Some wines (and concert performances) thrill the sensorium through pyrotechnics, only to vanish from memory the next day. Others (Chateau d’Yquem comes to mind) wind their magic surreptitiously into the soul, with a rich afterglow that continues to delight and surprise. The gentle power of Ya-Fei Chuang’s Jordan Hall concert continues to yield subtle treasures to me as I write.
First was the power of contrasting scale. In last night’s Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts concert, delayed by a blizzard and threatened by a hurricane, Ya-Fei gave us piano works ranging from the delicate miniature of ephemeral love to the towering immensity of eternity. Her program enlisted scale in alternating works by Schubert, Chopin, CPE Bach, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. Despite her dazzling dress, as she took possession of the stage, there was a warning: listen for depth tonight, elegant and stylish, not a bonfire of vanity.
YFC opened with four of Schubert’s small, gem-like Op. 94 Moments Musicaux, starting with the second one, the A-flat major Andantino. Moving from deep sadness, she made subtle use of dynamics to reveal many shades of loss — and it is only now that I realize to what extent the theme of loss would dominate and unify the program. She gave a very personal account of the famous Moment III in F minor, Allegro moderato, downplaying militaristic connotations and emphasizing instead the dance-like, spirited vulnerability with which youth approaches life, clueless to its dangers. Nicely following with Moment V in F minor, Allegro vivace, she imbued it with a tempestuous, exhilarating force reminiscent of René de Chateaubriand’s famous manifesto of youthful Romanticism: “Arise, desired storms!” With the final Moment VI, Allegretto, YFC subtly created a vast miniature world unto itself, an arrière-pays of tenderness, restraint, grief, fear, joy, anguish, dread, resignation, comfort, and hope as a lied encapsulating Schubert’s incredible sonic gift.
Chopin’s large, symphonic, B Minor Sonata, Op. 58, opened in YFC’s reading with a deceptively smooth first theme, as though unlocking our minds to welcome a broadening perspective, filled by hopeful longing in the second theme. A turbulent development yielded to a momentary break in the clouds, prayerful in the recapitulation and gently dreamy in closing. YFC exploited hidden textures in the Scherzo, giving it an ebullient and fluid elegance in the A section, then marvelously contrasting it with a sober, darkling mid-section, only to return with new resolve to effervescent dancing. In the Largo heart of the Sonata we heard story-telling in the shape of a nocturne, a sad journey to a sought-for unknown, the trio section arriving as a paradoxical upward descent with a mysterious astral luster, imbuing the return of the A section with the feel of cosmic communion. YFC gave a surprising, compelling and deep poignancy to the cadence – how final is finality? (Echoes of Keats: “Now, more than ever, seems it rich to die.”) As though expanding the cosmic dimension of her interpretation, YFC gave sparkle to the momentous odyssey of the Finale, making it soar, into the Milky Way and beyond, like a journey through the symbols of the Zodiac, bringing its mythic powers to life. (The glorious images of the Webb telescope came to mind, as the coda took us off into the unknown.)
Then came three memorable surprises.
YFC gave a sensitive and captivating reading of CPE Bach’s Rondo in E minor, Wq 66, “Farewell to my Silbermann Clavichord”. With light pedaling, YCF gave the sad rondo, in its successive returns, an unexpected eloquence as it seemed to ruminate on loss as such, on the passing years, on the many thresholds that we traverse, never to retrace our steps, on finality. And she imbued the cadence with an almost unbearable sense of finality. Wow.
YFC offered a modernist take on Ravel’s eight short Valses nobles et sentimentales that are more typically interpreted as nostalgic. YFC turned them into a compelling series of tableaux parisiens or street scenes from an urban landscape. The jaunty (“très franc”) opening, with its boulevardier combination of bravado and cowardice, nicely breathed discord and hidden threats of violence. Waltz II conveyed the secret anguish of idle dreams, where meaning becomes lost, irretrievable. Waltz III celebrated rain, with a cup of tea shared with ghosts. Waltz IV plunged us into a “crowd bath”, a bain de foule along the quays, where one’s most intimate loneliness resurfaces (V) and sparrows and pickpockets force us back into social vivacity (VI); so we turn to a café and mingle with the bustling waiters and quarreling lovers who come to verbal blows (VII) before dusk and night envelop the city in its shroud, blurring the boundaries of parks and cemeteries, deserted streets and catacombs. Where do we go? Who are we?
YFC found and conveyed a profoundly personal vision of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36, in its succinct 1931 version. After a clear statement of the themes, YFC used subtle dynamics to create great intensity and focus in the opening Allegro agitato movement, giving it the complex color of doubt, of ambivalence, even as peals of bells vied with rumbling thunder to take hold of a landscape both familiar and foreign, cherished and forlorn.
In the slow movement she depicted fate through the multitudinous pathways of patience. How it fills us slowly with its liquid power. How it reveals secrets. How it hurts. How it brings light. How it wins us over. How it remembers. How it prompts agitation, rebellion, and the struggle to escape! (YFC did the trio section masterfully!) How it returns, faithful, forgiving. How it sits there, with us. How it brings wisdom.
In the third and final movement, YFC seized the tempo, Allegro molto, to unleash a landscape of love, strong as death. With convincing chords traversed with shards of brilliance, she created a dialogue to convey the sheer energy of love in its possessiveness and desperation, generativity and mutuality. Her elegantly negotiated coda affirmed that love is by its very essence requited. Loss, after all, is impossible.
After receiving tributes of flowers from young admirers and aspiring pianists, YFC regaled us with soft, dreamy, repose in the Schumann Romance, Op. 28, No. 2. Like the embers of a fire that never blazes to dazzle but provides light for months and years to come, YFC illuminated us with enduring memories.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.