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.
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.