Arts concert review

Yuja Wang takes center-stage at BSO

BSO and pianist Yuja Wang take on Shostakovich, Lee, and Smetana

9177 10.3.19 curtain call for the shostakovich piano concerto no. 1 with andris nelsons  bso principal trumpeter thomas rolfs  and pianist yuja wang %28hilary scott%29
Pianist Yuja Wang, Andris Nelsons, and BSO Principal Trumpeter Thomas Rolfs stand for curtain call for the Shostakovich 'Piano Concerto No. 1.'
Hilary Scott

Week 3: Lee, Shostakovich, and Smetana
James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula
Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35
Selections from Smetana’s “Má Vlast” (“My Country”)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Andris Nelsons
Yuja Wang on Piano, Thomas Rolfs on Trumpet
Boston Symphony Hall

BSO’s performance this week is graced by the flightful fingers of acclaimed pianist Yuja Wang. Wang makes her third performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week, the first two being in 2007 and 2014. Her 2007 performance with BSO, when she was just a 20-year-old music conservatory student stepping in for world-acclaimed Martha Argerich after she cancelled last minute, brought her onto the international music scene. 

This week’s program is a varied palette: a modern piece by James Lee III, an exuberant Shostakovich piano concerto and three pieces from a Smetana collection. Lee’s piece makes a majestic entrance with a fanfare of trumpets, as if marking the opening to a grandiose space adventure. The grandeur dissolves into an array of sparkling voices brought out by the mischievous harp and xylophone. The sum of the parts evoke distinct obstacles colliding, intermingling, intersecting each other at different angles; the whole collects itself into a cosmic array of space debris and suspense. Finally, the violins join into a climax of brass fanfare to close off the piece.

Orchestral music always elicits some sort of setting in my head. Occasionally an aggregate image appears, as in Lee’s piece; other times individual characters step out of the different voices in the phrase, as in Shostakovich’s piece. His Piano Concerto No. 1 begins with the sweetest violin whispers intermingling with Yuja Wang’s mellow piano melodies: a nimble cat dancing on light feet. Then the trumpet, played by Thomas Rolfe, rolls on scene, marking the entrance of the other key player: an enthusiastic hound, teasing the cat. The piano and trumpet blend their respective melodies surprisingly well, with the echoing notes of the lower keys of the piano cueing in soft smudges of sound by the trumpet: a playful tug between cat and dog.

But as Shostakovich’s piano concerto picks up pace, it’s definitely Yuja Wang’s cat that captures the stage. As the play-fight between cat and hound escalates into a brawl, the cat calls forth an aide with a powerful flick of her tail: a majestic lion embodied by resonant strings. Soon Yuja Wang’s dexterous fingers were flying across the keys in a frenzy, and even during speedy octave scales her fingers, splayed wide open, were hammering out melodies of indeterminable intricacy. She threw her entire body into the keys — even slamming her entire forearm into the keys at a climax in the first movement. As grand a Steinway as was that which she played upon, I felt that piano was not a worthy vessel for her musicianship. It lacked the volume necessary to accommodate her powerful aura; her music bursts out of the seams of the piano. Yuja Wang wields the concerto with her entire presence.

After Shostakovich and the flight of Yuja Wang’s fingers, I barely have the mental capacity to absorb Smetana’s patriotic three-song subset selected from Má Vlast. The pieces are “Vltava” (“The Moldau”), “From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields,” and “Blaník.” “Vltava” sticks in my mind the longest; for the first time in the program, I feel all members of the orchestra — strings, woodwind, and brass — coming together in a unified voice. They sing a grand scene with people at play upon the banks of the Vltava river which runs through Prague. Rolling arpeggios sing of lazy waves and sunlight shimmering upon the surface of the water, a soft ending to a stellar performance by the BSO and Yuja Wang.