Young pianist soars in New World opener

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Audience members streaming in to the Lincoln Theatre Friday night could observe the steel scaffolding rising ever higher off 17th Street, a symbolic and practical sign of the remarkable fortunes of the New World Symphony under artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas.  The New World’s new Frank Gehry-designed home is not set to open for a year, but construction is clearly proceeding apace.

The New World Symphony entered its third decade Friday evening—and its last full season in the Lincoln Theatre—-a la Russe et Francais,  with Tilson Thomas leading the orchestra in showpieces by Ravel and Stravinsky.

The two composers make companionable, cross-cultural program mates. The Russian composer’s music is imbued with French style and influences and Ravel’s elegance often draws on the sunshine and dance rhythms of Spain.

The evening’s spotlight belonged to Yuja Wang, the young pianist who is making her New World subscription debut at these concerts.

Two seasons ago Wang displayed an astounding technique in a local recital but her playing felt a bit cool and remote. What a difference two years makes, for the Chinese pianist’s performances Friday night demonstrated keyboard artistry on the highest level.

Written for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I, Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand is an enigmatic work, ingeniously crafted yet quirky and driven. Ravel’s offbeat scoring reflects the music’s strangeness, often relying on low instruments, as with the subterranean contrabassoon growling against lower strings in the opening bars.

Even with just 50% of her digital arsenal on display, Wang showed remarkable fire and iron-fingered power, with clear sympathy for the off-kilter bravura of this concerto. She brought a striking array of shading and nuance to the climactic cadenza and her give and take with the orchestra under MTT’s direction was most impressive, often echoing the orchestra players’ phrasing and somehow even the very timbre of their instruments.

Wang was allowed all her fingers in Stravinsky’s Capriccio, a lightweight but charming showpiece that gracefully melds a jazz quality with the composer’s wry Neo-Classical style.

Here too, the pianist was a simpatico soloist, blazing through the spiky angularities without sacrificing the music’s light amiable spirit, her hair-trigger sensibility well-suited to Stravinsky’s jumpy syncopations.  Tilson Thomas and the orchestra provided equally vital and characterfull support.

The 21-year-old pianist reemerged for an encore, managing to bring down the house with Mozart’s Turkish March in the bizarro Volodos arrangement. Wang blazed through the ludicrous complexities and extra fistfuls of notes with jaw-dropping ease and technique to burn.

The level of the New World is remarkably consistent, even with a third of the orchestra’s members  new every season. Yet even by that elevated standard, the playing in the two main symphonic works was truly impressive, at times staggering in its gleam and virtuosity.

MTT’s take on Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole showcased the kaleidoscopic brilliance and dazzle with  whipcrack renditions of the Malaguena and the Feria, Spanish rhythm and castanets very much to the fore. Less apparent was the Rapsodie‘s Castilian elegance, with the boldly outlined approach too emphatic at times, missing some of the mystery and brooding unease in the Prelude and Habanera.

No complaints about the performance of the 1919 suite from The Firebird.  One of our finest Stravinskians, Tilson Thomas’s complete ease in this ballet music was manifest. MTT drew out scoring subtleties and exotic colors, with a notably tender Berceuse and galvanic splendor in the final bars. Often the conductor just cued and let the musicians play, which they did quite gloriously, the woodwinds in particular exceling in their myriad opportunities.

The evening began with a pre-encore bonus that hewed to the French motif, Delibes’ Marche and cortege of Bacchus from his ballet, Sylvia. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra delivered a rousing rendition of brassy swagger and thunderous impact. But what happened to the tradition of opening the season with the National Anthem?

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. $28-$; 305-673-3331. 800-597-3331.

[Photo: Craig Hall for the New World Symphony]

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Young pianist soars in New World opener”

  1. Posted Oct 19, 2008 at 6:36 pm by The way we visit now « Classical Greg

    […] Concert news: I couldn’t make it to the Yuja Wang performance this weekend, but Larry Johnson at the South Florida Classical Review loved her performance. I thought her Verbier Festival recital on earlier this summer was a knockout, and it looks like she’s making real inroads into piano stardom. Read what Larry had to say here. […]

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Sat Oct 18, 2008
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