Yuja Wang wins over her fans in her first Mozart outing

By Truman C. Wang

Last Sunday afternoon at the Phil, Debussy opened the program with the appropriate Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, played so delicately that the mythical man-beast in Mallarme’s original poem seemed to reveal itself with every enchanting strain of the flute.  As disappointed as I was upon hearing the departure of the new principal flute Julien Beaudiment this past summer, whom I had declared the finest coup by the LA Phil in years, and whose silken and mellifluous style had brightened “Romeo et Juliette” and “Night on the Bald Mountain”, I was nonetheless glad to hear the all-important flute solo in the “Faun” executed so well by Associate Principal Catherine Ransom Karoly.  It’s a familiar sound that I have gotten used to hearing over the years, only missing that special magic that Mssr. Beaudiment was able to summon.

The young and hugely gifted Frenchman Lionel Bringuier is the Principal Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich.  Both artists represented at this concert, Yuja Wang and Esa-Pekka Salonen, also have associations with that orchestra.  So one could say this concert was a family affair. 

First performed by the Tonhalle in 2014, Salonen’s  “Karawana” is a large-scale two-part musical setting of Hugo Ball’s Dadaist poem.   The Dada Movement that started in 1916 Switzerland was an iconoclastic, anti-law-&-order rebellion that still rings true to this day.  “Karawana” employees a large orchestra with an extended percussion section and an innovative treatment of the chorus, chanting or mumbling words from Ball’s poem.  No doubt this is an important work in the composer’s ouvre, although I suspect most people came today to hear the hot young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang.

Wang did not disappoint her fans, either in her lightening fast virtuoso display, or her choice of skimpy wardrobe, in this case a bright red short skirt dress and black leggings.  No, she did not play the Ravel Left-Hand Concerto that she recently recorded with Bringuier and the Tonhalle, but instead went with the uncharted new territory of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9.  Her reputation as a ‘wild child’ of the piano made one wonder how she would tackle Mozart’s pure and exacting style.  On the whole, she turned in a fairly credible performance, though her powerful left hand still showed signs of rushing ahead and not surprisingly she was most at home in the cadenzas (always going for the more flashy of Mozart’s two versions) as well as in the final Rondo (marked ‘presto’ but played ‘prestissimo’ by Wang).  The second movement Andantino suffered from muted emotions and a rather wooden, unsmiling minuet.  Maestro Bringuier kept things light, airy and classy, while doing his best to rein in his impetuous soloist. 

Yuja gifted her very vociferous and enthusiastic fans with an equally loud encore – a jazzy, barnstorming transcription of “Tea for Two”.   The jury may be still out on whether Yuja Wang is born to play Mozart, but there is no question she was born with a keyboard in her hands.