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The Mystery, the Joy of Yuja Wang

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/10/2024 -  & April 30 (Philadelphia), May 8 (Kalamazoo), 12 (Los Angeles), 15 (San Francisco), 17 (Seattle) 2024
Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant‑Jésus: XV. “Le Baiser de l’Enfant‑Jésus” & X. “Regard de l’Esprit de joie”
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 8, Opus 66
Claude Debussy: L’Isle joyeuse
Frédéric Chopin: Ballades No. 1, Opus 23, No. 2, Opus 38, No. 3, Opus 47, & No. 4, Opus 47

Yuja Wang (Pianist)

Y. Wang (© Norbert Kniat/DG)

Classical music is far from boring–it has all the blood, energy, the sinister dark side, rhythm that rock music has, and all the refined, subtle sensuality that one can ask for.
Yuja Wang

Yuja has a lot of energy. The energy comes from the music, I think. When you’re a musician, you want to make music, eat it, drink it, at all times. It’s not a profession, it’s a vocation.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Every half-century or so, a new charismatic pianist takes the stage. Not necessarily the best, we still recognize the flamboyant Franz Liszt, the Polish pianist-politician Paderewski, the near insane fingers of Vladimir Horowitz... and as last night proved, the first female, first Beijing‑born, first fashionista maestro of anything possible, Yuja Wang.

To get over the fashion style: she wore in the first half a micro‑mini skirt; in the second half an emerald‑green backless dress.

That’s over.

The “anything” factor meant that she started with mystic mysterious religious chords and ended (thanks to her idol Mr. Horowitz) with utmost hilarity. That first half was perhaps unknown to the full‑house devoted audience. Messiaen? Scriabin? A rare piece by Debussy? In this case, the audience was hypnotized (a two‑way mesmerization) by the strange music and by Ms. Yang’s seemingly faultless fingers. The second half was far more familiar, Chopin’s four Ballades. And the four encores were extravagant, impossible and, yes, even uproarious.

So how did this now 37‑year‑old wunderkind actually do? Extraordinary is an oft‑used word, but she made the chthonic seem fresh. Most pianists would wow the crowd with a flashy or familiar opening. Ms. Wang did the opposite. Her first chords for a setting of Messiaen’s “The Kiss of the Infant Jesus” was almost unheard, her chordal opening tender, caressing and then opening into a gorgeous garden of tones.

That was the 15th section. The tenth, “The Spirit of Joy”, was Messiaen’s ecstatic almost orchestral dance, a contrast to the first. Obviously, the applause between the two was an interruption–and I have the feeling Ms. Wang would have wished for no applause between the first half pieces, for she segued inevitably into the near-impossible Scriabin 8th Sonata.

I had heard Ms. Wang play the early Scriabin with Chopinesque elegance. This, though, was an illusional work. At first, Ms. Wang played bell‑like tones. But then, with magic, she accelerated to a Presto, went back to serenity, then whipped through quadruple chromatics (“Whew!” said my mind) and resumed with hardly a pause.

The composer himself never played the work. Perhaps he was waiting for Horowitz–and Yuja Wang.

Ms. Wang went from the abstract to the picturesque, Watteau’s picture, in The Joyous Island. Again, this was virtuosity on the grand scale, on a Ravelian scale, on endless scale-athletics, those muscular ascensions which she takes with an almost effortless comfort.

The second half was devoted to the four Chopin Ballades. For this, we could sit back, not in awe, but in the comfort of knowing they were each in good hands. She gave a powerful tempo to the First, an extra pulse to the Second, went from a chromatic opening, and in the final Ballade, let all her emotions to embrace a poignant waltz and a muscular tricky series of double‑note passages.

Nor did Ms. Wang stint on her pauses, her retardations, her joyful illusions of improvisations.

Still, if the audience had been given a lie‑detector test, they would have plunked not for the mystic opening, not for Ballades, but for the quartet of encores. First a scherzo from Shostakovich, followed by Márquez’s seductive, tango‑like Danzón No. 2. And after this? An astounding transcription of Johann Strauss. By whom? Godowsky? Horowitz? Cziffra? Yuja Wang herself?

The last piece was indeed Ms. Wang’s transcription. But it could have been written by Horowitz, Cziffra and Horowitz playing together. This was a truncated but incredible version of the march from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. And if anybody doubts the genius of mind, digits and spirits of Yuja Wang, they would have to be heretics. Her range is unsurpassed, her virtuosity insuperable.

And her joy unconfined.

Harry Rolnick



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