American Ballet Theatre, Bach Partita, ballet, CDZA, Charles Yang, choreography, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, dance, Eminem, From the Top at Carnegie Hall, Glenn Dicterow, Jascha Heifetz, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Marcelo Gomes, New York Philharmonic, Ormsby Wilkins, Partita in D minor, Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Pia Catton, popular music, star-maker, Susan Jones, The Juilliard School, The Wall Street Journal, Twyla Tharp, violin, YouTube Music Awards
After American Ballet Theatre presented the revival of Twyla Tharp‘s Bach Partita this past weekend, its violin soloist, Charles Yang, had to run off to another gig: the YouTube Music Awards, where he was a performer, as was Lady Gaga and Eminem. It is an unusual mix for a classical-music career, but it is working for this 25-year-old Juilliard graduate. The ballet company needed a virtuoso to accompany Bach Partita [with music selected from Partita in D minor (BWV 1004)], a densely packed but little-seen work that had its premiere with Ballet Theatre in 1983.
Among the reasons the work hasn’t been performed since 1985 was the difficulty in finding the right violinist. During rehearsals, Ms. Tharp used a recording by Jascha Heifetz, a violinist known for his technical prowess. “He could play at this furious tempo,” said Ormsby Wilkins, Ballet Theatre’s music director. “That’s what drew Twyla to it.”
For the stage, however, that presents a problem – most professional soloists want to play Bach their way, not Heifetz’s. Simply slowing down the music doesn’t work because movements and phrases in dance are built to match the music, said Susan Jones, who reconstructed the ballet from grainy old videos. “It needs a good deal of drama and theatricality,” she said. “For a half-hour ballet, it has a lot of content.”
So the company faced a quandary: It needed someone who could handle the technical demands of Bach Partita and was willing to subsume his style in favor of another’s. Mr. Wilkins remembered a young violinist, Mr. Yang, who had worked on Paganini, a new piece with principal dancer Marcelo Gomes.
In Paganini, Mr. Gomes danced while Mr. Yang played onstage and moved, too, as part of the choreography. “I like to do these oddball kind of things that break down the barriers between genres,” said Mr. Yang.
Mr. Wilkins contacted the musician, still in Juilliard’s graduate program at the time, to see if he might be a fit with Ms. Tharp and her choreography. Mr. Yang listened carefully to the parameters. “She needs me to play like Heifetz. She knows what she wants,” he said. “I heard that, and I was like, ‘OK, I might as well give it a shot.’ ”
That meant a private audition for Ms. Tharp. To prepare, he practiced Bach Partita with Glenn Dicterow, the New York Philharmonic’s concertmaster and a former Heifetz student. “My Bach is very different from Heifetz’s Bach, so I had to modify my playing,” said Mr. Yang. Heifetz’s rendition of the piece is “quick and raw sounding,” Mr. Yang added. “He doesn’t overuse delicate styles. He goes for it.”
Taking pains to emulate the virtuoso, Mr. Yang won over Ms. Tharp and got the job. “We really bonded,” he said of the choreographer, who didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Yang has performed with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra and on PBS’s From the Top at Carnegie Hall. At the YouTube awards, he played with the group CDZA, which bills itself as creating “musical video experiments.”
His versatility nearly took him out of classical music altogether. While he was an undergraduate at Juilliard, his youthful good looks, vocal ability and guitar skill attracted a team of corporate star-makers from Asia who, he said, “wanted me to be pretty much an Asian Justin Timberlake.” Mr. Yang, who is from Texas, balked at the five-year contract as well as what struck him as glitzy but less fulfilling work. “The Asian pop scene is unique in and of itself. I wanted to pursue my classical dreams. And now I work with people like Twyla.”