Tag Archives: Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang, Wittgenstein and Ravel’s curious Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

 

I suppose it’s not all that curious. If you are a concert pianist and your right arm is a casualty in World War I, afterwards you have two options. One: give up your music career and calling, do something inferior and cry into your soup for the rest of your life. Two: tell yourself, “All right. Time to learn how to make my left hand do twice the work on the keyboard to produce the same sound. Create new arrangements of the music I love to play. Commission new works for the left hand alone. It can be done. It is what I will devote my life to doing.” It helps the Option Two scenario considerably if you are not a musician of the destitute persuasion, and, instead, have a generous amount of pennies (or Austrian schillings) tucked away in the family coffers. Which Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein had. Option Two, therefore, became his plan, and he succeeded marvelously.

French-Basque composer Maurice Ravel might have been approaching his own crossroads in the fall of 1929, just before Wittgenstein contacted him for a commission. We know, through hindsight, that he was nearing the end of his creative output. The year before he’d been exposed to jazz music during a U.S. concert tour. He was captivated by its richness, its diverting rhythm, and following the tour, he no longer felt compelled to create the same pictorial music he’d been doing. Instead he yearned to work with something sharper, leaner. When Paul Wittgenstein approached him with the commission request, Ravel happily accepted. At that time he was working, coincidentally, on his own Piano Concerto in G major, which he set aside temporarily. For this Concerto for the Left Hand, he decided to let that sharper, darker voice within him speak.

Maurice Ravel

Wittgenstein was a compelling figure, a powerful inspiration to anyone, even now, whose art or vocation appears doomed by sudden infirmity. Born in 1875 to a wealthy, influential Viennese family, he was the seventh of eight children, all of whom were musically gifted. The family’s considerable fortune, and likely his family name, enabled Paul to commission over a dozen works for left-hand piano. With his empty right jacket sleeve, he powered past naysayers and pitiers to make his musical future happen. Among the numerous composers he employed were Franz Schmidt, Erich Korngold, Hindemith, Richard Strauss, and later, Ravel, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten. He wasn’t particularly easygoing; he didn’t always like the end result of the commissions. More frequently than not, he grumbled over them. In fact, with Ravel’s concerto, completed in 1930, he went beyond just grumbling.

Paul Wittgenstein

There’s an entertaining (to me) story here. In 1931, as Wittgenstein was struggling over the new commission from Ravel (“What’s with the jazz-infused rhythms and harmonies? This is classical music. And this long piano solo as my entrance? If I’d wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!”) and readying it for performance, Ravel himself was preparing for the premiere of his now-finished Piano Concerto in G minor. The two piano concertos were premiered at almost the same time. Pianist Marguerite Long performed the G minor Piano Concerto in Paris on January 14, 1932, with Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux. Thereafter, the two presented the concerto on a tour of twenty European cities. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Wittgenstein gave the premiere of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major, the very same month, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Ravel, of course, couldn’t attend the premiere since he and Long were off doing their G major Concerto thing. But when they came to Vienna to perform, three weeks later, Wittgenstein welcomed them, threw an elaborate dinner in their honor. As part of the evening’s entertainment, Wittgenstein performed the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, except with changes he himself had incorporated, which he felt made the concerto better. Not little changes, either. Big whopper ones, like taking lines from the orchestral part and planting them in his piano solo. Changing harmonies, cutting out bars of music, adding a series of dramatic arpeggios to his final cadenza.

Ravel freaked. After the performance, he angrily approached Wittgenstein. “But that’s not it at all!” he sputtered, to which Wittgenstein confidently replied that, as a pianist, he knew what he was doing, to which Ravel snapped that, as an orchestrator (not to mention the composer), he knew what he was doing. They parted that evening angrily. Eventually both of them calmed down, reached an agreement, and the Paris premiere of Piano Concerto for the Left Hand had Ravel conducting and Wittgenstein performing—presumably the version Ravel had written.

