A fabulous event and superb LSO concert from Yuja Wang and Michael Tilson Thomas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Copland, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky: Yuja Wang (piano); London Symphony Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor). LSO St Luke’s, London, 30.5.2021. (CC)

Yuja Wang (piano), LSO & Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor) recentlly at the Barbican
(c) Mark Allan/LSO

Copland – Our Town – Suite (1940, arr.1944)

Shostakovich – Piano Concerto No.2, Op.102 (1957)

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.2, ‘Little Russian’ (1872, rev.1879)

The sheer relief of hearing live orchestral performance! This was some return to form – if not normality – with a crackling combination of soloist and conductor, and a beautifully constructed programme. The socially distanced orchestra took up the entire ground floor of the Jerwood Hall; the audience seated above and around the sides. There was one aspect of this that might not be evident in the recording (available to subscribers on medici.tv) but was there in the hall itself: with the audience either around the sides or facing the conductor, the piano was therefore pointed away from the audience, its lid sending Yuja Wang’s sound straight into a wall before it bounced back, which led to the occasional odd balance in the Shostakovich. Best to get the whinging over with first; there was precious little else to complain about in this elevating event.

How beautiful to begin with Copland’s Our Town Suite – music from Thornton Wilder’s film Our Town. One movement of just over ten minutes duration, but quintessential Copland. The story of the film is a romance within a harmonious community, Grover’s Corners (modelled on Peterborough, New Hampshire – where the MacDowell Artists’ Colony is based). The music is gentle, and Tilson Thomas accorded it a lovely sense of space – finding in the process even greater tranquillity than the composer does in his own CBS recording with this orchestra. Even more notable was the translucency of texture, the eloquence of the woodwind contributions. Only the climax was arguably misjudged: although, again, this might not be the case when watching the stream, it was uncomfortably loud in the hall itself.

Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto is a score that suits Yuja Wang’s formidable talent for prestidigitation perfectly. This was in fact a match made in heaven between the LSO and Wang, the woodwind supremely characterful at the opening, Shostakovich’s spiky, staccato piano writing absolutely glistening. The underlying cutting wit of the score was there, as were moments of delicious interiorisation. Both Wang and Tilson Thomas seem to have the perfect awareness of Shostakovich’s harmonic processes both on a delicious moment-to-moment basis and on the larger structural canvas. The conductor’s reflexes in the outer movements need to be razor sharp; and indeed the orchestra here was completely on the ball. The quasi-Rachmaninov stillness of the central Andante offered a sweet oasis before the fast, jazzy finale burst through. Complete joy here from Wang, the LSO matching her all the way (superbly guitar-like pizzicati from the strings).

It was with another early Tchaikovsky symphony, ‘Winter Daydreams’, that Michael Tilson Thomas really made his mark with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (March 1970, a recording which appeared on Deutsche Grammophon). That was a fine performance; as was this ‘Little Russian’ (‘Little Russia’ being, of course, Ukraine – hence the use of Ukrainian folksongs in Tchaikovsky’s score). The opening is notorious among horn players – a folk melody laid bare, completely alone – and Timothy Jones excelled, as did Rachel Gough, whose solo bassoon retort was deliciously woody; tonally, almost a pre-echo of the strains of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But the star was really Tilson Thomas, whose rock-steady sense of rhythm allowed for maximal excitement over the course of the first movement, Character was the order of the day for the second movement Andantino marziale, quasi moderato whether from the wind or the gossamer strings. The wind again shone in the Scherzo (the opening simply superb) before Tilson Thomas delivered pure grandeur in the Finale. Conducting from memory, Tilson Thomas ensured a performance of infinite detail married with great integrity and passion.

Needless to say, there was no interval: Covid precautions were impeccably observed, including having to scan in on entry to the NHS tracking app. There is very much light at the end of the tunnel, and the sheer relief of public performance for the musicians surely informed the freshness of delivery here. A fabulous event and a superb concert.

Colin Clarke

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