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Young pianist propels symphony’s passionate Prokofiev

05.07.11
San Diego Union-Tribune

By James Chute

Chinese virtuoso Yuja Wang can be compared to the best

When she last performed in San Diego in 2009 with the Shanghai Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall, Yuja Wang raised a few eyebrows with her ferocious technique. Friday at Copley, this time with the San Diego Symphony, Yuja Wang raised the roof in a superlative performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. 

There have been several inspired collaborations between orchestra and soloist in the symphony’s Centennial Season: in particular cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Lang Lang. Wang’s musicianship — on a program that also included Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, Weber’s Overture to “Der Freischutz” and Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” — belongs in that category.

Her playing is remarkable for its sensitivity, fluidity and virtuosity. And like both of those classical music icons, her technique is not just flawless, it’s effortless. Only 24 years old, she’s able to do whatever she wants on the piano, from quick bursts of triple fortissimo chords, to rapid scalar passages extending the entire length of the keyboard to the softest, pianissimo passages.

So what did she want to do with Prokofiev? She brought both energy and poetry to the Russian composer’s propulsive masterpiece. Like Ma and Lang, she formed a partnership with the orchestra and its conductor, Jahja Ling, who matched her at every turn.

Only in the first movement, after the quiet opening Andante (with its theme beautifully shaped by clarinetists Sheryl Renk and Theresa Tunnicliff), when the tempo rises and suddenly the music charges forward, did the orchestra seem to be holding on for dear life. For just a few moments, it struggled to keep up with Wang. But the musicians soon found their footing as Wang traded themes back and forth with the orchestra’s principal woodwinds.

She found a poignant beauty in the quiet sections such as the opening of the second movement. At those moments, she seemed to be playing chamber music with the other musicians.

But it was the faster sections, especially the close of the frenzied third movement, that were met with gasps from the audience, and then a standing ovation. She rewarded them with two encores: Gyorgy Cziffra’s arrangement of Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch Polka” and Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (you can watch her perform both on youtube.com)

The balance of the program also had its rewards, in particular an incisive, buoyant Mozart Symphony No. 41. Weber’s program-opening overture didn’t fare quite as well, as the orchestra sounded tentative and never did find a groove. The same affliction marked the “Capriccio Italien,” although Ling was able to shake it off and end the concert on a resounding note.