Geneva Anderson digs into art

Pianist Yuja Wang—young, fun, impeccable—joins Michael Tilson Thomas & San Francisco Symphony at Green Music Center this Thursday, March 7, 2013

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is known for her colorfully explosive playing.  She performs on the Green Music Center’s Steinway with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Thursday, March 7, 2013, at Weill Hall.

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is known for her colorfully explosive playing and tight, bright, short dresses. She performs on the Green Music Center’s Steinway with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, Thursday, March 7, 2013, at Weill Hall.

Yuja Wang, the young Chinese pianist legendary for her dazzling playing, performs at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall Thursday night with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS).  The diverse program includes two well-known works— Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 and Brahms Symphony No. 1—and one modern piece, Samuel Carl Adams’ “Drift and Providence.”  Adams, a Brooklyn resident, is the 26-year-old son of composer John Adams, a part-time Sonoma Coast resident, who, along with SFS, won a 2103 Grammy Award in the category of Best Orchestral Performance for a live recording of Adams works.

 This is the third of four SFS concerts at Weill Hall this inaugural season and marks MTT’s second concert appearance at the Green Music Center (GMC).  At 26, Yuja Wang is the youngest musician to perform at Weill Hall in the MasterCard Performance Series and demand for tickets has been overwhelming for this performance as well as for the her three SFS Davies Hall performances on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.    Also on stage will be three SFS musicians who are based in Sonoma County—violist Wayne Roden of Cotati, percussionist Tom Hemphill who lives in a rural unincorporated area near the Washoe House, and bass player Chris Gilbert of Petaluma. (For ARThound’s profile of these musicians upon their first appearance at Weill Hall, click here.)   Recognizing that getting to know a concert hall is really alot like getting to know a person—it’s only over time that you start to ntoice things —ARThound grabbed the chance to gather some further  impressions about the experience of playing Weill Hall.

“I really like Weill Hall and I’ve heard almost completely positive comments from all of my colleagues,” said violist Wayne Roden, who spoke to me from his home in rural Cotati.  “I like the way it looks and feels and sounds. It’s just a beautiful place to play and that really does make a difference.  A lot of modern halls are not that inviting. We play the best of them when we are on tour and this one is particularly nice, especially the sense of light and warmth.”

The acoustics also get a thumbs up, with an interesting caveat that only a seasoned musician can provide. “It’s very nice—it’s warm, live, and it feels good to play there,” said Roden. “Having played there now a few time times, I’ve experienced something I didn’t notice before—when you are on stage, there’s a little bit of the feeling that you hear yourself more than you would ideally like.  This is not the only hall where I have experienced that.  In the ideal world, you like to hear a warm sound and the sound of the whole. You do hear the whole quite well in Weill Hall but, in acoustical terms, there’s a slight feeling of isolation.  It feels a little bit naked which has a slightly inhibiting effect for me because I am hyper aware of what I am putting out.  One of the toughest things you have to do as a player in an orchestra is to balance expressing yourself—you try to put out musically, emotionally—while fitting into the whole.  Some people err on the side of being careful and some err on the side of being expressive, which means they go for it and stick out.  In an orchestra as good as SFS, you’ve got most people hitting the middle but that’s the art of playing in an orchestra. The acoustics of a hall can really impact that.”

Thursday’s program is quite varied musically and includes two pieces—Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 and Brahms Symphony No. 1— which are standard sympony repertoire.  Of course, under MTT’s skilled conducting, the audience can expect magic from the Bay Area’s treasured orchestra.

“When you know pieces this well it’s very easy to fall into habits of playing and so it’s a question of whether you can find something vital in it each time and that’s the challenge of both the conductor and the musician,” said Roden.  “Musicians are a kind of tabula rasa for the conductor and we kind of give ourselves over to him.  I really think that a conductor can bring something to the moment emotionally and conceptually and that can make a huge difference in pieces that are standard repertoire.”  

 Program:  Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, Yuja Wang piano, San Francisco Symphony

Samuel Carl Adams | \Drift and Providence
Beethoven | Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Opus 58
Brahms | Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

Beethoven’s No. 4, a Piano Classic:  After its public premiere in December 1808 in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien, a review in the May 1809 edition of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung stated that Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major “is the most admirable, singular, artistic and complex Beethoven concerto ever.”  Widely considered to be one of the central works of the piano concerto today, the No. 4 begins unconventionally—instead of entering after a lengthy wait, the solo instrument, the piano, starts the piece off by playing in almost improvisational style before the orchestra gently takes over and develops it.  The second movement has a particularly distinct and intimate dialog between piano and orchestra as the serene and lyrical piano line is met with restless strings that mellow as the conversation continues.   The piece is made to order as a showcase for Wang’s astounding technique and imagination, MTT’s strong conducting and for SFS and, of course, Weill Hall and its wondrous Steinway. 

