Extreme states: Yuja Wang’s kaleidoscopic recital in Seattle

United StatesUnited States Various: Yuja Wang (piano). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 17.5.2024. (TM)

Yuja Wang © Brandon Patoc

Debussy – ‘L’isle joyeuse’, L.106
Messiaen – ‘Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus’ and ‘Regard de l’esprit de joie’ from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus
Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.8, Op.66
Chopin – Ballades

Glass – Etude No.6
Barber – Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, Op.26, Fugue-Allegro con spirito
MárquezDanzón No 2 (arranged for piano)
Glinka – ‘The Lark’ from A Farewell to St. Petersburg (arranged for piano by Balakirev)
Tchaikovsky -Symphony No.6 in G major, Op.74, Scherzo (transcribed for piano)
Shostakovich – String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110, Allegro molto (arranged for piano)
Chopin – Nocturne No. 8 in D-flat major, Op.27

It would be facile to suggest that the program Yuja Wang chose for her North American tour this spring was intended to display her astounding versatility – a versatility that is merely one manifestation of the artist’s virtuoso showmanship. Indeed, Wang’s list of seven encores should have more than sufficed to convince anyone skeptical on that score. The selection of works by Debussy, Messiaen, Scriabin and Chopin seemed designed to allow the pianist to immerse herself in a kaleidoscope of extreme states, with ventures into the mystical. This, in turn, naturally called for an encyclopedic range of technical brilliance along with the intense curiosity and alert musical intelligence for which Wang does not always get credit.

But first, a little on the context. Presented by Seattle Symphony, her performance marked the final stop of six on the pianist’s three-week tour (half of it devoted to West Coast venues). Wang drew the largest crowd I have seen all season at the main concert space in Benaroya Hall, which was packed to the gills. Her impassioned followers were out in full force, remaining reverently attentive throughout a long and engrossing evening. It was a pleasure to see so many youngsters among the crowd, their parents eager to expose them to another brand of musical energy besides Beyoncé or Taylor Swift.

Along with the usual speculation about the wardrobe Wang would choose – there was one change of costume at intermission – she kept the audience in a bit of suspense about the order of her recital. Characteristically, it deviated from what was printed in the program which, in any case, provided no background notes on the pieces (another signature). Nor did the pianist offer any comments from the stage. She did not take breaks between the works, but gave a quick bow to acknowledge applause before plunging, laser-focused, into the music itself.

The C-sharp trill with which Debussy’s 1904 ‘L’isle joyeuse’ begins opened a portal into an alternative world of intense alertness and sensitivity, of ecstatic joy. Scintillating cascades of arpeggios emerged from the Steinway with a sensual clarity. Wang then turned her attention to the first of her two selections from Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus cycle from 1944. ‘Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus’ radiated a profound calm from the lower register, each note of Messiaen’s fascinating harmonies ringing with breathtaking clarity. The entrance of the treble had the shock of an epiphany.

Yuja Wang © Brandon Patoc

Continuing this extraordinary recital, Messiaen’s divine ‘kiss’ segued into Alexander Scriabin’s single-movement Piano Sonata No.8 from 1912-13, a work especially admired by the composer’s compatriot, Stravinsky. Here was another perspective on the mystical, as Wang reveled in Scriabin’s stop-and-go simultaneity of ideas – of serenity confronted by agitation, of harmonies and meters compressed into the densest possible space. Her dress like a blue flame, Wang danced along with Scriabin’s otherworldly trills. In fact, the metaphoric potential of this ornament could be cited as one of a myriad potential ‘themes’ of the program.

Then it was back to Messiaen, this time in a fiercely ecstatic mystical vein for ‘Regard de l’esprit de joie’, bursting with liberating rhythmic energy – as if to dissipate the claustrophobic sensation Scriabin can arouse. Perhaps this represented the savagery Wang hinted at in the description on her Instagram account of a ‘program of faith, tenderness, stillness and savagery’.

Rollicking and rocking, Wang could not have been charged with overkill, as the music seems to encourage unbridled abandon – though this is a very tightly controlled frenzy: the sense of an order behind the eruption is integral to Messiaen’s evocation of joy.

In the recital’s second half, Wang presented Chopin’s Ballades, creating her own meta-narrative in her non-chronological order: No.2 in F major, No.3 in A-flat major, No.1 in G minor, and No.4 in F minor. Her interpretations gave the impression that these vastly different works, from markedly different periods in the composer’s life, were the movements of a single large-scale project.

At the same time, Wang drove home not just the differences in temperament but the mercurial changes within each Ballade, beginning with the deceptively rustic innocence at the start of the one in F major. She detonated its fiery presto section with concussive force – some of the audience seemed to jump back in their seats, momentarily stunned. But Wang gave ample scope to Chopin’s poetry, with Bellini-esque, voice-like legato and silver-spun, feathery runs.

The independence of Wang’s hands, as well as her balance of tonal weight and chiaroscuro pedaling, was deeply impressive, and she made an especially indelible impression in the second and first Ballades. The recital officially culminated in a sense of tragic finality with the F minor work, making for a provocative contrast with the tragic tone of being beyond solutions that emerges from Scriabin’s introspective whisperings.

And then came . . . the encores. Cheered on by the adoring audience, Wang proved to be in an especially generous mood and was coaxed back to the stage again and again and again. Each time, after a brief pause and a knowing nod, she launched into a fresh encore, eventually covering half a program’s worth of material in the order listed above.

You had the feeling of being able to connect to the heyday of virtuoso superstars and their impossible feats as Wang alternated, with no evident sign of strain, between labyrinthine counterpoint and rhythmic verve. Each encore was a ‘showstopper’ in its own way. Wang bracketed the evening, which had begun so expectantly with Debussy’s poised trill, with an exquisitely voiced ppp chord of D-flat major at the end of the Chopin Nocturne. And then it really was time for everyone to head home.

Thomas May

Leave a Comment