Oberlin’s Yasuda Stuns with Barber’s Piano Concerto

Monica Hunter-Hart on April 17, 2015
The Oberlin Orchestra, photo courtesy of Oberlin College.
The Oberline Orchestra, photo courtesy of Oberlin College.

From SFCV Emerging Writers Program

Judging by her huge grin, Marika Yasuda, an Oberlin Conservatory piano performance major, was thrilled to take to the stage of Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel as soloist with the Oberlin Orchestra on April 11. The audience’s large turnout and enthusiastic response indicated that they were, in turn, delighted to have her. Last fall, Yasuda took the top prize in Oberlin’s prestigious Senior Concerto Competition, earning a solo appearance with the orchestra in Samuel Barber’s beloved Piano Concerto. Her performance made the piece the pinnacle of the night’s program of works by Barber and Benjamin Britten, conducted by Raphael Jiménez.

The concerto begins with a piano solo that Yasuda dispatched with a drama that would have rendered a lesser orchestra superfluous. The first movement, Allegro appassionato, is lyrical but not dulcet. Introducing eerie themes that were taken up by the orchestra, Yasuda seemed to be directing some mysterious activity. Like a witch brewing a potion, her hands blurred on the keys as she churned layers of sound. The effect was complete with a sudden crescendo and cymbal peal that were the aural equivalent of a magician’s puff of smoke. The movement’s even more intense final crescendo suggested the height of the witchery, but the sudden ending was a tease.

In contrast, the following Canzone movement was elegiac, featuring brief flute solos rendered with lovely lamentation by Aram Mun. Toward the beginning, Yasuda created a blurred texture with swirling scales in her left hand while picking out clear, simple phrases with her right. Then both of her hands enveloped the dark undercurrent as the orchestra took up the melody. In the final Allegro molto movement, the orchestra stayed steady despite the complex 5/8 meter. Faced with huge octave jumps requiring precise aim, Yasuda conquered them all, sometimes without even looking at her hands. A virtuosic performance from the first page to the last. Faced with huge octave jumps requiring precise aim, Yasuda conquered them all, sometimes without even looking at her hands.

The next piece on the program, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, is permeated by a recurring pulse. Beginning in the harp, it makes its way through the orchestra, eventually quickening into galloping phrases in the strings. Yet these rhythms, which should have propelled the piece forward, tended to drag.

Jiménez slowed the tempo slightly at points, some of which must have been intentional. But what was perhaps meant to build tension instead introduced tedium. The Sinfonia ended well, however, with an unusually gentle climax. The instruments rose fluidly in volume, topped by cymbals that met softly — a light dusting rather than a crash. In the final bars, a long, steady clarinet note faded seamlessly into nothingness.

It was back to Barber for the concert’s third and final piece, Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance — music Barber drew from a ballet he wrote for choreographer Martha Graham. For music inspired by the Greek myth of a princess so maddened by an unfaithful husband that she kills their children and his new lover, the piece is fittingly disturbing. It begins with soft, sustained string phrases that a xylophone colors with unnerving chromaticism. Jiménez led the orchestra deftly through a slow buildup of intensity — the meditation — into the dance, a charge of dashing horns and strings underscored by a low, pounding piano motif.

Despite some minor tuning issues, the piece stayed tight and ended strong. Relentlessly accelerating strings climaxed in an abrupt cadence to end the piece, prompting a loud “Woah!” from one listener. “Woah” was an appropriate sentiment for a concert that was consistently impressive and, in Yasuda’s performance, truly stunning.