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Dutoit Towers over the NSO

It is clear from the recent appearances of pianist Yuja Wang -- in Prokofiev's first concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and her Terrace Theater recital, both in 2008 -- that the young Chinese sensation has a showman's heart. As a result, her debut with the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend, playing one of the showiest concertos in the repertoire, Prokofiev's second, was an event not to be missed. No one at Friday night's performance could have been disappointed in the fireworks department, as Wang shredded and diced the pages of this daunting score with ferocious technique, expertly unraveling the clotted knot of voices in the first movement's cadenza, for example (YouTube video). She must have spent the better part of each day before these concerts fine-tuning the most demanding passages.

In fact, this rebarbative work, in which Prokofiev seems to delight in enigmatic dead ends, unexpected volleys of dissonance, and hammered, manic gestures, may be a perfect match for Wang, who projects an armored, I'll-take-your-dare confrontation in her playing. (This comes through in her daring choice of encores -- see video below -- which an apparently not enthusiastic enough ovation kept from happening on Friday night.) At the premiere of this concerto, in 1913 in Pavlovsk, Prokofiev reportedly beamed at the umbrage taken by shocked listeners, even mockingly playing an encore as the audience streamed out of the hall. At the moment, Wang is roughly the same age Prokofiev was when he composed the second concerto, for himself to play as a 20-something show-off conservatory student, although the score we now have is a later reconstruction, recreated (and surely reworked) from memory to replace the original, lost during the 1917 revolution. Less satisfying In Wang's performance was the second movement, a scherzo of constantly streaming notes, played with fiery drive by Wang (YouTube video) but in a pulse that was at times less than rock-steady. A few places in the fourth movement had a similar wildness (YouTube video), but the guest conductor for the evening, the authoritative Charles Dutoit, kept his forces all together.

Dutoit and Wang have been performing the work together around the world (see also the YouTube video of the third movement), and they appear comfortable with one another. In fact, Dutoit was the real star of this particular show. With a minimal beat in his right hand and a few evocative swirls of his left to show phrasing or dynamic swells, he was imperious but gracefully so at the rostrum. Born in Switzerland and having made his name with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Dutoit brought a certain Gallic coolness to the evening, a detachment which paid off in the opening work, Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, marked by an elegant simplicity. The Prélude bubbled away, never rushed but also not waning in energy, the Forlane never crossed the line from dopey to buffoonish, and the Menuet remained stately while proceeding in a broad, balletic one. When the sense of ensemble did not cohere, as at the start of the Rigaudon, Dutoit righted matters with a few small gestures. Heaviness never overwhelmed, even as the work concluded, without fanfare -- Dutoit was shaking hands with concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef before the applause began.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, From Dutoit And the NSO, A Full Palette Of Possibility (Washington Post, February 20)

Mark Swed, Yuja Wang, the next Chinese sensation (Culture Monster, February 6)
Even better was the second half, a complete performance of Stravinsky's original score for the ballet The Firebird, like the Prokofiev not heard from the NSO in almost a decade. Like the Ravel, this music is Dutoit's specialty, and in his hands it quivered, beamed, and dazzled. The many instrumental effects, flutter-tonguing flutes, harp swoops, raspy violin chords, col legno cello strikes, celesta and metallic percussion twinkling, and chthonic contrabassoon growls mixed colorfully on Dutoit's palette. It is truly one of Stravinsky's most evocative scores, not as adventurously dissonant as the more notorious Rite of Spring three years later. As he did in the Ravel, Dutoit allowed the playing to unfold as naturally as possible, always making sure of the initial tempo in each section, and many elements of the performance were impressive -- splendid horn solos for the entrance of the Tsarevich, as well as fine contributions from principal oboe, viola, and bassoon. It remains to be seen if Philadelphia's gain will be Washington's loss, as Dutoit is now replacing Christoph Eschenbach at the Philadelphia Orchestra (well, sort of, as Chief Conductor). Philadelphia is likely to enjoy Dutoit's four years very much.

Gil Shaham will join the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of up-and-coming Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, in a program of Adès, Weill, and Stravinsky (February 26 to 28).

Yuja Wang, playing Rimsky-Korsakov, Vol du Bourdon, arr. Cziffra, 2008 Verbier Festival


Anonymous said...

From my ,admittedly feeble, memory I recall that Dutoit's tenure at Montreal ended rather abruptly due to issues with players. It will be interesting to see how things turn out in Philadelphia.

Unknown said...

Actually she was practicing Rachmaninov third backstage....

And now, to the dictionary to look up chthonic. Always eager for a new way to describe the contra.

Sue Heineman (aka fine bassoon contributor)

Michael Pakaluk said...

I was left wondering after the Ravel whether the woodwinds aren't the strongest section in the NSO.

Anonymous said...

How impressive to see 'rebarbative' and 'chthonic' used in the same review!

Anonymous said...

On February 28th, we attended a performance of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Arild Remmereit, with Yuja Wang in Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor. It was a pleasure seeing and hearing her play. Unfortunately, there was limited osmosis with the orchestra, whom with the conductor had clearly not rehearsed enough for this piece. The orchestra and conductor did a much better job in the second part of the concert, first with Prokoviev’s Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, and then even more with Khachaturian’s Suite No. 2 from Spartacus, a pleasant musical discovery for us.
Yuja Wang had just released her first record a few days before the concert, so it gave us an opportunity to discuss with her at the intermission and get an autograph!