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Yuja Wang and James Conlon triumph with the LA Phil

Yuja Wang is the real deal.

If there was any doubt that might have crept in as to whether or not she was a “serious” pianist and/or musician based on a spate of recent cancellations and a critic’s unfortunate comments about her attire at the Hollywood Bowl, let them be put to rest after this past weekend’s concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall.  On Sunday afternoon, she was spectacular in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, aided strongly by James Conlon and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Much hype had been created leading up to this appearance, and after the orchestra finished tuning up, Ms. Wang added to the anticipation as she waited an extra minute before walking out onto the stage, leaving the orchestra and audience in nervous silence.  Finally, as she approached the piano, she seemed just a bit aloof, making little eye contact with orchestra or conductor before sitting down.  Even after the music began, she appeared to be in a bit of a self-imposed coccoon while playing.   Her reserved manner seemed a little surprising given the attention she brings to herself because of her wardrobe choices — and for Sunday’s performance, she went with another not-so-subtle number:  a black spaghetti-strap microdress paired with stilleto heels somewhere north of 12cm high, toned down a bit because she wore black tights with it instead of going bare-legged; as a bonus, she sported a hair feather or two.  Despite all that, the focus quickly moved to her hands once she started playing,  and it remained there as she attacked the piece with ferocious speed, blazing through arpeggios, jumps up and down the keyboard, and fist-fulls of octave runs with seeming ease.

But she is more than just a technical machine, and beyond playing quickly and with razor-sharp accuracy, she also brings a strong sense of line and phrased even the thorniest of passages with a sense of light and shade.  She maintained clarity without becoming percussive; in the slower moments, she played with tenderness without turning schmaltzy, emoting, or making flowery gestures as do other, more demonstrative showmen whom I try to avoid (COUGH, Lang Lang, cough cough).    There are other pianists who play with more power, and some may give this concerto a more idiomatic angularity, but Ms. Wang can hold her own with any of them.  A very memorable performance.

James Conlon

For their part, Mr. Conlon and the orchestra offered gracious support, beginning with a nice bit of restraint before opening up as the concerto went along.  Sometimes it seemed that Ms. Wang was pushing harder and faster than Mr. Conlon and the LA Phil musicians seemed to want to go, but despite some moments of extra tension that this caused, it never sounded awkard.  The orchestra played with zest throughout, with the strings sounding particularly lush in the third movement.

Prokofiev was not the only thing on the bill.  Mr. Conlon is, of course, the distinguished Richard Seaver Music Director of Los Angeles Opera, and he always seems to make a point of choosing interesting and decidedly non-operatic repertoire whenever he visits WDCH from the other side of First Street.  This weekend was no exception.  The concert opened with the rarely played Sinfonia da Requiem of Benjamin Britten.  Mr. Conlon presented a compelling interpretation, filled with nuance and color.  The orchestra played wonderfully, the brass sounding particularly resplendent during the Dies Irae.  Let’s hope this Britten gem shows up again soon.

The concert ended with a full-throated rendition of the 7th Symphony of Antonín Dvorák.  Mr. Conlon conducted with great energy and the orchestra responded with its typical verve, a touch of Slavik warmth coming through especially in the woodwinds.  When it was all done, the audience gave a loud and sustained ovation, nearly matching the one given to Ms. Wang.  Mr. Conlon responded by repeatedly asking the whole orchestra to stand and acknowledge the cheers without singling out any particular individual player.

Other random thoughts:

