LA Phil Closes Season with Brilliant Bartok Cycle and Janáček Fanfare

By Truman C. Wang

Piano phenom Yuja Wang is, by all accounts, already a superstar at 30 – an age where many aspiring pianists are still proving their chops in competitions.  To put this into perspective, this year’s Van Cliburn Piano Competition, currently underway in Fort Worth, Texas, has produced six finalists ranging in ages from 19 to 30.  Yuja, who is not a product of the competition culture, carved out her successful niche through a combination of flashy playing and equally flashy wardrobe. 

For reasons of austere style and fastidious demands on the players as well as the audience, the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 1- 3 have never been popular like those of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.  There are no ‘big tunes’ or passionate climaxes, but rather lots of keyboard-dusting and finger-breaking passages that are powerful, haunting and, yes, flashy – a perfect fit for Yuja Wang.  Her articulation was always clear even in the thorniest passages (Concerto No. 3 first movement opening) and the forceful physicality of her playing could be downright terrifying (Most of Concerto No. 1 and the Concerto No. 2 slow movement’s tumultuous B section)   Yuja’s brilliant playing generated enough electricity to power the concert hall for a year (or at least until her return next season).  One minor quibble, which I have noted in other Yuja concerts, is the frequent feelings of ‘all that flashy glitter is not gold’ due to her reluctance or reticence to plumb the emotional depths of a piece.  The Concerto No. 3’s slow movement, very delicately spun by Yuja with perfectly crystalline trills and arpeggios, was Bartok’s love song to his wife Ditta, but one could hear from the pianist all fingers and little heart. 

No such quibbles with the orchestra.  These Bartók concertos provided many solo opportunities for the Phil’s superb principal flute, oboe, timpani and percussion.  Gustavo Dudamel, always expert in such dynamic pieces, delivered a brilliant accompaniment, matching Yuja Wang’s electric wattage, that’s also rich in colors and details.  There was a near-perfect rapport between the pianist and the principal solos in their many witty dialogs together. 

Now let’s talk about Yuja’s ‘flashy wardrobe’ that made Anne-Sophie Mutter’s strapless gowns look tame.  A little black miniskirt with a lacy cover (Bartók #1), a retina-burning lime green gown (Bartók #2), a leather black miniskirt (Bartók #3) – all of which were near backless and at least two sizes too small.

At each concert, Yuja gave the audience their money’s worth – mind-blowing flashy encores of Mozart’s Turkish rondo and Carmen variations, in her own virtuoso improvisational style, of course.  The ovations at the second concert lasted well over five minutes. 

The two Stravinsky works programmed alongside the Bartók were comparatively lightweight.  Symphonies of Wind Instruments is Stravinsky’s experiment on the woodwind (and brass) sounding together and was conducted with geometrical precision by Dudamel, alternating between solemn ceremonial music and animated dance.  Stravinsky’s mini-requiem, Requiem Canticles, is only fifteen minutes long but moves fluently and tautly between sections.  One of the instrumental interludes sounds distinctly like the Symphonies of Wind Instruments.  The LA Phil were joined by the Master Chorale and soloists Alisa Kolosova, Stefan Kocan to give a convincing performance of this rare one-off work.

A pair of works by Janáček also served as ‘fillers’ for the Bartók Cycle.  The ebullient and not-at-all religious Glagolitic Mass received a gripping performance from start to finish.  The polished singing of LAMC was a joy, with excellent pitching and deliveries throughout (the cries of "Amin! Amin!" in Gloria were incredibly exciting). Maestro Dudamel really brought out the raw drama and grandeur of the Mass.  The quartet of soloists, headed by powerhouse Wagnerian soprano Angela Meade, were all in spectacular form.  Lithuanian organist Iveta Apkalna tackled the organ solo with startling virtuosity and grandeur.  The brassy fanfares of the  Sinfonietta appropriately brought the L.A. Phil’s 2016/17 season to a joyful close.

The 2017/18 season will open on September 29, 2017 with an all-Mozart program, followed by concerts featuring prominent female conductors (Finland’s Susanna Mälkki and China’s Xian Zhang) and orchestras from Chicago, San Francisco, Russia and Israel.  For tickets, call 323-850-2000 or visit

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.