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Review: Yuja Wang, the next Chinese sensation

February 6, 2009 |  1:30 pm

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An awakening classical music giant has roared again.

With Lang Lang and Yundi Li already in their mid-20s, the time has come for China to launch its next sensation if it intends to dominate young pianism (as it clearly does).  Her name is Yuja Wang.  She will turn 22 on Tuesday.  Her first recording on Deutsche Grammophon (Lang’s and Li’s label) is scheduled to come out in April.  She’s gone from playing minor engagements to big-ticket ones in no time.  She apparently dazzles everywhere she appears. 

Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Wang played Prokofiev’s big-fisted Second Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Charles Dutoit, who is one of the celebrity conductors to have taken her under his wing (Michael Tilson Thomas is another).  This was her debut with the full ensemble (she appeared in a chamber music program with orchestra members two days earlier).  It was hardly, though, her West Coast debut.  The Philharmonic Society of Orange County presented her in a recital at UC Irvine when she was 16.  No one paid much attention.  Now that presenter looks very prescient.

Wang is slight as a sparrow (a very pretty sparrow), with willowy arms and long, slender fingers.  At least I think her fingers long and her hands unusually large. They moved far too fast to tell. The massive, focused tone she gets from the piano does not quite seem possible without a massive, muscled frame to produce it or, at the very least, a pair of big, beefy hands.

And then there is the speed and accuracy.  These things are hers to command as well, and to an astonishing degree.  She is no less a technical wonder than Lang and Li.

She is not, though, attempting to compete with her superstar elders in the flash department.  Hers was a sober, commanding performance Tuesday that put the music first.

The choice of concerto was an interesting one for several reasons.  No one knows quite what to make of this work, which was not much played until recently.  It got a big boost from Li, who recently recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa for a disc that has become a critic’s favorite. 

The concerto will open the Hollywood Bowl’s classical season in July, with Vladimir Feltsman as soloist.

Written in 1913 when the Russian composer was still a student in St. Petersburg, the full score was lost in the 1917 Revolution, and Prokofiev rewrote the work from the piano part in 1923.  The original score was said to have been daring.

Prokofiev, not Shostakovich, was considered Russia's most promising revolutionary composer by an avant-garde that was producing Futurist paintings, books and poetry. These artists courted Prokofiev, trying to wean him from less provocative Russian Modernism to something more out-there, but they got to him too late and then went to work on Shostakovich as second best.  By the '20s, when the Second Concerto was rewritten, Prokofiev had become a more mainstream European Modernist.

By coincidence, a symposium on Russian Futurism was given earlier Thursday at the Getty Center, in conjunction with its exhibition on the avant-garde Russian book “Tango With Cows.” It is a pity the museum didn’t hook up with the L.A. Phil, because this performance of the Prokofiev concerto came much closer to a graphically Constructivist approach than any I had heard.  Li and Ozawa on their Berlin recording make pretty Romantic-tinged music as if for the Russian bourgeoisie, soft-pedaling any hint of barbarism.

Wang and Dutoit were exciting.  Ironically, Dutoit’s specialty is French music of the period when Prokofiev rewrote the concerto in Paris, under the city’s spell.  Still, this was a brilliant, incisive reading from orchestra and soloist.  Prokofiev didn’t smooth all the edges –- there are still startling stops and starts –- and the edginess here was a stimulant.

Dutoit ended his program with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” That was also the work that followed the premiere of Prokofiev’s concerto in St. Petersburg in 1913, and it represented a pretty good idea of what the Russian public at the time felt music should sound like.  I doubt, though, that it sounded then anything like it did in Disney.

Dutoit gave the lush score a tart French treatment, bringing out sharply etched colors and making sure every melodic phrase had the finesse and charm that you find only on the fanciest Parisian boulevards.  He fiddled with the extremes of slow and fast, with sexiness and perfectly controlled frenzy.  There was not a dull second in a score that has plenty of repetition.

Martin Chalifour gave intense flavor to the extensive violin solos.  And all others in the orchestra rose to his challenge.  Michele Zukovsky’s sinuous clarinet solos were particularly bewitching. 

The program began with Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” a pleasant two-piano piece orchestrated by Henry Büsser for no good reason other than that it is a crowd-pleaser.  And so it was.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 2 p.m. Saturday. $42-$147. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Yuja Wang acknowledges the applause at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

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