Yuja Wang & the BSO Review (26.04.2008)

Yuja Wang & the BSO’s performance program of Yardumian, Prokofiev and Berlioz was hands down the best performance I’ve seen this season, equaling if not surpassing opening weekend, and maintaining consistently high-quality performance throughout.

The first piece was Yardumian’s Armenian Suite. Immediately apparent was French guest-conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier’s conducting style. Clearly an aggressive micro-manager, Tortelier cues most if not all entrances and is direct and deliberate with how he wants each passage styled. While his style exerts a little more aggressive control than I prefer, there is no arguing with the product. Tortelier drew a spectacular performance from the BSO. His style enabled lots of small touches like accentuating dynamic contrasts, particularly with his direct, expressive conducting. Armenian Suite was pulled off with great vitality and a lush sound, but the piece is largely uninteresting, conjuring some vaguely ethnic imagery through brass fanfares.

From the beginning of Prokofiev’s piano concerto, it was clear that Armenian Suite was only the appetizer for the rest of the program. Taking time to re-orchestrate, a gorgeous grand piano was raised up through the stage floor. Written in 1911-1912, Prokofiev was only 20 and had yet to graduate from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Considered his first “mature” work, the concerto is a showcase for only the most capable and virtuosic pianist. The concerto is a challenge both technically and stylistically; in order for the performance to be cohesive, the pianist must excel at both. Which fit guest soloist Yuja Wang to a tee; the 20 year old Chinese pianist is already receiving prodigy-level praise, and it’s clear why.

Wang’s playing style is extremely versatile, easily switching between an aggressive mode, swooping down onto the keys as if a predatory bird on prey, to a gentle, smooth style almost drifting along the keys. She is expressive in body language without becoming a caricature as so many other virtuoso instrumentalists do, getting carried away with their contrived convulsing.

The dark brass passage was truly fantastic, hinting at the great things to come in Berlioz. But really, the dominating sound and image from the concerto was Wang’s performance. Truly lyrical in every sense of the word, her playing was as varied and textured as a singer’s voice. Silky-smooth flowing passages, well-blended with no awkward transitions. Tackling the most technically challenging to the most stylish passages with the same intensity but never appearing to exert more or less effort. A perfect performance if I’ve ever heard one, culminating in a breath-taking, impossibly technical finish. The only downside was that the piano could definitely have been more prominent in respect to the rest of the orchestra. I’m sure there were portions of the audience that lost a lot of Wang’s details due to the overbearing aural dominance of the orchestra.

Wang played two shorter encores, the first a ferocious technical showcase and the second a more relaxed stylistic and interpretive one.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique closed the night with a bang, and was very clearly the source of the program’s title, “Favorites”. Hair-raising violins during the first movement established a kinetic pace and a sense of grand, sweeping beauty, phrasing the idee fixe of the Irish actress Harriet Smithson who Berlioz was infatuated with, enough to make her central in the plot of the symphony.

The expansive countryside of the third movement was excellently fleshed out by beautifully flowing lines from woodwinds and strings. The majestic and propulsive brass fanfares of the fourth movement were spectacularly playful and bright, in a great instance of gallows humor; the transition to more grievous tones for the actual execution is done perfectly, building tremendous tension until the shift. But the undoubted highlight was the rollercoaster fifth movement…absolutely breath-taking. The contrast of the stately doom presented by the brass lines and tuba death knells with the unsettling, gently lilting string and woodwind runs was well phrased. The precipitous dynamic changes were glorious and, stylistically, the most well-executed I have heard from the BSO. The promise of brass bombast, a feature in this piece, was more than delivered, with some truly ground-shaking power being deployed. The careening runs at the piece’s close provided a phenomenal end to the evening, in what became easily the best BSO performance in my recent memory.

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