  • A roughly one-minute excerpt from the Friday performance is available on the LA Phil’s Facebook page (click HERE)
  • Mr. Conlon always draws excellent playing out of the orchestra, and we are fortunate that he has become an annual visitor to WDCH.  That said, it seems a shame that despite having another world-class conductor so close, the LA Phil only has him over one week a year.  I think it should be at least two, and Bob Thomas, in his review, suggests offering Mr. Conlon a more formal position, presumably with even more weeks to go along with it.  On the other hand, Mr. Conlon’s name keeps getting bandied about as a possible replacement for James Levine as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, so perhaps we should be hoping that we continue to get at least one week a year whatever the opera company he chooses to run.
  • After taking a couple of solo bows from the enthusiastically appreciative WDCH audience, Ms. Wang gave a lovely account of the Melodie from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in an arrangement by Rachmaninoff as her encore.
  • Ms. Wang signed autographs after the concert, as Richard Goode did the week before.  The line of those awaiting her signature was easily five or six times longer than the one the previous week for Mr. Goode.  Despite any attempts she may have made of being friendly with her fans, the two security guards posted next to her (definitely NOT regular WDCH ushers) kept the line moving at a rapid pace, limiting any interaction and preventing people from taking posed pictures with her.  And for those who may be wondering, she changed into a pair of jeans but kept the heels for the autograph session.
  • CKDH, Jr., the budding pianist that he is, was stunned watching Ms. Wang’s hands and fingers zip up and down the keyboard.  He is usually quite social, especially with the ladies, but when he got to the front of the autograph line, he was rendered speechless.
  • With this being the first weekend with a guest conductor, it wasn’t entirely surprising to see many players taking the week off.  Nathan Cole served as concertmaster, Mark Kashper led the second violins, Dale Hikawa Silverman sat as first chair viola; Principal Bass Chris Hanulik led his section, while the the other principal, Dennis Trembly, was not on stage.  Other associate principals sitting first chair for the entire concert included Cathy Karoly and Marion Kuszyk.  Nick Stoup, who has played in parts of other concerts this season, took over the timpani chair for the whole evening, and Ben Lulich (Principal Clarinet of the Pacific Symphony) sat in as the night’s E-flat & 2nd clarinet.  Many other familiar substitutes played throughout the orchestra.
  • For most of Gustavo Dudamel’s concerts this season, he had shifted the string seating to have the violins grouped together on the audience’s left, with the cellos and basses center-right, and the violas on the edge of the stage at the extreme right.  Mr. Conlon chose to keep them in this arrangement, even though in the past he has had them arranged with violins split (i.e. V1-Vc-Vla-V2).  Not sure if that was driven by repertoire, a desire to maintain some consistency for the orchestra, or some combination of both.
  • I’ve seen Mr. Conlon speak a number of times in the past, in both pre-concert lectures and as part of TV interviews.  In those, he has always been articulate, warm, and engaging.  Before Sunday’s concert, he chose to give some opening remarks from stage, and unfortunately, he was not quite as compelling a speaker this time around; despite offering some  interesting points, he seemed a bit rushed, coming across a little bit like a nervous college student trying to hurry through a presentation in front of a class.

Los Angeles Philharmonic; November 6, 2011; Walt Disney Concert Hall
James Conlon, conductor
Yuja Wang, piano

Britten:  Sinfonia da Requiem
Prokofiev:  Piano Concerto No. 3
Dvorák:  Symphony No. 7

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Photo credits:

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2 thoughts on “Yuja Wang and James Conlon triumph with the LA Phil

  1. An occasional typo is easy for me to ignore but not when it comes to performers’ names such as, in this case, Kashper and Kuszyk. Also, by mentioning Chris Hanulik among all those Associates and starting the next sentence with “Other associate principals” you have created an impression that he is one of them while not making it clear that Chris is indeed a Principal.

    While i generally agree with your positive sentiments about Yuja Wang’s brilliant playing last Sunday afternoon, a slightly older Chinese pianist whose last name is the same as his first managed to easily eclipse Yuja’s achievement just a few hours later on that same stage. It was one of the most outstanding piano recitals i have ever heard: beautiful tone throughout, original musical imagination, phenomenal technique, very few instances of exaggeration or questionable taste and much more reserved body language than he used to exhibit before – overall, a sublime performance. His Bach was nearly impeccable, his Schubert quite convincing, his Chopin almost superhuman and the two Liszt encores were superb. He is now a truly remarkable pianist.

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  2. Well, that’s more than a little embarrassing. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

    I willingly acknowledge blame whenever it is due me, as certainly it is in this case (I wrote the post, after all). That said, I will off-load at least some of the blame onto a quirky internet connection at my previous hotel not playing nicely with my laptop browser. I actually caught the misspellings of names before publishing — or so I thought (you’d think I’d pay pretty close attention to at least one of those names). For some reason, the last batch of edits didn’t seem to actually get saved before I published, shut down, and ran out the door. Earlier this afternoon, Mrs. CKDH called me from home to tell me of some other misstakes she caught which I knew I had edited and fixed; however, she didn’t know to double check the names and I wasn’t in a position to re-edit the rest of it until right now.

    More info than you probably care about, but I wanted to offer a thorough explanation. My apologies for not getting it right to begin with.

    With regards to your comments about the other pianist performing later on that same day: that is certainly welcome news. I thought it a shame that such incredible talent be paired with . . . um, let’s just call it an approach and an interpretive style to which I disagreed. There was much to be admired in the previous concerts of his which I had attended, despite whatever other aspects I may have strongly disliked. Given your assessment, I look forward to his next visit with great anticipation.

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