A strong mentor in  MTT:  Michael Tilson Thomas and Yuja Wang have a particularly close collaboration that began in 2006 when she, then 19, made her debut with the SFS at its annual Chinese New Year concert.  Since then, she has returned to perform with SFS each year and performed on tour with MTT and the Orchestra in Macau, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo in November 2012. In 2008, Wang performed as a soloist with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra led by MTT at Carnegie Hall.  

In the YouTube clip below, Yuja Wang talks about her working relationship with MTT.   The clip was made in 2011, to mark several performances Yang would have with MTT and SFS that year.

More about Yuja Wang: Born in Beijing in 1987, Wang began studying piano at age six, with her earliest public performances taking place in China, Australia and Germany. She studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing under Ling Yuan and Zhou Guangren. From 1999 to 2001 she participated in the Morningside Music summer program at Calgary’s Mount Royal College, an artistic and cultural exchange program between Canada and China, and began studying with Hung Kuan Chen and Tema Blackstone at the Mount Royal College Conservatory. In 2002, when she was 15, she won Aspen Music Festival’s concerto competition. She then moved to the U.S. to study with Gary Graffman at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she graduated in 2008. In 2006 Yuja received the Gilmore Young Artist Award. In 2010 she was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. 

Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Weill Hall on December 6, 2012, in their first of four concerts this season.   In Feburary, , the Orchestra’s recording of Bay Area composer John Adams’ works won a 2013 Grammy Award, the 15th Grammy win for SFS.  Photo: courtesy SFS

Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Weill Hall on December 6, 2012, in their first of four concerts this season. In Feburary, , the Orchestra’s recording of Bay Area composer John Adams’ works won a 2013 Grammy Award, the 15th Grammy win for SFS. Photo: courtesy SFS

 Her acclaimed recordings include Transformation, for which she received an Echo Award 2011 as Young Artist of the Year. Wang next collaborated with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to record Rachmaninoff, her first concerto album featuring Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, which was nominated for a Grammy® as Best Classical Instrumental Solo. Her most recent recording, Fantasia, is a collection of encore pieces by Albéniz, Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns, Scriabin and others. 

CD’s for Sale:  A selection of CDs by Yuja Wang and SFS will be sold before the cocnert and during intermission in Weill Hall’s Person Lobby.  The lobby is named after Evert and Norma Person, long-time Santa Rosa Symphony patrons.

PRE-CONCERT TALK: Interested in going deeper?  One hour prior to the concert, Alexandra amati-Camperi will give an “Inside Music” talk from the stage all about the repertoire. Free to all concert ticket holders; doors open 15 minutes before, or 6:45 p.m.

Program Notes: Downloadable concert program notes can be found online here.

Upcoming SFS Performances at Weill Hall:  The Orchestra’s four-concert series for GMC concludes Thursday, May 23 at 8 pm David Robertson conductor, Marc-André Hamelin piano, San Francisco Symphony

Elliott Carter Variations for Orchestra

Ravel Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand

Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

Ravel La Valse

Details: The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performs Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 8 pm at Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.

Tickets: $15-$145. Tickets are still available at or by phone at 415-864-6000

New Fees SSU Parking: Parking is $10 for the lot nearest Weill Hall.  Have cash ready to hand attendants as you drive in.  All other SSU general parking lots have had a rate increase to $5, and a parking receipt must now be displayed all 7 days of the week, no exceptions.

March 4, 2013 Posted by | Classical Music, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Lang Lang at Davies Symphony Hall

Lang Lang played Beethoven, Albeniz and Prokofiev to a sold-out audience at Davies Symphony Hall on January 18, 2011 as part of their Great Performers Series. Photo courtesy SF Symphony.

World-renowned pianist Lang Lang was in San Francisco this week for two special performances: a Davies Symphony Hall Recital on Tuesday, January 18th, under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series  and his 101 Pianists event Monday evening at San Francisco State University in which he joined 100 young Bay Area pianists in playing Schubert’s Marche Militaire. Both events were packed to capacity.

I caught his performance at Davies Symphony Hall on Tuesday evening, my first time to hear him live.  The program featured Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 3 and 23; Iberia Book 1 by Isaac Albéniz; and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7.  This was basically a run-through of the most popular sonatas from his best-selling Live in Vienna album recorded in 2008–his second live recorded recital after his best-selling Live at Carnegie Hall in 2004.  It’s also a program he has been touring with.

