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Lisztful Thinking: Hugh Wolff & Yuja Wang

Hugh Wolff

“A Night of Firsts” was the title (with its mildly seedy, if unintended, sexual innuendo lingering) of a night of splendid music at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s third Summer Thursday Classics concert at Strathmore. What the title meant to minds less beholden to see sexual innuendos lurking around every corner was Liszt’s first piano concerto, Schumann’s first symphony, and – for starters – Walton’s Façade Suite No. 1. Hugh Wolff, whom I had suspected under consideration as a possible Temirkanov successor before that issue was settled (regrettably) on Tuesday, led the BSO with his sunny-boy style and touch of flamboyance belying his 52 years. For a perennial boy with a smirk, few works seem more fitting than Walton’s wacky Façade, even if the suite sounds almost tame compared to the Dame Edith Sitwell enriched ‘real deal’. Lightness, not too much grace, and good fun purveyed a reading that bubbled like champagne.

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Yuja Wang
The young (and beautiful) Beijing native Yuja Wang may appear fragile at first sight, but she destroyed any such notions as regards her playing with a thunderous entry into the piano concerto. (I hesitated calling Ms. Wang ‘beautiful’ at the sight of her 1987 birth date, but after some calculations, that turns out to make her 18, in which case such a comment may be safe from accusations of indecency.) Rather than playing it safe, she went for it, possible wrong notes be damned – and good for her and us. Most performances could use more risk as it is. The carefree spirit went well with Hugh Wolff’s rationale for the programming; namely highlighting the “positive side of the human experience” and “shunning tragedy.” Daringly light piano (it wasn’t even pianissimo) touches on Yuja Wang’s part seemed to have an otherwise far from mute crowd hold its collective breath for a moment or two. Both orchestra and soloist brought smiles to my face on several occasions with their interpretation that was – in keeping with the spirit so far – spry and nimbly mischievous.

When Mr. Wolff introduces a work with a few words, I always fear that his slightly nervous exuberance will veer into clownery. Thankfully it never does. In that regard, he reminds me a bit of Leonard Slatkin, who also comes close to the latter but stays on the right side of that line surprisingly often.

Spring-infused is how Schumann’s first symphony is to sound – and although a beaut, it’s not necessarily an easy work to bring off. It’s a cliché, but not less true for it: Schumann’s symphonies, the first not an exception, can be taxing on the string players and difficult for the conductor to keep the textures clean. It’s a lot more work to do them well than hearing might let on. Nor would watching Wolff have betrayed any difficulty as he conducted with palpable joy and a relaxed smile. He cannot have had much time to drill the BSO for this concert, but between fun Walton, the astounding soloist and a very well-executed Schumann with plenty of body yet not neglecting the lighter sides, the result was most pleasing, indeed. I’ll be sure to mark Wolff’s appearances in the region in my calendar.

The concert can be heard again tonight at the Joseph Meyerhoff Hall at 6 pm. The next and last of the Summer Thursday Classics will be Beethoven’s 9th and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage on July 28th at 8 pm.

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