Lenox — When Vladimir Horowitz emerged from his early retirement with a Sunday afternoon appearance at Carnegie Hall, your reviewers were 24 years old. Shortly afterward, he presented another concert in Yale University’s Woolsey Hall. One of us made it to the box office in time and, the following Sunday, from approximately 100 feat away, we each experienced a most unusual corporeal sensation. We found ourselves on the edge of our seats – and six inches above them – during the entire concert.
Neither of us have had that kind of concert experience in the hands of a pianist in recent years. (Surely, there have been moments: James Levine’s conducting the BSO in Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, his performances at the Met of Verdi’s Don Carlo and Wagner’s Die Walküre, and, more recently in Symphony Hall, Andris Nelson’s pushing his revitalized orchestra into the depths of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.)
Until now, that is. On July 17, 2016, with her own two hands, Yuja Wang lifted a large crowd in the Tanglewood Shed to heights of emotional wonderment, beginning in gossamer pianissimo in her astounding performance of the relatively seldom-played Ravel Piano Concerto in G (the one he wrote for two hands), and ending with a powerful, jazz-inflected interpretation of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Her technique, if that’s the correct characterization, is supremely expressive. In the Ravel, the quiet passages were full of restrained intensity, with subtle but deeply affecting dynamic transitions, some startling – although minimal – and others, deeply comforting – in the briefest of moments, as when resolving an unexpected non-harmonic note (a leading tone or appoggiatura settling in on the prevailing tonality), a device so favored by composers of the romantic period, or diminishing the volume to silence after an intense phrase. Better perhaps, rather than to speak of technique, it would better to describe her artistry as a vast expressive palette in the service of high intelligence.
The concert began with a workmanlike treatment of Prokofiev’s familiar Symphony No. 1 in D, Opus 25, “Classical.” Conductor Gustavo Gimeno, possessed of an expressive left hand, chose to leave the dynamic nuances, and there were many, to the members of the orchestra. They attended to his accurate beat, but mostly appeared to ignore him. This paucity of responsiveness evaporated when Yuja Wang walked on, wearing a dramatic, electric blue, floor length, split-seam confection with a bare right shoulder and midriff, and exposing a whole lot of (fine) leg to the audience. Not since Lady Gaga held forth with Tony Bennett a year ago has sexy costume threatened to distract from performance. Not so here!
It was as a piece. Ms. Wang’s beginning of the Ravel was a marvel of sensuous excitation, adorned with an ineffable singing melodic tone, whirling clouds of soft 1/32 notes, and dashing unison runs in perfect synchrony. She couldn’t have chosen a gown better suited to the spirit of the music.
Ravel’s first-movement quotation of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue bespoke the French composer’s admiration for his American contemporary.
A delicious French horn solo by James Sommerville pointedly rose above the Ravellian harmonic washes, focusing on the essence of Ms. Wang’s tempered scamperings across the keyboard. Soon afterward, elegant recapitulation of this line in her left hand was nuanced by her thrilling, swirling ornamentations in her right.
In another triumph of orchestration and instrumental virtuosity, trumpet principal, Thomas Rolfs, suddenly emerged with a dazzling star turn of his own. His scalloping circles of double-tongued riffs over Ms. Wang’s powerful tom-tom rhythm brought the movement to a dazzling close.
Do watch this performance of this very movement of Ms. Wang with Charles Dutoit conducting the excellent NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan. This will give you an idea, although not the same as actually hearing her live, of what we heard in this concert.
The second movement, Adagio assai, began with a reflective, mid-range legato that blossomed into high-register excursions across the instrument, perfect trills that resolved upward, and a long and dazzling decrescendo ending with still more trills.
The jazzy textures of the final, Presto movement featured orchestral effects that offset astounding technical feats: the “whip” and triangle in the percussion complemented her machine-gun 2-note phrases; Rolf’s muted triple tonguing added an element of crunch to Ms. Wang’s crisp cross-rhythms; trombone principal, Toby Oft’s downward smears offset her blazing arpeggios; and a splendidly looping bassoon riff, and two-octave upward rip by principal Richard Svoboda propelled Ms. Wang the entire orchestra into the crashing finale.
