Beijing-born pianist Yuja Wang has been performing with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) since 2006, the same year in which, at the age of fifteen, she received the Gilmore Young Artists Award. Since then she has appeared regularly with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and SFS, not only in Davies Symphony Hall but also on tour. To the best of my knowledge, however, last night was the first time she came to Davies to perform a piano concerto by Ludwig van Beethoven.
If this was, indeed, her “Beethoven concerto debut” in San Francisco (if not in her overall touring schedule), she took a bold step. Many (myself included) would probably say that she did not select a Beethoven concerto but the Beethoven concerto, Opus 58 in G major (published as his fourth). This is the one in which Beethoven’s firm grasp of large-scale architecture, his never-ending quest for inventiveness in his compositional logic, and his skillful balance of the dual rhetoric of virtuosity and expressiveness all come into play. This is the concerto that forces the pianist to define himself/herself as a musician, rather than just a master of the tricks of the trade.
Wang approached this challenge with confidence. From her opening solo statement of the first theme (a revolutionary gesture in 1806, the year in which Beethoven completed this concerto), she brought crystal clarity to her every keystroke. When the piano took the foreground, she shaped her thematic passages with well-considered dynamic control, endowing each phrase with its own distinctive expressive stance. In the background she performed all of Beethoven’s intricate embellishments with the sort of cleanliness that elevated the instrumental passages that occupied for foreground.
This was Beethoven for those intent upon listening, rather than just collecting recordings to compare against concert performances. MTT and Wang performed as a tightly-coupled unit to realize the narrative potential that unfolds through this concerto’s three movements. The structure is almost an extended elaboration on an operatic scene, complete with a recitative for the middle movement. MTT knew how to unfold the dramatism of that scene, while Wang took the spotlight as the central character. Taken as a whole, the experience was exciting but also a bit spine-tingling in its emotional intensity.
As if one major symphonic undertaking were not enough, MTT then concluded his program after the intermission with Johannes Brahms Opus 68 symphony in C minor. This was his first effort to compose a four-movement symphony; and it did not take place until he was 42 years old. This was not so much a matter of “writer’s block” as a need to do something with the symphony that Beethoven had not already done.
As we now know, Brahms found the way to do this. Perhaps his most important move was the idea of using an introduction as an “abstract” of the movement to follow, not only in thematic content but also in the ordering of those themes. This is the structural foundation for both the first and fourth movements of the symphony, both of which also have prolonged codas that extend this telescoping effect even further. That structural significance of the coda also plays out in the second movement, in which solo passages for violin and horn almost suggest an operatic duet. (Remember that Brahms never wrote an opera.) For the third movement, where Beethoven pursued the shift from minuet to scherzo, Brahms refined the scherzo down to the more graceful intermezzo, the prevailing ternary form of many solo piano compositions.
MTT conducted this symphony with the same solid sense of overall architecture that he had brought to the Beethoven concerto. Upon that foundation all of the rich qualities of Brahms’ rhetoric, often disclosed through imaginative approaches to instrumentation, emerged with all the clarity of the Beethoven performance. Furthermore, MTT selected tempos that always kept the logic of the symphony moving forward, without ever lingering over any particularly dramatic moment. The symphony emerged as the perfect blend of the cerebral and the emotional, suggesting that such a blend was the challenge that Brahms faced and that he had risen to that challenge with soul-stirring success.
The only weakness in the evening came at the beginning with a repeat performance of Samuel Carl Adams’ “Drift and Providence,” given its first performance last season. This is a relatively short tone poem in which three “landscape” sections are separated by two “Drift” interludes. The first two landscapes are specific areas of San Francisco (Embarcadero and Divisadero), while the last ascends above the worldly to Providence. Each landscape is constructed as a gradual crescendo, whose peak rises from one setting to the next, concluding FFFF in Providence.
Thus, while “Drift and Providence” was the shortest work on the program, its sense of architectural balance was in good company with both Beethoven and Brahms. Unfortunately, that overall plan did not emerge clearly through MTT’s account last night. Each crescendo defined itself in its own right, but that sense of accumulating strength from one crescendo to the next was lost. As a result, the rhetorical impact of Providence as a divine force ruling over the “material geography” of San Francisco never really registered, along with any sense of signification residing in Adams’ score. Since this piece will be included in the repertoire of the coming SFS tour, I just hope that its structural interpretation improves by the time this music is introduced to other audiences.