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Broken String and Ear Candy

May 23, 2014

San Francisco Symphony

piano repairA piano string breaking during a concert is an extremely rare occurrence, but the sold-out auditorium of Davies Symphony Hall witnessed just that, last Friday evening at the San Francisco Symphony.

Midway through her performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10, pianist Yuja Wang reached into the innards of the Steinway, pulled up the loose end of a broken string, and tried to tuck it into a spot where it wouldn’t resonate awkwardly with the other strings.

The temporary fix allowed Wang to make it to the end of the concerto, but the broken string had also broken her concentration — and the audience’s.

Wang was clearly ‘not pleased’ as she hastily moved off stage, her high heels getting caught in the lacy fabric of her midriff-baring maxi-length outfit, while conductor Michael Tilson Thomas announced an early intermission.

Hitting a piano key hard enough to break a string seems quite impossible, but the percussive exuberance of Prokofiev’s concerto, plus Yuja Wang’s vigorous and aggressive playing style may have pushed an already weakened string to the point of failing.

The early and extended intermission did not give the Symphony’s on-call piano technician enough time to replace the failed string for the other piece Yuja Wang was going to play, so the concert unfortunately resumed without the Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 102 by British composer Henry Litolff (1818-1891), the only one of the composer’s pieces that is not forgotten.

The piano mishap refocused the concert, away from Yuja Wang’s star power and onto the other repertoire of the evening — a sampling of relaxing or more meditative pieces: Fauré’s Pavane, Op. 50; Schubert’s Entr’acte from Rosamunde; Dvořák’s Legends for Orchestra, Op. 59, No.6; Grieg’s The Last Spring, for strings; and Debussy’s three-part Images, which includes the popular Iberia. MTT mentioned in his opening remarks that these sumptuous pieces were being recorded for a "future project."

Yuja Wang Photo: Fadil BerishaWhat these works have in common are their flowing, romantic melodies, often set for a French horn (Fauré), or one of the solo woodwinds, against a soft bed of gentle strings or an otherwise luscious orchestration, complete with the occasional harp glissando.

Easy classical listening — but not quite as easy to play as it may seem. None of these compositions are technically difficult, but they still require a high degree of intense musicality, which the SFS, needless to say, delivers in spades.

Together, these pieces highlighted the orchestra’s exceptional ability to display its exquisite musical wares; and the orchestra’s woodwinds were especially wonderful on Friday.

But what sets the compositions apart is the completely different way in which each composer uses the almost exact same musical palette to paint an entirely different musical landscape, matching their national heritage: Fauré’s Pavane is as French as Schubert’s Rosamunde is German. And the same goes for Dvořák’s Slavic Legends and Grieg’s Nordic Spring.

Only Debussy transcends geographical borders and successfully visits the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsula in his music, his feet meanwhile firmly planted in Gallic soil.

With the drama of the broken piano string but a faint memory, his Images for orchestra provided the audience with a final, generous helping of gratifying ear candy.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.