IN: Reviews

A New Must-Hear: Pianist Yuja Wang


What observers have been saying all along about Yuja Wang proved to be true Thursday evening. Making her debut at Symphony Hall in a bright-red, sleeveless mini-dress, the vivid, young Beijing-born pianist bore through Prokofiev’s tough Piano Concerto No. 2 like a seasoned charger. Her sound and spirit defied the current trends of her contemporaries. Instead, she arose to much loftier heights—having us once again believing in music’s ancient but seemingly seldom visited power.  Andrew Davis, though, did not. Too much of the time he overplayed Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6.  Yet, with an old chestnut, the Capriccio espagnol of Rimsky-Korsakov, the BSO thrust us into a time capsule at once shiny and sage.

Enough cannot be said of the 26-year old soloist.  Since 2005, Wang has been building an impressive record, boasting performances with an array of world-class orchestras and conductors. Hearing her firsthand is to understand why. But before that, witnessing her uncommonly swift and deep bow, head dipping all the way below her waist, really began to show what was in store for us.  Her eagerness to speak through the piano while putting her own self aside was in evidence from the very beginning as she approached the Steinway. Seated, she launched her completely engrossing take of the formidable concerto; her musical reach would encircle the hushed near-full house for a ravishing half hour.

I would venture to say that Yuja Wang will sooner than later emerge as one of the most sought-after artists of our time.  Mark my words.

Voicings of harmony and inflections of melody, under her fingers, could only come from a resourceful imagination such as hers.  Such inventive nuance would draw the listener’s ear to an inner, fresher world of sound, as much sensitive as sensuous.  Delineations of surfaces —the octaves to which both hands are confined throughout the Scherzo, the concerto’s ever changing artifices, some of which made you think you were hearing a four-handed pianist, extended cadenzas, and more—under her hands, could only come from a gifted life-force such as hers. Such depth of inquiry would captivate, if not enlighten, the listener.

She and the BSO were a near-perfect match.

Why the pairing of the Prokofiev and Vaughan Williams? One answer might lie in the reproduction of a page for the “Berkshire Festival…Eleventh Season, 1948.” In that concert the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the American premiere of the Sixth Symphony along with a Prokofiev work. In another earlier concert, also under Koussevitzky, the orchestra gave the Second Concerto’s American premiere, the composer at the piano.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts the BSO ans Yuja Wang (Stu Rosner photo)
Sir Andrew Davis conducts the BSO ans Yuja Wang (Stu Rosner photo)

Guest artist Sir Andrew Davis, music director and principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago and chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, succeeded through the first half of Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6. A thoroughly absorbing turbulence with timed climaxes marked the Allegro.  “Overwhelming in the second movement,” writes annotator Hugh Macdonald, “is the rat-tat-tat rhythm …eventually mowing down everything in its path.”  And that, the BSO and Davis brought out to great effect, hinting at the minimalism in later works of John Adams.  For the Scherzo and Epilogue, Davis was unable to sustain interest.  He served up far too much brass, allowing, in particular, the tuba, to be a presence that finally saturated the ears. Contrast was at a premium: two harps chording under a singing string melody felt paradisiacal; tenor saxophone solos of Ryan Yuré signaled sublimity; and oboe solos of John Ferrillo augured deepening drifts.

Capriccio espagnol featured clarinetist William R. Hudgins topping off rapid fire arpeggios with Spanish flair and the entire BSO afire with color.   

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


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

  1. This weekend is actually not Yuja Wang’s debut with the BSO at Symphony Hall. Back on March 8-13, 2007, she replaced Martha Argerich, who was supposed to play the Beethoven 1st with Charles Dutoit conducting. Instead, Yuja played the Tchaikovsky 1st, and it was a sensation. I was there on the 9th, and I remember being absolutely staggered by her performance, not to mention enthralled by a piece I thought I’d never want or need to hear again.

    After being called out half a dozen times by a thunderous standing ovation that afternoon, the 20 year old pianist offered a stunning encore: Variations on a Theme from Carmen by Vladimir Horowitz. As it happens, I was fortunate enough to hear Horowitz play it on two occasions, and I have to say that Yuja Wang played it better!