Yuja Wang, Michael Tilson Thomas, SF Symphony

It’s a masterpiece, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and fiendishly difficult to play well. Which brings us to last weekend, Davies Hall, San Francisco where Yuja Wang nailed it. She continues to be my favorite classical musician, bar none. She’s exciting to watch, she’s dedicated to her art, she’s a brilliant technician, and her dresses are eye candy, something to buzz about after the show. I blogged about her and the dresses HERE and I will argue that, all these years later, she is just as exciting a performer to watch, one who garners equal praise from critics and audience members alike. I love the way she can be ferocious yet precise, at turns lyrical and boldly insouciant.

The concerto starts off in the low register, with cello and bass as the only strings, more of a mood than a sound. Then we hear the even deeper contrabassoon playing a theme, soon followed by low horns. It’s brooding and dark for close to two minutes. Then the piano presents its part of the musical conversation in that two-minute solo Wittgenstein griped about. The jazz elements, now that I know to listen for them, abound. Ravel has a Debussy-esque sound I find very appealing, with its Oriental flavors. When the piano takes a second solo, around six minutes in, the music becomes dreamy, pensive.  And later there’s Ravel’s unforgettable “Bolero” that we hear traces of. Not just its notes, but its mood, the way the orchestral sound builds and builds in a delicious intensity that’s more about power than volume. But this is no “Bolero” knock-off.  There are so many original, inventive musical ideas in this nineteen-minute concerto, each one distinct, uncluttered. Yuja delivered on everything.

Lucky you – here’s a YouTube of her performing this very piece with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, June 2016, Lionel Bringuier conducting. As icing on the cake, she’s wearing yet another stunner of a dress. And something fun that I noticed here—she uses an electronic score. I sensed that was the case when I watched her perform, since it looked more like a finger swipe than a page being turned, but from my angle in the concert hall, I couldn’t be sure. Now I am.

A fabulous concerto, a sublime pianist — give both a listen if you have any opportunity to. And if geographic circumstances don’t allow, well, gotta love those CDs! HERE is the Amazon link for her Ravel piano concerto CD (with Fauré’s Ballade in F sharp thrown in too).

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow?

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op 18 is the kind of music that grips you by the collar and draws you into its world instantly, with its rich orchestral textures and dramatic fervor. I’ve loved it for years. Decades. Last weekend I attended the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1, and was dazzled by the program’s second ballet, Jiri Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vessels,” set to—you guessed it—Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Thoughts vary about Rachmaninov’s Late Romantic music, produced during an era that had begun testing its boundaries (think Mahler) or breaking them entirely (think Schoenberg and his atonality, his twelve-tone technique). Rachmaninov wanted nothing to do with that. He saw himself as “the last of the Romantics” who reflected the philosophy of Old Russia “with its overtones of suffering and unrest, its pastoral but tragic beauty, its ancient and enduring glory.” Many classical music purists today consider Rachmaninov’s music to be excessively sentimental, admittedly lush but too similar-sounding once you’ve heard one concerto. The tremendous popularity of his Piano Concerto No. 2, in fact, seems to argue their case that it’s, perhaps, a bit lowbrow for classical tastes.

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow? Certainly it’s extremely accessible to non-classical music lovers. It’s appeared in pop culture through movies, plays and songs throughout the 20th century. I myself was only nineteen when I fell wildly in love with it. The music so aptly described all those larger-than-life feelings and emotions exploding within me. I ate it up, right alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Dvorák’s New World Symphony. In an era of LP and cassette tape music, those were three of the dozen cassette recordings I listened to incessantly. The latter two, I can’t bear to listen to anymore; they are now definitely “pop classical” to me, which nonetheless constantly fills the concert halls. But Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is different. Thirty-five years after I first heard it, I’m fascinated by its complexity and colors, its harmonic richness, its passion coupled with aching nostalgia.

I did a little digging around to find out more about Rachmaninov (and BTW, his name can be spelled with a “v” at the end or an “ff” – both are an acceptable translation from Cyrillic) before I set off to write this blog. Otherwise, how to explain why I liked this concerto so much? Did I even know why? Music with this kind of emotional depth tends to have a story behind it.

Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943), I learned, had been born into a noble family in Russia which owned numerous estates. While both parents enjoyed the piano, they didn’t see that as a potential career for the six-year-old Sergei who was already showing extraordinary aptitude for the instrument. (Ironically, they deemed it too lowbrow.) But the family had other problems. Dad enjoyed the high life, improvidently so, and the family fortune was slowly whittled away to one last estate, Oneg, in northwestern Russia, where Sergei spent his earliest years. Soon that, too, had to be sold to cover debts, and in 1882 the family moved into an apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergei was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but it was a poor fit and he was not an easy, compliant student. Nor a good one, as family troubles continued. In 1883 his sister died of diphtheria. In 1884, his parents separated. The next year, on the advice of a musician cousin, his mother shipped Sergei off to the Moscow Conservatory, to a regimented household where he continued his studies. There, he lived a strict life with Nikolai Zverev, his teacher, and two other students, which, in the end, served him well. It had perks, too; during this time he met and interacted with musicians, artists, and notably, Tchaikovsky, who became a mentor of sorts and helped get him into an advanced counterpoint class. Buoyed by his success in the ensuing years, and his interest in compositions, Sergei told Zverev he wished to pursue composition, and could he please have more private space in the house?

Zverev, who only saw the young Sergei as a pianist—although a prodigiously good one—told him something like, “Don’t be a fool. You’re a pianist, not a composer. Know your place. And get back into that room with the two other boys.” Unfortunately, this spelled the end of their relationship. Sergei moved out and into the home of a nearby relative, and continued on with his studies. (Zverev would not speak to him for the next three years.) He continued to excel, finishing his studies early, composing and performing his First Piano Concerto. For his final examinations, he won the Conservatory’s ultra-prestigious Gold Medal for his composition of a one-act opera, “Aleko.” Even old Zverev became tearfully proud of him, all ill feelings forgotten.

Here’s the thing. Young success, extraordinary success, is a mixed blessing. Rachmaninov was flying high, beloved for not just his composition talents, his virtuoso playing, but now, it turned out, he was a great conductor. How great was that?! There was no place for him to go, but up, up, up! 

So, post-graduation, he proceeded forward, writing small pieces that people loved (they were crazy about his Prelude in C-sharp minor, written when he was nineteen; it drew international acclaim), concertizing in ways people loved (everywhere, audiences begged for an encore of the Prelude in C-sharp minor – it got kind of annoying). He set his sights on bigger things, and devoted considerable time to composing his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor. This, then, he decided, would be his grand entrance into The Really Big League, right up there with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was ready.

Well, I think you can guess what happened. The premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor was a total disaster. Not just the music was at fault; an incompetent (and possibly drunk) Glazunov took the podium as conductor and did a wretched job leading the under-rehearsed orchestra. Further, Glazunov had made his own cuts in the score, and several changes in the orchestration, none of which made sense musically. Rachmaninov, sitting in the audience, helpless, was in agony. He couldn’t even listen to it; he fled the concert hall.

The press had a field day. César Cui, noted music critic, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

The poor reception, and Rachmaninov’s own destroyed faith in his abilities, sent him into a deep depression, a dark, creative-less funk. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, composing wasn’t meant for him, after all. And so, for three years, he wrote nothing, composed nothing. He continued to receive invitations to perform as a pianist—because, remember, he was an extraordinary soloist. His strengths and good reputation as a conductor also earned him work, which helped him get by. But only when, with encouragement from family, he sought out the services of psychologist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnotherapy in his practice, did he climb out of that dark place. And it was in this reborn creative space that he composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he dedicated to Dahl). Its premiere, on Nov 9, 1901, was a hit.

And how.

So. To those who claim Rachmaninov is overly sentimental, too dramatic, even lowbrow? Oh, dear reader, I will have to differ. This composition came from a place of incredible substance. No wonder I hear passion, despair, hope rising, triumphant vindication in the music. No wonder I’ve never tired of hearing this wonderful piece of music, in thirty-five years.

Give it a listen. Made even better by the performance of my favorite pianist, Yuja Wang. She and her performances are mesmerizing in so many ways. (Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra, July 2011)

And if you’re STILL thinking Rachmaninov’s music all sounds too familiar, a one-trick-pony kind of composer, listen to “The Isle of the Dead.” Amazing. https://youtu.be/dbbtmskCRUY

And his “Symphonic Dances.” Op. 45. Gasp! Where has this been all my life? How did this gem escape me? https://youtu.be/otJmf3pyb1E

And you’re still not tired of clicking on links and hearing about Rachmaninov’s music, you can read my blog, “Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3” HERE.

