Pianist Joyce Yang Shows Her Promise Is Still a Promise

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

Joyce Yang is such a promising pianist that one only wishes her Saturday afternoon recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater had been better than it was.

Part of the problem was the program itself, which did not play to Yang's strengths. Johannes Brahms probably never wrote a less interesting piece than the Variations on the Theme of Paganini, Books 1 and 2; very few musicians can make it seem anything but clangorous, ostentatious and academic, and Yang is not yet in that number.

Nikolai Medtner's "Sonata Reminiscenza" has many charms -- Emil Gilels used to play it magnificently -- but it is ultimately pretty slight unless a pianist can put across some strongly personal thoughts about the score.

Johann Sebastian Bach's "Overture in the French Style" is wonderful music, of course, and there were moments when Yang played it with a neat mixture of vibrancy and intimacy, combining a taut rhythmic sense with elastic freedom. But other movements sounded poked and monochromatic, with passages played by the right hand ringing out much more strongly than anything in the lower register (part of this problem may have to do with the Terrace piano). Moreover, certain repeats came off as merely dutiful rather than inevitable, and the piece itself ultimately seemed to go on for a rather long time, something I've rarely felt in other performances.

All in all, only a sonata by the contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine showed Yang off to best advantage. It's a grand piece, to begin with -- complex and chromatic, dense with musical events yet easy to follow and enjoy. In Yang's hands, it was smart music, smartly played. I particularly admired the multiple inner voices she brought out in agitated sequences, and the lithe clarity she brought to Vine's racing, misterioso parallel octaves.

The program was produced by the Washington Performing Arts Society as part of the Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes piano series.

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