World-class pianist Yuja Wang dazzles in recital at Strathmore, but at a distance


Yuja Wang (Ian Douglas)
October 27, 2013

On the Metro after Friday’s recital at Strathmore, a woman asked fellow passengers what the pianist Yuja Wang had played as her first encore (it was an arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”), which started a brief discussion of the concert itself.

“World-class, huh?” said a man who was also holding a concert program.

“I wish she would wear a different dress,” said the woman. Wang, true to her reputation, had performed in a tiny skintight bright red number and stiletto heels.

“Doesn’t bother me,” said the man, in the tones of one who was genuinely indifferent to what the soloist chose to wear.

Both the dress and the playing probably divided opinions Friday night. But there was no question that the man was right: Whether or not you cared for it, the performance was world-class.

Wang is one of those scarily brilliant musicians who can do whatever she wants with her instrument, and she has grown up more or less in the public eye. She made her Washington Performing Arts Society debut in 2008 as a rising star, and now at the ripe old age of 26, she’s a well-established performer. Back in 2008, she offered the excitement of hearing a formidable talent and wondering where she might go with it. Today, she’s polished and poised and certainly still formidable. Her program for WPAS this time around included Sergei Prokofiev’s dazzling and fleeting third sonata, three pieces by Chopin including his large-scale third sonata, jazz-colored variations for piano by the Soviet composer Nikolai Kapustin, and three sections from Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” that the composer arranged for Artur Rubinstein in true finger-busting virtuoso tradition.

Yet she held the audience at arm’s length, striding out on stage with a businesslike gait and bright but distant smile, collapsing from time to time in an abrupt bow that involved her folding from the waist and then springing upright again, and not offering a second of unplanned interaction. Her complete focus on the music was laudable; it just wasn’t clear to me, in contrast to previous performances of hers I’ve seen, that she was having fun with it.

That Wang is a superb technician isn’t news: The faster and more challenging a piece is, the better she seems to like it. This program sought to offset the dazzle of the opening Prokofiev and closing Stravinsky, both of which left one rather breathless, with some idiosyncratic but elegant Chopin playing that brought out the sweetness and melody in a kind of dreamy legato, subsuming the main themes in a current of sound that eddied (or paused) in unexpected places. This worked well in the sonata — the Largo was a beautiful, still moment, and Wang gently led the music back out of it into the more bombastic finale — and not at all in the Nocturne in C Minor, which sounded somewhat like film music.

One of the romantic tropes of classical music is that it involves yearning, or searching, and Wang certainly seemed to be looking for something. Her program at once pushed against boundaries, taking on jazz and even the standard “Tea for Two” as the second encore, and kept her firmly within the traditional model of the classical virtuoso: even Kapustin’s variations are an example of the classical music world looking at jazz, rather than the genuine article. Her Chopin performance showed her in exploring mode; I don’t think her unusual approach was an affectation but rather simply represented where she happens to be with this piece at this moment. But the impression she gave was of a star in search of a mission. It was an impressive and enjoyable recital but not, on some deeper level, a completely satisfying one. The question remains what she will find to satisfy herself.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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