Music review: Yuja Wang and James Conlon with L.A. Philharmonic

James Conlon
Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

When the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang made her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall in early 2009, all attention was on the diminutive 22-year-old pianist’s flying fingers in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

This summer, when Wang made her Hollywood Bowl debut with the L.A. Phil (in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto), attention was divided between fingers and the rest of her. She was projected in sassy close-up on oversize video screens. Her skirt was short, the night was warm, wine flowed and wolf whistles added a little something extra to the atmosphere. Fingers then wagged in the blogosphere.  

There was obvious interest in Wang’s return as a soloist with the L.A. Phil at Disney this weekend with James Conlon conducting. At the Friday morning performance, the first of three, an eager fan yelled, “Yuja, Yuja” as she walked on stage to play Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.

She is a look-at-me pianist, all right, but not scandalous. Friday she wore a long, black, form-fitting gown and sported zebra-like streaks in her hair. She looked like a million dollars. But what’s a million dollars anymore when the 1% can casually spend that on a wristwatch? She needed to play like a billion. She did, too, excitingly if sometimes recklessly.

For all that, the matinee belonged not to an idol but to Conlon. He began the program with a riveting performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem” and ended it with a compellingly dramatic account of Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony. Even so, Prokofiev’s concerto couldn’t help but be the center of attention.

The Third has had some high-profile outings recently. Last month Alexander Toradze played it with moving physical expressiveness while being mind-read by Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra at the Valley Performing Arts Center. For the L.A. Phil’s Hollywood Bowl opener in July, Lang Lang went to town in the concerto, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.

Wang appears to have acquired the accelerating power to overtake Lang Lang in a Prokofiev sprint to the finish. But her real competition is with herself. She made a scintillating video of the concerto with Claudio Abbado and a youth orchestra that is full of terrific spirit. On YouTube you can find her playing the last movement with irresistible élan in a performance from two summers ago with the London Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas allows her to flow and flower without spilling over.

At Disney, she spilled over, her cyborg-fast fingers operating with a mind of their own. She played in her own world. She didn’t bend or blend. Conlon and the orchestra had the unseemly job to follow. They did, as if scurrying to keep up, especially at the end of the last movement.

There was inevitable excitement in the highly charged air. Yang’s sense of rhythm is always a knockout. So, too, is her precision. I like her focused, sharp sound. In the slow variation movement she found a certain restrained eloquence, expressive without exaggeration. But their contrast with the passages when the concerto was all about her, made even her lyricism appear calculated. At 24, Wang is entitled to try different approaches, make mistakes and find her own, headstrong way. And she clearly needs no one to tell her that.

For the rest of the concert, Conlon was his usual take-charge conducting self. “Sinfonia da Requiem,” written in 1940, is a dark yet also deliciously flattering look at death. It begins as a lament but with a startling loud tympani, which Conlon made death’s, so to speak, morning wake-up call.

Britten was only 28 when he wrote this symphony, originally commissioned by the Japanese government to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the dynasty of emperor Hirohito. It was a weird commission. Japan was at the time a military aggressor and Britten was a pacifist who had fled to the U.S to avoid being drafted into the British army. Japan rejected the symphony as too gloomy. The New York Philharmonic premiered it, and helped make Britten’s name.

Conlon, as music director of Los Angeles Opera, is an avid Britten advocate and has begun a multiyear Britten opera project with his company across the street from Disney. He gave a magisterial performance of the 20-minute symphony, with a full measure of transcendence at the end. Even the smitten fellow who shouted “Yuja” told me at intermission that the Britten was maybe the most beautiful thing he had ever heard in his life.

Conlon conducted Dvorák’s Seventh without a score and without breaks between movements. He imbued gruff drama with moments of sweet lyricism and swept the whole along with sweeping gestures. Conlon went not for illuminating detail but a thick, rich sound. The orchestra supplied it, strongly, here as in the memorable Britten.