Lang Lang, now 28, has two decades of performances and celebrity under his belt.  In 2008, over five billion people watched him play in the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, where he was seen as a symbol of the youth and the future of China.  He is said to have subsequently inspired over 40 million Chinese children to learn to play classical piano – a phenomenon coined by The Today Show as “the Lang Lang effect.”  But as much as audiences love Lang Lang for his zeal, critics waver, praising his technical virtuosity but panning his flamboyant gyrations,  interpretation and lack of emotional connection to the music.

I came expecting something bold and spectacular.  I’d read that at his last concert in San Francisco, for an encore, he played Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” on his iPad using the Magic Piano app and the audience went wild.  Tuesday’s performance was energetic but nowhere near what my imagination had conjured in terms of showing-off.

Lang Lang conducted a workshop with 100 young Bay Area pianists practicing Schubert's Marche Militaire at San Franacisco State University's McKenna Theatre as part of his 101 Pianists event on Monday, November 17, 2011.

Lang Lang quietly walked onto the stage, sat down at the piano and started immediately with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, a very challenging piece.  It didn’t take long for me to become immersed in the beauty of his playing.  Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, written in 1796, in four movements, roughly 24 minutes, is often referred to as Beethoven’s first virtuosic piano sonata.  It’s very demanding, especially the first movement and very emotive in the second, Adagio, movement.  Lang Lang nailed the energetic second movement and then brought it to a tempered soft close. 

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, the Appassionata, composed in 1804-5, followed immediately.  It is widely considered one of the masterworks of the composer’s middle period, very dense, evocative and meant to be played with the unrelenting ferocity that Lang Lang is often criticized for.  This was one of the first pieces written after Beethoven became fully aware of his progressive and irreversible deafness and was written during the period that he was labeled with the madman/genius image.  The Appassionata was also the first piece he wrote after having received a state of the art piano as a gift from the Érard piano company. Beethoven’s statement– this is very beautiful music that is also testing the crap out of this piano, as it is my own hearing.  How did Lang Lang do?  Respectfully well.  The piece was about twenty three minutes long.  Almost immediately, I felt myself floating away on a cloud orbiting the concert hall channeling the very deep despair that Beethoven himself must have felt. When I landed, I noticed Lang Lang’s the left hand stationary in space as the right played…the right hand then slowly and weirdly directing, coaxing the left.  There were moments too when he seemed to be acting with sensitivity to accentuate that he was playing with sensitivity.  It looked like a guy trying way too hard to manufacture feelings he didn’t have and importantly, we felt that.  And this is the core of the debate about Lang Lang.  It’s completely subjective, but the antics took away from my experience of a piece played exquisitely. 

The highlight came after the intermission with Albéniz’s Iberia, Book One in three movements, a century (1905-1909) and miles apart stylistically from Beethoven.  From the first muted bars of Evocación to El Corpus in Sevilla, Lang Lang excelled at this beautiful and richly textured piece thought by many to have been truly mastered only by the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha.  Book One’s three movements are typical of the entire piece—poetic middle episodes, incisive rhythms, bold harmonies, and infused with local color.  Evocación is dreamlike with a very powerful climax in the middle section which Lang Lang mastered.  El Corpus in Sevilla, one of Iberia’s most popular segments, employs a march tune from the Spanish town of Burgos.  The great procession is at first distant and then ushered in by the piano imitating drumbeats that grow louder and louder and the excitement builds.  The movement grows quieter in its mid-section, gets festive again, and then ends with a long serene coda all mystery and poetry.  Lang Lang’s body movements and hand gestures punctuated the silences as well as the counter-rhythms.

He closed with Prokofiev’s revolutionary and explosive war sonata, Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83 a piece he was clearly at ease with but passionately banged the heck out of, ending in a flurry of speed.

He encored with Rachmaninoff’s D-Major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4, then followed with a gorgeous Chopin Etude. 

In all, I came away in awe of Lang, who like Elvis, does it his way.  Lang Lang was off the very next day (Wednesday) to play for President Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama, at a lavish State Dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao.  Lang Lang will play four-hands with Jazz legend Herbie Hancock and “My Motherland,” the theme song of a famous 1956 film called Battle on Shangganling Mountain set during the Korean war.

Details: next up in the Great Performers Series is Russian opera baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in solo recital of songs by Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky on Sunday, February 13, 2011, 8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall.  Tickets: $15 to $83. Box Office: (415) 864-6000 or

Lang Lang’s next Bay Area performance is this Sunday, January 23, 2011, 7:30 p.m., at the “Master Piano Series: an Evening with Lang Lang,” at California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose.  Tickets: Sold Out.  Check for last minute availability.

January 19, 2011 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment