Among prodigy Yuja Wang's many techniques: punching the keysEXPAND
Among prodigy Yuja Wang's many techniques: punching the keys
Ian Douglas

Superstar Pianist Yuja Wang Is Embracing the Darker Side of Classical Music, and It's Thrilling

Yuja Wang brought the requisite star power and overt glamour that nearly filled Disney Hall on Friday night, as the astonishing Chinese pianist reunited with simpatico conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic and continued her recent obsession with the morbidly engrossing Hungarian composer Béla Bartók.

The 30-year-old Beijing native and resident of New York City first came to attention as a preteen, preternatural wunderkind who dazzled with light-speed precision and over the past decade has become equally at ease with the frothily delicate melodies of Frédéric Chopin and the more tempestuous histrionics of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Wang’s already versatile playing has become even more nuanced and expressive over the past few months as she plunges deeper into the dark and strange waking nightmares of Bartók.

But Wang’s star turn was just one third of a fascinating evening of difficult, complicated and compelling music from the L.A. Phil that also included selections by Bartók contemporaries Igor Stravinsky and Leos Janácek. If you were looking for sentimental washes of soupy, syrupy strings and reassuring melodies that went somewhere easy to follow and then stayed there for a while, you would have been disappointed Friday night. On the other hand, if you’re entranced by passionate, intelligent, unusual 20th-century music that still sounds atypically angular today, played by dynamically charismatic vocalists and other musicians, you might have been in sonic heaven.

The night began with Stravinsky’s final major work, the 1966 choral-and-instrumental opus Requiem Canticles. The 15-minute piece by the Russian-born composer and longtime Angeleno is ostensibly a kind of mass, but it’s hardly a reverent, traditional example of sacred music. Spaces of emptiness are part of the work, and Dudamel allowed the silences to settle in between the sometimes-jarring shifts of sounds. At times, keening flutes would emerge from the rumble. At others, wearily aching horns lowed like sullen cows. As directed by Grant Gershon, the large L.A. Master Chorale mesmerized with straightforward vocal melodies overlapping with a weave of witchy, murmuring whispers. Slovakian bass vocalist Stefan Kocán stood up at the front to intone low, fulsome phrases that were contrasted by Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova’s rosily lyrical incantations.

Stravinsky’s musical shape-shifting was carefully but robustly translated by Dudamel and the L.A. Phil, with the softer moments taking on even more resonance in the wake of the brassier outbursts. Afterward, a sleek black Steinway & Sons piano was quickly wheeled out and positioned just to the stage-right side of Dudamel’s small conducting stand. In an unusual twist (and per the composer’s instructions), three of L.A. Phil’s percussionists were stationed directly behind the piano.

Excitement built further when the conductor escorted Wang onstage. With her short black hair coiffed in a stylish bob, the ever-fashionable pianist was striking in a shimmering silver and pink lamé floor-length, sleeveless gown, with a vertical rectangular bar that split the back. The dress was elegant but daring (at least by classical-music standards), with a long, thigh-length slit. Her legs were bare, unlike the women of the orchestra and chorus, who were dressed completely in black, in either long black formal skirts and stockings or pants. Meanwhile, all the men, including Dudamel, were decked out in black suits with white shirts and white bowties. Wang somehow managed to work the Steinway’s pedals in fancy black pumps with stiletto heels that were at least 5 inches high.

Dudamel and the band quickly dove into Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the first of the three piano concertos by the composer that Yang will perform with L.A. Phil over the next week. Befitting the stage layout, the 25-minute instrumental from 1926 is a dramatic interplay of piano and percussion that’s bordered at times by winsome flurries of woodwinds and curt strokes of the string section. The first half is relatively tranquil but eerie before the emotional floodgates open in the second half and the rest of the orchestra begins marching forward with a demented, Bolero-type momentum.

The piano roams from airily pretty melodies to suddenly foreboding, shadowy chords. For emphasis, Wang sometimes literally punched the keys of the piano with her balled-up fists. While there were several sections of downward-spiraling riffs where she demonstrated her famously blurry tempos and unraveled streams of intensely clustered notes, Wang also proved yet again that she is not just a speed demon. Her sense of touch and phrasing is unrivaled, and she made even relatively simple progressions feel incandescent as she pawed at the keyboard with dramatic but sensitive flourishes.

Wang has been playing a lot of Bartók’s music lately, and her facility with the composer’s thunder and dusty clouds of sound — the music that inspired countless horror-film soundtracks — is increasingly evident. In February, she appeared in Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara with Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, and it was a revelation to see the duo unpeel the darkest layers of Bartók’s soul in such an intimate and starkly stripped-down format.

In Santa Barbara, though, Wang appeared distracted and visibly frustrated by the confused and clumsy woman who was enlisted to turn the pages of the pianist’s sheet music. The page turner couldn’t keep up with Wang’s pace, and the usually amiable Wang — who is so charming in her various commercials parodying her famous image — indulged in atypically divalike behavior by slapping the sheet music out of the turner’s slow hands or pinning it firmly to the stand when the assistant overcompensated and tried to flip the pages too soon. (After intermission that night, the page turner was swiftly replaced by a young man who filled in well enough to earn applause from Kavakos at the end of the performance.)

Yuja Wang in her usual high, high heelsEXPAND
Yuja Wang in her usual high, high heels
Ian Douglas

Wang’s intensity and focus were only heightened with the full strength of the L.A. Phil backing her on Friday, and there were no problems with the night’s page turner. Even with the concerto’s inherent dramatics, Dudamel was measured and calm as he guided the orchestra through Bartók’s mood swings. It was a rare treat to see a full house for a bill of such uncompromising music, and the crowd gave Wang and Dudamel a de rigueur but well-deserved standing ovation. Surprisingly, Wang didn’t return for an encore, perhaps because the final work of the night, Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass (1926), is a 40-minute epic. It should prove interesting to see how much tighter L.A. Phil and Wang mesh by the end of their two weekends together.

After an intermission, a large version of L.A. Phil (with two harpists and multiple percussionists) came back to the stage and set about assembling Janácek’s massive musical edifice. The sprawling work is reverent but not religious, starting with ebullient horns and a sea of swimming strings before the featured vocalists and L.A. Master Chorale amp up the overall volume. Despite its melodic, traditional sections, the loud, boisterous piece is a collision and collage of disparate ideas. Vocalists Kocán and Kolosova returned for intermittent prayerlike exhortations, and Czech tenor Ladislav Elgr was in fine form in a bigger role. But it was American soprano Angela Meade who imbued the mass with stirring power, singing the lyric “Holy holy holy” with an unholy ferocity, her voice radiantly forceful yet exotically otherworldly.

The mass was pumped up further by Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna, whose madhouse solos alternately evoked a churchy magnificence and a chilling night locked inside Dracula’s castle. She operated Disney Hall’s in-house organ from a mobile console, a large tan device that sounded gloriously full when placed at the front of the stage. Although Apkalna’s gold heels weren’t as high as Wang’s, the organist nonetheless had to tap-dance nimbly over a greater number of pedals while simultaneously manipulating the stops and keys of the organ. It added even more visual flair to a performance that was already musically thrilling and relentlessly thought-provoking.

Yuja Wang and L.A. Phil continue at Disney Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown, Thu., June 1, 8 p.m.; Fri., June 2, 11 a.m.; Sat., June 3, 8 p.m.; Sun., June 4, 2 p.m.; $20-$216. (323) 850-2000.

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