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Yuja’s Mozart and Respighi tone poems make for uneasy bedfellows

February 04, 2016 at 12:15 pm
Yuja Wang performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 with Charles Dutoit and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night.Photo: Norbert Kniat

Yuja Wang performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 with Charles Dutoit and the New York Philharmonic Thursday night. Photo: Norbert Kniat

“Wang, Mozart, and The Pines of Rome” is the billing for the New York Philharmonic’s series this week. If it had just been that, Wednesday’s concert would have been a perfectly satisfying one, if a little on the brief side. In the end, an insistence on cleaving to standard big-concert programming left Wednesday’s lineup feeling bloated.

The public image of Yuja Wang does not seem to match the reality of her playing these days. The blurb the Philharmonic uses on the webpage for the concert series notes her “virtuosity and catch-me-if-you-can speeds.” Indeed, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat (K. 271) she showed a tendency to rush in faster sections of the outer movements.

This is a shame, actually, since Wang’s reputation as a speed-demon obscures the true depth of her musical intelligence. The strength of her passagework is not its blazing ferocity but its direction–when she plays a complicated run, one can hear the destination almost before it’s been reached. She was at her best in the music’s calmest moments, when she could show off her masterful command of the instrument’s colors.

The sorrowful Andantino, naturally, was the best example–Wang in this movement was possessed of a natural, elegant poise, but there was immense emotional weight in the reserved demeanor of her playing. She crafted beautiful phrases with impeccable balance and subtle coloration, bringing the keyboard to a ghostly whisper in the closing bars–marred slightly by the odd grunting of veteran conductor Charles Dutoit, under whom the orchestra sounded more than usually dry.

Wang seemed almost reluctant to give an encore, waiting a good thirty seconds to reappear for a fourth bow. Acquiescing to the growing applause, she offered one of her standards, Arcadi Volodos’s cheeky send-up of Mozart’s Rondo “Alla Turca,” played on this occasion with an extra dash of sly whimsy.

To follow Mozart’s early masterpiece with The Pines of Rome alone might have seemed  a little garish. Instead, we had Respighi’s entire “Roman trilogy” together, a massive, hour-long showcase of limited variety that by its end had become a grim slog.

Not that this was any particular fault of the performance, per se. The Philharmonic certainly showed enough raw power to achieve the floor-shaking volume Respighi so often calls for. But size is in fact the primary attribute of this triptych, which allows little room for nuance. The first in particular, Feste romane, is an oafish piece with few reprieves after the impressive opening fanfare, the symphonic equivalent of an ill-paced action movie.

The most rewarding of the three items in this performance was the second, Fontane di Roma, as the gurgling images of the fountains allowed Dutoit to spin the impressionistic meshes that are his specialty, delicately blurring the texture while bringing one line into stark focus.

The Pines of Rome, the last leg of the cycle, is justly the most popular, as it shows more variety than either of its companions. Dutoit and the Philharmonic showed admirable versatility in navigating the piece, from its alarm-bell ringing to heavy solemnity and blaring heights. Yet after an hour-long trek through Respighi’s idiosyncrasies, the enormous ending seemed more merciful than triumphant.

On a brighter note, the Philharmonic seems to be having success in luring younger audiences to Lincoln Center. For the Friday and Saturday performances they’re offering attendees thirty-five and under a $55 ticket that includes a swanky after-party, and all of those ticket packages were sold out as of Wednesday night. Let’s just hope the musical beast on the second half of the program doesn’t scare off any newcomers.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and  8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at David Geffen Hall.


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