IN: Reviews

Wang Debut Dispatched with Great Expedition


Yuja Wang (Robert Torres photo)
Yuja Wang (Robert Torres photo)

That she already has a loyal Boston fan base here was evidenced Friday night at Jordan Hall when Yuja Wang presented her Boston debut recital for the Celebrity Series. She got down to business immediately in some serious party attire, launching into the whirlwind triplets that begin the Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28.

The movements unfolded without pause, and Yuja Wang’s performance was serious, seamless. Brittle and appropriately brutal would have been fine, but we were treated instead to satisfyingly rich (and brutal). And relentless. Just what she was after, I suspect.

What becomes clear about Wang’s playing when hearing her live is that there is no cheating, no overcoming any weaknesses through affection, phrasing, or gesture. There are no weaknesses. Does she radiate pure joy? Not so much. Not her style. She takes her work and play seriously. There is a flawless sense of rhythm, balance, and precision, and a purity of architecture and form.

There was a sweet, pleading quality to the (relatively) lyrical 2nd theme of the Prokofiev, while maintaining drive and intensity. (Wang had promised some “edgy Prokofievian sarcasm” in her BMInt interview here). We got some of that, but this was better. There was plenty of power and pyrotechnics, a big sound, but in many places in the 3rd movement, a surprisingly light, semi-ethereal articulation. She arrived at the ending almost abruptly. Time condensed. The audience was thrilled.

Then the Chopin B Minor Sonata, Op. 58. Wang’s approach was not so Germanic, or martial, in the opening material, where Chopin is at his most squarely martial (the polonaises being a different story). This was a bit too bad, because with the arrival of the singing, Bellini-like 2nd theme, we didn’t get that great sense of contrast, of opening up and release, or luxuriating in the melody. Wang was pushing through this work (with no repeat of the exposition), building a larger arch for the work, worrying less about contrast within the separate movements. (The same could be said of the 2nd and 3rd movements.) The fugal development was finely wrought and voiced, with clear dialogue between soprano and tenor voices, as long as we could keep up with her.

She danced over the keyboard for the 2nd movement scherzo and barely slowed down for the middle section, then sped up for the reprise! Which was a bit otherworldly, what you might expect from the last movement of the B-flat Minor Sonata, the “wind over the graves” movement, but not nearly so dark. A much different effect, but still all about producing an effect of sound.

Wang gave us contrast between, if not so much within, the last two. A lyricism to the 3rd movement gave way to the big, driven virtuoso finale—never showy, always in service to the composer.

To say this was the weakest piece on the program really isn’t doing any injustice to Wang. After all, she set the bar quite high for all the other works on the program. She is one of those pianists for this pianist, doesn’t generate any piano envy. Her abilities so far exceed mere mortal ones that it just doesn’t occur to ponder what it might be like to play like that.

After intermission, there was a breathtaking rendition of a “jazz” work, Kapustin’s Variations, Op. 41, built around an homage to Stravinsky’s opening bassoon solo in The Rite of Spring. If that sounds impossibly strange, go have a listen. Wang’s incredible rhythmic foundation and chops allowed her (and us) to romp. Her controlled body language didn’t give away how much bounce she brought to the music, which went from delicate, to fleet, to frisky, raucous, rich, and jazzy, within a tightly woven structure, where she was right at home. Especially with those lovely insouciant touches that generated (almost) quiet laughter from the crowd, though she seemed in a bit of a hurry.

More Chopin followed. The big Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, and the 3rd Ballade in A-flat, Op. 47. With the Nocturne, the return of theme, richly textured, three against four harmonies, was finely wrought. So much rich texture and rhythm but all in service to a lyrical melodic line. But it was the Ballade that showed this artist in top form. Here, she sang and harvested harmonic material (particularly just before the coda in the bass) that brought Chopin into the 21st century with a beautiful, rich arch of sound and structure through to the last note.

Last on the program: Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka. A signature piece for Wang, the Stravinksy was spectacular. Her incredible rhythm and keyboard bounce came into great service here. But more than that, it’s fair to suggest that most first-rate conductors of first-rate orchestras who have a better than first-rate version of this work for orchestra, would have envied the range of colors and sounds she produced all on one instrument! (So there may be Yuja envy after all!).

She had us thinking of inner voices (musically) while hearing music that was at once brittle, harsh (both good things), bright, and dark. And at times, were there sounds of innocence. Really? Yes, for lack of a better word. And pain.

