Yuja Wang & the SC Symphony


By Scott MacClelland

I WISH MY MANY JAZZ-LOVING FRIENDS had heard Yuja Wang play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C Major Sunday afternoon at the Mello Center in Watsonville. This dazzling young musician, dressed in a dayglow lime-green gown, slit up to the thigh on the audience side… You won’t find two photos of her in the same dress. She must spend half her time buying… But I digress.

Perhaps the most important gift among her prodigious others is Yuja’s imagination. That’s what Albert Einstein prized above all ‘talents.’ To return to jazz, she made this famously familiar concerto sound as if she were making it up on the fly. (Beethoven typically did the same thing—under the gun—in premiering his own works.) And isn’t that exactly the intersection of classical and jazz? Wang can turn on a dime from thunder to caress, often tossing off the tricky bits with bewitching nonchalance. It is impossible for most red-blooded music lovers not to mutter, aloud or in silence: what a package!

The Beethoven performance was, for me, the high point of the concert. The orchestral textures were exactly balanced with the solo, which was played from memory except for the big first-movement cadenza read from score. (That fabulously rich piece was composed by Glenn Gould.) Under Wang’s authority you could hear every note clearly, even in the breakneck steeplechase of the final rondo, which ignited a screaming standing ovation such as I have never witnessed at the Mello.

The Brahms First Piano Concerto was a different matter. Its thick orchestral textures covered the soloist far too often. It would be easy to imagine someone with the physical force of, say, Dwayne Johnson, powering through that symphonic thicket, but even that amount of excess muscle would still face a formidable adversary.

Indeed, the piece itself was originally conceived as a symphony. Moreover, it represents a youthful composer still not completely sure of himself. But it’s a great work, grand in conception beyond the imagination of most 25-year-olds. And at 47 minutes it’s hugely demanding of its executants. The majestic, fairly tortured first movement and the soul-bearing adagio together exceeded the Beethoven concerto by nearly five minutes. The final rondo, not a form typically associated with symphonies, somehow balanced and redeemed Brahms’ angst-ridden score.

As with the Beethoven (exception noted) both soloist and conductor Daniel Stewart performed from memory. For the Brahms half of the program, Wang appeared in a more subdued dark gray gown with sparkling points of shimmer. Another noisy standing ovation ensued and, this time, was rewarded by two encores: Vladimir Horowitz’ paraphrase of Bizet’s Carmen and the Franz Liszt transcription of Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the spinning wheel), that masterpiece by the 17-year-old Franz Schubert. But in this case, Wang’s view was out of sync with Schubert’s song. She really needs to hear it performed by a lieder singer and, most important, to understand the words of the Goethe poem that inspired the composer. She skated over too many of the crucial nuances of the song.

Meanwhile, as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Martha Argerich—as big a name in her youth—Wang will play the Beethoven C Major with the Sydney Symphony later this week. Those Aussies are in for a real treat.

Before the Sunday concert, board chair Owen Brown and Symphony Guild chair Helen Jones took the stage to pass the Guild’s annual gift to the Symphony, a record breaking $106K. This is the Guild’s 50th season and, the upcoming 2017-18 season is the Symphony’s 60th.

LeClair & Walters Master Classes

LeClairBy Scott MacClelland

‘QUADRUPLE YOUR PLEASURE with double-reeds times two,’ might have been a selling point for Friday’s concert, the third in this year’s Masters Festival at Hidden Valley Music Seminars. Bassoonist Judith LeClair, principal at the New York Philharmonic for 36 years, and Robert Walters, solo English horn (cor anglais) for the Cleveland Orchestra since 2004, entertained the students from their two master classes, plus a good-sized crowd of local fans, in a short but fabulous program in the intimate barn-setting in Carmel Valley.

LeClair’s class attracted seven, while Walters’ brought along five. But for two from Korea in LeClair’s class, the others came from all over the USA. The two master teachers played one piece together, the modal “medieval” Suite for English horn and Bassoon of 1937 by Alan Hovhaness. Otherwise, Walters’ partner was pianist Teddy Niedermaier while Zsolt Balogh accompanied LeClair, both excellent and sensitive musicians.

Walters took the opening set, with a brief and very early Romanze by Sibelius written for his violin-playing self. A short set of variations on a menuet from a Haydn piano sonata composed in 1968 by Hendrik Andriessen followed. It was a rare treat for a couple of reasons. The Haydn original, which opened the piece alone, was clearly based on its harmonic structure and not a melody per se, which, Walters said, was what gave Andriessen his opportunity to superimpose the melodic line for the cor anglais. (I later asked Niedermaier if he knew which Haydn sonata it came from and his choice turned out to be incorrect. He did mention the Hoboken catalog number XVI, and while I believe it does come from a sonata in that collection I was unable to pin it down.)

Walters explained that finding cor anglais literature was a challenge, hence his practice of playing arrangements of works composed for other instruments of the alto register. But he made no apology for playing the alto-saxophone rhapsody by Debussy. It is well known that Debussy wrote the piece for the commission, not the pleasure—or lack of it—at hearing it played on the alto sax. Yet it is quite a good piece and a pleasure to hear on the alto oboe.

After the Hovhaness duet, LeClair introduced the bassoon sonata by Charles Koechlin, a prolific French composer (1867-1950) who deserves far more appreciation than he has ever gotten—at least outside of France. (His 90-minute Kipling-inspired Jungle Book symphonic poems is a favorite in my library.) The 10-minute sonata exhibits some of the Middle-Eastern exoticism heard in several others of his works.

Lastly came five movements from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, originally arranged for cello and piano by Gregor Piatigorsky, later approved by the composer, as Suite Italienne. This arrangement was made by LeClair’s master class student Cornelia Sommer (see photo, with LeClair and Walters) and gave LeClair a devilish workout. The blistering fourth movement, Gavotta con due variazioni, caused LeClair to both sweat and hyperventilate, but she held it together like the master musician she is. (And, she had the rest of the week’s master class to take revenge, if so inclined.)