Pianist shows poetry, needs interpretive seasoning

By Greg Stepanich


The major piano suites of Maurice Ravel have for years been among the most reliable tests of a pianist’s technique.

 And judging by that criteria alone, Di Wu, a young Chinese-born pianist, passes the test easily, and scarily so, as she demonstrated during a recital Tuesday night at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse in West Palm Beach. But while she has become a deeper, more insightful player since her appearance a year ago in Boca Raton in a program of showboating  transcriptions, some of the range of Ravel’s work still lingers just out of her reach.

 Wu, who offered an all-Ravel program of two major suites, Miroirs and Gaspard de la Nuit, along with the Pavane for a Dead Princess and two short hommages to other composers, is already at 23 a formidable player who commands pianistic hush and thunder equally well, and can summon both up in a moment of cataract. None of the vast difficulties of the two suites, which as Ned Rorem has noted take Lisztian dazzle to unexampled heights, seem to pose much of a problem for Wu, who dashed off even things like the murderous chain of seconds in the middle of Scarbo with comfortable elan.

 She also has a strong grasp of the multifarious moods of Ravel, especially when it came to the diaphanous shimmer of the waves in Une Barque sur L’Ocean, or the distant, unaccented murmur of bells in La Vallee des Cloches. There was something very moving Tuesday night about her approach to the slower, more delicate side of the composer, which could be heard notably in the dark sweetness she gave to the opening, nearly static pages of Oiseaux Tristes, to the tres doux melody that introduces us to Ondine, or to the different iterations of the famous Pavane tune, no small feat because of the awkwardness of the piano writing.

 It was here that her playing approached something truly special; it takes a great deal of control to let the poetry out so carefully, drop by jeweled drop. She also is a musician who gets very involved in the music, sketching out phrases with expressive face motions, and at some points, when only one hand was playing, virtually conducting with the other.

 What was missing was a certain sharpness of profile amid all those waves of tiny, rapid notes and all that tremendous sound she is able to raise. In the Alborada del Gracioso, for instance, the rhythms were nice and crisp, the virtuosic glitter was right on the mark, and it was a performance of power and excitement (the large audience at the Rinker started applauding halfway through). But a sense of snap and interpretive insouciance were in somewhat short supply. While the opening tune of the piece is supposed to be played softly, it also needs to be somewhat hard-edged to bear the weight of the sparkle to come.

 This is important for listeners, too: If the player can precisely carve out that first tune in a memorable way, it helps the audience follow what happens to it. The same goes for Scarbo. Much of the piece is big and expansive, as tune fragments soar over gushers of broken chords, but the unifying motif is a little “ta-da” rhythmic figure that has to be extremely distinctive, a glimmer of magic; if it doesn’t stand out noticeably enough — and it didn’t here — the piece tends to sound like oceans of effects wandering in search of a lighthouse.

 Wu also played, beautifully, two Ravel tributes from 1913 in honor of the composers Emmanuel Chabrier and Alexander Borodin, respectively, and charming pieces they are, spot-on imitations of the two composers’ melodic styles filtered through a Ravelian sense of inconclusive whimsy. For an encore, she gave a sensitive reading of Schumann’s Traumerei.

 Overall, it was a fine concert and an effective tour of Ravel, especially because Wu, snazzily clad in a red dress and pumps, had to fight an out-of-tune piano (most noticeably the G-sharp above middle C) that got worse as the night went on. 

 Di Wu is a strong pianist who can no doubt play rings around many of the keyboardists she encounters every day, and there always is a thrill in hearing a first-rate technician draw so much sheer noise and excitement out of the instrument. But she is not yet the pianist who has everything, and it will take even this most impressive young talent a bit more time to bring to her work the mature seasoning that alone can turn great music into great art.

 Greg Stepanich has covered classical music, theater and dance for 25 years at newspapers in Illinois, West Virginia and Florida. He worked for 10 years at The Palm Beach Post, where he was an assistant business editor and pilot of Classical Musings, a classical music blog. He now blogs for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper at www.pbartspaper.com and at classicalgreg.wordpress.com. He also works as a freelance writer and composer.

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Wed Dec 10, 2008
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