Concert Review: Yuja Wang Piano Recital

It’s all Scriabin and Chopin. And then Islamey. And encores.

This is another one of those things I’m terrified of missing out on. If I had to travel some long distance to buy a ticket and attend, that’s one thing, but when it’s within walking distance (sort of), I don’t really have any excuse not to go.
It’s also bragging rights, if nothing else. It’s just a nice experience to have, to say I was able to see so-and-so live, even if I didn’t get to meet her.

I was a little late in getting around to buying tickets, and I thought it was going to be sold out. It wasn’t. I don’t know what kind of mood I was in when I bought the ticket for this concert, but I was being a bit cheap. I think it was the same day I bought tickets for like five other shows, so I was getting stingy. In any case, I was way up on the fourth floor.
But I was there.
The program was perhaps more exciting than the performer, at least in the booklet.
The order at the actual performance was changed. The two Chopin sonatas bookended the intermission, so it went Scriabin, Chopin 3, intermission, Chopin 2, Scriabin, Balakirev.
That was a good call, in my opinion, but we’ll talk about that a bit later.
It was a young crowd. I suppose this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Lots of music students and folks, that kind of crowd. I had also for some reason expected the hall to be packed, yet it was not. Student tickets were still for sale (not even to students) downstairs. The whole “nobody’s sitting there so let’s move up” thing is fine in a movie theatre, but just sit in the seats you paid for. It isn’t a rock concert. Or is it?
The fourth floor balconies are not only quite high, they’re steeper, steep enough to make someone perhaps feel a bit queazy all the way up there. I didn’t mind. The lights finally dim and a
shimmering, sparkling thing with jagged black hair walked out on stage with a short, careful but striving-for-elegant gait. The sequin dress would look like a twist of aluminum foil if I didn’t have my glasses on, and it hung right to the ground, making me a bit worried she’d step on it on her way to the piano. She didn’t. She took a head-banging bow and sat down.
First was Scriabin’s prelude for the left hand, op. 9/1. It was fantastic, and a quiet and almost kind of understatedly dramatic way to begin the concert. I was pleased, and the piece is, of course, very nice. Then the prelude, op. 11/8, and the Fantasie in b minor, which was stunning. I found myself shaking my head at the apparent ease with which something this fiery was performed. I’m not familiar with the piece, but it seemed absolutely wonderful. Very impressive.
All the Scriabin pieces, I recall…. I think, were played together before she took leave from the piano and accepted an applause.
She returned, and I think many people in the audience were mentally extending a hand to escort her to the piano lest she trip on her dress. Chopin’s third sonata began, and of the two on the program, it’s the one I’m less familiar with. It’s a wonderful piece, and quite famous on its own, but the second is the one that has that famous march. In any case, I do love some of the moments in the third, and they always sneak up on me. It was an enjoyable performance, if not a little more fiery than I like my Chopin, but I knew coming into this concert that that was her style with these pieces. I’ve heard her play them before. Rapturous applause after a big hefty piano sonata, and a few head-banging ‘bows’ before she (more) carefully exited the stage.
More seat finding during the intermission, shuffling of people, friends finding each other to sit together, and all the rest. I didn’t budge. Five-minute warning given, and five minutes later the lights go down. But no one comes out. There is a long pause, as if someone is having a last minute look in the mirror or is trying to decide which boa to wear or looking for a misplaced platform heel.
Our peppy, short-haired virtuoso came back out on the stage, not in a shimmery dangerously long sequin dress, but in a tight black halter thing and what looked from the fourth floor like hotpants.
We got a costume change. Wang seemed pleased with this, or was glad to be out of the restrictive sequin thing. In any case, she walked to the piano with far more bounce.
She played Chopin’s second piano sonata with just as much fury, perhaps more, as if even her fingers and emotions were no longer inhibited by the dress.
Let me just say this: I know this is going to sound extremely negative to some, but regardless of opinion, there is no question she’s a phenomenal talent. Extraordinarily so. It’s all a matter of taste. To make unfair comparisons, I will say that I prefer Zimerman or Biret’s Chopin; it is more… spiritual, emotional, and dare I say deeper. They have no air of rock-star status. The first two movements of the Bb minor sonata are very stormy, and there’s lots there to interlock and interpret and present, and for better or worse, I’m extremely attached to Idil Biret’s performance of this piece. She may be a bit heavy on the rubato at times, but she treats Chopin with the delicacy that does all the detail justice. I feel like if you weren’t familiar with this piece before listening to the performance this evening, you wouldn’t know those lines and voices and themes were there. They got lost in all the fury and action. I expected this coming in, because, again, I’ve heard recordings of her performing this piece, and others do it similarly. I’m partial to one reading of the piece, and something as fiery and exciting and intense as the reading of those first two movements is a little over the top, in my opinion.
