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Piano Pyrotechnics: Yuja Wang and the BSO Perform Shostakovich, Haydn, Adolphe

Pianist Yuja Wang on stage at Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Pianist Yuja Wang on stage at Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By Courtesy of Daniel Wang
By Daniel Wang, Contributing Writer

The crowd erupts in applause. Instantly, thousands are standing, clapping, whistling, and shouting “bravo.” Pianist Yuja Wang — a four-time Grammy Award nominee and recipient of the 2019 Gramophone Instrumental Award — emerges from backstage. Once again, there is a star in town at Symphony Hall.

The night’s performance — showcasing the premiere of a new orchestral work from American composer Julia Adolphe (“Makeshift Castle“), Shostakovich’s First and Second Piano Concertos, and Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 “Military” — encompassed a medley of compositional styles and expressive forms. Undoubtedly, however, the two concertos — which were stylistically disparate and composed 24 years apart — served as the concert’s featured program. Yuja Wang’s excellence breathed new life into Shostakovich’s work, redeeming an otherwise bland performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Wang’s rendition of Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” was a dazzling and dynamic display. Wang treated the first theme of the opening movement (Allegro moderato) with delicacy and reflection, capturing its pensive, ambivalent mood. She likewise executed the festive second-theme with an obligatory alacrity. The second movement — a languid, solemn Largo — opened with an orchestral introduction that ever-so-slightly lacked interpretive tenderness. Wang’s artful touch pierced through this ample but unimpressive accompaniment with high definition. Each note’s timing, waxing and waning with masterful rubato, imbued the musical texture with a clear but unobtrusive waltz-like quality. BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs’s performed the movement’s lyrical trumpet solo with tact and color, providing a sensitive complement to Wang’s solo.

The concerto’s third and fourth movements — a brief Moderato interlude followed by a racy Allegro con brio — however, did not sparkle with the same gusto. Wang showcased her technical brilliance and boundless energy in both movements. She danced across much of the instrument’s seven-octave range with ease and expressivity, but did not display the interpretive sensitivity that pervaded her performance of the first two movements. By the end of the rhythmically incessant Allegro con brio, the pyrotechnics had overcome musical sensibility, if only for a flashing moment.

Wang’s rendition of Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” however, was the definition of transcendental. She depicted the first movement — a spirited Allegro — with a clarity and dynamism that defied the limits of aural perception. Each phrase was shaped with microscopic precision and feeling without compensating for an ounce of musical vibrance. Notes seemed printed in boldface, 125 percent more impactful. Wang conveyed this level of musical resolution through each segment of the movement, delivering a subtle entrance, a sprightly march, and a cadent development all with gusto.

If the concerto’s first movement demonstrated the intensity of Wang’s playing, the second movement — a lyrical Andante — showcased its nuance. Her handling of the introductory and secondary themes evoked a delicacy and intimacy that overcame the hall’s spaciousness. Each keystroke rang with a rare purity of intent, meaning, and feeling. Wang’s execution of the music’s warbling melodic lines, replete with tasteful rubato and complemented gracefully by left-hand arpeggiation, enlivened the hall. The pianist crystalized every passing moment into a transient jewel of artistic expression.

Finally, Wang’s rendition of the concerto’s concluding movement — a vivacious Allegro — embodied zest and playfulness. She rendered the second theme’s distinctive seven-eight meter with clarity, grace, and buoyancy. Each note seemed to defy gravity and levitate above the sound board. Wang’s performance of the concluding semi-quaver runs reflected a perfect mixture of power, precision, and enthusiasm. Yet nothing sounded overstressed or overthought. This combination of aural fidelity, artistic expression, and interpretive earnestness is what makes Yuja Wang’s playing a musical gift.

In comparison with Wang’s exceptional performance, the orchestra’s rendition of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony was lackluster. Nelsons’s interpretation of the symphony’s first movement, a classical Adagio-Allegro in sonata form, was heavy handed. The orchestra felt strained in its efforts to convey the lightness and elegance of Haydn’s music. Musical lines, so intricately conveyed by Wang’s touch, were rarely present in Nelsons’ interpretation of Haydn. This was not for a lack of trying; on multiple occasions, Nelsons’ gestures appeared to convey the shaping of a musical statement. No phrases, however, were heard. This was Haydn à la autopilot.

The second movement, an Allegretto, sounded especially labored. This was, thankfully, the closest Saturday’s performance came to a genuine drag on the ears. The following Menuetto Moderato provided some reprieve, with a clear three-four rhythm dictating the orchestra’s phrasing. Little discernible variation in phrasing, however, was conveyed to distinguish repetitions of the first theme. Finally, the fourth movement, a Presto in traditional sonata-rondo form, was vigorously played, but ultimately forgettable. The concert concluded with a routine curtain call to the tune of half-hearted clapping. The excitement and energy Wang Yuja so forcefully injected into the hall had all but died by the concert’s end. Stars, it seems, can only shine so brightly.

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