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Di Wu’s Synesthetic World

March 18, 2011

Old First Concerts

Pssstttt ... Come closer, and listen carefully. I have a secret to share with you.

To my ears, today’s most thrilling and exciting young Chinese pianist with a two-syllable name is not the one of whom you might think at first. Instead, my choice is a slender, strikingly beautiful woman whose long dark mane, torrential octaves, and passionate performances are reminiscent of Martha Argerich. Those who braved the rainstorm and tornado warnings Friday were richly rewarded for their efforts to hear Di Wu’s performance of an all-French program at the Old First Church on Van Ness, in her San Francisco debut.

Di Wu shares some of the pedigree with the other pianist, both of whom studied with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music. Yet, what distinguishes Di Wu from her contemporaries is the level of musical maturity she possesses, her exacting attention to details, and the way she opens her vision of the world to the audience. The sensitivity she possesses and the loving care she lavishes on the most minute details of the music is nothing short of phenomenal.

The program, consisting of Debussy’s Préludes Book II, Ravel’s Miroirs, and the Gounod-Liszt Faust Waltz, was constructed to bring out her best. She clearly holds these works dear to her heart, as she spoke about them most lovingly and eloquently before performing each of them. This created a much more intimate atmosphere and allowed us a glimpse into her extraordinary mind.

The opening “Brouillard” (Mist) was depicted just so. From the first measure, Di Wu painted a scenery that wasn’t just a blur, but rather a powerful picture with deliberate brushstrokes that showed the profound depth of the landscape, with subtle colors and shapes both near and far. With her precise control of the sustain pedal, she blended the instrument’s rich harmonics onto a three-dimensional atmospheric canvas to create an illusion of being in the landscape itself.

After the first two tranquil Préludes, we dove straight and hard into “La Puerta del Vino.” With its characteristic, persistent rhythm of the Habanera, the interpretation was dynamic, with vibrant colors and contrasts, from the quietest pianissimo to the most violent fortissimo. The passion came through with brutality as well as tenderness. The effect was of a grand picture, just like the gate itself in Granada that inspired the work.

The fairies in “Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses,” from “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” were capricious creatures, perhaps like hummingbirds as they took flight. Peter Pan’s panpipes were heard accompanying the dancers, as well.

Quick and Silly

Among the 12 Préludes, two of them stand out as being absurdist: “Général Lavine – eccentric” and “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.,” which were presented with utter silliness and almost-childish giggles. The tempos were faster than usually heard, however, making the pieces perhaps more juvenile than the characters in question. I may have preferred to see an awkward, lumbering vaudevillian stumbling across the stage, and to hear “God Save the Queen” with an obnoxious French accent, ridiculing and sneering at everything English, including Charles Dickens. It would take just a little more time to make the slapstick humor more effective, and France’s general attitude toward Britain more indulgently sarcastic.

Yet the crystal-clear, Argerich-like velocity made the last two Préludes nothing short of breathlessly spectacular. The most abstract of the 12, “Les Tierces alternées” (Alternating thirds), were rolled out quickly like a flying ribbon from a rapidly spinning spool, yet with distinct colors and textures for different keys and patterns. The effect was kaleidoscopic, and I could easily imagine bright colors and shapes dancing out of the Steinway. It was a synesthetic experience.

The last Prélude of the set, “Feux d’Artifice,” started quietly and harmlessly. The fuse was set alight, and then we saw the flame ignite a series of fireworks, like a Rube Goldberg machine setting off a chain of fireworks. There were handheld sparklers, Catherine wheels and waterfalls, then all the way to the largest and most extravagant aerial display. Even through the delicate yet rapid arpeggios and explosive pyrotechnics, Di Wu maintained a clear narrative of the various fireworks by exploiting colors, sound, and even explosions unleashed by her left hand. At its climax, it felt as though the earth was shaking and still-burning embers from the fireworks were raining all over the place, with bright lights and blinding flashes exploding right above. It was the most extravagant and spectacular firework display that I have either seen or heard. It would be perfect for a Bastille Day celebration.

Walking Into the Landscape

After intermission, we heard Ravel’s Miroirs (Mirrors), composed several years before Debussy completed his Préludes. Dedicated to members of Les Apaches, a group of French impressionists, Miroirs is perhaps the most impressionistic of Ravel’s compositions. Here we were presented with five paintings with distinct colors and atmospheres.

In Miroirs, Di Wu was more contemplative, with the tempos more relaxed with finesse. In “Noctuelles” (Night moths), phrases were carefully sculpted, and the exquisite balance between notes and their harmonics provided extra depth in all dimensions. Di Wu also subtly differentiated each of the repeated phrases — a signature of Ravel’s — giving structure to the larger architecture and lending a sense of directionality and scale.

“Un Barque sur l’océan” was painted with a certain sense of dizziness, from the bright sun and the swaying motion. In the seascape we saw silver flying-fish jumping out of the ocean and seagulls circling the boat, and I could even hear distant thunderstorms and raindrops hitting the wooden deck. Di Wu presented a realistic 3-D motion picture that enveloped us.

“Alborada del gracioso” was passionate and fiery, evoking the scorching sun of Spain: The dry rhythm of a castanet and sharp guitar chords, complementing the seductive melodic line, extravagantly created a vibrant picture. With Di Wu’s elegant red spaghetti-strap gown and her long black hair flying in the air, the venue turned into Sevilla, Spain. It was almost as though Carmen was performing on the stage. Even with the barrage of rapid notes and glissandos, not a single note was wasted in completing the lifelike landscape.

Di Wu completed the program with a Liszt transcription of waltzes from Gounod’s Faust. After Debussy and Ravel, it seemed almost comical to perform such a superficially pyrotechnical work. Yet it proved a great showcase for showing off all the energy that this extraordinary pianist possesses. A full gamut of colors and depth created a sound that was far more extravagantly operatic than pianistic, with all the orchestral instruments and the boisterous chorus. The infamous torrential octaves were executed superbly and brought great energy to end the concert.

I was fortunate to speak with the artist after the concert. I remarked that she seemed more relaxed, and her performance more expansive and energetic, than at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009 where she was among the half-dozen finalists. Her reply was: “Of course, I’m more relaxed. What do I have to lose? It was so much fun playing here.”

Perhaps the fun, her deep love of the art, the vivid presentation of the pictures, eloquent narratives of the stories, and her generosity in welcoming us into her world are the signature markers of this phenomenon. I am absolutely in love with her world and cannot wait to hear her perform again.

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