|An elegant style and brilliant technique.|
Yuja Wang prowls the keyboard like a cat, with an unbelievably soft touch and reflexes that can go from languid to lightning-quick in an instant. At one point in her Thursday night performance, her hands were a blur, flying through Rachmaninoff faster than the eye could follow. If not the deepest interpretation of the Russian composer’s daunting Piano Concerto No. 3, it was a bravura display of sheer skill and surprising power.
Which made it a good fit with the rest of the program and the conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero, who brings a bright, sunny sound to everything he touches. In his hands the lineup of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov was a night of Russian lite, pleasant melodic takes on material that usually gets a darker reading.
Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (No. 1) is, as the name suggests, a relatively tame, conventional piece, which made it an ideal opener. Guerrero handled it in a brisk, breezy manner, putting a sparkle on the melodies and a buoyant quality in the sound. The music was graceful at times, more like a Viennese waltz than a Russian symphony, only acquiring a bite at the very end. That was partly a function of Guerrero conducting without a baton, cuing the sections with twirling fingers.
Yuja Wang is a deceptive performer. In her publicity materials she looks more like a fashion model than a concert pianist, given to short, tight dresses and spike heels. In person she appears to be a diminutive Asian with good taste in evening gowns – until she sits down to play. Then she owns her instrument, performing with remarkable facility and impressive authority in a wonderfully fluid, legato style. Her soft touch takes the edge off even the harshest passages, but she gives away nothing to the orchestra in dynamics, and can set off colorful explosions of aural fireworks.
That was clear in the cadenzas of the first movement, brilliant displays of dexterity that cooed softly one moment, then burst into fiery runs. Those are as difficult as they look, and what distinguishes a great pianist is not just the ability to play them, but to maintain a personal voice and approach through the fierce challenges they pose. Wang never lost her liquid flow and elegant touch, which were a good match with Guerrero’s lighthearted, exuberant sound.
Wang will sacrifice some precision for style, though with Rachmaninoff, it doesn’t really matter – in the blizzard of notes, nobody misses one or two. And No. 3 is a serious workout. By the end of it, Wang was breathing hard, like a runner at the finish line. And still looking gorgeous.
After intermission, the program concluded with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, another charming and comparatively lightweight number. Guerrero gave it lots of color, drawing some fine solos from the orchestra’s stellar woodwinds. And concertmaster William Preucil and harpist Trina Struble offered a sweet version of the title character’s signature line.
If not thunder from the steppes, the concert offered a reminder that Russian music has its lighter moments, which Guerrero brought to life in well-articulated fashion. Given the country’s warmongering in other theaters these days, maybe that was the best way to go.
For more on Yuja Wang: http://www.yujawang.com
For more on Giancarlo Guerrero: http://www.clevelandorchestra.com/about/musicians-and-conductors/giancarlo-guerrero/
Photo by Gan Yuan