When UCSB’s Arts & Lectures invited Yuja Wang back to Santa Barbara so soon after her debut here, listeners knew both what that meant and what to expect. It meant that Wang had exhibited such virtuosity in her April 8, 2009, recital at Hahn Hall that an exception was granted to the usual procedure in which a young musician—Wang is just 23—is given a chance to impress and then allowed to continue touring (and maturing) for a few years before reentering the Arts & Lectures calendar. Once in a great while, however, a young artist manages to command the attention of the audience in such a way that there’s a residual urgency about hearing them at the next possible opportunity, and Wang is just such a player. Formidable technique meets sensitivity, playfulness, and a scholar’s understanding of musical structure in her performances, which routinely include some of the most difficult pieces in the piano repertoire.
Expectations of Wang’s performance this time out were both met and exceeded by a program that offered extreme gradualism and stormy maximalism. The opening piece, the Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42 of Sergei Rachmaninoff, made a perfect point of departure for Wang’s exploration of the continuity of musical traditions across the dividing lines of historical period and style. The pianist’s left hand conveyed the sensuous soul of the bass figure with grace and authority, while her right measured out the variations with utmost precision.
In a program of many highlights, Wang’s performance of the second piece, Franz Schubert’s Sonata No. 19 in C minor, D. 958, nevertheless stood out as a special achievement. Schubert balances the claims of heart and mind in his late writing for piano in a way that suits Wang perfectly right now. Her athleticism and perceptiveness were on display over the entire range of the keyboard, and the notes of this very challenging work were never less than splendidly articulated.
In the second half of the concert, Wang played an extended series of six short pieces by Alexander Scriabin, followed by three showy arrangements by canonical pianists of relatively familiar music by Mussorgsky, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saëns. The Scriabin was lovely and showed a whole new side of this extraordinary artist’s expressiveness, while the final three were spectacular and satisfied the keyboard thrill-seekers in the crowd.