The girl in green plus other music

July 16, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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I’m pretty sure that the full house for last night’s Opera House SSO Master Series concert was all about one diminutive Chinese girl pianist….writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Yuja Wang’s reputation had suddenly ballooned, so that those who may have missed her sensational solo recital on Monday night made sure they wouldn’t do so again. Others, like me, simply wanted more.

Yuga Wang

Yuga Wang

I now realise that a Wang concert is not just about the music. Common to both performances I attended was the delay of her arrival on stage. The audience has its last cough, silence settles and we wait for the clip-clop of her high heels on timber. It is a teetering moment that elongates until we wonder if something has gone wrong. Has she been kidnapped? There are whispers. Suddenly she strides on, both confident and humble, and dressed to kill. She bows quickly and deeply before settling in behind the gleaming black Steinway.

Last night she again chose a long, slightly trained evening dress, exposing her arms and back, but hiding her platform stiletto shoes. The dress was in vivid emerald-green, gleaming like a jewel set in a sea of black clad musicians.

I don’t know why the organisers didn’t break with tradition and run the Brahms second piano concerto after interval. It was certainly the pinnacle of the night, well-played as the rest of the program was.

This piano concerto differs from most others in that it is in four movements, giving it symphonic proportions and a duration of 45 minutes. It has no cadenza but it commits the soloist to hard labour from the opening bars and never lets up. It requires power that seems more suited to male pianists because it must so often compete with the orchestra. In many live performances, where mixing can’t be used to adjust the sound balance, the pianist resorts to wood chopping from start to finish to make sure he’s heard.

None of this applied to Wang’s reading of the concerto. When she needed power she turned up the wick with slender arms and upper body that defied physics. When pianissimo was called for she forced silence upon us to hear the delicate introspection. As in her solo recital, Wang’s tonal breadth was astonishing.

Among many lasting impressions of the performance, I remember the bars of the third movement, marked Andante, where Wang and principal cellist, Umberto Clerici, become lovers briefly in a duet of melting beauty.

Lionel Briniuer   Photo: Val Adamson

Lionel Bringuier Photo: Val Adamson

The only question mark over the concerto was the milliseconds that sometimes separated piano and orchestra when they were called upon to hit a chord together. As so often happens, the piano hit first. This will probably be sorted in subsequent performances.

Although I’m now a confirmed Wangophile, there was some other fine music in the program. The opening piece was Con brio – Concert overture for orchestra by Jorg Widmann. Making its Australian premier, it was a fun work (probably not meant to be) but not one I’d especially want to hear again. For twelve minutes were treated to staccato crashes involving the whole orchestra and a virtuoso performance by the percussionist as he extracted all sorts of unfamiliar sounds from his array of bangables. Musical opinion aside, this was a test for the orchestra and French conductor, Lionel Bringuier and they came through with flying colours.

With Wang out of the way and her emerald dress safely back in the wardrobe we settled down to Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 in G major Op. 88. Along with the seventh and ninth (New World) this forms the pinnacle of Dvorak’s symphonic output.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The eighth is a jubilant, sweeping symphony in four movements calling for an orchestra that filled the stage. When you see eight bull fiddles, four horns and three trombones setting up you know you’re in for a grand ride. Dvorak’s music is characterised by satisfying parcels of sound that you take away and unconsciously hum later.

The symphony begins with a pastoral reference which leads into a collection of sometimes witty, sometimes expansive motifs, more like a collection of pictures than a conventional symphony. It finishes in a deeply pleasing starburst of sound.

In all of the three works, conductor Lionel Bringuier showed himself to be more interested in producing precise, well-interpreted music than leaping about on the podium in a show of calisthenics. I’d guess that the players knew exactly where they were going with him at the helm.

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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