LA Philharmonic brings back the piano prima donna.
By S.E. Barcus
Perhaps you do not know who “Yuja Wang” is…? Well, judging by her commanding performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall February 18, 2020, in Los Angeles, along with her confident demeanor and skyrocketing fame over the past decade … I really do not believe that she gives a shit.
As we minions gathered within the sultry wooded panels of Frank Gehry’s beautiful hall, awaiting our Beijing-born diva, I glanced at the program. Ah, a sensible, linear progression of piano history tonight, from Baroque to mid-19th century, then to a mélange of 20th century pieces to fill the 2nd half of the night. Nice and reasonable. Except for that one little issue that Ms. Wang gonna do what Ms. Wang gonna do.
She entered, adorned with one of her usual eye-catching dresses, some goldish sequinned thing, and after one of her “I-acknowledge-that-you-exist”-quick, whipping bows, she sat down, alone on the stark stage, just her and the beautiful Steinway — and we were off! She started orderly enough, with the 1st piece on the program, a delicate delicate DELICATE little Baldassare Galuppi piece, the Andante from his Sonata No. 5. With hindsight, it seems tenderness would bookend this night. If you’re foolish enough to think that Ms. Wang is just all flash and virtuosity, she demonstrated that she can also equal anyone in terms of gentleness, such as with this quiet, precise little piece.
But then, oh dear, the program immediately goes out the window. As the crashing waves of the second piece — Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic “A Ship on the Ocean” (“Une barque sur l’océan”) — came flooding in, we realized … uh … this ain’t no Bach. We hath leap-frogged over the Intermission and 19th century entirely! Wang’s gone rogue! Wang’s gone rogue!
Now Beethoven might have sneered at this “programmatic” sort of piece by Ravel, but this one is just fabulous. If you didn’t know the title, you would likely name it the exact same thing, as tumultuous seas interplay with gentle calm waters. A genius display in terms of showing off what one piano and one performer can produce. Following was Alban Berg’s “sort-of B minor” atonal Sonata Op. 1 (the only piano piece to which he gave an opus number), where she and Berg manifested as much emotion and technical skill as anything the tonal world ever gave us, just as rocking at times as the Ravel, and just as tender at others as the Galuppi.
Ah! We then returned to Baroque, and J.S. Bach’s C minor Toccata and Fugue. Simple and clear, like the Galuppi, with a fun and accessible fugue that had none of the monstrous complexities found in later Bach (or Beethoven!). If only Ms. Wang knew how to play that big opulent organ staring at us in the back part of this concert hall!
But then (a whiplash-inducing back-and-forth!), we were yanked back to the 20th century again – to Scriabin and his Sonata No. 4, with his own back-and-forth between soft and crazed. Amazingly – (is it just me?) — somehow this Russian piece at times presages by decades a nascent Gershwin in tonality and style. She ended the piece pronto / tout de suite / bing-bang-boom. Did she just completely ignore those last few rests at the end!? Yuja Wang don’t give a shit. And neither did we. That ending produced spontaneous — practically reflexive — rousing applause to end the first half of the night, as a great performer knows how to do.
If the second half of the night had kept with the program of early 20th century music, I had hoped that – given her M.O. – she might come out adorned in some extraordinarily bizarre costume reminiscent of the Bauhaus Ballet, which was concurrently on exhibit at the Disney Hall, the display designed by Frank Gehry. But no, her costume change (and with the consciously performative Ms. Wang, that’s what these have become – “costume changes”), was into some crisp white skimpy 80’s dress. “Stripper-wear,” one previous article has called her attire, shaming classical artists the way they tried to shame the Madonnas of pop culture decades ago. Perhaps she provokes like this to create a David-Bowie-like aura, a product, a “performer-package”? Perhaps she does it to sell tickets? Perhaps she is like some cultural “nouveau riche” — a person raised in a repressive Communist China who woke up a global citizen, with fame and fortune? … Who knows? But I believe that if Ms. Wang didn’t want to wear sexy clothes, she wouldn’t. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think she gives a shit. Because, meanwhile, her audaciousness and coolness are only matched by her being one of the greatest pianists in the world right now, likely the top of her generation. I mean, my God – look at this ridiculously hipster cool promo?! Just look at it, and be dismayed!
