Arts concert review

Yunchan Lim: A youthful exuberance graces Symphony Hall in Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2

A star-studded night filled with iconic works from Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky

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Yunchan Lim performs Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, with conductor Klaus Mäkelä and the Orchestre de Paris on March 17, 2024.
Robert Torres–The Tech

Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird

Orchestra: Orchestre de Paris

Conducted by: Klaus Mäkelä

Piano Soloist: Yunchan Lim

Location: Boston Symphony Hall

Dates Playing: March 17, 2024

The star of the night was Yunchan Lim, the 20 year old pianist, who just two years prior, became the youngest winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. His career has since exploded, and on this night, performed one of the most iconic piano concertos of the classical repertoire, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto.

Its composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, is widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of his time (possessing famously large hands). His Piano Concerto No. 2 proved pivotal to both his career and his health; its success pulled him out of a four-year depressive period and “buoyed up my self-confidence so much that I began to compose again,” Rachmaninoff wrote at the age of 27.  

The concert opened with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a glittering symphonic poem that set the tone for a night filled with colorful storytelling. Music director and principal conductor Klaus Mäkelä (a young artist himself at 28) led the Orchestre de Paris in painting suspended, atmospheric harmonies and half-step lines that rose to a crescendo, evoking light and color in Debussy’s signature impressionist style. The flute solo voiced our faun protagonist, a mythological half-man, half-goat who lives in the woods and daydreams about nymphs. The orchestra accompaniment ebbed and flowed between two contrasting personas: one had legato-like rolling, cresting series of waves, and the other was a more agitated staccato. Its cyclical nature reinforced the piece’s dreamlike, nostalgic mood. 

Rachmaninoff’s three-movement concerto began with the stormy Moderato. Yunchan Lim placed the first chord unceremoniously, almost sneaking in when we’re not looking. The first few bars were a series of bell chimes, each one louder and more urgent than the previous. These chimes boiled over into a cascade of arpeggios in the piano, followed immediately by a broad unison theme in the strings, its sweeping lyricism setting us squarely in the Romantic period. Far from overpowering the piano, the orchestra’s theme hung overhead, dark clouds looming, while Lim’s virtuosity shone through underneath, fingers leaping, head bowed. Showy, insistent octaves, in staccato dialogue with the orchestra, built to a climax and threatened to lift him out of his seat. The first movement ended with a dramatic flourish that begged for applause. I cringed as the hall inevitably erupted (please don’t clap between movements!). 

The Adagio sostenuto opened with yearning solos from the flute and clarinet, floating above wandering arpeggios in the piano. In response, Lim stroked each key tenderly as if his fingers were made of feathers rather than flesh. His every movement felt deliberate and self-contained. As the theme developed from the piano to the strings, the orchestra didn’t hold back. Neither did Lim as the melody spilled over into an agitated cadenza that spanned almost the entire range of piano keys. The movement closed with the orchestra gradually fading away, one voice at a time, as if waiting patiently for the final echoes of the piano to resonate into silence. 

The playful Allegro scherzando wasted no time in changing the mood. Light, prodding staccato stood in stark contrast to the flowing lines of the second movement, and both Lim and Mäkelä summoned an exuberant, youthful energy: Mäkelä’s heels lifted off the ground in time with the tip of his baton, and Lim’s fingers danced nimbly over the keys. The movement indulged and expanded on the now-familiar themes of the first and second movements, embodying the abundance and extravagance we now associate with Rachmaninoff and the height of romanticism. The piece culminated in a busy, triumphant climax and, of course, to thunderous applause. 

After a long standing ovation, Lim sat back down to play Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, No. 3 (“Tristesse”), this time literally placing the first note before we’ve gotten the hint to stop clapping and sit down. Again, Lim is not one for a grand entrance, preferring to sneak in and get to business on his own terms. He played with utter release, free from the timekeeping of any baton, free to indulge in his own dreamlike trance. Over the course of a few more rounds of applause, he offered the bouquets he received to a few members of the orchestra in a gesture of appreciation. 

After the intermission, Klaus Mäkelä led the orchestra in a brilliant performance of The Firebird, composed when the composer, Stravinsky, was only 27 years old. Rarely is the complete suite performed in the orchestral context, so I relished hearing its entirety. Mäkelä conducted confidently and dynamically to pull colors and textures out of the orchestra, but also with a kind of sparseness that I found unique. Sometimes, I looked up to see just a single fist in the air during something like a powerful, sustained chord. However, while his movements were concise, he maintained this contagious energy throughout the piece, which captured orchestra members and the audience alike.