereotypes.
I kept wondering how the spectacle was playing for the children in the audience, many of whom were Asian-American. The adults, at least, it seemed to polarize. On Twitter, one person posted: “What I saw last night was an audience being pandered to at a cruise ship level, and barely that.” In the comments on my review, someone said, “Some of the jokes were stupid, for sure, but not offensive.”
Another wrote, of me, “Doesn’t he mean that HE became uncomfortable?”
True — but I’ve heard jokes like these before, and they hurt. Half of my family is Hispanic, and positive representation of people like them is hard to come by in popular culture. Caricature is common; villainy, even more so.
Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director, was in the audience and said in a statement, “When Carnegie Hall partners with artists, we always seek to provide them with a platform on which they can express themselves, offering opportunities for them to present programs that reflect their own personal artistic viewpoints, and, in this case, also their sense of fun.”
The prominent violinist Jennifer Koh wasn’t there, but she is a keen observer of issues of race in the classical field. In an interview, she said that, based on what she had heard about the Carnegie event, she was reminded of a concept addressed by the scholar Grace Wang.
“Oftentimes, we’ll hear things like ‘German sounds’ and ‘French verbs’ and ‘Russian passion.’ Those are positive,” Ms. Koh said. “But ‘Chinese pianist’ — a lot of people have very negative connotations. And then there is this idea that Asians are robots. They have technique, but they don’t have soul.”
Indeed, the title of Ms. Wang’s program with Igudesman & Joo was “The Clone,” taken from the duo’s 2017 YouTube sketch. But the show at Carnegie was less about satirizing this stereotype, and more about demonstrating it: The sketch’s conceit is a showcase of all the capabilities of a hypothetical Yuja Wang clone. (Or robot? It’s never really clear.) The clone-robot shows off her technical capabilities while Igudesman & Joo talk about her as if she were a high-tech sex toy.
The concept, whatever its good intentions, tempts comparisons with the history of African-American performers in blackface, acting out stereotypes of themselves for predominantly white audiences. It also risks feeding the common perception of Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners, Ms. Koh said, and as not having the musical depth of Caucasian Westerners — and therefore not having the full entitlement to interpret the Western canon.
“These kinds of statements are not dissimilar to the Charlottesville marches — ‘blood and soil,’” she said, referring to the Nazi slogan appropriated by white nationalists at a 2017 rally in Virginia. “These are not unrelated issues.”
Ms. Koh has tried in some small way to address problems with Asian-American representation in classical music. With the composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière, she is currently at work on “The 38th Parallel,” a multimedia piece in part about displacement, immigration and her family’s history as refugees of the Korean War. (It will have its premiere next year in California.)
I attended a workshop performance at the New School in January; in its current form, the work is meditative yet direct, informative without being didactic. And it fits what Ms. Koh described as her dream of seeing Asian-Americans represented through “actual stories that are real and don’t have this foreign gaze.”
This isn’t to say Ms. Wang has to use her Perspectives series for a program about moving to the United States from China. But she is a celebrity in classical music, and Igudesman & Joo have tens of millions of views on their YouTube channel. Think of what they could do — and what they haven’t done — with such a high profile.
Follow Joshua Barone on Twitter: @joshbarone.
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