Review: Yuja Wang at UCSB’s Campbell Hall

Chinese Pianist Dazzles and Inspires on Monday, October 14

Some artists are not bound by the formalism of their tradition and seem to possess the burning vitality itself. Appropriately, Beijing-born Yuja Wang posted words of Mahler last year to her Twitter account, “Tradition is tending the flame; it’s not worshiping the ashes.” The fashion-savvy pianist, in signature heels and incendiary red mini dress, demonstrated Monday night that focus is greater than flash by punching out a demanding program of intellectual and imaginative substance that included Prokofiev, Chopin, and Stravinsky. In short, Wang seems to have it all — the beauty, depth, and sinew to go anywhere she wants. And going she is. The 26-year-old is signed to the primo classical label Deutsche Grammophon and collaborates internationally with the finest conductors and orchestras. But it is in solo recital, where the artist is responsible for conjuring her own world, that the real depth and development of Wang’s gifts are measured.

Wang’s technique and speed are wonders to behold, but her conversance with texture, color, and mood are the purer pleasure of her artistry. Simple lyrical themes in Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor seemed to float independently of the complex ornaments that crowded about. Wang spreads and simultaneously maintains distinct textures, as with the spacious chorale in Chopin’s Nocturne No.1 in C minor that is intruded upon by an interjecting voice, and through Wang’s hands seemed to animate an independent personality. In Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, Wang bounded the fault-line time signatures and feverish patterns. But the pianist was also not afraid to swing, dashing off Kapustin’s Variations for Piano, Op. 41 and an encore of “Tea for Two,” which, if not exactly improvised, nevertheless smoldered with the spirit of the moment.

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