And then along came Yuja: a music review

June 30, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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What started out as a ‘special event’ SSO concert, then fell in a hole when the star attraction pulled out, finished up as a roaring success – thanks to a sexy Chinese girl pianist in a stunning, partly see-through evening dress…writes Fraser Beath McEwing

Yuja Wang         Photo: Kirk Edwards

The star who pulled out was Martha Argerich, considered to be the finest female pianist in the world and one of the best in any company. She was engaged to make her Australian debut playing Beethoven’s first piano concerto but, at 75 and with a rampant tummy ache, didn’t feel up to the trip from Europe. Into her place, at very short notice, stepped Yuja Wang who last played in Australia exactly two years ago. I fell in love with her then and last night’s performance has only deepened it. It saddened me to see so many empty seats in the Opera House, maybe left that way because followers were cheesed off at Martha’s no-show. Now they’ll be kicking themselves over missing Yuja – who has probably moved to the top of the leader board of female pianists.

Before I get too carried away with Yuja (how nice that would be) I’d better get on with the music.

Stravinsky opened the program with, surprisingly, an Australian debut of a recently re-discovered early work called Funeral Song Op5 composed prior to his fame-making Firebird, Rite of Spring and Petrushka. It runs for about 12 minutes and although has signs of Firebird embryos, gives little hint of Stravinsky’s triumphant future. Written as a memorial for his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, there has been great academic excitement since it emerged during a clean-up at the St Petersburg Conservatory. It had not been heard since its premier in 1909 and even Igor, although admitting he liked it, had largely forgotten what was in the score. I don’t share Igor’s enthusiasm for the piece, but those with more refined Stravinskian tastes might.

Back to Yuja. She played the Beethoven with astounding sensitivity, injecting bounce or tenderness where they were called for, and never afraid to linger or sparkle when it mattered. Although her technique was way above the demands of this concerto, the standout for me was the slow movement which was simply poetry.

The success of this performance also had a lot to do with the supreme talent of French conductor, Charles Dutoit. The understanding between conductor and soloist never missed when the orchestra and the piano had to land on the same pinpoint of sound, and their balance was perfectly distributed.

Unusual for a SSO concert, Yuja Wang came back for two solo encores which underlined what a remarkable pianist she has become. If Horowitz had heard her play his Carmen transcription he might have given up playing it himself. The audience was ready to turn the night into a Wang recital when the leader of the orchestra (quite rightly) led the players off the stage to put a cap on the first half.

Yuja Wang was a hard act to follow, but the SSO succeeded in refuelling the audience’s orchestral enthusiasm for the two concluding works.

If you want to test the power and accuracy of an orchestra, throw down the score of Manuel De Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat suites (taken from Diaghilev’s ballet). Under Dutoit, this brought the best out of the SSO. Written for a big orchestra (bull fiddle count: eight) the suites comprise eight dance movements all alive with oomph, whoosh, crash and thump, driven along by Spanish rhythms and familiar Spanish harmonic patterns. It was an exciting, uplifting performance.

Ravel, the supreme orchestrator, finished the program with La Valse, one of my favourite short orchestral pieces. It begins with murmurings from the basses and cellos and builds, layer upon layer, into a stupendous waltz that, like a tornado, seems pick up everything in its path and fling it around. This is obviously a piece that Dutoit likes too, because he conducted it without a score and nearly threw himself off his podium as he acted out the music.  It was a grand finale to a grand concert.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra Opera House concert 29 June 2017

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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