Yuja Wang triumphs in Magnus Lindberg’s new piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony

United StatesUnited States Various: Yuja Wang (piano), San Francisco Symphony / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 15.10.2022. (HS)

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg, Yuja Wang, San Francisco Symphony © Kristen Loken

Nielsen – Overture, Helios
Magnus Lindberg – Piano Concerto No.3 (San Francisco Symphony commission, world premiere]
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra

Let’s stipulate that Yuja Wang can play any music you put in front of her. When it comes to technique, it is hard to find anyone who can surpass her, and she has the power to make 88 keys articulate the most sublime interpretations as well.

Composer Magnus Lindberg, who wrote his previous piano concerto for Yefim Bronfman, upped the already high degree of difficulty to fit Wang’s immense abilities in his Piano Concerto No.3. It got its world premiere this week by Wang and the San Francisco Symphony under Lindberg’s fellow Finn and high school buddy, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

On Saturday, in the piece’s third performance, Wang wrestled the sheer pianistic athleticism required for this music to the ground, executing crushing waves of tone clusters and intricate trills on several notes at a time without breaking a sweat. All the while, Lindberg’s orchestra powered through a thundering herd of pounding rhythms and dissonant attacks.

The piece started off quietly at first, a few unison threads and active legatos from the low strings, but pretty soon the whole orchestra was in full roar. At times the piano was part of the cacophony, made compelling by thrashing rhythms. Most of its 25 minutes were loud, but Lindberg often left space for the piano to emerge unimpeded. The music had shape.

Yuja Wang and Esa-Pekka Salonen locking eyes © Kristen Locken

There were contrasts. The second movement was reminiscent of Ravel, with some welcome lyrical moments from the piano and softer harmonies. Every now and then, we actually heard a triad, startling in the circumstances amid the bustle and the pounding rhythms.

If the music’s form had structure, it was not easy to discern on first hearing. Except for the fast-slow-fast plan to the three movements, it often felt more like a fantasia than a ‘normal’ concerto. Maybe that was the point. It just kept driving forward. A few big gestures from the first movement (or something very like them) showed up again as the finale revved up for a big, crashing coda.

The climactic finish brought the audience to its feet. Erupting in wild cheers, they would not cease even when the house lights came up for intermission. After the third curtain call, Wang shrugged, bowed once more and slid onto the piano bench for an eye-opening performance of Philip Glass’s intricate Etude No.6, which also starts with a focus on a few notes and builds to a crashing climax. She didn’t leave the stage before offering a second encore, the Precipitato finale of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7, with its own roar of driving rhythms and pianistic power.

After the intermission, Salonen led the orchestra in a dazzling performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. The piece begins with a very quiet unison in the basses, then again from the cellos, leading to grand gestures from the orchestra. The brass punctuations and broad chords played against contrasting material, which gave the big moments extra punch.

The heroes of the Bartók were the brass players, who found rich and varied sonorities for their starring roles. In crisp attacks and hymn-like chorales, the sound was nothing short of magnificent. The woodwinds displayed welcome individuality in their music, and the strings bound it all together with impressive legato playing and a real sense of rhythm in the faster parts.

Beginning with principal percussionist Jacob Nissly’s insinuating tom-tom rhythms, solos and duets in the scherzo bounced around the orchestra as if on a single string. Salonen coaxed a rainbow of colors from the various episodes, all the while pushing the beat ever so slightly, which suggested a refreshing sense of improvisation.

Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s tone poem, the Helios Overture, made an apt opening piece. Its early twentieth-century Romantic style, rooted in Scandinavian soil like Lindberg’s, contrasted with the piano concerto’s thornier twenty-first-century doings. Like the Bartók, it featured notable fanfares and chorales from the brass as it portrayed a glorious sunrise and a slightly more subdued sunset.

San Francisco audiences haven’t heard a lot of Nielsen since Herbert Blomstedt’s tenure as music director, which ended in 1995. If Salonen wants, more would be welcome.

Harvey Steiman

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