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Pianist's performance equal parts power, poetry

01.21.08
The Ann Arbor News

I know better.

But still, I found myself wondering, as pianist Yuja Wang opened her Sunday afternoon University Musical Society recital with a stunning pair of Ligeti etudes, whether the exceptionally glorious Steinway she was playing had ever made an appearance on the Hill Auditorium stage before.

The point, of course, is that Wang, a 20-year-old miracle of a player with a growing worldwide reputation, had not; and the glory is what she does with the piano, making it sing, thunder and whisper, and above all, speak.

Her repertoire for the afternoon, works by Ligeti, Liszt, Scriabin, Bartok and Ravel united by obsessive development of thematic or rhythmic material, showcased her virtuosity.

But if she can play barrages of swift octaves with the best of them - and she can, whether in the Liszt B Minor Sonata or in encores of Volodos's transcription of the Mozart "Turkish March" and Rimsky Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" (played faster than the speed of light, let alone bees) - she is as much about poetry as power.

That was as evident in her Liszt, with its unmoored veerings from black darkness to caressing serenity, as its was in her Ravel "La Valse,"  or her Gluck "Melody," a luminous encore of her own transcribing.

 If Wang was equally at home in the percussive sonorities of the Bartok sonata and the fluid waters of the Scriabin Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, with its floating melody, it was perhaps her Liszt and Ravel that revealed her gifts most extravagantly. 

Wang lures with her miraculous sound production - the color was not just in the persimmon and then sapphire gowns she wore -- but she keeps you with her with a taste for clarity, an ear for inner voices and a keen eye for architecture.

The Liszt never gave away its hand, and yet its arch was beautifully traced. The Ravel let you see - or rather, hear - the dancers moving in and out of focus as they whirled around the ballroom, nearer and farther from the viewer.

You couldn't see Wang's face much - her hair obscured her like a veil much of the time. But her hands spoke volumes enough. Let's hope for a quick return and rejoice in what should be a long career ahead.