Photographs taken by Craig Mathew / Mathew Imaging at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
As part of a week-long Rachmaninoff marathon with the LA Philharmonic, Yuja Wang performed Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in C Minor at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on February 11th, conducted by none other than LA Phil’s music director, Gustavo Dudamel. The second concerto is the most popular of the composer’s piano concertos, and its gorgeous tunes have found their way into popular culture through Frank Sinatra, Muse, the film Brief Encounter, but most prominently in Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself.”
Rachmaninoff’s Russian roots are apparent in the opening chords of the concerto, which sound like tolling church bells. Wang started off so quietly that one needed to strain to hear her, but with each successive chord, the bells loomed closer and louder, until she brought the final opening chord to a resounding crash. She played the successive passage in time, unlike many pianists who take a more rubato approach to the stormy section, and the effect was one of resoluteness, as if mirroring Rachmaninoff’s own renewed conviction in his composing abilities. Her playing had gravity but was not ponderous, and there’s a tasteful sense of restraint when she gave important notes an extra millisecond of space. Instead of getting carried away by the soul-stirring melodies, she expressed the devastation of the piece while also playing with clarity and control. Yet, Wang’s penchant for spontaneity could be at odds with meshing with the orchestra, and there were instances in the first movement where she and the orchestra fell out of lockstep.
The second movement expanded on the lyrical theme introduced in the first, shading it with richer, yet more delicate colors. Wang handled every note so preciously and every phrase so delicately as if a sudden move would shatter the shimmering reverie. Her ever-so-gentle fluctuations of the tempo allowed the melody to breathe organically. Just before the recapitulation in this movement, she mesmerized the audience during the virtuosic, cadenza-like section, her lightning-fast fingers becoming a momentary blur.
In the third movement, she breezed through the thorny technical passages with ease, and there’s an edge about her playing that makes the scherzo more sardonic than dance-like. During the sections of dialogue between Wang and the orchestra, it was as if she was egging the orchestra on, daring them to match her energy. Lyrical themes from earlier in the piece return, and the lusher orchestration this time around complemented Wang’s more poignant execution. The balance between the orchestra and Wang was excellent, and any synchronicity issues that cropped up in the first movement had disappeared. The expansive, Gershwin-esque ending felt like a well-deserved victory lap that luxuriates in the much richer version of the theme.
Following the audience’s enthusiastic reception, Wang returned on stage to share three encores. Wang’s renditions of the Allegro leggiero in F# Minor from Mendelssohn’s Song without Words and Sibelius’ 13 Pieces for Piano, Op. 76: II. Etude were sprightly and light. Her playful approach at Tea for Two by Youmans (arranged by Art Tatum) garnered amused chuckles from the audience, and her relaxed performance temporarily transformed the auditorium into a jazz café.
Despite her eye-catching attire, Wang did not set out to grab attention, rather, one can’t help but be transfixed by the intensity and adoration she brings to the piano.
Dudamel led the LA Philharmonic in a stirring, though not necessarily groundbreaking, rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. He brought a full-bodiedness to the piece and emphasized the punchiness preceding grand pauses, as if revving up an engine to chug along at the repeated eighth notes in the first movement. It’s rare to see a saxophone in an orchestral performance, but the alto sax solo in this piece was one of the most famous instances of this instrumentation, and the soloist of the evening rendered the melody so sublimely that one would be forgiven for wishing for the solo to never end. Dudamel brought out the intertwined woodwind lines that flow like a bubbling river beneath the soaring melody. Towards the end of the movement, the piece transitioned from the bristling dance built on the descending three-note motif to a cinematic closing, with the flute and harp becoming sparkly baubles of light over the lush strings. The second movement was a stilted waltz, performed in a more nostalgic, rather than tormented, manner. The third opened with a bold, distinctly Russian proclamation–one could hear traces of Stravinsky and Borodin–that led into a dream-like Lento and ended with a finale featuring a Russian sailor dance-like string passage, Disney-esque flourishes, and allusions to his first symphony and his opera, Vespers. With references to previous works and forward-looking rhythmic patterns, the finale was, in a way, the ending credits to his career.