The third and fourth movements, though, were splendid. There was some dramatizing in the third movement, but it was slow, metered, somber, and deliberate. I feel like so many people rush this movement, and it shouldn’t be rushed, but neither should it be lifeless. It was like hearing this movement for the first time all over again. The middle section was sweetly nostalgic and tender and beautiful. The return of the funeral march, though, seemed…. wrong. Did she play the bass line an octave lower? It seemed so. It was different than any way I’ve heard it in any recording, perhaps just louder.
The fourth movement comes and goes very quickly, but it was perfectly articulated, almost too smooth, fast, with splendid dynamic contrast, and then it was over. A piece I love, one of the first that really drew me into classical music.
I can’t fault her for her personal interpretation of a classic work… But we’re back to Scriabin now.
First it was the op. 37/1 prelude and the op. 63 poemes. Her approach to Scriabin seems entirely different than to Chopin, but we’ll get to that later. These pieces were treated, I felt, with the utmost delicacy and respect. I also just love Scriabin’s works.
One of my favorites of his, and of the entire piano repertoire from any composer in any era or form is Scriabin’s ninth piano sonata, the ‘Black Mass,’ and it began without interruption after the poemes. It was like the quietest, most subtle struck-by-lightning experience one could have. Those opening notes tinkered out ever so quietly, as if a dark cloud had suddenly wafted out of the piano and enveloped the audience, at least for me. This is a captivating, deep, intense work, but we will talk about the work itself at a (much) later time. There are some passages in this piece that are just as rich and ornate and intricate as some in the preceding Chopin piece, probably far more so, with all sorts of appoggiatura and rich, intense harmonies, and some of the really detailed fabric suffered a bit from an unbridled virtuosity in a few places, not leaving the notes any room to come up for air, but on the whole, it was a deep, heavy, passionate interpretation, a very respectable one.
The thought was wafting into my head about the relationship between a musician born in Beijing who studied in the West has with very Russian music. The approaches to these pieces seemed quite different, or else the approach was exactly the same but was not appropriate for both composers’ works.
As I was thinking about the Russianness of her performance, it was time for Balakirev’s piece, Islamey, which was played frustratingly well: fast, clean, passionate, moving. The middle passage was sweetly beautiful, in contrast with the incredible virtuosity required by such a complex piece. It was wonderful to see and hear live. There’s something about watching someone play a piece (ideally live) that impresses on the mind what’s required of the pianist to make those sounds and make them make sense.
I’d been told there would be no autograph signing, which is just as well. The line for something like that would have been absurd, and I was not keen on the idea of waiting for an hour to speak very briefly with her, but I wouldn’t have been able to turn down the opportunity to get her autograph. With that decision made, I was slightly more at ease. I did find out later that apparently at least a few people waited near the downstairs exit or whatever for her to come out, because a friend of a friend who was also there got an autograph. Oh well. I was prepared to stay at least for the encores, of which there were many. The first came after a long applause, and the subsequent two were rather quick in coming. I left quickly after, and was outside in the lobby when I heard her pull another one out of her hat. I stayed to watch it on a TV screen, and then made my exit.
I was extremely glad to have been in attendance, mostly for hearing the Russian repertoire, but was impressed by the decision to pair Scriabin’s earlier works (9, 11, 28) with Chopin’s late sonata, and Scriabin’s late(r) works (37 [not that late], 63, 68) with the earlier, more rambunctious Chopin. It made me think of the relationship these composers had, or more accurately, how Scriabin revered Chopin and admired his work. This seems to have been the unspoken idea of the arrangement of the pieces, at least to me. What a hell of a program, though! Three sonatas, preludes, etudes, and two fantasies: Scriabin’s and Balakirev’s. The latter was the piece that seemed the most (obviously) out of place on the program, but it felt like a built-in encore as a result. I’m not complaining. It was spectacular to see live, and played to Wang’s strengths as a phenomenal virtuoso performer.
I realized then, with the intensely swingy head-bang bows that looked like she was trying to fling a piece of fruit into the third-floor balcony and the costume change and all the rest that someone this young with this level of fame and incredible talent might easily be tempted to go the rockstar route. Don’t do it. Stay classical. Yuja Wang is an outstanding talent, and one I was glad to be able to see up close (more figuratively than literally) and enjoy.


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