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Los Angeles Philharmonic

Charles Dutoit, guest conductor
Yuja Wang, piano soloist
5 February, 2009
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Debussy: Petite Suite (orch Busser)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

By Fred Granlund         

This week's Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts featured the Philharmonic debut of a young rising start in
the music world, the Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang. Proving once again that appearances are often
deceptive, the waif-like Ms. Wang, who looks for all the world like a teenage fashion model and was just shy
of 22 on Thursday, turned out to be a formidable pianist, with a powerful, burnished tone, stunning
technique and limitless stamina--all of which were quite necessary for the work she chose to introduce
herself to our audience. Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto is a massive, brawling affair combining the
youthful audacity of the brilliant student (Prokofiev was just barely older than our soloist when he wrote and
first performed the work) with the sure hand of the established composer--the result of the loss of the score
during the 1917 Revolution and the composer's reconstruction of it several years later. Intended in part to
impress conservatory judges with its composer's prodigious technical abilities, the solo part is among the
most taxing in the repertoire and seems at times to require a soloist with three hands, particularly in the
huge first-movement cadenza. Ms. Wang took all this in stride, simply swarming all over the keyboard at
once and producing overpowering sonorities with impressively strong fingers and wrists, and a little arm
weight. Interpretively, her reading was more expansive and lyrical than we often hear, the lyricism duly offset
by the spiky brilliance of the Scherzo and the storms of the Finale. The orchestra whispered, pounded and
snarled, as required, with its usual intensity and polish. Not surprisingly, the Disney Hall audience went wild.
Guest Conductor for this auspicious occasion was Charles Dutoit, who reportedly has taken an interest in
Ms. Wang's career. Here presiding over the volcanic eruptions that constitute the orchestral portion of the
concerto, he ensured close co-ordination with the soloist and an assortment of rarely-heard instrumental
details. He had opened the program with Debussy's Petite Suite, originally a delightful piano duet in the
composer's early style, heard here in the splendid orchestration by Henri Busser, which bathes its innocent
tunes in the most beautiful colors imaginable. Its lightness seems to tempt conductors to choose overly brisk
tempi, and the present performance was no exception, but to his great credit Maestro Dutoit found just the
right pace for the gentle Menuet (the hardest pick of all) and the final dance. Still, a shame to push the
opening movement, where Catherine Ransom's ravishing flute solo could have held us captive all evening.
But the real showcase for the orchestra occupied the second half of the program: Sheherazade was clearly
intended for just that purpose by its composer, who seemed to know instinctively how to get the best out of
every instrument. And instinct it must have been, for Rimsky-Korsakov was never trained in orchestration,
though he went on to become one of its greatest masters and taught it to generations of students (including
Stravinsky and Respighi) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. This popular bit of musical storytelling has
become so familiar that we tend to take its felicities for granted, and overlook the thorough, even
methodical, way the composer features each instrument and section of the orchestra. Seeing it performed
"live," and hearing it in the vivid acoustics of Disney Hall, was a good reminder, and in the hands of the
Philharmonic's all-star cast of principals, it couldn't have been more effective. The rapturous audience
response brought solo bows for virtually everyone, led off by Ms. Ransom, oboist Ariana Ghez, clarinetist
Michele Zukovsky, bassoonist Whitney Crockett (a new face in the band, and hopefully a permanent one),
hornist William Lane, harpist Lou Anne Neill, and the whole brass and percussion sections. Concertmaster
Martin Chalifour received special recognition, of course, his reading of the extensive solo violin part taken
from the standpoint of an impassioned orator speaking to a crowd, rather than an intimate scene between
the Sultan and his mistress--an effective choice, but we weren't convinced it was the only one.
In the next few weeks, Robert Spano conducts Gershwin, Rachmaninov and Varese, Christian Zacharias
conducts Haydn, Schumann and Brahms, and James Conlon conducts Mendelssohn with Sarah Chang.
Tickets are still available but will be pretty scarce if you wait too long.