Just then I was wanting some woodenness in homage to the title character; we got it in abundance in the 2nd movement. Shimmery playing, too. And bell sounds, as if form Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Wang took us for a great ride in the 3rd movement, covering so much ground (and keyboard), galloping then thudding (another good thing) to conclusion.

So of course there was a standing ovation. Wang was offstage in an instant, and back on stage, like a dart, a few times, before giving us her rendition of Art Tatum’s “Tea for Two,” which pulled sighs and “aahhs” from the audience.

Her 2nd and final encore was the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen Variations. I’m not sure if Wang contributed to the composition (i.e. Bizet/Horowitz/Wang), but her execution would have made Horowitz blush. Through her astonishing visual and sonic display, it was as if this piece had been hardwired to her system.

So, what was missing? Anything? I think so, but I can’t easily identify what. The review title above, “…dispatched with great expedition,” paraphrases a quote from Ishmael in “Moby Dick,” who was enjoying chowder on Nantucket, which he dispatched with great expedition. In Wang’s case, I just wonder if we’re missing a little umami, that special deepness of flavor (or something) that, once so difficult to define in food, is still so difficult to define in music.

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.


10 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I heard this recital (played in scanty “party clothes” and 6″ silver heels) and marveled all of her impressive technique. I also felt something “was missing,” and I think it was the transformative musical magic you hear from far less famous pianists with far tinier careers. Yes, Ms. Wang has chops galore, but Ms. Wang’s chops and skimpy dresses are what you remember a few days later- not the music. I would not go to see her again, nor would I buy her CDs. There are several Boston pianists with equal techniques but more musical depth.

    Comment by Susan Miron — October 20, 2013 at 9:25 pm

  2. A fascinting concert which left many questions about Ms. Wang’s potential. The Prokoviev and Stravinsky showed real commitment to the music, and with her total command of piano technique she was able to make each work an exciting musical experience. However the dissection of the Chopin sonata was cold, brillant, not a drop of blood was lost, but litle or nothing was revealed of the music within. She appeared not to comprehend what the nocturne, one of the most amazing that Chopin composed, was about. The ballad rendition was that of a very talented conservatory student. The encores again displayed her extrordinary technique, but what of the future? Can she play Schubert?

    Comment by jon guttmacher — October 20, 2013 at 10:48 pm

  3. I disagree with Susan Miron. All I can remember is the Stravinski! How did she get a whole orchestra out of a single piano? I really like Jim McDonald’s comment that was is missing is “umami” since he means for us to “stay tuned” to see how this extraordinary young pianist will grow in depth and meaning. (As she will, inevitably, since pain is unavoidable to the human condition…) Radu Lupu, last year, filled Mozart with so much “unami” that many in the audience were tempted to reject his interpretation..

    But yes, I cannot imagine that the fullness of her exuberance can be transmitted in a CD.

    Comment by Ashley — October 21, 2013 at 8:48 am

  4. An apt review of this intriguing, imaginative, and utterly absorbing program by a 26(!) year old pianist with no discernible technical weaknesses. I agree with most of Jim McDonald’s points, and would simply add that I look forward to hearing Yuja Wang continue to grow, and her musical vision (and umami) deepen.

    As for the first two comments, I have to wonder if we heard the same recital. “Ms. Wang’s chops and skimpy dresses are what you remember a few days later- not the music.” Ah, but that’s what Ms. Miron remembers, Wang’s ‘skimpy dresses’ in particular (harrumph!). What I remember most is the magically characterful performance of the 3rd Ballade, which evoked Mickiewicz’ Undine more vividly for me than any performance I’ve heard…and I’ve heard dozens, as well as played the 4 Ballades myself for decades. Mr. Guttmacher’s notion that a “very talented conservatory student” would play at this level makes me doubt he’s heard many student recitals.

    Furthermore, Miron’s assertion that several Boston pianists have “equal techniques” is silly – there are few pianists on the planet at any one time who approach Yuja Wang’s kind of facility. Besides, no two great techniques are ‘equal’, because no two human beings or musical sensibilities are – neither Horowitz nor Rubinstein, for example, ever dared to play all 24 Chopin études in public, while Pollini performed them in his teens. (For that matter, Horowitz wasn’t so keen on the late Schubert sonatas, which comprise the nucleus of some other pianists’ repertoire). There’s also a world of difference between and among the techniques of incomparable Bach interpreters like Landowska, Feinberg, Gould, and Schepkin on the one hand, and pianistic geniuses oriented more to 19-20th century music, such as Richter, de Larrocha, Pollini, Sokolov, Uchida, and Zimerman.

