An Auspicious Start to the San Francisco Symphony’s Asian Tour with the Dazzling Pianist Yuja Wang

ChinaChina Sheng, Chopin, Stravinsky: Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). Shanghai Oriental Art Center, Shanghai, 15.11.2016. (RP)

Yuja Wang (c) Ian Douglas

ShengDream of the Red Chamber Overture (Chinese Premiere)

Chopin – Concerto No. 2 in F Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 21

StravinskyLe chant du rossignolThe Firebird Suite

 A few minutes before the conclusion of the final programmed work of this concert, I had pretty much mentally penned the review. The San Francisco Symphony had impressed, especially the depth of talent displayed in the many solos throughout, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas had achieved a uniform, high level of transparency in the contrasting works on the program that revealed their inner details, in line with his attention to structure. Pianist Yuja Wang had wowed the audience, her technical brilliance on par with the sheer glamour she brings to the stage. The concert had opened with the Chinese premiere of the overture to Bright Sheng’s new opera, Dream of the Red Chamber. It was an auspicious start to the SFS’s Asian tour. Then came the transcendent finale to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and those last few minutes changed everything, but I digress.

A native of Shanghai, Bright Sheng immigrated to the USA in 1982 and was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein; his works have been performed by most of the leading American orchestras. Dream of the Red Chamber, his latest opera, was given its world premiere by the San Francisco Opera in September of this year, and is slated for its first Asian performances in Hong Kong in March 2017. The English-language libretto, drawn from the classic eighteenth-century novel by Cao Xueqin, was jointly crafted by Sheng and the American award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. The overture is massive in scope and scale, employing a huge orchestra heavy on brass and percussion. It began with an explosion of sound. Sweeping melodies, plenty of harp glissandos, a lovely violin solo, and repetitive, ominous, march-like brass passages followed, punctuated every so often by the sound of small Chinese cymbals. It was only six minutes long, but seemed longer.

What Yuja Wang wears gets almost as much attention as does her playing, so for the record she wore a sparkling gold-sequined gown. Ms. Wang just dazzled, her appearance heightening, but never overpowering her technical prowess and stunning musicianship. One may wish for a bit more Romantic abandon in her approach to Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, but the dynamic shadings, coupled with a sound as complex and exquisite as a fiery opal, were spellbinding. The virtuoso finale, which the composer marked “simply and gracefully,” was just that, made even more so by the soft, playful smile on Wang’s face. Her two encores, the Bizet/Horowitz ‘Variations on a Theme from Carmen’ and Mozart’s ‘Rondo alla turca’, suggested that she just might indeed have the fastest fingers on earth.

Listening to Thomas and the SFS perform two seminal Stravinsky works, Le Chant du Rossignol and The Firebird Suite, I was struck anew by the long shadow the Russian composer cast on twentieth-century music. Stravinsky liked a really big orchestra, but his incomparable talents as an orchestrator created music of great clarity, no matter how many instrumentalists are playing, or at what volume. Thomas’ style and technique are perfect fits for this music. The SFS produced a shimmering sound throughout, irrespective of the dynamic level, reveling in Stravinsky’s kaleidoscope of orchestral colors. There were many expertly rendered solos, but one stood out, the melancholic song of the fisherman in Le Chant du Rossignol as played by Mark Inouye, the SFS’s Principal Trumpet. It was so beautiful, so simple, and so bittersweet.

I have had the privilege both as a performer and as an audience member to experience moments when the music takes on meaning and resonance beyond the ordinary. This occurred in the Shanghai Oriental Art Center when the Principal Hornist, Robert Ward, began playing the simple Russian folk tune that announces the joyful arrival of sunlight and swells into the glorious, triumphal finale of The Firebird Suite. I listened in wonder as the SFS poured their hearts and souls into the music, and Thomas’ every gesture infused it with a higher purpose. As an American in China, I have a hunch as to what was running through their minds, but whatever it was, the music stilled the audience, with even the woman behind me ceasing to jingle her bracelets. (Sharp glances from me and the young man next to me had not worked.) The applause that followed was completely different from that which had come before.

The obligatory encores followed, initially somewhat to my annoyance. The first was Stravinsky’s jazzy ‘Scherzo à la russe’, an orchestral bookend to Wang’s final encore, with the SFS displaying its own brand of daredevil virtuosity. Then came ‘Mo Li Hua’, the folk song that almost serves as China’s second national anthem, in an orchestral arrangement at times spare and at others lush. What could have been more appropriate? Leaving the concert hall, however, it was the final horn solo from Stravinsky’s Firebird that stuck with me. I could not help but think that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony had expressed through music words spoken just a few days ago: ‘Remember, no matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning’.

Rick Perdian

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