Yuja Wang & SC Symphony


By Scott MacClelland

WHEN THE SANTA CRUZ SYMPHONY first announced its current season, superstar pianist Yuja Wang was slated to perform piano concertos by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Johannes Brahms. By the time the season had solidified, the Salonen concerto had been replaced by Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Why? SCS executive Dorothy Wise told me it was because Salonen, an acclaimed conductor and excellent composer, hadn’t finished writing it, or, at least, wasn’t yet satisfied with it.

Was I disappointed? Not at all. Better Salonen should be completely ready to sign off on this new work—presumably to be dedicated to Wang—and the Prokofiev, composed in the early 1930s, had never before been performed in our Central Coast region.

And what a tour-de-force it is, for both pianist and orchestra! Indeed, it was Wang’s first go at it, reading her part and driving her page-turner at Le Mans-speed just to keep up. In five movements, from pushy to comedic to sentimental—barely in the larghetto—to brilliantly virtuosic, its 22-minute performance-time almost called for a reprise on the spot. Or so said the audience at Watsonville’s Mello Center with a standing ovation.

For the record, Wang appeared in a short-skirted, sleeveless shift of sparkling green above dark gray leggings, lightly striped down the outsides in off-white, and dark stiletto heels with bright red soles. Eye-candy for sure, but a nice complement to the brilliance of the piece. Equally impressive was conductor Daniel Stewart’s direction from the podium, no doubt recently memorized. His orchestra was dialed in.

The bar was higher for Brahms’ Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, in this case memorized by both soloist and conductor. It’s a mighty piece which has been known to take nearly an hour to perform. This time it came in at a brisk 45 minutes, with its andante third movement getting the most expansive, subtle and sensitive playing from both Wang and Stewart. (In its most fragile moments a cellphone, possibly in the lobby, chimed at length, but was hopefully noticed by few in the auditorium.) Brahms makes hugely muscular demands of the pianist here and, diminutive as she is, Wang pushed up, spinto-style, for the heavy moments. (Now she was attired in a full-length, tight-fitting gown of black and gold, still sleeveless.)

Stewart was animated and boldly in charge on the podium. His orchestra measured up to great effect but also felt the weight of the piece. The opening horn solo cracked. The cello solo that opens the gorgeous andante lost security in its reiteration near the end. But, again, this is a very challenging piece. To her credit, Wang kept the principal focus where it belonged: on her.

Now if I could only convince the SCS powers-that-be to not use their best pulpit—their performances—to promote themselves from the stage with gratuitous lectures and, instead, let their art itself do the selling! Danny Stewart is a much-better salesman when he turns his face toward his orchestra. Wouldn’t another ten or twelve minutes of live music better justify the price of a ticket? It most certainly would for me.

Frederica von Stade

By Louis Lebherz

ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, February 12, at the Sunset Center, Frederica von Stade appeared in a valentine recital accompanied by internationally acclaimed American opera composer/pianist Jake Heggie. The event was sponsored by the venerable Carmel Music Society, now celebrating its 90th season. Flicka, as she is popularly known, made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970, 47 years ago! She has performed with nearly every major opera company in the world, and on every great concert stage. She has received numerous awards, honorary doctorates, and the adulation of millions of fans. Her charm, vitality and generosity are legendary.

IMG_0059(1)This recital was a journey through the artist’s life as America’s favorite mezzo-soprano. (Pictured, Flicka with adoring fan David Ligare.) The repertoire included arias from her great opera roles, in two of which Frederica plays young lads. In the opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas, Frederic, a student, is smitten by the actress Philine. He climbs through a window into her dressing room and sings the charming rondo “Me voici dans son boudoir.” It was here that von Stade’s voice found a placement that glistened as she portrayed the youth’s excitement and fantasy. Later, singing Cherubino’s love song “Voi che sapete” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, she found the same lovely, youthful voice that she had so often possessed in her numerous productions of the opera.

The recital opened with four songs about roses which she dedicated to Peter Thorp, co-president of the Carmel Music Society board of directors. Included in this set was a stunning rendition of “La vie en rose,” famously sung by the legendary chanteuse, Edith Piaf. Then followed a set dedicated to her daughter, starting with Carol Hall’s Jenny Rebecca, and a cycle of four songs by Jake Heggie entitled Paper Wings. This was pure charm and the maternal love of Frederica poured over the audience like warm honey.

How does one review such an artist? To have had one more opportunity to see, hear and experience the magic that is Flicka was a great gift recognized by all in attendance, and especially by this critic who had the great honor of singing with her many times. The smile, poise and charm are still magnificent to behold. The singing voice is a gift, but like the rest of the body it ages. In this case, one was occasionally aware of the technical limitations brought on by the years, but like fine wine, the artistry has only bloomed and grown with the wisdom of experience.

Frederica von Stade can be seen next Saturday afternoon, February 18, in a special matinee performance of Street Requiem, with The Choral Project and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, in Santa Cruz. (See PAMB’s Calendar for details.) In 2015, this powerful piece was selected as a semi-finalist and awarded a Special Citation for dignifying the homeless through song by The American Prize Professional Choral Composition. A deeply spiritual work it evokes a sense of hope in the face of challenging times. Cathartic in character, it takes us on a journey through the streets to remind us of our humanity and interconnectedness and to renew our optimism in the light at the end of even the darkest tunnel.