    As far as I’ve heard, the only Boston-based pianist with anything like Wang’s technical mastery is Marc-André Hamelin, for example, and at this level of performance, technique is inseparable from the realization of musical imagination and intention. There’s no longer such a thing as mere ‘chops’. One may wish that a performer played a passage more slowly, or pedalled less, or conceived a piece differently, but the implication that Wang is some kind of piano-playing machine instead of a deeply aware, imaginative musician with distinctive ideas betrays a misunderstanding too deep to address fully here.

    Onward, Yuja, and thanks for the memories!

    Comment by nimitta — October 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm

  5. I completely agree with Susn Miron’s comment, and could not have said it better. I came to this recital as a professed Yuja Wang fan, having very favorably reviewed her debut CD on Her technique was no surprise to those who have already heard her, but I was under the impression from that CD that she brought considerable musical depth to her performances as well. I was very disappointed by the recital. As far as I am concerned, her most glaring deficit was that — despite a formidable technique — she did not produce a beautiful singing tone, and that is essential for some of the music she played, particularly the pieces by Chopin. One of the commentators really liked her 3rd Ballade. I found that the least troubling of the three Chopin works, but I was not able to shake my disappointment in the preceding nocturne in order to listen to it adequately. Like Ms. Miron, I walked out of the recital stating that she had much to learn from some local pianists whose recitals have lived in my memory for months afterwards. Like Ms. Miron, I will remember a skimpy dress, inappropriately high heeled shoes, a gawky head-to-floor bow and astounding technique, but what I really wanted was to be emotionally moved, and that didn’t happen.

    Comment by Robert Berkowitz — October 26, 2013 at 1:35 am

  6. Guerrieri seemed to combine, or at least cover, some of the viewpoints expressed above:

    (Wish this crowd of commenters had made it to Walnut Hill a few months ago to weigh in on the pluses and minuses of Y. Wang, Sohn, Li, and Liu.)

    Comment by David Moran — October 27, 2013 at 1:38 am

  7. You might also with to read what Rebecca Lentjes had to say about Yuja Wang’s Carnegie Hall performance a few days after her Boston debut recital. I was there, too, for the NY recital, but I’ve already said my piece.

    Comment by Jim McDonald — October 27, 2013 at 11:28 pm

  8. First, to those people who remember what Ms. Wang wore more than how she played, all I can say is “I feel sorry for you, you missed an astounding recital”. I remember Yuja’s masterful technique, her power, energy, and amazing lightness of touch, she is one of the most exciting pianists I’ve ever heard live. Watching her fingers fly over the keyboard and how she uses her entire body to deliver energy into the keyboard is just magical. I admire her respect for the composer and the music, and how she tries hard to convey her conception of each piece she plays. Sometimes, I’m disappointed in how she plays a piece, but that happens with everyone, we all have different tastes. Overall, I found her recital at Jordan Hall thrilling and satisfying.

    Comment by Jack Test — November 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm

  9. I left this recital thinking to myself, “that was enjoyable, I won’t be back.” Nevertheless I am with Ms. Wang’s defenders, not her detractors. She is twenty-six years old and likes to dress up, show off, and play like a demon. She enjoys herself and likes the audience to enjoy themselves too. Her playing is always brilliant and usually interesting, even if not always entirely suited to the work ( if that was a nocturne it must have been a brightly-lit night). She is not just a technician; she completely captured both the defiant brilliance and the harsh wit of Petrouchka. I loved her energy and her fearlessness, and I confess I even liked the way she was dressed. And to call her shoes “inappropriate” is like lecturing Superman on the impracticality of his cape.

    I am writing this from my seat in Jordan Hall while awaiting the beginning of another recital, which I expect to be somewhat different. At least I hope so. If András Schiff comes out in platform heels, I’m leaving.

    Comment by SamW — November 1, 2013 at 7:43 pm

  10. Glad you got to stay for Schiff, SamW…a recital for the ages.

    Comment by nimitta — November 2, 2013 at 8:41 am

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