 

Cellist Extraordinaire Gautier Capuçon

Photo Gregory Batardon

Photo Gregory Batardon

From the audience, that 2009 Sunday matinee performance in Davies Hall, nothing seemed amiss. Gautier Capuçon’s rendition of the Schumann Cello Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony won me over instantly, as did his stage charisma—and, okay, those  cinematic good looks of his. Two years later, his thoughtful, nuanced performance of Henri Dutilleux’s “Tout un Monde Lointain, ” again with the San Francisco Symphony, was equally sublime. (Read my blog on it HERE.) It was only when I researched him for this blog, in the aftermath of another brilliant performance with the SFS (Elgar Cello Concerto in May—okay, I’m woefully behind here) that I learned he’d suffered an appendicitis attack, back in 2009, smack in the middle of his intended debut performance with the San Francisco Symphony. The Sunday matinee I saw him? Less than 36 hours after emergency surgery. What was to have been his third performance had become his debut. Lucky, lucky us, we who’d had Sunday matinee tickets!

Here’s the story in his own words, courtesy of an interview with San Francisco Classical Voice.  

“The night before my debut, I met with Semyon Bychkov. We were preparing for the Schumann concerto. The next morning was the first rehearsal with the orchestra, and it went really well. I was so excited! Then I started having stomach problems. I knew something strange was going on inside. You know how some people have stomach problems when they are nervous? I’d never had stomach problems in my whole life.

By midnight the pain was so strong I was lying on the floor in my hotel. That’s when I decided to call the doctor. The doctor came two hours later. By then the pain was really horrible. He examined me and said it was appendicitis and I had to go straight to the emergency room to be operated on. I told him that’s not possible: “I have to play a concert tomorrow!” He stayed with me for two hours talking to me. Finally I said, “Let’s make a deal. You can drive me to the hospital, but you have to promise me I don’t have to wait — I know what emergency rooms are like; you can spend the whole night there.” He said, “OK.”

Of course, it was appendicitis and they operated on me right away. Afterwards the doctor told me if I had waited five more minutes it would have ruptured and I probably would have died. I was quite lucky.

The next morning I was back in the hotel and I tried playing my cello and I felt fine. So I called the Symphony and told them I could play the second concert. They had had to cancel my first. Then my agent called and spoke to me. She spoke to me like my mother. She said, “No way! It’s too risky.” I did play the last concert and it was great.”

Capuçon was born in Chambery, France, in 1981. Musical talent runs in the family; his older brother Renaud is an equally accomplished, world class violinist, with whom he frequently collaborates. He began to play the cello at age 5, commencing formal musical education in his hometown at the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Chambéry. He studied thereafter in Paris, first at the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris (CNR) and then at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique, with Philippe Muller and Annie Cochet-Zakine (and later with Heinrich Schiff in Vienna). He’s the winner of various first prizes in international competitions, including the International André Navarra Prize, and in 2001 was named ‘New Talent of the Year’ by Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of a Grammy). In 2004 he received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award. He plays a 1701 Matteo Goffriler cello.

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Capuçon is tremendously interesting to watch perform. He’s reminiscent of pianist extraordinaire Yuja Wang, in that you can see and almost feel their curiosity, their interplay with the music: the notes, tonal colors and nuances. They’re immersed in the process of interpretation, almost dialoguing with it, brows furrowed in concentration only to be resolved a moment later with a slight nod, a yes, that was it; that was the feeling/sound I’d been striving for. To watch supremely talented artists working so deeply in the process makes it both a thrill and an honor to watch. It’s live performing at its best. Throw in good looks, an innate sensuality, and whoa, it’s especially fun.

Tell me if you agree…

Although Gautier Capuçon doesn’t have a lot of tours within the U.S. lined up this fall, he will be  in New York on October 21 – 25 at Avery Fisher Hall, with the New York Philharmonic. He’ll be performing one of my absolute favorites: the Brahms Double Concerto, with violinist Lisa Batiashvili. It’s worth going a long way to see but, regretfully, my San Francisco Bay Area base is a wee bit too far. So, those of you readers on the East Coast, please go see it for me. And after New York City, over the next four months, Capuçon will perform in, among other cities, Amsterdam, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Vienna, Paris, London. Just in case, you know, you’re in the neighborhood.