After the intermission, Ms. Wang emerged (to the eager expectation of some in the audience, present company included) in a different outfit. This gorgeous bright green, sequined, form-fitting, floor length number offered a visual challenge to the literal-minded preparing to enjoy a Rhapsody in Blue.
Clarinetist Tom Martin bent the iconic klezmer-inflected clarinet glissando and its chattering descent with courage and guts. This sparked enthusiastic brass blasts (what a section!). Yet Ms. Wang began with a strikingly subdued piano entrance, allowing the tension to build into a dramatically extended crescendo.
There was one rhythmic curiosity at the beginning of the Gershwin that was discrepant with the usual propensity of pianists to jazz up the solo part. Rather, Ms. Wang played the eighth notes straight, sans syncopation, as she would in an interpretation of Mozart or Beethoven.
Through the first cadenza, Ms. Wang ramped up and down the heat with jaw-dropping finesse. But one couldn’t forget pianist Kirill Gerstein’s performance of the Gershwin Concerto in F in last year’s Tanglewood opening concert. He actually improvised jazz wherever Gershwin gave him the opportunity, and essentially abandoning the written text.
But then, surprise! In the second cadenza, in an exposed single-line passage, Ms. Wang showed that she knew perfectly well how to swing. She swung like mad through the end of the work, provoking a clamorous ovation.
Surely, she knew what she was doing, and it’s likely that there was a bit of subtle explanation here. When Gershwin composed this piece in 1924, the prevailing sense of Tin Pan Alley rhythm was intermediate between straight eighth notes of ragtime and the dotted-eighth-sixteenth note swing that Louis Armstrong featured in 1925 in his profoundly influential Hot Five jazz recordings in Chicago. The layering of rhythmic patterns, as heard this evening in both the Ravel and Gershwin, served to add propulsion and to make one tap one’s feet. But what was going on in the piano world before and after was gradual and hardly immediate.
Between 1899, when Scott Joplin published his composition, Maple Leaf Rag for the parlor piano, he could have not have known how it would spark a revolution in American popular music. Joplin’s recordings indicate that he played it as he wrote it, with straight eighths. But subsequently, as the piece became a platform for improvisation in the hands of transitional figures like Brun Campbell, and early jazzmen like Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Eubie Blake, and Willie “The Lion” Smith, the eighths began to swing, and never stopped. If you’re interested in how this came to pass, please see Eli’s 1976 article in the Journal of Jazz Studies in which I transcribed and compared different versions of the second strain of Maple Leaf Rag.
Yuja Wang’s performance brought out this example of musical ontogeny with both intelligence and panache. What more could a reviewer want?
When we mentioned Ms. Wang’s performance to a jazz pianist friend a few days ago, he replied, “Have you ever heard her Flight of the Bumblebee in octaves?” We hadn’t, but were duly impressed when we found the video, as were 4,604,506 other viewers. Here’s that chestnut for your delectation. Note that it’s not all thunder and blazes. There’s a lot of controlled emotion here, as Rimsky-Korsakoff surely intended.
If you’re in the mood for further impassioned pianistic excitement – also at the limit of what’s possible on the instrument – please note as well Vladimir Horowitz performing his Carmen Fantasy. Could Ms. Wang have had this virtuoso in mind as she formed her own extraordinary pianistic voice?
The concert ended with a robust performance of Stravinsky’s 1919 Suite from The Firebird. Its marvelous Infernal Dance, propelled by Mike Roylance’s rollicking, piercing tuba, stirred an immediate recollection of Yuja Wang’s stirring the pot of deep emotion, to the point of near-overflowing. This was a fitting conclusion to an evening of musical fireworks.
But there was a coda. As the hall emptied, many people stayed and chatted in the aisles. They clearly had enjoyed the event. By the time we passed the stage door, just a few people were left on line to get Ms. Wang’s autograph. Carolyn went to the end of the line and asked if she wouldn’t sign the drawing pictured above. Ms. Wang said, “Wow, I wish I could draw like that!” The artist-grandmother replied as she would to one of her own, “Sweetie, you do something else very well.” This was the understatement of the evening.
Eli couldn’t resist documenting the encounter.
Please insert here Eli’s photograph of Ms. Wang signing Carolyn’s drawing