Ever since Maestro Danny Stewart announced the Spring 2017 Santa Cruz concert schedule and revealed Yuja Wang would perform not one, but two piano concerti, the excitement began and culminated into reality on Sunday, at the Mello Center in Watsonville. The concert sold out! More than 300 enthusiasts attended the Friday Open Rehearsal at the Civic and received a taste of the musical “tour de force” that was unleashed at Sunday’s concert. At the rehearsal intermission Yuja was engulfed by young and old alike and the young received special attention by photo taking and just being close to a famous musical “super star.” By all accounts Yuja enjoyed the excitement in entertaining style!
The last piano concerti by two of the greatest composers — Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55 (1932) and Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) Concerto No. 2 in B Flat Major (1881) — were the featured works. Redundant, but perhaps necessary to say Yuja Wang is one of those incredible pianists who appears on the classical musical scene every few years with the ability to set the keyboard on fire with her technical capacity and musical prowess to master a nearly impossible work while displaying a depth of understanding and an effortless virtuosity. She demonstrated these skills in Sunday’s concert where she was perfectly matched with Maestro Stewart’s keen ear and direction. Yuja entered the stage wearing a bright green mini-skirt that glowed as if it were made of neon lights, and yes on her trademark 6-inch spike heels! Let’s not forget that her favorite “pop” star is Lady Gaga.
Prokofiev composed five concerti for piano and orchestra. Although the third has been performed with the greatest degree of frequency, during recent decades the second concerto has gained serious recognition, and now, thanks to Yuja Wang, we are just about to become more familiar with his fifth concerto — in all respects an amazing work! In Prokofiev’s own analysis, the “classical line” of his compositional development can be traced back to his early childhood and the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This idea culminates with his Classical Symphony, Op. 25 (1915-1916).
The five movements of his Concerto No. 5 are designated Allegro con brio; Moderato ben accentuato; Toccata: Allegro con fuoco; Larghetto and Vivo. Since this was Yuja’s first performance of this most challenging work she performed from the score, but referred to it very sparingly. The classical line of Prokofiev’s style was made quite evident in the third Toccata and fourth Larghetto movements, both with expressive support from various sections of the orchestra. Yuja’s keyboard pyrotechnics lit up the keyboard in the fifth Vivo movement that featured abrupt shifts in tempo, brusque attacks, melodic cross-hand playing, glissandi and dynamics pushed the envelope to its extreme limits.
Yuja came out on stage for the Brahms elegantly attired in a lovely black and gold dress that set the stage for a performance as distinct as her attire. In 1881, more than twenty years after his Piano Concerto No. 1, Brahms composed his second concerto set in four movements Allegro non troppo; Allegro appassionato; Andante and Allegrettto grazioso. This work contains some of the most deeply felt and challenging music ever written for the piano. The work opened with a horn solo’s stately, buoyant gesture with the piano answering in an ascending B flat major passage that set the tone and allowed listeners to prepare for the massive work in its all absorbing complexity. As Chopin’s works are melodic, Brahms piano writing is orchestral, employing huge chords that Yuja executed cleanly and crisply in true orchestral fashion.
Maestro Stewart guided the orchestra through the D minor opening and D major excursions of the second Allegro appassionato movement as Yuja wove melodic lines through the contrasting tumultuous and melodic textures. The expansive lyricism of the Andante third movement provided a welcome respite. The symphonic paradigm was somewhat displaced by a chamber-music like triangulation between the piano, solo cello and the clarinets that shared an intimate musical and poetic relationship. The stunningly beautiful central section alluded to Brahms’ songs and cast Yuja in the light of interlocutor and sensitive orchestral participant rather than turgid soloist. Here her trill entrances were slowly approached, then tapered and her ascending/descending arpeggio lines were realized with a hint of quasi rubato. Her chords were sharp and bright throughout. The cello/piano duet was spot on musically and orchestral balance was superbly supportive and imaginative.
The Allegretto grazioso final movement opened with a light, bouncy feel while the piano danced in a staccato fashion with well calculated, meaningful pauses between a continuous orchestral texture. The flute imitating piano dialogue was exceptionally well done and all in all it was a delightful musical treat beyond expectations! True to the maestro’s form, both works were conducted without a score! The audience rose to its feet with a thunderous sense of approval and appreciation for this delightful musical treat. After the third standing ovation, she returned to sit down and perform her rendition of Rondo alla Turca from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major. The version Yuja is famous for playing as an encore was originally published in 1970 as “Alla Turca Jazz” by Turkish pianist/composer Fazil Say. However, Yuja has been adding in her own virtuoso licks that have far surpassed the original in daring and virtuosity. To witness her performing this piece as an encore is an amazing experience, for it goes so way beyond even the virtuosity of Vladimir Horowitz, and it is totally over the top and constantly evolving in her own performances. Check out her several performances on YouTube (each one is slightly different), and you will be astounded all over again to hear how she makes an incredibly difficult piece appear as easy as child’s play.
Well done orchestra, Yuja Wang and Maestro Stewart for yet another unforgettable musical experience!