Yuja Wang’s Bartók frustrates and exhilarates San Francisco by turns

Bartók, Tchaikovsky: Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 18.6.2011 (HS)

With her formidable technical command and laser-sharp musicianship, pianist Yuja Wang can usually be counted upon for impeccable performances. Her previous appearances with the San Francisco Symphony certainly set us up for something other than the decidedly unruly mad dash she and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas took through Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Heard Saturday, in the third of three concerts at Davies Hall, the piece was by turns both frustrating and exhilarating. For minutes on end in the opening movement, the pianist and conductor seemed to struggle to get in sync rhythmically. When they did, the music took off like a rocket. Other times, Tilson Thomas let the orchestra roar, leaving Wang almost inaudible despite her best fortissimos.

Not until the gentle second movement, with its give-and-take between the piano and timpani (played impeccably by David Herbert), did things come together. Wang’s playing was crystalline, and in the Presto middle section bright and alive with possibilities. The finale, with its dazzling passagework and crisp syncopations, played to Wang’s strengths, but again there were moments of disconnect that muted the expected explosive effects.

For openers, Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in an ingratiating romp through Bartók’s “Six Romanian Folk Dances,” marked by especially fine playing from principal piccolo Catherine Payne and principal clarinet Carey Bell.

In the second half, there was no doubting the robust, swaggering confidence of the orchestra’s playing in an only slightly abridged Act III of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet. But there’s a reason composers extract suites from their ballets for concerts. Complete dance scores, especially those written in the 18th and 19th centuries, tend to lack the musical diversity and panache to hold the stage without benefit of actual dancers. For every pulsating waltz we had to bide our time through several pages of foursquare music intended to tell part of the story or to allow the corps de ballet to shine. Without their presence, the highlights were a pleasant set of five nationalistic dances for a mid-act divertissement, and those charming waltzes.

Harvey Steiman