Since her debut performance with a major orchestra, now over a decade ago, Yuja Wang has established herself as the pre-eminent young female concert pianist. Over the course of the five performances we have seen her give (from her first appearance in 2009 at the Mondavi Center, on the campus of U.C. Davis), she has developed a sense of confidence in her “stage presence” that now can be said to equal the confidence she displays with her instrument.
We witnessed her performance earlier this month with the Munich Philharmonic in the orchestra’s Philharmonia Hall. It provided ample evidence of her appeal. Wearing a short black dress that would have turned more than a few heads at a cocktail party, she gave a stirring account of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, which, ironically, was the same work she performed in her Mondavi debut six years earlier. Then, we had been impressed with her technical proficiency but had felt she needed to show more nuance in the work’s softer moments.
We had no such concerns with her Munich performance, as she brought out all of the emotion Prokofiev intended in the four-movement composition. This was the 1924 version of the work (the score of the earlier 1912 version having been lost in a fire during the Russian Revolution), and it is as technically demanding a piano concerto as exists in the standard repertoire. The first and fourth movements include extensive cadenzas, the first lasting for more than half of the entire 12-minute movement. Simply stated, it’s a concerto that few should attempt and even fewer can command. Ms. Wang is now one of those few.
On that cadenza in the first movement, Ms. Wang had the Munich audience mesmerized, as she flawlessly handled the tempo changes (from Andantino to Allegretto) and the dual melodic lines. The cadenza really can be a recital piece unto itself, yet it is only one of the many challenges in this monumental work. The orchestration Prokofiev provides is another of those challenges, as the soloist is asked on several occasions to dominate the performance in spite of fortissimo notations for the full orchestra. In these parts, Ms. Wang’s playing was unintimidated, and her virtuosity continued to be evident.
And in the work’s softer moments, as in the third movement, “Intermezzo,” she provided the touch of nuance and subtlety that we felt had been missing when she performed the piece six years earlier. (Ms. Wang was then all of 22 years old; she is now a grizzled veteran at 28.) Her playing now reflects an understanding that virtuosic skill alone does not create a masterful performance.
The fiery fourth movement again required all of her technical skill, and she delivered a powerful account of the closing cadenza. The audience responded with a sustained ovation, calling her back to the stage no less than six times before she finally acknowledged the demand for an encore. And was it only coincidence that she played the same encore that the esteemed young male virtuoso, Lang Lang, had offered in his Mondavi recital earlier this year? More probably, the selection, Chopin’s “Grande Valse Brilliante,” is in her normal repertoire, but the coincidence was, for us, intriguing.
And while she will never be the rock star that Mr. Lang is, she certainly played this particular piece with as much flair. The audience was delighted and again called her back for another two bows, which she gracefully took.
The other major work on the program earlier this month was Brahms’ First Symphony. When this symphony was first performed, Brahms had spent between 15 and 20 years on it (depending on which account is credited). Part of his difficulty in completing this first of his four symphonies is said to have been his uncertainty of his ability to compose a major symphony (even though, or maybe because, he had been cast as the successor to Beethoven as a composer).
But his trepidations were ill-founded, for the first is a grand symphony that has been a prominent part of the orchestral repertoire ever since it was debuted in 1876. It contains any number of notable passages and surprises, not least of which is the juxtaposition of the heavier, more solemn tone of the first and fourth movements (save for the finale of the fourth), and the lighter, more upbeat emotions that are evoked by the second and third.
The orchestra’s performance of the work was solid throughout. Conductor Michal Nesterowicz emphasized the melodic passages effectively and drew out the strings for the rousing melody that sets the stage for the finale in the fourth movement. His 70 musicians appeared to respond easily to his direction, even if he didn’t have the flair that other conductors use to communicate with the audience. In the end, it was a satisfying and thoroughly competent rendition that elicited a long ovation from the audience.
As excellent as the concert was, we noted two points that warrant comment. The first is that in the long, sustained ovation for Ms. Wang, only a handful of those in the audience stood. The seeming inconsistency of the obvious enthusiasm for her performance and the lack of a standing ovation struck us as odd, and it may have accounted for Ms. Wang’s seeming reluctance to offer an encore (until she finally did). The second point is that for as fine an orchestra as the Munich Philharmonic is, the hall in which it performs is problematic. Architecturally, it is interesting, with sections of seats completely separated from each other (to the left and right of the stage) above the floor level. But the acoustics, at least where we were seated (second level balcony right), were a definite problem. And in speaking with residents after the concert, we learned that the acoustics of the hall are a recognized problem for which the city is seeking a solution.
Those points aside, Munich has much to be proud of in its orchestra, and this concert was certainly evidence of that fact.