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Joyce Yang Celebrates Music at Kohl Mansion’s Anniversary in Style

December 19, 2017

Music at Kohl

This year, Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame is marking its 35th season of presenting first-rate chamber music concerts. To celebrate, and as a fund-raiser for its educational program, a special gala concert featuring pianist Joyce Yang was presented to fans and supporters of the organization.

In recent years, Joyce Yang, silver-medal winner of the 2005 Van Cliburn, has been heard more often as a chamber musician, most notably with San Francisco’s own Alexander Quartet or as a concerto soloist. However, this special event cast a bright spotlight on Yang herself alone, a special treat for the fortunate audience.

In the intimate setting of the Grand Hall, with perhaps no more than 200 chairs, Yang began with selected pieces from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. With a hushed, warm voice, Yang created a sweetly intimate yet rich atmosphere from the miniatures that often haunt young students. The soundscape in Notturno, in particular, was seductively woven from its lyrical lines, flush with a torrent of passionate emotions that cascaded down the hall. Delicate nightingale calls added depth to the night scene.

Yang told a brief story about meeting the Australian composer Carl Vine, who remarked after hearing her performance of his Sonata: “Very nice, but it’s not what I wrote.” Yang delved into a collection of 12 miniatures by Vine titled Anne Landa Preludes. The opening piece, “Short Story,” wasn’t particularly short, but was delivered with vivid tonal colors whose jagged corners gradually melted into soft shapes. “Thumper” had a whiff of Stravinsky with its persuasive dissonant chords. As the vignettes unfolded, Yang evoked the visual sensation of chords as geometric shapes, intervals as angles, and harmony colors. Her reading of the music was evocative of Kandinsky paintings. The fifths in “Two Fifths” conflicted, the low chords in “Divertissement” almost possessed a hard rock feel, and the bashed chords in “Fughetta” — with some clusters for a good measure — were at last neatly tidied up in the refreshingly tonal and serene “Chorale,” closing out a breathless, psychedelic journey.

If the first half of the program was intimate, the second half was far grander in scale. Yang filled the room with powerful sonorities. Three Rachmaninov preludes were drawn with bold, muscular lines, but with no sacrifice of the more delicate side of the works. Debussy’s Estampes resonated with vivid colors, particularly in the Moorish-influenced “La soirée dans Grenade” (Evening in Grenada) though “Jardin sous la Pluie” (Gardens in the rain) was perhaps a little too blurred: each of the raindrops at the openings turned into a storm too quickly.

Yang’s versatile artistry was affirmed in Liszt’s pyrotechnical Rhapsodie Espagnole. The the fireworks were launched with precision and aplomb. The rapid thirds were fluid, and the thundering octaves showered down with torrid velocity. Liszt’s extravagant showpiece pelted along with uncanny assurance but also “let’s party” bravura.

You might think that such extraordinary pianism should be heard in a large hall. However, in the intimate setting of Kohl Mansion the connection between Yang and the audience was immediate. Nothing was hidden in the resonant acoustics of a large hall, and only an artist of Yang’s caliber could succeed so thoroughly here.

The evening concluded with a fleet reading of the Earl Wild’s Etude No.3, a transcription of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” a perfect red ribbon to wrap an indulgently extravagant evening.

Ken Iisaka is a pianist, a software engineer, and bon vivant living in Foster City.