A Bartókian thrill ride

Yuja Wang and the L.A. Phil end Bartók cy­cle with a rap­tur­ous 2nd and a mov­ing 3rd.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARK SWED MU­SIC CRITIC mark.swed@la­times.com

Yuja Wang bril­liantly com­pletes com­poser’s piano con­cer­tos.

The most im­por­tant orches­tra in Amer­ica just ended its sea­son. The last four words of that sen­tence are mine. The oth­ers are the lat­est opin­ion of the New York Times, which the mar­ket­ing de­part­ment of the Los An­ge­les Phil­har­monic has no in­ten­tion of let­ting us for­get (check the web­site). Why would it? This most im­por­tant orches­tra was en­tirely in character over the week­end at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Yuja Wang bril­liantly com­pleted her first cy­cle of the three Bartók piano con­cer­tos — the Sec­ond on Thurs­day and Fri­day; the Third on Satur­day and Sun­day — the lat­est step for the 30-year-old vir­tu­oso on the path to pos­si­bly be­com­ing one of the world’s most im­por­tant pian­ists. Gus­tavo Du­damel sur­rounded the con­cer­tos with al­lur­ingly eerie ac­counts of Stravin­sky’s “Sym­phonies of Wind In­stru­ments” and spectacular ones of Janácek’s brassy Sin­foni­etta.

The orches­tra’s sea­son of­fi­cially ends June 13 with a Green Um­brella Concert by its New Mu­sic Group in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the In­dus­try stag­ing Lou Har­ri­son’s ne­glected opera “Young Cae­sar” (more con­fir­ma­tion of im­por­tance), but the main orches­tra goes on break be­fore re­turn­ing to the Hol­ly­wood Bowl next month. Du­damel heads home to his beloved Simón Bolí­var Sym­phony Orches­tra of Venezuela. Wang heads off to turn heads wher­ever she goes and also to take on new chal­lenges, such as try­ing her hand at con­duct­ing. There was joy in the Disney air from mu­si­cians who, by all ap­pear­ances, have got the world on a string.

Well, maybe not all ap­pear­ances. On Thurs­day night, demon­stra­tors in front of Disney somberly held plac­ards re­mind­ing Du­damel that he would be re­turn­ing to a coun­try of such un­rest, de­pri­va­tion and vi­o­lence that it is on the verge of civil war. Wang’s Bartók cy­cle, her main project of the year, was all but de­railed when Hun­gar­ian pi­anist and con­duc­tor Zoltán Koc­sis died in Novem­ber, end­ing her project of tour­ing and record­ing the con­cer­tos with him. The L.A. cy­cle is now her first and, for the time be­ing, her only.

Then there is the orches­tra it­self. The play­ers leave with the un­cer­tainty of new man­age­ment; the L.A. Phil’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive, Deb­o­rah Borda, who has got­ten much of the credit for the orches­tra’s lofty rep­u­ta­tion, left last week to see if she can now re­store some im­por­tance to the New York Phil­har­monic.

But in­side Disney, the mood was ex­citable, espe­cially in the rap­tur­ous re­sponse Wang got from full houses that de­manded en­core af­ter en­core from her.

The 1931 Sec­ond Con­certo con­tains what might tech­ni­cally be Bartók’s most im­pos­si­ble piano mu­sic and long thought best left to men. Hun­gar­ian pi­anist Edith Far­nadi’s 1956 record­ing is, for in­stance, the only one I can find by a woman.

Com­ing on­stage Thurs­day in a sparkly gown cut to her navel and de­signed espe­cially for the con­certo, as her reg­u­lar ate­lier, Rose­marie Umetsu, no­tably does (Wang’s dress was as much of her per­sona that evening as Björk’s had been two nights ear­lier), the soloist ob­vi­ously looked as fem­i­nine as she pos­si­bly could. She then at­tacked the con­certo with a sur­feit of un­flap­pable vir­tu­osic moxie and wattage few if any other pian­ists of any sex could match.

She treated the bravura of this busily in­tri­cate con­tra­pun­tal score with its volatile Hun­gar­ian rhythms as some­thing she eats for break­fast. Her tem­pos were break­neck. My guess is she got all the notes, as if any­one cared.

With Du­damel’s full sup­port, she dis­played the kind of rhyth­mic propul­sion and ex­u­ber­ance, gaug­ing ebb and f low, that the best way to lis­ten was to hop on for the thrill of the ride. The mid­dle move­ment’s ex­otic night mu­sic duet be­tween piano and per­cus­sion was less the ex­er­cise in mys­tery and men­ace that mor­tal pian­ists may seek and more the en­chant­ing glit­ter of the starry sky.

Bartók’s Third Con­certo, which I heard Satur­day, is a world away. Writ­ten in 1945 as the Hun­gar­ian com­poser lay dy­ing in New York, the score is a serene farewell in­tended for his pi­anist wife, Ditta Pász­tory, to play. The slow move­ment con­tains Bartók’s most ten­der mu­sic and might be too heart­break­ing to bear were it not for the chirp­ing of bird­song.

To in­tol­er­ant Bartókians, the Third is the weak one, verg­ing on sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Wang would have noth­ing of that. She can be a flir­ta­tious pi­anist when flip­pantly toss­ing off the most pun­ish­ing pas­sages, but sen­ti­men­tal­ity is sel­dom her prob­lem. She strove, in­stead, for ut­ter clar­ity as a de­vice for ward­ing off any trace of mor­bid­ity.

Bartók’s hand­writ­ing had got­ten so weak that parts of his man­u­script for this con­certo are al­most un­read­able. Wang’s reading was that of an at­tempt to il­lu­mi­nate ev­ery one of a great com­poser’s last ut­ter­ances, and was all the more mov­ing for her cool el­e­gance.

Du­damel and an ex­cep­tion­ally flex­i­ble L.A. Phil made much of what Wang wanted pos­si­ble but not easy. That is to say that Du­damel never hes­i­tated to cover the piano when the orches­tral parts were par­tic­u­larly ar­rest­ing. But at other times, in­ter­ac­tions be­tween piano and orches­tral in­stru­ments, and par­tic­u­larly the per­cus­sion in the slow move­ments, were as touch­ingly in­ti­mate as cham­ber mu­sic.

Du­damel set the scene for Wang at all the per­for­mances by bring­ing a rare majesty to Stravin­sky’s pi­quant “Sym­phonies for Wind In­stru­ments,” a 1920 me­mo­rial for De­bussy. Mean­while, rather than re­ly­ing on Janácek’s strik­ing, ra­zor-sharp tonal col­ors in Sin­foni­etta, Du­damel sought a thickly lus­cious en­sem­ble sound, where the strings and brass blended into some­thing larger than the sum of the score’s parts.

Thus, the cel­e­bra­tory Sin­foni­etta, which re­quired 13 ex­tra brass stand­ing be­hind the orches­tra on the cho­rus benches, was Du­damel’s brac­ingly op­ti­mistic way to end an im­por­tant sea­son by think­ing mainly of lift­ing the mood of the play­ers and au­di­ence at hand as be­ing what is most im­por­tant.

Pho­to­graphs by Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

YUJA WANG com­mands the key­board dur­ing her per­for­mance of Bartók at Walt Disney Hall on Thurs­day.


reaches out to con­duc­tor Gus­tavo Du­damel af­ter per­for­mance.

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