    As for this weekend’s program: the 2nd has always been my favorite of Prokofiev’s concertos, but I’ve never heard a pianist play it with such beauty, power and glittering dispatch. If you have the chance, be in Symphony Hall tonight – any seat in the house will do.

    Comment by nimitta — March 29, 2014 at 1:54 pm

  2. This was fantastic. A young woman dressed either for the Senior Prom or the red carpet at the Oscars (two closely linked institutions) comes out, smiling bashfully, gives a quick bob, and transforms (maybe she was receiving an Oscar for one of those Transformers movies) into the Insane Yuja Wang Music Machine. Prokofiev is supposed to have terrified the audience at this work’s premiere; I think Yuja Wang’s performance might have terrified Prokofiev. It was a spectacular example of using an almost absurd degree of control to create an impression of reckless abandon, which I think is exactly what Prokofiev had in mind, and probably the way he played it himself. I wasn’t very familiar with the second Piano Concerto, but it is now my favorite (for a while), for which I ask forgiveness from Saint Martha Argerich.

    The Vaughan Williams was more interesting than I expected; it became more coherent as it became more expansive, which is a good trick. The Rimsky-Korsakov made me wonder if Ravel, Rimsky’s successor to the dubious honor of World’s Greatest Orchestrator, intended Bolero as a parody of Capriccio Espagnol.

    Comment by SamW — March 30, 2014 at 11:48 am

  3. By the way, lest anyone think this is the only way Yuja Wang can play, I’d like to mention that a few months ago I saw a video of her performing the Brahms Violin (& Piano) Sonatas with Leonidas Kavakos at the Verbier Festival. I approached this with a little foreboding, thinking the combination of these two wonderful but utterly different and very individual performers might be a disaster, but they seemed to be quite responsive to each other and played together beautifully. They are releasing a recording of these sonatas in a few weeks, and I am looking forward to listening to them again.

    Comment by SamW — March 30, 2014 at 12:02 pm

  4. An astonishing sonic and visual display of music making from young Yuja! Sam, totally agree with your comment re: control vs. abandon.

    Comment by Jim McDonald — March 30, 2014 at 12:21 pm

  5. Professor David Patterson:
    I am grateful for your review of Yuja Wang. I listened to this concert. I have heard many of her brilliant performances, from Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. I have heard Kissen play this No. 1; also Van Cliburn; these fellows are tops, technically. Yuja is sparkling. Somehow she defies “words” as if she is swimming in another medium where words fall short in trying to describe her. All I will say is. Your review, as it is stated in words, gets it right. Kissen was always technically impressive. But somehow I was uncomfortable with his perfection. This was evident when I heard his version of Beethoven’s 5th BSO Symphony Hall, 1995. He was so “perfect” I felt uncomfortable, almost like a celestial robot was playing; with Rubinstein, it was different. He may not have been as accurate or as fast, but Artur was magic. And he invited you into his world, with delight. So too, Yuja Wang. Rubinstein used to say that he made some wrong notes, but that’s what the peddles are for, to drown out the mistakes. Yuja Wang flashes through vibrantly without mistakes, but with passion and invitation to join her intact! Brava, Yuja Wang, may we be worthy of listening to many many more of her concerts throughout the decades!

    Comment by Samuel ben Solomon — April 1, 2014 at 6:20 pm

  6. This piano concerto is light in CD catalogs and every time I hear it and some other Prokofiev works, I am inclined to say Bravo composer, rather than Bravo performer (Generally true for any work, but more so in this situation). Wang’s performance last Thursday was satisfying since she has naturally good rhythm and her octopus style (well, some say this on internet. I don’t approve or disapprove) is a power generator. Is she a must hear? I say let us be more conservative while trying to be absolute. (I have more doubts about other recommendations)

    There ARE two CD releases of this concerto in recent years, both performed by Chinese keyboard players, Wang and Li. DG’s union with Universal is a divorce from art. Both are released for purely marketing reasons. Wang’s pairing is esp. annoying. I would have bought that CD …

    Comment by Thorsten — April 3, 2014 at 6:20 pm

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