Yuja Wang Scales the Peaks of the “Rach Three”

United StatesUnited States  Faure, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff: Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 15.6.2012 (HS)

The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 is famous for its technical demands. In the Oscar-nominated film Shine, a pianist is driven insane by the piece. No worries about Yuja Wang on that score. The 25-year-old Beijing-born pianist’s self-assurance was palpable; anyone wearing a red dress that tight and short is not lacking on that score. And her confidence was utterly justified by the music, as she made performing the piece with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony look deceptively easy.

But there was nothing glib about her approach, either. Beyond astonishing technical command, Wang had a strong idea of where she wanted the piece to go. The occasional glare from the conductor, an ostentatious pose to face the pianist while conducting, and, frankly, moments when tempos did not quite mesh perfectly, suggested that she was dragging Tilson Thomas into her world. To his credit, he ultimately obliged.

At first it seemed that she was intent on focusing on the individual moments. She played the singing opening melody with uncommon grace (and differently each time it came around). She articulated complex runs with precision where many pianists just give us a big surge of sound. She reached climaxes with surprising power for a woman of such a small frame. But soon it became clear that she had a sense of when to push the tempo to create a more febrile buildup that the last one, when to let things relax—even introduce slight hesitations for effect—and when to let things collide rather than articulating every glint in the music. Tilson Thomas may have had different ideas, but he corralled the orchestra well enough to hit those big moments together with Wang. In the end, the sum was greater than the individual episodes, as sharply etched as they were.

Fearlessly, Wang made no cuts in the music. In the first movement she even played both cadenzas, which Rachmaninoff wrote for his own performances. And, like Rachmaninoff in his recordings, she emphasized not the crashing climaxes (although those arrived with thrilling impact) but focused on the little details along the way that added up to a complex swirl of ideas. This was most evident, no doubt, in the second movement Intermezzo, where the orchestra’s lush carpet of sound framed her nimble dances through the sprightly variations. The finale kept revving its engines until it burst into the final bars with irresistible energy.

She still had plenty left for an encore, a deftly played and refreshingly idiomatic transcription of Art Tatum’s finger-busting 1932 recorded improvisation on “Tea for Two.” The familiar Vincent Youmans tune got chuckles from the audience when it made its appearance, and thunderous applause after she dispatched the florid variations with such delicacy and a true jazz feel.

The first half of the program featured the lovely Pavane by Fauré, spotlighting the sinuous flute playing of principal Tim Day against a soft carpet of unmistakably French delicacy, followed by a sonorous performance of the Sibelius Symphony No. 3. The three-movement work can sound clumsy unless tempo and dynamics are as finely judged as they were here. The result was a Nordic soundscape that shook off any chills and found warmth everywhere it could. After the grand rhetorical flourishes of his Second Symphony, Sibelius aimed for more economy in this one. Given the seemingly endless series of climaxes to come in the second half, the contrast was welcome.

Harvey Steiman