Dressed in a midnight blue gown, her glossy black hair swept behind her shoulders in an efficient ponytail, Joyce Yang emerges stage right and strides across the auditorium.

Her posture carries a playful determination as she approaches a lone Steinway grand piano, shining quietly in a blue spotlight the same hue as Yang’s dress.

She bows quickly, seats herself, and launches into Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons.

Melbourne Recital Centre. The Steinway awaits. Photo © Liam Heitmann-Ryce-LeMercier

Yang is here at the Melbourne Recital Centre to present a showcase of the Russian masters, a program of works including preludes by Rachmaninov and arrangements for solo piano of Stravinsky’s Firebird and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Beginning with eight of Tchaikovsky’s 12 ‘character pieces’ within The Seasons, Yang returns to stage with a microphone and welcomes us to the performance presenting four of her favourite composers.

She is a compelling presence, adopting a colloquial posture as though speaking to us in a far smaller interior than that of the Recital Centre’s grand dimensions. The audience is perhaps at one-third capacity, all of us clustered in a small central pool at the feet of the Steinway grand.

Indeed, one could see individual keystrokes from the distance this reviewer was seated from the stage. And what a delight it was.

The pervading qualities of Yang as performer are those of strength and control. She possesses an immense muscular integrity within her presentation, flitting from brawny left-hand arpeggios to glass-delicate shimmers at the higher range of the keyboard.

The works selected by Yang do profound service to her mastery of thunder and whispers, at times generating a metallic clatterstorm of force and volume from the bowels of the great Steinway engine.

These dynamic contrasts were best demonstrated in the ‘Finale’ of Firebird, the closing flourish of an already gallant interpretation of the complex work. In her introductory welcome, Yang proposed a great pianist should be able to perform as an orchestra unto itself.

“A great pianist pushes the piano to its absolute limits.” It was a rally call to which Yang triumphantly responded.

Having leaped from a note-perfect firestorm of activity in the opening movement, to the hesitant, almost injured delicacy of the second movement’s ‘Lullaby’, Yang ascended in the ‘Finale’ with the glamorous brawn of her strength and dexterity.

Combining diamond-sharp flitters of motion with her right hand with the jubilant, bouncing chords of the Steinway’s midrange, the work concluded with leaps of sound and energy that threw her hands skyward as though repelled by the reverb of the keys themselves.

Joyce Yang. Photo supplied

Born in 1986 in Seoul, South Korea, Yang had her first piano lessons aged four and quickly achieved a prestige reputation for the instrument within her native South Korea.

In 1997, she relocated to the US with a pre-college placement at the prestigious Julliard school of music, where she graduated with special honours in 2010. Her tenure at Julliard also marked a debut with the New York Philharmonic in 2006 that followed with the orchestra’s tour of Asia, bringing Yang to her home city of Seoul.

This recital, marking the first of three performances in Australia within the Piano+ 2024 season, was an especially intimate occasion given the contracted audience volume. Compared with the raucous fidgeting permitted by symphonic works, the precision of Yang’s solo piano clarified the atmosphere of all peripheral audio.

Everything was audible. Every key stroke. Every crystal of sound and each storm cloud of might propelled heavenward by the strength of Yang’s precise, powerful hands.

To be mere feet away from the small universe of sound and energy contained within Yang’s Steinway forcefield was an experience akin to watching sunlight burst apart a thunderstorm. Peril and tranquillity held aloft in opposing breaths.

Joyce Yang (International Piano+ Recital Series): Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Brisbane 12 May; Snow Concert Hall, Canberra, 14 May.

Take the Limelight Reader Survey and you could win an Australian Digital Concert Hall gift voucher