Yuja Wang, piano; Works by Schubert, Schumann, Scriabin and Prokofiev - Orpheum, May 13, 2010 

Yuja Wang.jpg



All music lovers must be grateful to Leila Getz and the Vancouver Recital Society (VRS) for their three-decade commitment to bringing the best young classical artists to the Vancouver concert stage.  Through this organization, we have been able to see the very youthful Cecilia Bartoli, Maxim Vengerov, Joshua Bell, Andras Schiff, and the list goes on and on.  These artists have now received the highest level of international recognition.

 For their birthday concert, the VRS engaged the 23 year old Beijing-born, but Canadian and US trained, Yuja Wang, who has become a ‘phenom’ almost overnight. Last year, she sealed a contract with the exclusive Deutsche Grammophon, and is already appearing with the world’s greatest orchestras.   Her first recording, featuring sonatas by Liszt, Chopin and Scriabin, and nominated for a Grammy Award, is on DG 477 8140; her second, Transformations, has just been released on DG 000289 477 8795.

In concert, this artist seemingly has few of the cultivated graces of many rising stars; she appears as just raw, molten talent.  She comes on stage awkwardly, almost like a caged tiger, bows exaggeratedly, sits down, and then pounces on the keyboard in a most intense fashion.  Her technical capabilities are outstanding.   Her sheer power and command of dynamics is stunning, and the feel of ‘steel in her fingers’ (presumably learned from her teacher, Gary Graffman) is everywhere.  While dramatic passages are played with all-out weight and clarity, in meditative passages, the intense ‘still’ she creates, and the exact balance she obtains between right and left hands, is equally disarming.

These characteristics fit the two 20th C. Russian works, the Scriabin Preludes and Etudes and the Prokofiev Sonata No. 6, almost perfectly.  On the one hand, they require extreme technical virtuosity; on the other, they probe an intense inner world.  It would be difficult to find more beautiful performances of the former; the latter was a marvel of dramatic articulation just missing some of the more subtle ironies and textural variation in this music.  Nonetheless, a pretty thrilling experience!

For the 19th C. German composers, I think the pianist’s approach fit less comfortably, missing some of the expansive lyricism that must operate between the above two extremes.  The Liszt transcriptions of Schubert Songs were most interesting to hear (since rarely performed in concert), and did show off some wonderfully-controlled pianism. However, this discipline seemed to imply a lack of freedom in the right hand phrasing.  The same was true for the Schumann Symphonic Etudes, given a greater dramatic weight than normally.  Here youthful impetuosity did slightly run away with itself, forcing the drama (through over-pedaling) and upsetting the work’s dramatic/ lyrical balance.  This is a great work; not just an exciting one.

In any case, the above qualifications do not mean anything when set beside the raw talent this young artist has.  Seeing artistic command at this level was a fully inspiring and memorable experience.  Exactly the way an anniversary concert should be – uplifting and memorable!  Happy Birthday, Leila.

© Geoffrey Newman 2010