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Yuja Wang teases out the music in Sergei Prokofiev’s first piano concerto

Pianist Yuja Wang at the Echo Klassik 2011 award ceremony Berlin
Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

Sergei Prokofiev composed his first two piano concertos while still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. This was a time when he was enthusiastically embracing many of the new directions pursued by the modernists, particularly where dissonance and a percussive approaches to the piano were concerned. Nevertheless, during his final year at the Conservatory in 1914, he performed the first of these two concertos (completed in 1911 and published as Opus 10 in D-flat major) in a competition involving the five best piano students and won the grand prize, a Schreder grand piano.

Bear in mind that this was a piano competition, rather than a composition competition. The concerto provided a platform on which Prokofiev could flamboyantly show off a broad spectrum of technical skills, all of which were laid out as a series of episodes with little sense of overall structure except for the opening theme that recurs in the middle and at the end of the work’s single movement in three sections. Think of Frédéric Chopin stringing together his 24 preludes (Opus 28) with a bit of orchestra filler to get the general idea, and then throw in the dissonance and percussive technique to dispense with any strong commitment of traditional harmonic grammar.

This was the concerto that Yuja Wang brought to this week’s concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), at Davies Symphony Hall. This is not the first time Wang has performed a Prokofiev concerto with SFS. She performed the second concerto (Opus 16 in G minor) in the spring of 2009 (having performed the second movement a month earlier at the YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert, also conducted by MTT, at Carnegie Hall) and took it on the SFS six-city ten-concert Asian tour at the end of 2012.

While Opus 16 is just as demanding as Opus 10, it shows far more respect for conventional concerto structure with its four-movement form and greater attention to interplay between piano and orchestra. Opus 10 is far more exhibitionist and unabashedly indulges in many of the raw qualities of a brash young composer taking his first crack at a concerto. There is thus the hazard that the soloist will focus only on the exhibitionism, doing little more than bang out one technical stunt after another.

Wang was not such a soloist. She apparently was willing to give her part enough study to appreciate the thematic qualities within the welter of all those notes. As a result, she came up with a highly nuanced interpretation of the score, which made a strong case that this concerto deserves a place in the Prokofiev canon as something more than a particularly overt instance of youthful enthusiasm. She responded to the loose episodic structure of the composition by seeking out rhetorical techniques that would endow each episode with its own individual character. The result elevated the concerto from merely a display of technical virtuosity to a studied interpretation of a young composer’s new thoughts about what a concerto could be.

None of this changed the fact that this was a concerto that was all about the piano. In this respect MTT was duly supportive, guiding the orchestra through the flow of episodes emerging from the keyboard. Prokofiev’s few moments of attention to instrumental color were all given their due, but MTT did not seem to have any problems with letting this be Wang’s show.

They then joined forces for a “programmed encore” involving an entirely different batch of virtuoso demands. This was the scherzo movement from Henry Litolff’s Opus 102, the fourth of five compositions he called “Concerto Symphonique.” This composition involved a bit more interplay between piano and orchestra, but ultimately this movement is a perpetuum mobile for the pianist. Basically, the piano explores a single theme that permeates both the outer sections and the trio of this movement in scherzo form. The beginning of the trio provides the one brief moment of pause when the pianist can catch his/her breath. While the trio is scored as an instrumental chorale, the piano then intrudes with the same theme it has been playing since the beginning of the scherzo. Both Wang and MTT clearly appreciated the wit of this structure, providing a bit of refreshing comic relief in the wake of Prokofiev’s onslaught.

Following the intermission it was MTT’s turn to bring nuance to the performance. The second half of the program consisted entirely of a collection of three pieces by Claude Debussy that he called Images pour orchestra (images for orchestra). Each of the “images” was inspired by a different country. The first, “Gigues,” evokes impressions of Britain. This is followed by the Hispanic elements of the three-movement “Ibéria,” after which this “musical journey” returns to France with “Rondes de printemps” (spring rounds). At last night’s performance MTT swapped the ordering of “Ibéria” and “Rondes de printemps,” probably because the final movement of “Ibéria” brought the entire program to a dazzling conclusion.

After all of the pianistic display, Images provided a first-rate platform for appreciating the instrumental richness of SFS sonorities. Nuance was again the order of the day in “Gigues,” in which the thematic material almost seems to emerge from the obscuring mists associated so often with the British Isles. The themes are more suggestive of Scottish jigs than of the gigue form encountered so often in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Similarly, there are suggestions of French songs in “Rondes de printemps.” However, the “Ibéria” triptych tends to be the most recognizable with its Spanish references. Probably none of these are explicit quotations, but the suggestions are all crystal clear. This “Spanish journey” climaxes in a wildly raucous street fair in which Debussy exhibited his skill for depicting everything happening at once.

The Prokofiev concerto was introduced by four short pieces, each by a different composer:

  1. Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 50 “Pavane”
  2. The third entr’acte from the music that Franz Schubert composed for the play Rosamunde (D. 797)
  3. The sixth of the orchestral pieces that Antonín Dvořák called “Legends” (Opus 59, originally composed for four-hand piano)
  4. Edvard Grieg’s orchestral version of his song “The Last Spring” (Opus 34, Number 2)

In the context of the concerto, these pieces tended to provide a calm before the storm. Unfortunately, that sense of calm ran the risk of becoming a sense of bland. The Schubert selection was the most vulnerable, while both the Fauré and the Dvořák were sustained more by instrumental color than by a compelling flow of the thematic rhetoric. Only the Grieg, composed only for strings, emerged as a truly riveting performance, particularly when the four-part harmony rises to the heights of four lines divided across the two violin sections. MTT’s reading of this short piece provided a vivid reminder of just how expressive Grieg could be, with even a few hints of eroticism in that expressiveness.

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