A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Yuja Wang / Photo courtesy of LA Phil

Later this week the West Regional NCAA men’s basketball tournament will be held at Staples Center in Los Angeles. But March Madness came early to downtown LA when the young Chinese phenom Yuja Wang made her solo recital debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night.

Wang presented a very ambitious program of works befitting an older and more experienced artist, including Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonatas No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Op. 19 (replacing Pour le Piano by Debussy which was originally scheduled), and No. 6 in G major, Op. 62, as well as La Valse by Ravel and four works by Rachmaninoff: the Élégie in E minor, Op. 3, No. 1, the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61 (by Mendelssohn and arranged by Rachmaninoff), the Moment Musical, Op. 16, No. 4 in E minor, and the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36.

The two Scriabin sonatas hardly sound like they were written by the same person, even though they were published only 14 years apart. The Op. 19, published when he was 25 years old — close to the same age as Wang is now — is reminiscent of Chopin, as are some of Scriabin’s early Etudes. The Op. 62, written in 1911, four years before the composer’s death at the age of 43, is typical of his later works, which are more atonal and reflective of the mysticism representative of the Russian symbolist movement.

Wang, already known for her mastery of the keyboard, tackled not only the technical demands of the sonatas, but the emotional ones as well, deftly conveying the romanticism of the Op. 19 and the mystical, darker mood of the Op. 62, with its constant trills at all registers of the keyboard. Her controlled playing during the Op. 62 was amazing, and her interpretation was that of a much older and more experienced artist.

At the conclusion of the Op. 19 sonata, Wang left the stage and almost immediately returned, not to take another bow, but to sit and, after the audience settled down, begin the Op. 62. At its conclusion, she stood by the bench to take a bow and then, without leaving the stage, immediately sat down and began playing the low rumbling notes of La Valse by Ravel, which sounds as if it could have been an extension of the Scriabin.

The solo piano version of La Valse (it was originally composed for orchestra) is not often heard because it is difficult to play — but not for Wang. The piece consists of a series of waltzes alternating between loud and soft, but as it unfolds the energy and tension increases, like a “whirling crowd” or “waltzing couples” in Ravel’s words. And Wang provided her own dizzying performance with her hands whirling across the keys like Ravel’s waltzing couples to a thunderous conclusion that brought the audience to their feet. It was hard to imagine that she would come back out 20 minutes later and play more.

But she did.

Wang devoted the second half of the program to works by a single composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was not only a great composer, but also perhaps the greatest pianist of the 20th century. And at least two of the works, the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61, and the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36, are, to use a clichéd term, knuckle busters.

All of these works spanned Rachmaninoff’s composing career from the teenage Élégie to the Op. 61 arrangement of the Mendelssohn written 40 years later. The signature piece, however, is the Sonata No. 2. It represents Rachmaninoff at the height of his compositional prowess and requires a performer who has the technical and emotional maturity to pull it off. It is hard to believe that a 26-year-old could do it, but Wang showed why she is unquestionably the most exciting pianist on the music scene.

At the conclusion of the Rachmaninoff, one wondered if Wang would perform an encore, especially after such a challenging program where each of the works could have been an encore in its own right. However, after only one curtain call (perhaps Wang knew it was inevitable, so why postpone it?) she returned to perform not one, not two, not three, but four encores! They included the Toccata, Op. 11, by Prokofiev; Variations on Carmen by Bizet, arranged by Vladimir Horowitz; Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2; and the Largo al Factotum from the Barber of Seville by Rossini, arranged by Ginzburg.

Each one, in its own way, was more demanding than the previous one. Wang seemed more energized after each piece and was clearly having fun entertaining the packed hall — something one rarely sees nowadays. At the conclusion of each encore, the audience went wild with excitement. And just when they thought she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do more, she did.

Comparisons of Wang to Horowitz seem inevitable. Not only does she display a technical mastery of her instrument, but in her short time as a performer she has also developed a refined control and musical maturity, which, combined with her creative interpretations, make her a worthy successor of Horowitz.

On Sunday night, Wang showed an impressive command of the repertory, performed with a dazzling display of keyboard fireworks juxtaposed with moments of lyricism. The bar has been reset.

—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA

For information on future concerts at Disney Hall, visit www.laphil.com.