Joyce Yang strode to the azure-backlit stage with a cheerful smile, a winning track record at Shalin Liu, and a firmly personal vision for her eclectic program. Dressed to kill in a black sheath with silver lamé panels dashing down both front and back, Yang convincingly told us why she’d switched a ‘selection’ of Debussy Preludes for Beethoven’s lively “Hunt” sonata (#18, in E-flat Major, Opus 31, No. 3). “Since this is a chamber music festival, I want to bring a dozen musical characters to the stage. The opposing voices [in the Beethoven and Schumann] play tricks on each other, and I have to play tricks on myself not to falter.”
Yang forthwith cut to the chase armed with oodles of technique and a wardrobe of mood changes, donned with a generous dollop of wit and a powerful touch. She navigated Beethoven’s flurry shifts and twists with a lighthearted command, brusque sforzandi, and brisk tempos. Her animated facial expressions appropriately suggested the commedia dell’arte rather than Jacobean gravitas. The Scherzo’s rumble-to-stutter-to-crash held the pent-up surprise of a comedian’s punch line, and Yang’s smart turns in the “Presto con fuoco” gleamed with quicksilver jocularity.
Likewise with Schumann’s Carnival Jest of Vienna (Op.26), Yang’s crystal imagination sketched an array of characters engrossed in grandiloquent poses — pounding, strutting to an ironic wisp of La Marseillaise, swanning, daydreaming – ever returning to the resolute promenade. The Romanze provided one of evening’s rare reflective and nuanced moments. Yang pointed out that Schumann “never hid from himself”; she too wears her heart on her sleeve as she plays, and the audience appeared enthralled as she whizzed unerringly through the prestissimo Finale.
With impressionistic fare, Yang’s thesis of fully inhabiting the music proved less effective. Debussy’s Estampes (Woodcuts) — depicting pagodas with ‘oriental gamelan’ pentatonics, an evening in Grenada with Spanish guitar effects, and gardens in a pelting rain — came across as sharp-edged etchings, undifferentiated in texture, due to assertive pedal work, curt rubato, and fortissimo thunderclaps.
Frederic Mompou’s Cancion y danza No. 5 lacked its dark blend of Catalan sadness and mystery, where its somber, staid melody brightens suddenly into dance, as Yang’s one-size-fits-all approach ran roughshod through its four mini-movements.
But she was in fine fettle on the acerbic, dazzling portraits of Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas: the buffo sheepherder limped and the macho gaucho strutted, even though the graceful maiden comported herself as a grandiose dowager. And on her encore, Earl Wild’s frilly arrangement of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” (Etude No. 3), Yang unloosed her inner Liberace, another exuberant extrovert, to ecstatic acclaim.