For those of us most decidedly not in the neighborhood, here are more YouTube clips you might enjoy. This first one is a rehearsal with Capuçon and renowned conductor Valery Gergiev (whose name ballet folks might recognize; he’s the general and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre). The rehearsal takes place in a church, I believe in France. I love these more relaxed, behind-the-scenes glimpses of a musician at work. It’s fun to see Valery Gergiev in a baseball cap and Gautier Capuçon in a white tee shirt and jeans, intent on rehearsing and not performing for the camera. Watch it all the way through; it’s great. The music is wonderful, but I’m not sure what it is. Can anyone help me here?

Here’s a full-length recording of the Dvoràk Cello Concerto very well presented. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVKb3DwPFA8

Here’s an interesting interview of sorts with Capuçon and pianist Frank Braley. The two of them recorded a CD in 2013 called “Arpeggione,”  and this is a mix of music and conversation. For those of you, like me, for whom French is like music itself, you’ll love it. And for those of you, like me, who enjoy informal, “behind the scenes” kind of interviews, there you go, too. And it’s lovely, intriguing music. https://youtu.be/rn-yNcSd2ws

And last but not least, want to see Capuçon and Yuja Wang perform together? Eye candy for both the sexes!

Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3

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It’s impossible to watch a live performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 without thinking about the 1996 Australian movie, Shine. A few Sundays ago I attended the San Francisco Symphony and took in Garrick Ohlsson’s excellent performance of the concerto. Movie reference aside, I love this piece of music. I love all the Rachmaninov piano concertos. They are all sweeping, cinematic, heart-on-sleeve, emotion-packed compositions, yet intelligent, highly detailed, intensely memorable. The San Francisco Symphony last presented the Rach 3 (its nickname in music-speak) in 2012, featuring pianist Yuja Wang. It was a different experience from this year and Ohlsson, who is older, a longtime veteran of the concertizing circuit and better known for his mastery of Chopin. His clean, lyrical performance was restrained to the point of maybe being a teeny bit underwhelming. Or maybe that’s what happens when you’re compared to the propulsive exuberance Yuja Wang brings to her playing. She’s a firecracker, who throws her whole being into the performance. (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/pianist-yuja-wangs-short-dresses-big-talent/)

But back to my point. I simply can’t watch a performance of the Rach 3 without remembering Shine. Did you see it? Here’s a tickler:

Shine, directed by Scott Hicks, was inspired by the story of Australian David Helfgott (and please note, it was merely inspired and thus had plenty of wiggle room for interpretation and artistically softening of hard fact). The story in a nutshell: the young David’s prodigious talent on the piano makes his Holocaust survivor father enormously proud until the next step in David’s instruction means leaving the family and Australia. His too-controlling, authoritarian father, forever traumatized by family loss in the camps, says “never,” and from there on out, it’s a struggle between music and family for David, with hard choices the whole way. Forced to turn down an invitation by Isaac Stern to study in the U.S. as a teen, David ultimately ignores his father’s dictate when he’s invited, a few years later, to study at London’s Royal College of Music. There, he trains among the masters, and works obsessively at his entry for the school’s prestigious concerto competition. He’s chosen the Rach 3, one of the most difficult piano concerto in the repertoire, the one his father insisted he wanted his son learning at a too-young age. Way too much for a young student. And, well, you can see the conflict building, right? Not to mention that the young David is already starting to show troubling signs of schizoaffective disorder, on top of the trauma of defying his father to leave the family and live alone, halfway across the world, utterly sucked up in the world of music and the über-challenging Rach 3.

What a film.

Since the release of the film, however, which won dozens of awards, including the Oscar for Best Actor for Geoffrey Rush, there’s been contention. Members of the real Helfgott family have disputed the claim that Dad was the too-controlling, abusive father he was depicted as in the movie. Further, in real life, apparently David’s time in and out of mental institutions was interspersed with plenty of positive: lots of family support, a first marriage, plenty of local performances. But, hey. There’s that “room for interpretation” I was talking about. The movie sort of fast-forwarded through those twenty years in question, instead depicting only scenes of therapy inside the institutions, which was director Scott Hicks’ choice. If you’re curious about the “real” version of the story, check out sister Margaret Helfgott’s memoir, Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the myth of Shine. And note that there are disputes to her claims as well, particularly, as you might imagine, among Scott Hicks’ team, who claim to have interviewed scores of people who knew David and the Helfgotts throughout that time period.

