Pianist Wang, Putting Herself On the A-Liszt

Yuja Wang faced a tall order in her Kennedy Center debut, and met it.
Yuja Wang faced a tall order in her Kennedy Center debut, and met it. (By Tom Mihalek)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 28, 2008

It takes chutzpah to program Lizst's B Minor Piano Sonata on your Kennedy Center debut recital. Chutzpah, and raw talent. Yuja Wang, a 20-year-old Chinese pianist, has both in abundance, as she demonstrated in her jaw-dropping recital, the latest installment of the Hayes Piano Series, at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon.

Virtuosic. Mammoth. Difficult. These words are all overused in music reviews, but they all apply to the Liszt B Minor. So do other Lisztian adjectives, like self-indulgent and unwieldy. The piece is half an hour long, written in a single movement that is actually four interlocking movements that add up to one giant arc of sonata-allegro form. It has caused the spillage of undue quantities of critical ink as scholars seek to plumb its musical complexities or putative program; one theory holds that it is the Faust story told in music.

Whatever you call it, it can be hard to sit through. But Wang made it easy, even delightful. From the quiet opening notes -- the piece is born from, and repeatedly dies away into, a low hush bordering on silence -- she knew exactly where she was going. She is not a guide who looks over her shoulder to make sure you are following; rather, she plunges ahead with such eagerness that one races after her, not wanting to miss a step of such strong, clear, authoritative playing. She can play powerfully (in fortissimo passages, she has a tendency to bang) or with a feathery softness; she has a whole spectrum of hues in her fingers; and she goes beyond mere dexterity in her remarkable understanding, and her ability to avoid the obvious.

There was a matter-of-factness to her elucidations of Liszt's musical throat-clearings (the composer leaves plenty of signposts, repeating his themes just in case anyone has missed his point the first couple of times around). And there was joy to her unbridled seizure of the climax, wringing the keys in near-frenzied delight, then suddenly coming up against silence, and holding it out to sustain the tension, before the reverent, lyrical coda.

It wasn't only the Liszt, either. Wang's whole program aimed high and avoided the expected. Rather than an obligatory showcase of familiar styles and ranges, the pianist offered smart, challenging pieces: two Ligeti etudes ("Fanfares" and "Der Zauberlehrling"), Scriabin's G-sharp Minor Sonata, Bartok's Sonata, and, finally, Ravel's "La Valse."

Ligeti's etudes are sometimes compared to jazz, but these two sounded less improvised than preordained, dancing from her fingers with the satisfying precision of things fitting neatly into place. Some of their evenness was echoed in the Bartok, which was a special pleasure: its percussiveness forceful but not raucous, its chords springing elastically, its third-movement theme outlined like cloisonne. Wang is a master at drawing one musical thought from another as the next logical step in a journey: The rapid third movement followed clearly from the second, rather than appearing a bracing contrast. For the listener, the effect is of finding oneself transported into new territory by sleight of hand, enjoying the view and delightedly uncertain how one has gotten there.

"La Valse" also opens by drawing golden music out of dark depths. If the piece was a bit of an anticlimax, it was only in that by the time it arrived, one expected more of her than simply to revel in her own exuberant virtuosity. Still, there is plenty to revel in, and the audience -- who will probably be talking about this concert for a long time -- was happy to join in. Wang is playing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in April; get your tickets now.

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