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Yuja Wang's Polished Performance with the NSO

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Fantasia, Y. Wang

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Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini / Piano Concert No. 2, Y. Wang, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, C. Abbado
The National Symphony Orchestra is performing its last major program of the year, not counting the annual Messiah, heard on Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. Hans Graf, returning to the NSO for the first time since 2008, led a program unified around the theme of Polish music. The Austrian conductor, currently music director of the Houston Symphony, was cool and confident at the podium, helping the musicians to shape the score according to some clear ideas. The results were mixed in many ways, with the smaller scores of Lutosławski and Chopin, more intimate and collaborative, faring better than the frankly overblown "Polish" symphony, no. 3, of Tchaikovsky.

The big draw, of course, was Yuja Wang playing the solo part of Chopin's first piano concerto. A prodigious technician at the keyboard, she has also impressed me as a fiercely intelligent musician, and this performance was no different. Chopin is not one of the composers I associate with her all that much, but his combination of virtuosity and wistful expression suited her just fine. Wang brought a fragile, understated tone to the more delicate passages, but that perhaps over-affected wanness was tempered by an unpredictable rhythmic quality that made the first movement leap off the page. Her runs glistened smoothly, and the trills sparkled -- it was a technical tour de force, as usual -- and because she was often able to make her right hand's sound so transparent (like those sighing bel canto excesses in the slow movement), even at maximum velocity, many interesting details in the left hand emerged. Graf kept the orchestra underneath her often very soft sound, and the orchestra, with some of the principal musicians sitting out (Wang had lovely duets with the bassoon in the second movement), gave a tragic quality to the introduction and interludes. The Vivace finale is not exactly a great piece of music, but Wang's astonishing virtuosity was enough to make you forget that. After such a blockbuster but admirably subtle performance, it was disappointing that Wang chose not to treat us to one of her signature trashy encores, especially since she played four of them at her 2010 recital and since her most recent recording is a smorgasbord of such pieces.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Graf and the NSO get the most out of two little-known works (Washington Post, December 7)
Neither of the other pieces on the program had been heard from the NSO in over forty years. Witold Lutosławski's Musique funèbre (last played in 1971), dedicated to and written in imitation of Béla Bartók -- the palindromic forms, the irregular meter, the insect-laden night music of the middle section, the barbaro finale over repeated notes -- was a suitably gloomy, tragic introduction to the Chopin. Building up into a keening mass of strings from just a few cellos and violas, the piece uses a 12-tone procedure but is not as harsh and dissonant as most Second Viennese School music that used the technique. Graf led a lesser-known Tchaikovsky symphony, no. 1, in his 2005 appearance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and he concluded this concert with the composer's third symphony, nicknamed the "Polish," last played by the NSO in 1968. The work has some alluring moments but as with so much of Tchaikovsky's orchestral music, he needed someone to tell him when to stop. This is likely why his ballet scores are so excellent, because the choreography dictated the length of the music, forcing Tchaikovsky into a much-needed self-critical concision. Graf had less control of the piece, which did not help, making too many of the attacks and shifts of tempo a little imprecise across the orchestra. High points came in the graceful second movement and its quirky trio, with echoes of the charming pieces he would soon be writing for the ballet, and the tender, lyrical slow movement, but that over-thought first movement and a dog of a finale -- ponderous fugal section and all -- just run on too long.

This program repeats this evening (December 8, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

1 comment:

D.A. Trappert said...

I saw the same performance Saturday night. Wang may be a very talented technician, but the balance between her and the orchestra was awful--her pianissimo passages could hardly be heard. She may be a great pianist--but she still has a lot to learn about being a musician. I was very impressed, however, by her encore of the Bizet-Horowitz Carmen.