In the second half of the night, Ms. Wang started with a few Chopin Mazurkas sandwiched between a few Brahms Intermezzos (or perhaps that’s the other way around?), luxuriously transporting us back to a French salon. No strangeness of the modern age, no strict Baroque rules. Just lounging with a couple of mid-19th century masters for a bit. Perhaps, like me, you saw from the program that we would hear — and be able to compare/contrast — the composers similarly-styled short pieces back-to-back in the same keys. There would be two A minor pieces, one from each composer. And then two C# Minor. And two F major. (And a C major/E relative minor thrown in for good measure….) But like the rest of the night, the program turned out to be misleading. The A minor Brahms Intermezzo was not played at all, as she started right in with the trill and passionate melancholy of the A minor Mazurka instead, followed by the very Chopinesque Brahms Intermezzo in E Minor. Followed by — just to throw you off again — the C-sharp Mazurka and C-sharp Intermezzo, just as programmed!
She asked that we not applaud between the pieces, but instead take them all in as a whole (like listening to Ms. Wang’s own personal ordering of a book of … I dunno … Wang/Brahms/Chopin Preludes, or something…?). For myself, though, it was very hard to not applaud that C-sharp minor Intermezzo, which seemed the most moving piece of this group, at least for me, filled as it was with such an operatic-like pathos. The last Chopin piece was a pleasant dance, with its nice “surprise” bouncy ending. Was it the F major as planned? Of course not. It was a piece not in the program at all — Op 33 No 4 in B minor. Completely off script! I love it! It was as if Ms. Wang was saying, “if you, the peons in the audience, want to appreciate my work and art, you have to earn it. You, too, have to work for it.” (Yes, I had to look up what the piece was – come on, I don’t know all these Mazurkas by heart!) I think Ms. Wang must have learned a lesson or two after playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. “What is difficult is also good and beautiful.” For composer, performer, and audience.
I’m not sure it was intentional, but Ms. Wang-as-musical-curator prepared us nicely for the 20th century piece to come…. To have a B minor piece slide into the F major Brahms finale for the section (the gallant and promenading Romance) was creating an augmented 4th tonality. A tritone. A “Devil in music,” if you will. And something loved by Scriabin, and so a perfect tonal-modulation to ready us for her penultimate piece of the night.
She took a quick break, then came back, and – no terse polite bow this time – she practically stormed out – sat down – and immediately attacked the low rumbling fortissimo trill to start Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, even as a few people were still mid-clap! She was acting, of course – doing performance art, essentially. She was the arrogant and egomaniacal Scriabin himself, like a method-actor getting into character. And it worked. She played the piece perfectly as far as I could tell, angrily pounding out the difficult Rachmaninoff-like chords, careening into the ending with arms outstretched on both sides of the keyboard like a goddam fireworks spectacle! The audience, needless to say, went absolutely freaking nuts.
BUT! She was not done. Finally – at the very end – the most under-appreciated impressionist of them all, the brilliant Catalan composer, Federico Mompou, and his Secreto! Lullabies are odd. We know they should be happy and loving, yet they are always grounded by a melancholy. Ms. Wang’s performance of the Mompou piece had this quality. Somewhere between that and a sort-of mysticism, and a range in dynamics from p to pp to ppp and hell, I’m sure there was probably even a pppp in there somewhere. Like the myth that Inuits have 100 words for snow, it’s like she has 100 levels of pianissimo. After a night that ranged across styles and across centuries, variegated in skill and emotional levels, to end the program with such a brief and precious little jewel? Very nice.
Not that she was “really” done. This was Yuja Wang, who has been known to play more encores than you’d hear at a Bruce Springsteen concert. (She only gave us two, however – I feel somehow we were not worthy…?) The first encore was the crazed and phenomenal show-piece, Prokofiev’s Toccata, which is like some Bela Bartok “Diary of a Fly” jacked up on ‘roids. The piece ended with the biggest bang of the night, bringing down the house.
But then, with the absolute true finale, she returned to the melancholy sweetness of the Galuppi or Mompou, leaving us with her often-played-encore, Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, as rendered by Liszt. All this softness this evening? I quite liked it, even though she was sending us off with a cruel joke – “you have to leave now, back to the incessant monotony of your spinning wheels.”
In sum — if you haven’t heard of Yuja Wang, or haven’t heard her play, you are missing out. If she continues this near-perfect ascent as a pianist, she will gobble up more and more stardom until by the time she has achieved Pavarotti status, you will have missed your chance at being in with the cool kids because you knew her beforehand. So, come on – be a cool kid! Get to know Yuja! She da bomb, yo!
Not that she gives a shit what you think….