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There’s another point of contention as well. The truth is, Helfgott, who resumed concertizing after the movie, to sellout houses, is not a technical master. He drops notes. He personalizes the music beyond what Rachmaninov intended. This, of course, infuriates musicologists, pianists and classical music purists. Or, perhaps, what infuriates them is when audience members rave afterward about Helfgott’s genius, his mastery. It should be made clear: Helfgott delivers a powerful performance in part because his life, this return from the almost-dead, artistically speaking, is such an empowering story. But looking at the music, Yuja Wang, Garrick Ohlsson, Martha Argerich—these are masters (among many others) of the Rach 3. In the classical music world, these are the horses you’d bet on for the best rendition of the Rach 3. But audiences have gone crazy over Helfgott’s performances and interpretation. Millions, millions own a copy of Helfgott playing the Rach 3 (including myself—and it’s not nearly as flawed as the outraged musicologists would have you think, certainly not to the average ear). I will argue that it’s better for those millions of people to have a single classical music CD in their music libraries, even if it’s a sloppy performance, even if Helfgott is not a genius, a master, a top-notch technician. The thing is, the performance of it stirs them. Makes them think of Shine and its theme, this triumph over terrible, terrible challenges, both internal and external. It’s an intelligent, feel-good thing, and it’s accompanied by great classical music, and the mainstream is embracing it all.

I love stories like this.

Give the Rach 3 a listen. Virtuoso pianist Martha Argerich gives a gorgeous, nuanced performance that seemed to find that happy medium ground between Garrick Ohlsson’s restraint and Yuja Wang’s fire.

In the end, it’s best to treat the subjects—the music, the movie and David Helfgott’s real experience—separately. But what a piece of music. And what a movie. Do yourself a favor and go indulge in both. And join me in offering a heartfelt “bravo!” to Sergei Rachmaninoff, the composer and concert pianist who gave us this memorable work of art.

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Pianist Yuja Wang’s very short dresses and very big talent

Interested in my dance-related fiction? Check out Off Balance  and the award-winning Outside the Limelight, Books 1 and 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, as well as my newest,  A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. Just click on their titles!

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The thing is, I didn’t know about the “very short/tight/colorful dress” business before Yuja Wang’s May 2014 performance with the San Francisco Symphony. I’d seen and enjoyed her performance in 2012, here at Davies Hall, when she played Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto and blew everyone away. She was 25 at the time, and lucky for San Francisco Symphony patrons, Michael Tilson Thomas had long before pegged her as a stunning talent and featured her in Project San Francisco, an artist’s residency of sorts, for the season. The performance was astonishing; she threw herself wholly into it. Her concentration, technique, sensitivity and musicality were all top notch. But, in truth, I don’t remember a very short/tight/colorful dress.

This season, she is again the featured artist in Project San Francisco and Last Sunday I saw her perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilton Thomas conducting. Once again, she burned up the stage with her playing. Actually, she burned up the stage when she appeared. And, okay. So there it is, the dress thing. I was shocked by it: a short, short, skimpy white cocktail dress. With those platform-y high heeled shoes currently in vogue, sort of pearlescent and clunky. I wouldn’t have guessed it was possible to play the piano in shoes like that. But she proved once again that she was a master. So. Let’s table the discussion about the Very Short Dresses until later, and instead talk about her talents as a pianist, which are considerable.

A brief history: Beijing-born and raised, Wang studied at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music,  Canada’s Mount Royal College, and at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, graduating from the latter in May 2008. Her considerable talent got noticed in a big, big way when, in March 2007, she replaced Martha Argerich, who’d been forced to cancel her engagement with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Great story about the performance HERE) Since then, she’s been lauded as a major talent by critics, media, and audiences alike, garnering numerous awards and honors. With reason. She’s amazing.

