Joyce Yang was only 19 when she scored silver in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 12 years ago.

Looking back, she admits the toughest thing at the time was preparing more than four hours of music to play but it may have stood her in good stead for her latest challenge.

This week, the Korean-born American pianist focuses on Rachmaninov, playing the Russian composer's third piano concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Hamilton tonight and Auckland on Saturday.

"It's a dangerous line of repertoire," she says.

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"Rachmaninov really asks you for your absolute best in virtuosic skill and emotional vulnerability. The head and the heart have to be in perfect balance."

Yang likens this work to jumping off a cliff and into a sea of emotion. She's spoken frankly of the terrors it once held for her, now reduced to occasional panic spots. It helps that this NZ visit sees her reunited with conductor Edo de Waart, whom she first played under in 2009, in this very Rachmaninov concerto.

"Edo's the sort of conductor who brings out the best in everybody," she says.

"He taught me how to find my own voice and just go with it. He told me that I had a fantastic instinct and, rather than looking to him, why not simply put the downbeat where it should be, and he'd be there for me."

For Yang, the solo recital is a pianist's perk, keeping her in shape as well as humble even if it can mean waking up in the middle of the night worrying about the demands of being in sole charge for part of an evening.

But it's the collaborative concerto that she most enjoys, along with the fact that working with others can take the music in unpredictable directions.

"How can you be bored when anything can happen at any time?" she says.

Understandably, she likes her conductor to have just the right balance of following and leading her.

"It's not a one-way street with me being a diva all the time," she says.

"When the orchestra has to take over, the conductor should do just that and set the boat moving in another direction."

Music is a very visual activity for Yang, who has the rare gift of synaesthesia, allowing her to translate various musical keys or tonalities into complementary colours.

This talent is not new. Russian composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915) both heard sound as colour, even if they weren't exactly colour co-ordinated; Rimsky-Korsakov saw C major in white whereas, for Scriabin, it was an intense red.

For Yang, C Major is a budding green, with D major being defined as "that yellow place". But D minor, the key of her upcoming Rachmaninov concerto, has no synesthetic connections at all.

"I see ripples of water when the orchestra begins to play but D minor has no specific colour for me," she says.

"I simply feel like I'm floating on top of something."

Yet luckily for audiences, she does visualise the score, starting with the zig-zagging motion of her opening lines.

"If I can't visualise a piece of music, then I could never learn it," she says.

"I wouldn't be able to believe in it enough to be the messenger between composer and audience, which is so important to me."

LOWDOWN:
What: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Where & when: Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, Friday; Auckland Town Hall, Saturday.