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REVIEW: The virtuoso pianist offers an unusual program and appears flustered by audience behavior.

Yuja Wang stopped by Segerstrom Concert Hall on Thursday night for a friendly little Philharmonic Society piano recital and those who were there won’t soon forget it. She made an impression. I mean more than usual.

It’s difficult to know where to begin, so let’s start where she did, walking on stage in a tight, white mini dress and a pair of stiletto heels trying to set a world record. There couldn’t have been a husband in the house who was sorry to have been dragged there. 

Her bow looked as if it would have caused whiplash in a lesser person and then she sat down to play … well, most everyone couldn’t have known what. That’s because Wang had put together a strange, elaborate and brainy program — mixing and matching lesser known works by Brahms and Chopin (intermezzos and mazurkas), Berg and Scriabin (sonatas), Ravel, Bach, Galuppi and Mompou (assorted pieces) — and then making an announcement, just before climbing on those stilettos to walk out, that she wouldn’t be performing them in the order listed, but in any damn order whim took her. 

Yuja Wang Credit: Photo courtesy of Kirk Edwards

So there. Pity the poor program note writer (a good one) who constructed her notes so as to explain the various comparisons and contrasts of these pieces in the original order put forward. Pity the poor listeners in attendance (my guess is the majority of them) who didn’t know these pieces well or at all and so had no idea what they were hearing all night long. As I was walking out at intermission, I heard one man, turning to the person next to him, ask, “Was that a mazurka?” Wang had just played Bach’s Toccata in C minor, BWV 911.

It can be good to listen to music without any preconceptions, of course. But a great deal of the point of Wang’s program seemed to be based on knowing what was what, on knowing that this was Scriabin’s Fourth Sonata and, that’s interesting, it sounds quite a lot like Berg’s Sonata. Oh well.

As it happened, she did open with the first movement of Baldassare Galuppi’s Sonata No. 5 (as the program said she would), a simple and lovely Andante in the galant style that she played with bejeweled tone and supple phrasing. For those keeping score, she then jumped to Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’ocean,” in a sumptuous yet technically dazzling reading, and then Mompou’s Satie-like “Secreto,” soft and slow, then softer and more distant, played through a chorus of coughing.

It was a prelude of things to come. There was clapping between pieces and Wang didn’t seem to mind, until she did. The audience didn’t seem to quite settle in all night, perhaps because they were confused about what they were hearing, and were fairly cough-prone, I suppose, but it’s hard to say if it was more than normally so. (Alfred Brendel once told me that he thought Southern California audiences coughed more than any in the world, because of the smog.)

At any rate, during the second half of the program, now wearing a long, canary yellow dress, she was making her way through a set of Brahms intermezzos and Chopin mazurkas and everyone was reverentially quiet between numbers, not clapping. As it should be. After the third one, though, clapping broke out, and this clearly threw Wang. It took her a long time to settle down to the next piece, and she put her hands up and then down from the keyboard before finally starting.

It is, of course, impossible to know what was going through her head, but when a chair scraped loudly on the floor during a dramatic silence in Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata, she threw her head back as if in disgust.

None of it, I should quickly say, came out in Wang’s performance. It was a stupendous night of piano playing and musicianship, from first to last. The two Scriabin sonatas were vehemently dispatched in an awesome display of virtuosity. Berg’s Op. 1 Sonata was given a warm and fluid account, bringing out, rather than Expressionistic agitation, a kind of gorgeous delirium. 

To the Bach Toccata she brought all the tools a piano, as opposed to a harpsichord, can supply, giving it symphonic dimensions. She limned the melodies in Chopin’s mazurkas in elegant tracery while bringing snap to the rhythms; in the late Brahms she was beefier and richly melancholic.

She remains, to this listener, among the greatest pianists working today.

After the closing Scriabin’s Fifth, she left stage quickly and wouldn’t come back. The crowd kept clapping and stood around looking puzzled. The house lights didn’t come on (signaling that the performance was over), so some of us kept clapping. 

Finally, Wang came out, stood by the piano with what appeared to me a very displeased look, executed a whiplash bow and left. No encore for you!

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.

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