Wang and Tilson Thomas Take Prokofiev for a Wild Ride

United StatesUnited States  Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Harrison: Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 31.10.2012 (HS)

Harrison: “The Family of the Court,” from Pacifika Rondo
: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
: Symphony No. 2 in E minor

How appropriate for the San Francisco Symphony to feature the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 on Halloween. The piece is one scary beast—a bear for the pianist to wrestle to the ground—and among the most technically challenging of all concertos. It’s also a formidable fright for the orchestra as it seeks to reconcile its sometimes contrasting role with the soloist’s. Heard Wednesday, pianist Yuja Wang and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas executed everything with clarity and aplomb. Impressive as that may be, that they managed to climb aboard Prokofiev’s wild ride and make it all come together stands as a real triumph.

Prokofiev completed the original version of this concerto in 1913, when he was 22 years old. It created a Rite of Spring-like scandal when it debuted in Pavlosk, the imperial park outside Moscow, amid hissing from the audience and subsequent brickbats from many composers in attendance. The current version debuted in Paris in 1924, rewritten from sketches, since fire destroyed the original during the 1917 Revolution. Prokofiev always insisted he had thoroughly rewritten the piece, but we have no way of knowing for certain. Parisian audiences were not much more receptive to its withering harmonic complexity and jagged dissonances.

Modern ears, however, can discern why the piece has found its place in the repertory. Despite its rawness, there is compelling give-and-take between the orchestra and the soloist, moments of real beauty surrounded by relentlessness passages and ferocious climaxes. It has two enormous cadenzas that veer from delicacy to apocalyptic explosions. In the hands (literally) of the diminutive Yuja Wang, who seems to be able to play anything and make us hear it with fresh ears, the careening narrative made perfect sense.

Clearly, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra wanted to dovetail with the soloist, weaving their melodic fragments in the opening Andantino together, each a reflection of the other, the orchestra changing colors in reaction to the way the pianist executed a phrase, and Wang returning the favor on the next page. The explosion of perpetual motion in the Scherzo: Vivace took off like a rocket and never lost momentum. The Intermezzo: Allegro moderato seemed to catch its breath, yet still planted the seeds for irresistible momentum in the finale, aptly marked Allegro tempestuoso. The contrasts between the pianist’s forward thrusts and orchestral moments reminiscing over the calmer first movement only seemed to increase the electric charge when the concerto arrived at its whirlwind final pages.

The program opened with a five-minute excerpt from a suite based on Korean music by Lou Harrison in his faux-Oriental mode. Written in 1963, “The Family of the Court” contrasts clipped percussion gestures with a pentatonic tune colored by slow glissandos from some notes to the next ones. It was a quirky piece to start things off—even foreshadowing Prokofiev’s use of glissando in the opening movement of the concerto that followed.

After intermission, Tilson Thomas led a sumptuous, deep-pile carpet performance of the Symphony No. 2 of Rachmaninoff. The tuneful if episodic piece tends to lurch from one idea to the next, often letting a phrase trail off before launching into the next one. Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff wanted to build tension to be resolved in glorious climax replete with brass chorales and massive chords, but for the most part he managed to make the 55-minute piece (here timed at closer to an hour) seem overly long. Tilson Thomas seldom tries to gloss over these aspects (listen to his Mahler recordings to hear how he loves wallowing in that composer’s contradictions), and he did not with this. It might have used a bit of forced resolution.

The one exception was the ravishing Adagio, fifteen minutes of sheer melodic and harmonic sensuousness played with tenderness by the strings—the melody given a quiet, floating reading by principal clarinet Carey Bell and echoed by concertmaster Alexander Batantschik. Tilson Thomas poignantly judged the hesitations at the center point of the movement, but as plush and sonorous as the remaining 45 minutes of the symphony was, it never created the magic of this quarter-hour. You could feel the sighs in the audience.

In a quirk of scheduling, Wang only played the Prokofiev one more time, on Thursday. The week’s subscription concerts continued over the weekend with Lang Lang substituting the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3. Later this month (November 7-20), the orchestra and Wang take this same Prokofiev/Rachmaninoff program on an Asian tour, with concerts of this pairing in Macau, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo.


Harvey Steiman