San Francisco Chronicle
Symphony, Wang offer an early listen of European tour
Earlier this year, pianist Yuja Wang dazzled a Carnegie Hall audience by performing all five of Rachmaninoff ’s piano concertos in a single marathon concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Compared to a feat like that, playing just one of those behemoths might seem like an off night.
But Wang never phones it in, and she rarely goes astray. Her rendition of the Third Concerto with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday, March 1, packed enough thrills to keep an audience satisfied for days.
She tore through the concerto’s ferocious passagework with steely precision. She delivered lyrical sections in a dreamy, almost otherworldly cadence. She bounced musical ideas off the orchestra and caught them as they returned, like a major-league infielder
tossing a ball around.
Wang’s superpower, as it has been since the very beginning of her career, is her ability to give equal weight to both keyboard virtuosity and expressive urgency. Typically, most pianists engage in some kind of trade-off between these two values, favoring either technical bravura or emotional depth.
Wang says, why not both? You could hear this in action right from the concerto’s opening measures, a single-line melody that seems paradoxical in its simplicity. A first-time listener is apt to wonder what kind of pyrotechnics Rachmaninoff will be able to pull from material so straightforward, only to discover the answer as the concerto unfolds.
In Wang’s version, though, there was coiled energy just waiting to spring, tigerlike, from the sinuous curves of that tune. No one could have been in doubt that explosions were on their way.
Yet Wang gave the piece’s softer edges their full value. Even in the most clangorous stretches of keyboard display, she sheathed every note in a thin layer of velvet. And in the broad finale, which juxtaposes knuckle-busting sections with interludes of tender elegance, Wang brought out the deepest rewards in Rachmaninoff ’s writing.
There was, naturally, more to come — not the string of six or seven encores that Wang can peel off when she’s feeling generous (and particularly tireless), but two selections of aching intimacy and beauty.
One was Liszt’s arrangement of the Schubert song “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” its purling accompaniment evoking of the spinning wheel of the title; the other was the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” in the arrangement by Giovanni Sgambati.
Wednesday’s was the first of just two performances of this program, which will form part of the orchestra’s upcoming tour of cities in France and Germany. But before everyone leaves town, Wang is slated for an appearance at SoundBox on Saturday, March 4, together with composerpianist Nico Muhly, one of the orchestra’s Collaborative Partners.
Other delights in store for the Symphony’s European audiences were on the first half of the program, beginning with the resplendent “Tumblebird Contrails” by Berkeley native Gabriella Smith. This 12-minute tour de force of textural writing conjures up the beauties — visual, sonic and physical — of the Northern California coastline.
Smith’s mastery of orchestral resources is endlessly powerful. Rustling, whispering strings call up the lapping waves. The sand sizzles in an array of vivid percussion effects, while*
shorebirds wheel their way through the woodwinds. A weighty brass chorale registers as faroff foghorns.
Yet Smith’s score extends far beyond the pictorial. Harmonic sleight-of-hand runs through the piece, right up to the gleaming major chord that concludes the piece on a triumphant but wonderfully unsentimental note, and melodies twist and turn around the instrumental textures.
Something of the same combination, although at greater length and depth, runs through Salonen’s vibrant tone poem “Nyx.” A musical portrait of the Greek goddess of night, the piece owes an acknowledged debt to Richard Strauss, but its details — particularly the slippery, insinuating clarinet solos superbly shaped by principal Carey Bell — give it a distinctive shape.
Orchestral touring has become a slightly contentious issue in recent years, with valid questions raised about the economic and ecological impact of shipping more than 100 people and tons of equipment long distances. These are complex issues, but at least for now local audiences can luxuriate in the opportunity to hear the Symphony’s foreign offerings here at home.