If the quality of the evening’s performances had been indicated by the entry of the musicians and conductor last weekend at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis), the concert would have been a very dreary affair. The full contingent of the Russian National Orchestra appeared only half awake as they plodded to their places when the concert began. And Mikhail Pletnev, the orchestra’s founding artistic director and conductor, didn’t even look like he’d make it to the podium as he entered.
But, happily, once he got there and got his musicians playing, the wonder of great orchestral music was in full and glorious bloom, and so it remained for the entirety of one of the best symphonic concerts of this or any year. It was so good, in fact, that by the time the capacity audience exited, no less than three encores had been offered, each seemingly more wondrous than what had preceded them.
The opening selection at first seemed as somnolent as the musicians’ entry had been, but Schumann’s Overture to “Genoveva” is actually a rousing work that swings dramatically from the first section to a vigorous main theme that is balanced by a contrasting melody from the horns that the orchestra delivered perfectly. And the audience was already appreciative, calling back Maestro Pletnev for a second bow at the conclusion of the short piece.
Mozart’s Ninth Piano Concerto (the “Jeunehomme”) was next on the program, and the featured soloist for this dynamic concerto was Yuja Wang, the young superstar who is now nine years removed from her debut performance at Mondavi in 2007. Over the years, we have seen her perform a half dozen times, and with each performance we note her growth as a musician and a performer. She has now developed a following that even rivals Lang Lang’s among lovers of classical music.
As in all of her performances we have witnessed, Ms. Wang wore a stunning dress, this one a full-length lime green with a low back and diaphanous skirting through which her bare legs were visible. She bows too quickly in accepting applause, an aspect of her stage presence that still needs some work, but otherwise she is radiant and masterful, and her playing of the difficult Mozart concerto was nothing less than magnificent. In the third movement, marked “Rondo: Presto,” she displayed her digital dexterity with a rendition that was almost too fast for the orchestra’s accompaniment.
She was called back three times by a demanding audience before she finally offered an encore. When we saw her performance in Munich last spring, she had played Chopin’s “Grand Valse Brilliante,” and we had remarked that Lang Lang had played the same piece at his Mondavi recital earlier in the year. For this occasion, however, Ms. Wang went even beyond the great Mr. Lang, playing the same Chopin piece in a jazzy arrangement that was full of surprises. It was a rollicking success, even if it had some ragged measures that she probably needs a little more work with. But what a performance. Wow! Is it too much to hope that she and Mr. Lang will actually engage in a friendly rivalry (à la the Beatles and the Stones in their heyday)?
The orchestra’s main offering for the evening was Tchaikovsky’s Suite from “Swan Lake,” and it was no less a treat than Ms. Wang’s performance. The music for the famous ballet is rarely heard in this form, and we were grateful for the opportunity to hear this excellent orchestra’s performance of it. The suite covers music from the first three acts of the full ballet. (The climactic music from the fourth act is not included.)
The suite is divided into eight segments, the last four coming from the dances at the prince’s ball from the ballet. They conclude with a fiery Mazurka, which the orchestra played perfectly. The audience was quickly on its feet, and conductor Pletnev acknowledged his concertmaster, principal cellist, harpist and oboe for their solos during the full work.
Then, after being called back by thunderous applause no less than four times, he offered two encores, the second (perhaps Borodin?) including a jazzy drum solo that ended the evening with yet another standing ovation. It was, simply stated, one of those evenings that reminded you of the joys of great symphonic music when it is played by a great orchestra.