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 By the time the season had solidified, the Salonen concerto had been replaced by Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto.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.