Sunday, June 19, 2011

Music I'm Listening To: Michael Tilson Thomas Conducting the San Francisco Symphony, Yuja Wang Soloist (June 17, 2011)

I attended the June 17 evening performance of the San Francisco Symphony, a concert conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and featuring pianist Yuja Wang. The program included Bartok's Rumanian Folk Dances, the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2, and a suite of pieces from Tchaikovsky's music for Swan Lake. I was able to attend the pre-concert talk, having earlier in the day gone to the Museum of the African Diaspora to see the Romare Bearden show currently there. It was useful to hear some of the Rumanian Dances in versions for solo piano during the talk. While charming in the orchestrated versions the symphony played, they have a simplicity and clarity on the piano that is lost when played by an ensemble.

You could almost hear a collective gasp when, following the Rumanian Dances, Yuja Wang walked out on stage wearing a very short, clinging, vermillion dress with black venting and a bold V-shaped black design on the back--a dress so short and tight that there would have been a scandal if people were scandalized by such things any more. My mother, who also attended the performance, got it right, I think, when she said the dress looked more like a bathing suit. Four-inch platform heels added to the effect. One wonders if platforms are the best choice for using the pedals on a piano, but I assume Ms. Wang knows what works and what doesn't. The outfit was a distraction, however, if not an entirely unpleasant one.

The Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 requires a great deal of energy, particularly in its opening and concluding movements, an energy Wang appears to have in abundance. While her playing was fast, powerful, and precise, and I enjoyed the performance on the whole, it didn't quite gel in places, with Thomas allowing the orchestra to completely overwhelm the piano here, and letting the opposite happen there, particularly in the first movement. The slow, brooding second movement was most effective. Thomas always seems wildly inconsistent to me (see below).

The ballet music that followed intermission, however, was nearly perfect. I can't really imagine a more persuasive performance. Thomas, as usual, seemed aloof while on the podium, but there was a tightness between the musicians and the conductor in this case that resulted in a clean, neat performance that let the music speak without any obstruction. As usual in San Francisco, the woodwind section stood out, particularly the flute in this case. There were a number of well-played solos by one of the trumpets as well. Evidently the audience agreed with me. As Thomas was acknowledging individual musicians after the performance, the flute and trumpet got particularly enthusiastic applause. The concert was worth it just for the Tchaikovsky.

Photo of Yuja Wang by Felix Broede, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

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