A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Yuja Wang / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

On Dec. 21 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the young Chinese piano phenom Yuja Wang teamed up with the slightly older Venezuelan conducting phenom of the LA Phil Gustavo Dudamel for a performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. The two recently released a CD of the Rach 3 (along with the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 accompanied by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra), and, intended or not, this concert surely succeeded in promoting the disc.

The two interpretations of the Rach 3 — on the disc and with the LA Phil in Disney Hall — were very similar. In both, Dudamel held the orchestra back during much of the concerto so that Wang’s uncharacteristically muted playing could be audible. Of course, when it mattered — for example, in the third movement — Dudamel let go of the reins, and at those moments, except for seeing Wang’s fingers dancing across the piano keys, one could barely hear her playing.

The Dudamel-Wang interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s now most-well-known piano concerto is unique in the repertoire in that it doesn’t overdo the fireworks — not exactly what one would expect from two young, dynamic performers. In fact, although Wang can certainly pound with the best of them, her Rach 3 is a more feminine take on the concerto. And that is a good thing. It shows that some considerable thought went into how she and Dudamel wanted to convey the work. However, when it counted, Wang showed why she is not only considered to be technically brilliant, but also a crowd pleaser.

After several curtain calls, Wang calmed the audience, if only briefly, by performing an encore of the Danse Russe (Russian Dance) from the end of the first tableau (movement) from Petrushka by Stravinsky, which just happened to be the closing piece of the concert. Although Stravinsky admittedly couldn’t meet the technical difficulties of performing his arrangement of Petrushka for piano, Wang had no problem tackling them, once again bringing the audience to its feet.

The concert opened with the world premiere of a work commissioned by the LA Phil: a 10-minute piece for large orchestra, titled Blow Bright, by the Danish/Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason. It probably would have helped to know that Bjarnason is inspired by the kinds of electronic effects one can achieve in a recording studio. Blow Bright is certainly suggestive of that inspiration, while at the same time being both quite melodic and rhythmic in places. All in all, it was a very satisfying piece, and at the conclusion the audience was treated to a bow by the composer.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, Petrushka (1911), the second and less-well-known of Igor Stravinsky’s three ballet masterpieces, sandwiched between The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913). Because it is also played less often than the other two ballets, it was a treat to hear Dudamel and the LA Phil perform it. Petrushka tells the story of a puppet (Petrushka) who comes to life and tries to win the heart of a pretty ballerina who instead falls for the bad guy, Blackmoor, who eventually murders Petrushka, so the score spotlights many of the individual members of the orchestra in telling the story. Consequently, many of the LA Phil principals deserve a shout out for their exceptional playing, in particular Principal Flute Julien Beaudiment, Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin, who had a tough act to follow after Wang played the Danse Russe. Also, Concertmaster Martin Chalifour impressed as usual with his solo parts in Blow Bright and Petrushka.

Dudamel uncharacteristically used scores for all three pieces, but one can forgive him because Blow Bright was a world premiere, the Rach 3 demands that the conductor know exactly what the piano part is, and Petrushka is more difficult to conduct than The Firebird and The Rite of Spring because numerous solo instruments take part in telling the story.

The concert certainly provided the kind of bang one would expect from the concluding classical concert of the LA Phil’s fall 2013 season.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.