Joyce Yang, classical piano star and taco fan, sees the colors of musical notes she plays and hears


Joyce Yang wasn’t born until nearly 20 years after the release of The Who’s classic 1969 rock opera, “Tommy,” but “Tommy’s” epic refrain — See me, feel me — perfectly encapsulates her approach to making music.

That’s because this acclaimed classical music pianist and 2018 Grammy Award nominee literally sees music as she plays and hears it.

Yang, 32, has synesthesia, an involuntary neurological condition in which the activation of one sense in a person triggers another one of their senses. In her case, hearing music triggers colors and shapes.

For her, if not her listeners, performing a concert is a multi-sensory experience. So is preparing for a concert.

“When I listen to music and try to learn a new piece, it does help me to put colors and shapes to it. Sometimes, it’s automatic, sometimes it’s a sign from my imagination,” she said, speaking from Birmingham, the Alabama city where she lives with her husband, La Mesa-bred contrabassist Richard Cassarino.

Yang will be the featured soloist Saturday and Sunday at the San Diego Symphony’s 2018/2019 season-opening concerts, which will be conducted by Holland’s Edo de Waart. She will be showcased on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16.

On Oct. 12 and 14, Yang and de Waart will re-team here with the symphony for two more concerts. This time, she’ll be the soloist on Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, which will feature her playing two dozen variations of Paganini’s Violin Caprice No. 24.

“I think Rachmaninoff’s Paganini is one of the greatest pieces ever written,” Yang said. “I tell people: ‘If this does nothing for you, you should stop coming to classical music concerts!”

And Grieg’s Piano Concerto?

“I think its one of the greatest things ever composed, too!” she said.

“It lasts 23 minutes, but it really feels like you blink, and it’s over. It goes through an incredible assortment of textures. It’s like a very tight ping-pong match in the beginning — or almost like popping popcorn that appears from all directions — and has to be so tightly woven and intense. I don’t exactly see colors when I play it, but these round things popping.”

Yang was only 19 when she she won the silver medal at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2005. A native of Seoul, South Korea, she began playing piano at 4 and soon was being hailed as a promising young musical force. In 1997, at barely 11, she moved to New York to study at the prestigious Juilliard School with Dr. Yoheved Kaplinsky.

It was already apparent to Yang at the time that she had synesthesia. But she was too young to know what it was.

“I think it was when I started to learn the Haydn Piano Concerto in D major,” she said.

“At that time, it was always in my head that the piece was yellow. Everything in D major was a little yellow to me! I didn’t talk about it then, but I was terrible sight-reader. I learned music by listening for the first two years and imitated what I heard. I’m still quite bad at sight-reading.

“What helped me is that I’d color some chords and draw shapes next to them to help me remember what the notes are. Because reading one note at time was so painful for me when I was young. So I’d go to my lessons with all these colors and squiggles I’d drawn on the pages of the scores.”

She laughed.

“The teacher said: ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Yang recalled.

“I said: ‘I know the music much better this way, by colors and shapes, than by reading a diminished 7th (chord) on the page.’ People said my scores were ‘unusual.’ Little by little, I was astonished to learn other people didn’t see colors.

“At Juilliard, I discovered other people who said they also see colors. I learned that everyone with (synesthesia) sees something different. But, the fact is, it’s a driving force in our creativity and in remembering and interpreting music. Without it, I’d be very lost.”

Yang’s playing is a testament to both her musical virtuosity and maturity. She can attack the piano with ferocity and tenderly caress the keys with equal skill and sensitivity.

While well-versed in classical staples written long before her birth, she also champions new music. Earlier this year, she debuted Australian composer Elizabeth Younan’s new Piano Sonata.

Yet, while Yang’s career as a soloist with orchestras requires her to regularly buy new gowns to perform in, her favorite dining spot in San Diego is anything but formal.

“I have literally tried everything on the menu at The Taco Stand!” she said.

“I didn’t know about the real California Mexican food before. Now, I can’t live without it. And, thankfully, The Taco Stand is right across the street from Copley Symphony Hall!”

San Diego Symphony 2018/2019 season-opening concerts

Performing: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Ippolito’s Nocturne (Saturday and Sunday), and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and Bates’ Garages of the Valley (Oct. 12 and 14)

With: Conductor Edo de Waart and pianist Joyce Yang

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Oct. 12 and 2 p.m. Oct. 14

Where: Copley Symphony Hall at Jacobs Music Center, 750 B St., downtown

Tickets: $26-$65 (Saturday), $26-$74 (Sunday); $26-$80 (Oct. 12 and 14), plus service charges, which are waived for tickets bought at the box office

Phone: (619) 235-0804


Twitter @georgevarga