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Now a word about Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1. He, too, was young, a brilliant composer and performer, only 20 and still in conservatory when he composed this work. (He would go on to perform his own concerto in his final graduation performance from the St. Petersburg Conservatory two years later, reasoning, according to Wikipedia lore, that though he might not be able to win with a classical concerto, with his own concerto the jury would be ‘unable to judge whether he was playing it well or not.’ He won the coveted Anton Rubinstein prize.) It’s a fun, rousing concerto to listen to, full of all sorts of textures and colors, what you’d expect from the guy who gave us “Peter and the Wolf,” and utterly delicious compositions of “Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Not bad for a 20-year-old on just his 10th opus.

Yuja Wang consumes the piece she’s performing. No, she inhabits it. Her concentration is mesmerizing to watch. Her technique is astonishing. Here’s how San Francisco Chronicle’s Joshua Kosman describes her performance: “The steely precision with which she dispatched the concerto’s passagework – its big, clangorous chords, its massive octave runs and its fizzy bursts of filigree – were never anything less than astonishing. Within a palette that favored sleek, brittle piano sonorities, she still uncovered a wealth of variety, alternating passages of stark clarity with more shadowy and evocative tones.” Great review; you can read more of it HERE.

Wang’s exit from the stage, post-performance, is charming, almost clumsy. She staggers up, away from the piano, still in that dazed artist’s groove, and offers one fierce, deep bow, throwing her whole self into that, too. It’s like she’s sneezing, hurling her upper torso over and up, lightning fast. Afterward she strides right off the stage, not even pausing to bask in the applause, take a second bow, take a look around her and thank the audience. But it seems natural, unaffected, and I have to admire that about her. She was there to blow us away with her music and she did and when she was done, off she went. She did, fortunately, return, and return again—the audience’s unceasing applause all but demanded it—and offer an encore performance.

There’s no YouTube of her performing the Prokofiev, but here she is, playing Scriabin (not wearing the media-buzz-producing orange/red dress, nor the white, but a third very short one that, admittedly, looks lovely on her).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHO4Ucw9zL4

And now for the Very Short dress business. Back in 2011, she drew considerable attention when she strode out onto the stage at the Hollywood Bowl in a very short orange (I say red) dress, prompting all sorts of buzz in the media and the blogosphere the next day. Too short and provocative for classical music? Too conservative, the tastes of the critics, who complain that it was a distraction?

You want to see these dresses now, don’t you?

Well, okay…

167108_Bringuier_LKH_                       yuja-wang

So. Is it sexist for me to bring it up? (How about this: I hate what Joshua Bell wears when he performs. They look like black pajamas. There.) Is it too conservative of me to have raised my eyebrows while watching her perform? (And for the record, no one has ever called me conservative. I’ve long been the eyebrow raise-ee, not the raiser.) Does it distract from a performance, from the pleasure bubble, to wonder, uneasily, if the dress is going to ride up so high that everyone feels a little, well, awkward (at least the females in the audience)? Every time, just before she’d reach up to tug the dress down because it was riding  too high, I’d feel a cramp of sympathetic anxiety, a frisson of unease.

Now, musicians might argue in defense of wearing whatever the hell they want, arguing that “it’s all about the music; I should be judged by my music alone.” To which I say: oh, come on. We’re watching you. The performing arts are a visual spectacle. It’s why we forked out the money instead of staying home and listening to your CD. It’s why venues spend loads of money to look luxurious and inviting, and it’s why we, too, all dress up. Because this is a night out and looks do matter. But hey, go for it. Be daring and keep classical music in the news, in  mainstream conversation. No complaints there at all. Wear what you want and I’ll respect it, your music and artistry, and I’ll enjoy the dialogue via social media that it invites the next day (Google “Yuja Wang’s orange dress” to see what I mean).

But I don’t want to end this on a judgmental note. Yuja Wang is too good of a musician and performer. You know how I adore Chopin, right? (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/chopin-everyone/) Okay, so check this one out. It’s one of his waltzes, Op. 64, no. 2.  Her expression as she plays is so pure, so rapt, and her hands move so gently, yet skillfully over the keyboard, it’s such a joy to watch. Truly this is an artist to watch, for many reasons.