Pianist Yuja Wang made her much-anticipated appearance at the Cliburn Concerts on Tuesday at Bass Hall. While the hall was shamefully only about half full, those who came to see what she was wearing were sorely disappointed. Those who came to hear a performance by someone who—already at the age of 23—is one of our great pianists were richly rewarded.
All this clothing brouhaha started this summer when the beautiful 23-year-old Chinese pianist wore a very tight and skimpy dress to play at the Hollywood Bowl, and other staid classical venues. An uproar, at least as big a one as classical music's clucking tongues can muster, ensued. (Give me a moment to roll my eyes.) This led to a welcome and frank discussion of this kerfuffle by music critic Anne Midgette in the Washington Post.
Well, the only thing revealing on Tuesday was a dazzling and magnificent, dare I say unequalled, technique and the only thing shocking was how amazingly better than anyone else currently in competition for the title of Horowitz's heir she played. Dress oglers had to be content with an elegant floor-length black dress in the first half and something similar in red for the second.
Wang is on tour with the program she presented at Bass Hall and she has astounded everywhere she has played it. Tuesday was no exception. Wang's program starts with a set of Scriabin Preludes ( Op. 11, No. 11, Op. 13, No. 6, Op. 11, No. 12), then goes into Etude Op. 8 and ends with the Poeme, Op. 27, No. 1. This grouping gave the audience their first clue that Wang was not just a technical powerhouse. Together, they made as convincing a set of Scriabin as you are ever likely to hear; full of contrast and showing the composer's variety and even his evolving voice.
She then played two monster sonatas, Prokofiev's Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82, and Liszt's multi-movement Sonata in B Minor, S 178, played without pause. Both of these are international competition staples and many a firebrand has pounded their way through them on their way to hoped-for glory. The Prokofiev is a particularly noisy and angry affair and the Liszt always seems to be a collection of faux endings from a composer who keep thinking the piece should be longer.
All of these now-obviously misconceived observations, created by one too many crass readings, were easily destroyed by Wang's revealing performance of both pieces. "Here," she seemed to say, "is how these pieces should really go." In her hands, all the bravura and technical virtuosity faded into the music itself.
No technical challenge gave her a moment's pause. She sat upright on the edge of the bench, with her body ramrod straight, with textbook arm and finger positions. On occasions, she would lean forward ever so slightly to gain additional power but there was absolutely nothing of the show, which mars some other young virtuoso pianists, about her demeanor. She was elegant throughout. Further, as impressive as her loud and fast playing was, it was her control over the very soft sounds and passagework that was the most extraordinary and that lingers in the memory.
This is how it should be done.
Just one minor complaint. For my taste, she relies too much on the sustaining pedal. I selfishly admit that this is just because some of her stunning velocity with the nearly impossible passage blurs and it would be remarkable to hear it in all its crystalline perfection for once. Let lesser pianists use the pedal as camouflage.
We can only hope that she continues to grow and perfect her already glorious musicianship and doesn't burn out or, worse, get distracted by the spotlight.