Sparks fly in OC recital by Yuja Wang, Leonidas Kavakos

By Truman C. Wang

In the world of pianist-violinist partnerships, there are/were some perfect matches – Oistrakh/Richter, Mutter/Orkis, Hahn/Zhu, to name a few.   After last night’s concert at the Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall – presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County (whose new President/Artistic Director John Mangum I knew well from his program notes-writing days)  – we can happily add Wang/Kavakos to that list. 

Yuja Wang, of course, is a well-known entity.  Less so is Greek virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos.  By all appearances, these two could not have been more dissimilar – she a perfectly coiffed modern-chic girl-next-door, he a rumpled-hair bespectacled philosopher in a folksy Greek outfit.  But when the music began, this unlikely duo showed their chemistry and uncanny ability to finish each other’s musical sentences and thoughts as if they were long-lost twins. 

For the first work on the program, Leoš Janáček’s Sonata, JW 7/7, the operative word was “smooth”.  The creamy smoothness line of the first movement, started by Kavakos’ violin and adorned with glitters by Wang’s piano, carried with it intense lyricism and emotive power.  One could hear echoes of Janáček’s opera “Jenůfa” in the sonata, particularly in the hauntingly beautiful Ballada and the poignant final Adagio. 

Schubert’s Fantasy in C, D.934 continued the vein of smooth and expressive exchange of dialogues between the two instruments.  Wang’s extrovert pianism complemented nicely Kavakos’ poetic introspection.  The Andantino (theme and variations) showed off the gorgeous radiant tones of Kavakos’ 1724 “Abergavenny” Stradivarius, next to which the Steinway sounded almost pallid by comparison.  Fortunately, Wang proved to be an equal partner capable of rising up to the challenge, providing unfailing support both rhythmically and lyrically. 

Post-intermission, we heard two works of contrasting styles but similar demand on virtuosity.  Debussy’s Sonata in G minor was full of colorful whimsy and filigree lines for the duo instruments to toss around and frolic in, and they sounded like they were having tons of fun.  The Sonata No. 1 in C# minor by Béla Bartók is anything but fun.  In fact it is downright scary in its melodic austerity and harmonic bleakness (influences of Schoenberg and Hungarian peasants)   But as performed by Wang and Kavakos, the piece felt less like an exercise in wartime melancholy and more like an uplifting spiritual journey, ending in a vigorous Hungarian peasant dance that brought the two instruments together with breathless speed and athleticism.

No review of a Yuja Wang concert is complete without mention of her dress, or dresses in this case.  For the first half, she wore a flowing long gown of black and gold, uncharacteristically conservative for her but befitting the romantic mood of the music.  For the Debussy and Bartok, she wowed in a sparkly blue-sequined backless cocktail dress that was daring even by Yuja standards.  

This concert was a musical testament that when the opposites attract, sparks fly.  There were no encores, but the duo will reprise the same program at Santa Barbara's Granada Theater tomorrow night, February 13.   No word on whether Yuja will reprise the same dresses.

The next concert at the Segerstrom will be the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Wednesday March 15.  Tickets and program info at

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.