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Yuja Wang Masters Extensive Technical Exercise

We have already dubbed American composer Jennifer Higdon the "Queen of the Concerto" because she has milked the genre for a startling number of commissions. To list only the ones we have actually heard (in our order of preference), there are concertos for violin, orchestra, percussion, and string trio, but she has also written concertos for oboe, soprano saxophone, and trombone. The genre is fraught with danger for composers, who risk becoming factory producers of flashy, empty works for high-powered soloists, premiered with as many orchestras as possible and then, for the most part, promptly forgotten. With a track record that now includes a mostly tedious piano concerto, premiered this weekend by the National Symphony Orchestra, Higdon is well on her way to demonstrating why Karlheinz Stockhausen famously refused to accept concerto commissions.

Pianist Yuja Wang (photo by Peter Adamik)
The piano concerto, as heard at the final performance on Saturday night, itself explains the work's unusual history. Higdon wrote the piece for Lang Lang, who announced in March 2007 that he was withdrawing from the project, a couple months before the scheduled premiere. Rumors abounded that the score was too difficult, requiring too much preparation time in the life of a busy, jet-setting virtuoso (after all, Yefim Bronfman had to burn the midnight oil to prepare Esa-Pekka Salonen's new piano concerto). The task passed to another Chinese Wunderkind, Yuja Wang, who lived up to her reputation for hard-hitting derring-do, displayed in all of her local appearances -- a 2008 recital at the Terrace Theater, Prokofiev's second piano concerto with the NSO last spring, and Prokofiev's first piano concerto with the BSO in 2008 (and Liszt's first concerto with them in 2005).

Somehow Wang played all of the notes in Higdon's score, whose default setting appears to have been endless scales, stacked chords, and intricate, fast finger-work. Lang Lang surely could have played all the notes, too, but I suspect that he may have asked himself if it was really going to be worth it. At the end of Saturday's performance, no matter how dynamic and awe-inspiring Wang was at the keyboard (and she was, in spades), the answer was no. Higdon may have accomplished her stated goals -- "to show off the instrument's percussive ability" and to write "a great number of cascading notes which would rebound with a velocity that cannot be matched by another instrument." Yes, mission accomplished, poor Yuja Wang reduced to the role of etude-defeating machine. When one was past the rush of admiration for Wang's mastering of the most demanding Hanon-style technical exercise, however, precious little was left: a bluesy, cocktail piano-style opening theme in the first movement, followed by a grotesque Shostakovich-style march (the best part of the concerto), some dewy chords for a Coplandesque "morning in America" in the second movement, and a bebop/jazz fusion bit with the percussion in the third movement.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO crowd delights to piano concerto's debut (Washington Post, December 4)

Robert R. Reilly, Dream Playing for “Winter Dreams” (Ionarts, December 4)

Tim Smith, National Symphony premieres Higdon Piano Concerto on colorful program (Baltimore Sun, December 4)

T. L. Ponick, NSO premieres composer Higdon's dazzling concerto (Washington Times, December 4)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Nonstop Ivory-Tinkling (DMV Classical, December 5)
The drab sameness of Higdon's orchestration, aside from a battery overspiced with exotic timbres, was set in relief by the opening work, a suite of music from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden. The Russian composer literally wrote the book on matters of orchestration: he could wring far more shades from a palette of fewer colors, by careful mixing: the rumble of ominous bass pedal, the airy rush of bass drum or triangle underneath soft textures in the first movement, the tangy chiff of avian woodwinds in the second, the boisterous cavorting of the skomorokhi in the last. The piece, heard too rarely and brought back to the NSO (for the first time since 1977!) as part of the Focus on Russia program at the Kennedy Center, is an important precursor of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, something explored by Richard Taruskin in his landmark book on Stravinsky's debt to the Russian Romantic tradition.

The Russian theme continued on the second half with another rare work, Tchaikovsky's first symphony (last heard in 1998), which the composer himself subtitled "Winter Daydreams" (rounding out a concert that fell by chance on the evening of the season's first snowfall). It is a gorgeous piece, a remarkable achievement considering that it was begun in Tchaikovsky's 20s (although revised later), with suitably gloomy themes, unctuous string writing and a beautifully played, plaintive oboe solo in the second movement. One can already hear in a few places, however, the pitfalls that make me dislike so much of Tchaikovsky's symphonic music, going over the top on some of those hammered brass themes, indulging in too much harmonic corn syrup, and some clumsy counterpoint, especially in the last movement. Conductor Andrew Litton, whose history goes back a long way with the NSO, with whom he cut his teeth under Mstislav Rostropovich, gave the Russian pieces some good shape, especially containing the schmaltz in the Tchaikovsky. Other than the third movement of the symphony, a perfectly timed scherzo and contained trio, in fast movements his tempi tended toward exaggeration, unfortunately placing the orchestra at the edge of its comfort zone in the outer movements (and in the last two movements of the Rimsky-Korsakov, too).

The NSO will close out the year with its annual performance of Handel's Messiah (December 17 to 20), given this year in the outrageously grand orchestration of Eugène Goossens, made famous in a recording by Thomas Beecham fifty years ago. Breaking a long-held promise not to review any more performances of Messiah, Ionarts will be there, to hear a Baroque oratorio with bass clarinet, contrabassoon, harp, and cymbals.

1 comment:

Singleton Snarkmeister said...

Refreshing. Poignant. Honest...