Monday, May 6, 2013

Poetry and power

I recently had the opportunity to hear the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang perform at the Disney Concert Hall. I had never heard of her, and I went only because of the program, which included Debussy, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and one of my favorite Ravel pieces, La Valse. I had no idea what I was getting into.

To say that this 26 year old is a major artistic talent is a vast understatement. She is one of the most brilliant, engaging and exciting musicians I have heard in recent years (the violinist Hillary Hahn being another). She played the opening Scriabin sonata (a last-minute substitute for the Debussy) charmingly and insightfully, but as she played, it very quickly became apparent that she is possessed of a truly extraordinary technique. Added to that is her charisma and onstage presence, which, for one so young, is nothing short of masterful. Whenever any young artist undertakes a program as ambitious as hers, one always experiences a kind of anxiety, an empathetic concern that he or she may have overreached, and may be in for a fall. Not so with Yuja Wang; she is completely in command of her instrument and her material, a fact that she makes clear from the very first phrases.

Her second Scriabin piece was every bit as mysterious and even mystical as one could hope, but it was in the Ravel that she simply took one's breath away. La Valse, Ravel's pitiless lament for what Ezra Pound called a botched civilization - 19th century Europe, annihilated by World War I - which is most often heard in orchestral form, is, in its original piano score, diabolically demanding and difficult. And so, as Yuja Wang began her presentation of it, the old empathetic anxiety returned. But only for a moment.

She was magnificent: powerful, technically dazzling, ideationally brilliant and, above all, poetic. And that is the thing about her playing that impressed me most deeply: She is, above all, a poet. Her monstrous technique, the like of which I do not think I have ever encountered before, is always in the service of poetry. How she manages this marriage of muscular technique and poetic delicacy I do not know. I do know, however, that I have never heard La Valse played with such sheer self-confident mastery on a technical level, nor with such breathtaking comprehension of ideas, implications and insights as she presented. She dominates the keyboard just as surely as she commands her audience; her talent is a stunning combination of poetry and power.

La Valse was merely the end of the first half of her program. She returned, smiling and radiant, to undertake a full cycle of Rachmaninoff which, by itself, would have daunted most other pianists. Yet once again she took control of both the score and the audience, and brought light, depth, potency and poetry to the pieces, with what seemed to me to be an intense, joy-filled ease. Rachmaninoff has never been one of my favorite composers - the best of his music sounds to me like very talented film score; the worst, like bombastic post-romantic self-indulgence, as if Tchaikovsky had lived in Culver City and composed for Columbia - but, in Yuja Wang's hands, I found myself really understanding and admiring his work, perhaps for the first time.

Not surprisingly, she was recalled, and played a total of five encores. The audience simply did not want to part with this stunningly gifted young musician. And among the encores, there was Chopin. Now, I had been hoping to hear her play Chopin, just as a reality check to my senses: Did she truly have the delicacy of touch and the poetic intricacy of execution which much of Chopin requires? The answer, from the first notes, was, Yes. Her Chopin, like everything else, was powerful, technically impeccable, and emotionally complex, lyrical and beautiful. It was simply hard to believe: This young woman brings the same mastery of execution and insight to everything she plays. Listening to her was, for me, a variegated revelation: that one young person could possess such power, such poetic insight, such personal charm and such a wide range of repertoire. And everything is done in a spirit of performance brilliance which I have very rarely encountered.

If you ever have the chance to see and hear Yuja Wang perform, take it. The experience will change your perception of the art of the piano in vast and subtle ways.