Wang's brilliance lights Rachmaninoff

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Amid the launch of Chinese pianist Yuja Wang's new recital album, "Transformation," last spring came this quote: "For me, conveying the music through the piano is more important than the instrument itself. The music is what interests and intrigues me."

My heart warmed when I read it then, and it all but melted when she performed last night at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under music director Manfred Honeck. While it is not as if classical music is filled with self-absorbed performers, but at the highest level, the pull of showmanship has become strong. Classical music needs a superstar or two who are as impressive in their dedication to the art as their ability. It looks like Ms. Wang, 23, will be that.

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck, conductor; Yuja Wang, pianist Gandolfi's "Garden of Cosmic Speculation," Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Beethoven Symphony No. 5
  • When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
  • Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
  • When: : Heinz Hall, Downtown.
  • Tickets: $20; 412-392-4900.

The Beijing native soloed in Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in her PSO debut last spring, but Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" was an even better showcase of her artistry. Whereas many pianists try to dominate this set of variations, she worked with it. This approach simply gave more punch to the places in which the piano should jump out of the texture, such as the quote of the Dies Irae in Variation No. 7 or the cascading runs of Variation No. 11. Not to mention that most Romantic of melodies, Variation No. 18. But even here, where most pianists lay it on, Ms. Wang crafted music with elfin grace, leaving the second half of the phrase almost an echo of the first.

When necessary, Ms. Wang provided thunder. Her high-speed octaves were something to marvel at. But it was her willingness to place her virtuosity in the service of the work that was inspiring -- clearly for the PSO as well, which was on its toes throughout. For an encore, she played Rachmaninoff's transcription of Gluck's "Melody" from "Orfeo ed Euridice."

When it comes to Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, those ominous first four notes get all the attention, but as Mr. Honeck displayed last night, the transformation of the fateful four notes is a far more powerful message.

Mr. Honeck's take on the first movement was drama to the max. The tempo was fast and furious -- totally in keeping with the material at hand -- but not without some space to breathe. Cynthia DeAlmeida's oboe solo in the recapitulation was one such space -- time seemed to stop during it. In fact, Mr. Honeck highlighted DeAlmeida throughout the symphony, establishing her part as a sort of commentary on the work.

But his most intriguing reading came in the second movement. Here Mr. Honeck culled a warm luster from the strings that captured the dawning hope that the problems of the first movement may be dispelled. He seemed to view the third as a structural upbeat to the finale, which he and the PSO presented with joy as much as triumph. Anyone who meets Mr. Honeck will tell you he is has an uncommonly positive outlook on life, and it came through in his interpretation.

The concert opened with selections from the colorful work, "Garden of Cosmic Speculation," by Michael Gandolfi.

The program repeats at 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. tomorrow.

Andrew Druckenbrod: . Blog: Classical Musings at Follow him at .


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