Musical Life in San Francisco: Yuja Wang, Michael Tilson Thomas, and the SF Symphony play Poulenc, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, Ravel, and Stravinsky

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Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor and Piano
Yuja Wang, Piano

Poulenc, Sonata for Piano Four Hands (1918/1939)
Stravinsky, Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929)
Villa-Lobos, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 (1945)
Ravel, Piano Concerto In D major for the Left Hand (1930)
Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps

Michael Tilson Thomas may sometimes over-program his orchestra and over-instruct his audiences, as locals will attest, but a cooperative sunset, a dazzling young Chinese soloist in a red dress, and a frothy line-up of arch and knowing pieces helped transform last Thursday evening’s SF Symphony concert into something of a summer gala.

I had the good fortune of sitting next to a rather starchy woman of the “old school,” who called to mind Mary Tyler Moore at her most forbidding. She wasn’t thrilled to see that the concert was about to begin from a stage bereft of players.

“If he reaches for a microphone, we’re in trouble,” she said, laconically.

As it happened, at that moment the audience welcomed Yuja Wang and MTT to the stage for Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands, the former in a crimson dress, the latter without visible means of amplification.

“Now, that’s a proper red dress for a concert!,” my neighbor thrilled, as Yuja Wang bowed like an acrobat, almost to the floor. And with the arrival of this sylph-like “slip of a girl,” the evening, so to speak, was saved.

The infatuation between Yuja Wang and the San Francisco public is by now quite far advanced, and deservedly so. As various stage gallantries and seat switchings played themselves out in the Poulenc, it became clear that Ms. Wang is an effortlessly accomplished pianist, with the whiplike power of a stingray.

She sits upright, as simply as at a kitchen table, reaches out a nearly limp arm as though to turn over an egg-timer, and unleashes a torrent. Some have compared her to Martha Argerich, but if we continue the simile, I expect we’d have to say Argerich would only get similar results by stabbing intently at something in the sink.

The Poulenc Sonata, which Michael Tilson Thomas effectively helped dispatch, contains within itself the lesson of the evening’s musical survey, which is that nearly all of these composers keep turning into each other. (The “nearly” is Villa-Lobos). Poulenc’s Prélude quotes Le Sacre, for instance. The Rustique movement frequently suggests Petrouchka, and the windup “Final” concludes with a plummy non-chord from somewhere between Charles Ives and Satie.

After this enjoyable warmup, the Stravinsky “Capriccio” turned out to be as much a star turn of the evening for Ms. Wang as did the Ravel Left Hand Concerto, a bit later.

There was a time when Stravinsky seemed “anti” and a hard sell for warmth, but this “Second Concerto” is a luxurious piece. It gleams with beautiful sounds and surprisingly rich, silky, almost Brahmsian moments in the brass and basses. Of course, everything occurs in Stravinsky’s inimitable kaleidoscopic manner, with dazzling glissandi and sass, but this is music for bourgeois multi-taskers—not steel-rimmed radicals. Indeed, the piece contains a “Roumanian restaurant” cadenza in the second movement, as the composer himself put it, and it was jaw-dropping as sheer fun the way Ms.Wang played it.

The Ravel left hand performance was similarly accomplished. The relaxation of Ms. Wang’s right hand and her limpid general posture only served to underline the impossibly large waves of sound emerging from the piano. There is room for nostalgic feeling in this music, too, and she caught it beautifully. Unfortunately, the orchestral accompaniment began too loudly, which is to say, in this somewhat awkwardly orchestrated concerto—flatulently. And the problem of blatty and unsubtle support persisted throughout. So much so, you wondered if bathroom noises might be part of the Dadaist tweak.

As Stravinsky lovers will readily admit, sweeping string lines do not abound in his musical output, (though Apollon Musagète” comes close), so It was satisfying to have Villa-Lobos “Bachianas Brasileiras No.9″ on the program, between the two large piano works. No. 9 is the concluding work in the “Bachianas” series, and as such dispenses with woodwind color in favor of all-strings gravitas. And a beautiful thing it is!

The piece sounds as though Leopold Stokowski had orchestrated something by Michael Tippett or George Dyson. That would be the Stravinskian connection, but via English links. Villa-Lobos had some English sympathies, and I I think you hear them in this work. But maybe it can be argued that most rhythmically complex string music, written in the polyphonic style, will tend to sound English, the way Alan Hovhaness’ “Mysterious Mountain” symphony resembles Vaughan Williams “Tallis Fantasia”. In the event, MTT led the San Francisco Symphony strings in a boldly rich performance. But if it sounded Brazilian, you could have fooled me.

The audience, which had packed the rafters to hear Yuja Wang during the upbeat first half of the evening, remained in full force to hear Le Sacre du Printemps after the interval. I’m always struck these days by how the Stravinsky ballet no longer holds any terrors for the listener. It might as well be the Tchaikovsky Fifth. And so it was.

Unfortunately, this time it was played the way the Tchaikovsky Fifth frequently is—but shouldn’t be: all the important points in place, but no real insight conveyed. This was a loud, mainstream Sacre. It was neither pointillistic like Dorati or Boulez, nor rich in varied sonority and evocative of life and creatures, like Gergiev. All choirs of the orchestra simply pummelled you with an undifferentiated sonority. In the lower reaches of the orchestra, a generalized mush held sway.

This was a successful concert, let it be said, and it made for a happy evening, but something about the many shades of light and color in the depths of an orchestra may elude Mr.Thomas. One notes over the years that he shies away from string-dominated composers in favor of edgier sounds.

Can one build a musical legacy on the sardonic alone?

About the author

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.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Having heard Yuja Wang in two rehearsals in Raleigh with the North Carolina Symphony a few months ago, I was thoroughly disappointed in her Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto. While she has talent and technique to spare, the musical shallowness was disturbing, particularly the over-the-top tempo for the last movement, which reduced the music to gibberish. From inside reports, it was even faster in the performances that weekend! Her persistent disregard for Rachmaninoff’s detailed dynamic markings and phrasings was also very irritating — pianos turned into fortes, crescendi into diminuendi, etc. She is young and gifted in many ways, so I hope that the musical maturity will grow quickly.

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