MTT and Yuja Wang play their European Tour Program at Home: Bartók and Mahler

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Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

Davies Hall, San Francisco
August 22, 2015

The San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Yuja Wang, piano

Bartók – Piano Concerto No. 2 (1931)
Mahler – Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888/1906)

Naked came the pianist!

Or so it nearly seemed, as Yuja Wang made her way to the Davies stage last Saturday. This young performer always serves up classic delicacy spiked with erotic undulation. But nothing quite led us to expect the peek-a-lot raspberry dress, with its hip-high slit, diamond glam panels and full expanse of leg seen from the bench. This was nearly Bartók in a bikini. But nobody was complaining. Europe, take note. In America, all is not prudery!

As woo-woo settled down and the concerto took off, a Bartók question which will never be answered came to mind. What was Bartók becoming? He died just as a remarkable gift for melody and humor seemed ready to re-balance his music away from the eerie and percussive. But as the slow movement in this mid-career Second Concerto reminds us, his capacity for wonderment (my friend Joyce’s word) was always there—in this instance rapt, warm and nearly Ivesian. This music might almost be considered Bartók’s Unanswered Question. Is there such a thing as creepy consolation?

The concerto is motoric and polytonal, like much written after the First World War. As composing styles evolved towards rhythm, Stravinsky and Bartók had ultimately left us edgy ballets entirely comprised of it. The Miraculous Mandarin gives Le Sacre a run for its money in this respect. But there was a consequence. Like Stravinsky, Bartók was left with a non-lyric piano style. Bartók’s variant was to write in hammered octaves and use the piano for propulsion, mood and interjection more than melodic statement.

There are light sentimental sections in the first movement, to be sure, which sound for a moment pleasantly French and Poulenc-ish. But we don’t turn to this music for tunes. Instead, we are on a zestful journey through life and its bumps. Speeding us on our way is an echo of Joseph Jongen’s 1922 Symphonie Concertante. But as my companion Joyce quickly pointed out, Bartók also cribs the final horn chorale from Stravinsky’s Firebird. He revs it up until things sound like Petrushka—and unifies the piece with it. Bartók is unfearful of imitating Stravinsky. These sounds are the cross-reference vernacular of his era. And he uses them for snark and commentary, not because he can’t think of his own motifs. I find more to hear in this piece every time I encounter it.

No mere human would likely memorize the flood of similar notes in this concerto—and Yuja Wang was no exception. She inconspicuously played from the music, laid flat on the piano, periodically batting at it swiftly. She need scarcely have bothered. It seemed she often had to flip pages forward to keep up with memory. As it was, Wang’s performance was swift, mood-sensitive and technically flawless. But that tells us nothing, really. She is a star, with a star’s energy, catlike grace and a gift for fiery beauty. The audience was stunned at the ease with which she tossed off the concerto. Wang radiates fascination even when she bows, suddenly collapsing to a mere third of her size. If there were some way to insure for money the effortless use of her right hand, it would surely bankrupt Lloyd’s. How do we measure electricity in music, anyway?

No answer to that one. The occasion didn’t hurt. The orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas are off on tour to the great halls of Europe with this program. I have never heard them play better. Quiet moments in the concerto’s slow movement were the most subtle and meaningful pianissimi I’ve encountered from MTT. And for sheer energy and power, nothing was to be topped here.

Mahler’s First Symphony makes for a fine balance in this program. It was the first time I have encountered MTT’s way with the piece live. It’s a middle of the road approach. But anyone who has enjoyed our orchestra’s recorded Mahler cycle will find it similar. MTT has lived with the music and it shows. His performance had those little twists and turns which Mahler’s nature painting permits. And he was gyrating at times almost as much as Leonard Bernstein. One senses Thomas has reached at last the rewarding late-life plateau, where everything he touches seems to glow.

I’m always struck by Mahler’s daring to compose music, even before Debussy and Sibelius, which depicts the stasis of nature. All composers have given the natural world a go. But until Wagner, with the slight exception of Berlioz, you either strolled past nature. Or storms came whizzing after you and moved on. Even with Wagner, it’s not nature which seems to blossom imperceptibly before you—but rather your own interior mood. So it’s really quite daring that Mahler composes so many static held notes the way he does—a squawk here—a bird there—something rumbling below. He dares his movements not to move. And he largely succeeds.

Even this early in his symphonic canon, of course, Mahler was thinking of music as a universe containing everything. So the innocence of nature has to compete with military strutting, clumpy waltzes, Klezmer street bands, explosions, heartbreak, eerie gloom and a metaphysico-martial triumph at the end. No wonder early audiences didn’t know how to take the music. To the distrustful, much of it seems to snort at its own innocence. Be that as it may, the entire horn section rose at concert’s end, ably assisted by our always good percussion, and blared the house down. Davies Hall was still standing, but surely only just.

The Austro-Hungarian empire rises again, though, I’m tempted to say. Bon voyage, San Francisco Symphony!

Steven Kruger

About Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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