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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Concert Review: New Stars, Shining Bright

Yuja Wang takes on the "Rach Three" at Lincoln Center. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Her hands are a blur: Yuja Wang. Photo by Felix Broede for Deutsche Grammophon.
© 2014 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group.
In the city of Los Angeles, star power is everything. And for Monday night's concert at Avery Fisher Hall by that city's Los Angeles Philharmonic, the wattage was bright indeed. At the controls: conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the hotshot Venezuelan who has been compared (mostly in Deutsche Grammophon press releases) to classical music's equivalent of Elvis Presley. The featured soloist was Yuja Wang, whose prestidigitations at the piano easily outshine her predilection for slit skirts and high heels as concert attire.

The concert opened with the first New York performance of Blow Bright, a new tone poem by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. Mr. Bjarnason's work featured glittering splinters of sound and bright tones for the brass, wind and percussion. Among the remarkable effects in this score was the instruction to have the winds and brass play in cascading sheets of sound, creating the effect of electronic tonal manipulation without any extra technology.

Playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor is a statement piece for any would-be pianist. Its demands are fearsome--so much so that many of the greatest pianists since its premiere have chosen  to avoid it altogether. With a solo part written for the composer's own gigantic hands and orchestral accompaniment that presents similar, if not equal difficulty, it is a test faced only by the boldest artists. For Ms. Wang, who recently recorded this work with Mr. Dudamel, the risks of playing this piece on tour at this stage in her career were very real. She responded with a performance that was not just technically proficient, but soulful as well.

Leaping intervals for the piano and orchestra gave way to the big romantic opening theme, swelling out of the cellos as Ms. Wang took the first of many keyboard excursions against the orchestra's accompaniment. In her trademark heels, Ms. Wang bent over the keys, driving the music with a sense of inner focus and purpose. She responded ably in the extremely difficult cadenzas but ept the movement flowing steadily even as Mr. Dudamel propelled the orchestra forward.

Her playing in the second movement was of the same high quality, with Rachmaninoff's astonishing melodic gifts laid neatly before the audience. The big solo part was a performance in itself, a thrilling and very long cadenza that drew the listener deeply into the innermost thoughts of the composer. Ms. Wang's playing intimated that there may be a powerful, intimate music hidden in between the trills and bombast.

The finale, taken a tempo was pure guts, with Mr. Dudamel setting a frantic pace. The opening notes rushed head-long, pointing the way forward with the orchestra egging the piano on to greater flights of virtuosity.  In the moment right before the coda, Ms. Wang appeared to pause and wipe her brow before the pure terror of these last notes. It's good to see that this remarkable artist is human after all.

Orchestra and conductor returned for Brahms' Symphony No. 2, the most frequently programmed and therefore most famiiar of the composer's four. It was refreshing to hear Mr. Dudamel's energetic, bold take on the first movement, as the conductor paid careful attention to the woodwinds underpinning the main theme in the cellos. This was interesting, emotional music making, taken just a touch slowly to bring out the finer details in the score.

The slow movement featured a similar attention to detail, molded around the central cello theme. Brahms referred to this as "music with black borders" but the funereal mood was replaced by a thoughtful, contemplative interpretation that brought out the finer qualities of this orchestra. The woodwinds came to the fore in the Allegretto, one of many Brahms movements that points the way forward to Schoenberg and Webern. Mr. Dudamel pulled out all the stops for the finale, creating a thrilling race to the finish and making this stalwart work sound completely fresh to the ear.

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