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Russian National Orchestra/Yuja Wang
Newman Center, University of Denver
The Russians met the Chinese in the middle of America Wednesday night. The occasion had nothing to do with power struggles, border disputes or nationalistic competition, but rather had everything to do with collaboration and the making of spectacular music. The orchestra performed two pieces by Beethoven, with 23 year-old pianist Yuja Wang joining in the second, and a Tchaikovsky symphony.
As one would expect, the playing was virtuosic throughout the evening, but the real delight was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major. Wang’s playing is nothing short of stunning. Watching and listening to her causes you to reevaluate your conceptions of how well a piano can be played. Her fingers move with a machine-like precision executing the most complex passages with seeming ease. At the same time she is able to infuse her playing with a passion and intensity no machine could ever hope to exude.
Wang has been making her presence known on the scene over the last four or five years and in that short time has performed with most, if not all, of the major symphonies in the United States. She’s toured throughout the world and garnered praise and acclaim at every stop. Her slight physique belies the intensity she brings to the keyboard. Her arms appear to be only slightly more substantial than bamboo shoots. Her fingers appear disproportionately long resembling articulated chop sticks. Obviously, that’s a big advantage in her line of work. The piano-orchestra interaction was impeccable with Wang clearly out in front when needed and the orchestra demurring to her.
The Russian National Orchestra has been a force for 20 years now, touring internationally (obviously) and issuing dozens of recordings. American Patrick Summers of the Houston Grand Opera directed the orchestra Wednesday night. As appropriate for the Beethoven pieces, he brought an enthusiastic German authoritarianism to the podium. He didn’t so much cue sections and players as jab them and bludgeon them. The orchestra responded positively.
The program opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, op. 62. The piece had the classic Beethoven sound of brooding intensity, but was occasionally broken up by fleeting moments of levity. (Germans aren’t allowed to have too much fun.) Following intermission and the removal of the piano, the orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36. The third movement is entitled “Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato-allegro” and indeed all the strings in the orchestra plucked their way through the entire movement to great effect. It sounded like “Desperate Housewives” on steroids, only better. Sullivan put the orchestra through its paces in the Finale with the strings executing flawless 32nd note runs throughout the movement. The pace seemed designed to show off the orchestra’s chops, but the sound of the entire orchestra playing at that speed for an extended duration was nonetheless truly exciting.