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Second Time Charm: Yuja Wang Dazzles in Santa Cruz

June 26, 2017

Santa Cruz Symphony

At 30, Yuja Wang, or simply Yuja, is at a stage in her career where she could claim the title of “The Queen of the Piano.” She may be the most visible and famous classical pianist this side of Lang Lang. Yet, for the second time this year, on Saturday night, she returned to Santa Cruz to perform with the Santa Cruz Symphony.

The connection is the music director, Daniel Stewart. Yuja and Stewart studied together at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and this association compelled Wang to again divert from her well-worn path, to Santa Cruz. Saturday’s concert presented two concertos, Beethoven’s First and Brahms’ First.

Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium may look more like a high school gymnasium than a concert hall, with a grandstand configuration and several hundred folded chairs on the floor, but the enthusiastic audience filled just about every seat. The energy and excitement would not have been any less if Taylor Swift were about to appear.

And Yuja didn’t disappoint: With her signature stilettos she wore a daring, glitzy gown that would be at home at Carnegie Hall or on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. Yet, as soon as the orchestra began the introduction of the Beethoven concerto, we were transported to 18th-century Vienna. The dry acoustics of the room, which revealed every note, articulation, and breath in the music, seemed to shrink the room’s size.

Into that intimate space, Yuja brought light-hearted humor with crisp articulations, rolling scales, and delicate, tickling trills. Her toes remained firmly on the floor instead of on the sustain pedal, bringing the necessary clarity. She didn’t hesitate to dive into a barely audible whisper at times, drawing everyone’s attention to small details. She embodied period elegance.

It was soon evident that Yuja was in charge here, not through power but by communicating her intentions. She teased with subtle rubato and ritardando, challenging the orchestra to come along, but Stewart was always attentive to her signals, delivering harmonious support from the orchestra. There was much warmth in the Largo movement, and the gregarious Rondo possessed youthful playfulness.

The surprise was the cadenza of the first movement: Yuja played the contrapuntal fugue by Glenn Gould. The playful personality of the concerto was replaced by Gould’s stern character. The muscular reading was bold and quite amusing, but also a little alien.

The Gould cadenza reminded me of his infamous Brahms Concerto No.1 with Leonard Bernstein, leading me to wonder whether there would be another nod to Gould in the performance of Brahms after the intermission. There was not: The opening tempo was quick yet flowing, though dark, steely lines were drawn in bold strokes. The melody was often tortured, and the details in the inner voices brought out the conflict within the music. Earthshaking octaves thundered out, yet light arpeggios zipped about like hummingbirds. Even in full, forte chords, Yuja managed to balance clarity and power.

The somber second movement possessed an extremely wide dynamic range, from whispers where you could almost hear a pin drop, to a totally consuming explosion. How Yuja can deliver such a wide gamut from her small frame is nothing short of miraculous. The enthusiastically rendered third movement was brisk, rushed in places, but culminated in celebration.

The appreciative audience enthusiastically applauded even between movements, a common practice until the 20th century. The sheer excitement of witnessing such extraordinary musicmaking was an experience to be remembered. As if the two concerti weren’t enough, Yuja responded to the audience’s fervor by performing three encores: an outrageously raucous reading of a pastiche of Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca” borrowing from Arcadi Volodos and Fazıl Say before the intermission; then, the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen Fantasy that would have made Horowitz himself blush; and a tranquil, intimate reading of the Chopin Waltz Op.64, No.2 to wrap up the evening. The audience sighed, and was left mesmerized beyond what any pop queen could achieve.

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