Orchestra audience adores young pianist

Pianist Yuja Wang performed Rachmaninoff in a promising collaboration with Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Pianist Yuja Wang performed Rachmaninoff in a promising collaboration with Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Posted: November 10, 2013

Pianist Yuja Wang was pretty much canonized by her Kimmel Center audience Thursday, and perhaps not for typical reasons of hot fingers and charismatic glamour.

In a promising collaboration with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Wang scaled the pianistic Everest that is Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with a sense of ease that took the music to a particular place that it can rarely go.

Having heard Wang grow up before my very ears at the Curtis Institute, I'm convinced she is basically a chamber-music pianist - with a mastery of the keyboard that allows her to bring the same flowing conversational quality to the Rachmaninoff concerto that she had in Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 10.

In Rachmaninoff, the conversation was a high-level one between her and any given phrase, duly transmitted to the audience without the slightest pretense or Scriabinesque neuroses. She plays the piece as naturally as many people breathe.

Such qualities are so apparent in her thoroughly entrancing Deutsche Grammophon recording of the concerto that, at Thursday's performance, I somewhat missed her intimacy with the microphone. In fact, her subtlety in Thursday's opening moments could be mistaken for lack of involvement. Once in the thick of the first movement, though, she projected all manner of confidences to distant parts of Verizon Hall.

A strong-minded collaborator in this big-orchestra concerto, Nézet-Séguin occasionally covered her, a pity when you're hanging on every note. Wang's tone quality is best when not pushed. Generally, she achieves greater distinction in less heroic repertoire.

Still, at a stage in her life when she can play anything better than almost anyone, you happily take what she offers (except perhaps John Cage's 4'33", which she has threatened to perform). And thanks to her trademark tight, skimpy gown, pianophiles can readily analyze the musculature of her keyboard technique.

The rest of the program was dominated by Strauss' crowd pleaser Ein Heldenleben, a piece that seems like the work of an impatient composer marking time until a good opera libretto came his way. The tone poem's story about the stages in life of an imaginary hero, told through a lavish orchestration, feels like some high-budget, self-aggrandizing Kevin Costner movie.

One wonders if Nézet-Séguin might partly agree. At so many turns, he would give a highly personal subtext to a passage, as if to say, "See? The music does mean something." In general, he preferred operatic contrasts but with soft attacks, establishing an unbroken line of musical thought when such a thing was possible. The piece was preceded by Strauss' vigorous, rarely heard Serenade for Winds (Op. 7), which predicts the composer's use of those instruments in later pieces, thus encouraging listeners to hear Ein Heldenleben purely as symphonic architecture - with the considerable pleasures of concertmaster David Kim's solos.


Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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