Monday, February 27, 2006

Pianist Joyce Yang

Last June, 19-year-old Korean-born, Juilliard-trained Joyce Yang lit up the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, winning the silver medal, two additional awards and the hearts of many who followed her race to the finals. On Friday at Wolf Trap, both her prodigious technique and her effervescent personality were on display.

Yang chose music that earned her fame at the Cliburn: J.S. Bach's Overture in the French Style, Carl Vine's Sonata No. 1, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 and Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise.

Playing Bach, she proportioned the overture with gravitas and elegance, and her sarabande was compassionate. The actual dance movements, however, called for more lilt.

Yang's great passion is the Vine sonata, from 1990. It's a virtuosic menagerie of polyrhythms, dancing bleeps and dark romance -- a heady cocktail of Rachmaninoff mixed with Michael Nyman. Yang spoke of her love for the sonata, then played it like she owned it -- a thrilling performance of a brilliantly entertaining piece.

The rest of the program was less successful. Nikolai Medtner's "Sonata Reminiscenza" is finally getting some much-deserved attention, but Yang rushed through it, smearing many of the delicate inner voicings, and generally misjudging Medtner's subtle brand of intricate melancholy.

Yang's Chopin also contained mixed messages. The Polonaise had pomp, but the Andante's elastic, singing melodies became mechanical. She closed with an appropriately rambunctious Liszt, which got the audience cheering for a young artist clearly on her way to a promising career.

-- Tom Huizenga

Guitarist Dale Kavanagh

Guitarist Dale Kavanagh has taken the art of the pianissimo to a new level. Many fine guitarists can speak powerfully in a quiet voice, but Kavanagh, who performed at Westmoreland Congregational Church on Saturday, built a whole program around contemporary compositions that seem to revel in intimacy, and played each one with an impressive arsenal of subtleties and textures. She was able to project even the most intricate arpeggio phrases with absolute transparency and to slice the dynamic span from pianissimo to mezzo-piano into astonishingly small gradations.

There were pieces by Carlo Domeniconi, Roland Dyens, Sid Rabinovich, Antonio Ruiz-Pipo, Joaquin Rodrigo, Heitor Villa-Lobos (arrangement by Kavanagh) and the performer herself, all steeped in a ruminative Iberian idiom (even the Domeniconi adaptation of the Bach Chaconne from the D Minor Violin Partita) and all projecting, to a greater or lesser degree, an impression of improvisation.

The strengths of this program, however, also contributed to its weakness. This was all music conceived under the spell of the same Iberian muse. Each of the pieces was something to savor -- but then there was the next one, and the next -- and after two hours it felt like savory overload. It might have been a good idea to mix in a few works of some of the fine young composers who have sought their inspiration elsewhere.

The concert was part of the John E. Marlow Guitar Series.

-- Joan Reinthaler

National Philharmonic

If Saturday's National Philharmonic program at the Music Center at Strathmore didn't quite live up to its "Sonic Blockbusters" billing, it wasn't for a lack of fine orchestral playing. Indeed, it's remarkable how an orchestra that performs little more than a dozen concerts a year can muster such a sweetly unanimous string tone and such sensitive ensemble work. The performance had its share of minor gaffes, but none distracted from the overall quality of playing.

Fine execution, though, couldn't compensate for an overly cautious reading of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." All the notes were there, but the foursquare adherence to downbeats and bar lines and a muted approach to dynamics sapped the piece of its seductive power. It's unclear whether guest conductor Miroslaw Blaszczyk chose a restrained classical approach, or whether more rehearsal was needed on balance and finish than on interpretive niceties.

Saint-Saens's "Organ" Symphony was a much more exciting affair. The orchestra phrased more freely, giving first-movement rhythms an arresting swagger and making something truly lovely of the wafting string melody in the Poco Adagio. If the temperature dropped a bit in the third movement, organist William Neil came to the rescue with a commanding, aurally engulfing treatment of the famous solo, crowned smartly by the orchestral ic brass. Now, that was a blockbuster.

-- Joe Banno

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