An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Playing music sustained William Wang, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, through the pandemic. Now Wang will share his gift with the MIT community as the featured student soloist for the 123rd annual Tech Night at Pops, on Friday, June 4, at 8:00 p.m. ET.

After a hiatus last year during the Covid-19 pandemic, the long-standing MIT tradition is back to kick off Tech Reunions weekend—and for the first time ever, it will take place online. The free concert—exclusively for MIT alumni, students, and friends—will feature Wang’s rendition of the wistful and bittersweet melodies of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by Keith Lockhart, in an empty Symphony Hall.

“William is among the most gifted and experienced performers to have attended MIT,” says David Deveau, senior lecturer in music emeritus and artistic director emeritus at MIT, who works with Wang. “He plays at a level that would allow him admission to Juilliard, Curtis, or any major music school, but of course he’s equally brilliant in his chosen field at MIT of computer science.” As one of about 50 students this year in MIT’s Emerson Program—the conservatory-level track in the Institute’s music program—Wang receives merit-based assistance supporting his lessons with music instructors within the MIT community and in greater Boston.

MIT alumni and students can add Tech Night at Pops to their reunion weekend agenda to watch Wang and the concert online. The event’s virtual staging allows for an unlimited number of attendees, while creating unique opportunities before and after the show for casual conversation in small groups of friends and classmates in an online setting.

Over the course of a difficult year, Wang shared the power of healing through music during performances with his ensemble, the MIT Ribotones (whose name, like that of many student musical groups at MIT, is a play on a scientific term—in this case, the cellular particles called ribosomes). The group spent the year live-streaming concerts across the country to residents of assisted living facilities, many of whom had gone months without seeing a single family member. “These were maybe the most isolated people in the pandemic. It’s been nice to be able to provide music for them,” says Wang, a four-time winner of the United States Open Music Competition.

For Wang, Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto was an easy choice. The piece has been near and dear to him since 2017, when he won the University of California Berkeley concerto competition playing the piece as an undergrad. He says he is drawn to Rachmaninoff’s intimate solo sections and nuanced jazz harmonies, as well as how the composer was influenced by the Russian romantic repertoire of Tchaikovsky and Glinka.

“Music matures like fine wine. As you grow older, you have more experiences and it changes the way you play and the way you hear things. It changes the way you appreciate it,” says Wang. When he was younger, for example, he’d play loud passages in a way that sounded angry, but came to discover “ways to bring different emotions into the piece,” he explains.

Music matures like fine wine. As you grow older, you have more experiences and it changes the way you play and the way you hear things. It changes the way you appreciate it.

Wang has been performing at piano recitals since before he could reach the pedals. Technique always came naturally, but it wasn’t until studying piano at UC Berkeley that he started to develop his interpretation of music. “Creativity doesn’t really exist in a vacuum, so I think it’s important to understand how other people choose to play a piece, but also to recognize that that’s their choice. It’s not something you have to do,” he says. “You find your own expression by maturing and looking beyond what a teacher tells you to play.”

Prior to MIT, Wang studied music under Betty Woo and James Gardner and played in master classes with Olga Kern and Hans Boepple. He is now a member of the MIT Chamber Music Society. When he’s not in the practice room, Wang plays in a piano trio with his roommates. For his PhD, he is researching machine learning, optimization, and statistical inference on networks with Ali Jadbabaie, the JR East Professor of Engineering, in the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems. Within the field, he explores theoretical approaches to machine learning, applicable in areas such as cancer diagnostics. “It’s great having music as an outlet…to switch your mind out of research and focus on something different and activate different areas of your brain,” says Wang.

The concerto with the Pops at Symphony Hall is his first performance with a professional orchestra. “I would always watch the YouTube recording of [the Pops’] ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ performance. I was always inspired by that—I would watch that every Fourth of July,” says Wang. Never in his wildest dreams, though, did he imagine he’d one day be performing with the Pops and Lockhart on stage.

“I chose to play the piece in a certain way, and I hope that my particular way of playing resonates with [the MIT audience] and somehow brings [them] joy,” says Wang.

To watch Tech Night at Pops on June 4, log in to the Tech Reunions website using your Infinite Connection account, and add the Pops concert to your Tech Reunions agenda. 

Illustration by Mary Zyskowski/MIT Alumni Association.