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Yuja Wang at Strathmore

We have heard Yuja Wang with both of the region's leading orchestras, and in recitals in smaller venues. Until Friday night, that is, when Washington Performing Arts Society presented the young Chinese virtuoso in the Music Center at Strathmore. Given her previous performances, we knew to expect fireworks but the poetry in her playing came as a pleasant surprise, a sign perhaps that this fiery, sometimes bombastic musician has reached a new level in what she can do.

That change came across in just about everything she played. She still showed an uncanny ability to pull apart the wildest thickets of notes with a defiant technique, revealing hidden details or unexpected lines, as in her opener, Prokofiev's miniature third sonata (A minor, op. 28). It was the tender, slightly distracted slow section at the heart of this piece that stood out, though, a ruminative inner monologue. Things were much the same with Chopin's third sonata (B minor, op. 58), in which Wang did not press the fast tempos as fast as other pianists sometimes do, making the chromatic left-hand lines at one point transparent and velvety, drawing out especially the delicacy of the second theme and closing theme of the first movement, so forlorn. The scherzo was appropriately fast but also light as a feather, with the slow movement given a sotto voce melancholy but never allowed to be mawkish. The fourth movement was also not as fast as it could be, moreover given a decidedly legato touch to the almost deliberate statements of the main theme.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, World-class pianist Yuja Wang dazzles in recital at Strathmore, but at a distance (Washington Post, October 28)

Matthew Guerrieri, Pianist Yuja Wang displays power and precision (Boston Globe, October 19)

David Wright, Yuja Wang delivers more heat than light in Boston recital debut (Boston Classical Review, October 19)

Ken Iisaka, Yuja Wang Settles for Astonishing (San Francisco Classical Voice, October 15)

Timothy Mangan, Yuja Wang swings for the fences (Orange County Register, October 15)

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Nikolai Kapustin's bubbly Variations for Piano (op. 41) had the same function at the start of the second half as the Prokofiev had had at the first, a jazzy overture, with the effect of an encore, just in prelude. Another Chopin set followed, with Wang holding the audience from applauding between the C minor nocturne (op. 48/1) and the third ballade (A-flat major, op. 47). Opening with Kapustin seemed to put these pieces in a different light, drawing a parallel in terms of the sense of improvisation and dance. Wang gave the nocturne a similar breezy charm in some ways, and with neither piece really -- and thankfully -- did one hear what other pianists do with this music. In particular, her rubato was not lathered on so thick that the pulse disappeared, especially in the ballade, where the sense of poetic recitation was still evident, the melody given a playful lilt, still nostalgic but without any goopy slowness. Through Wang's supreme control of touch -- indeed, it was the sense of control of sound that was foremost in this recital -- many interesting inner details came to the fore.

Wang closed the program with something more in line with her first strengths as a showman, Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka, a tour de force of technical prowess. The details were all in place, the clamor of the Russian dance, the doll's mania, the lacy ballerina's music, all with fireworks a-plenty, especially in the astonishing blur of the third movement's succession of moods, with not a single missed target in the left-hand crossings. Although the audience seemed less than engaged, the ovation earned two encores, Rachmaninoff's Vocalise (op. 34/14, in the arrangement by Zoltán Kocsis, I think) and Art Tatum's high-flying arrangement of Fats Waller's Tea for Two. For those who keep track of such things, Yuja Wang can wear a tiny dress and wear it she did, although I care as much about her sartorial choices as I do about the fact that she likes Rihanna. I am much more impressed by her reading interests and thoughts on film, about which she tweets from time to time.

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