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Turning Vintage Wine Into Violent Opium

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/13/2009 -  
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings, Opus 11
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Opus 16
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Opus 14

Yuja Wang (Piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (Conductor)

C. Dutoit & the Philadelphia Orchetra (© Jennifer Taylor)

Inevitably, when Charles Dutoit started the first notes of the Symphonie Fantastique, one recalled Alan Gilbert’s performance of the Berlioz with the New York Phil exactly one month ago. Mr. Gilbert attempted organization from that crazy jigsaw of the opening movement. He attempted a waltz and a pleasant afternoon in the countryside for the next two sections. Mr. Gilbert attempted an organic almost classical symphony, a bottle of excellent vintage wine.

Charles Dutoit made no such mistake. His Symphonie created no nocturnal rêveries, no dreams from vintage wines. Instead, we had almost an hour of opium hallucinations, as the music should be. Mr. Dutoit made no allowances for the crazy juxtapositions, the sudden volume changes, the hideous Jacobin march to the guillotine or that phantasmagoric waltz (which probably influenced Kubrick in the ballroom scene of The Shining).

Granted, one had to make accommodation for the acoustics of Carnegie Hall. In Avery Fisher Hall, any orchestra can sound dry, transparent but somehow muted. Not so in Isaac Stern Auditorium, where the blaring trombones, the klezmer-style off-tone clarinet and the buzzing strings vibrated with nuclear intensity.

Mr. Dutoit must have performed this hundreds of times. But the Philadelphia Orchestra, scion of Stokowski and Muti and Eschenbach, transformed their instruments into shining colors and split-second timing. Music is not opium, of course, but the nightmares and curvature of time and the intense beauty of an opium session were all delivered by Mr. Dutoit.

Judging from the empty seats for the Berlioz after the intermission, much of the audience came to hear Yuja Wang, the 22-year-old Beijing-born pianist who only last week was awarded the Gramophone Magazine “Young Artist of the Year” award. This she well deserves, for she is a phenomenal pianist. But one wondered whether this petite graceful girl could handle the monstrous demands of Prokofiev’s most daunting music.

One thinks of a Bronfman or an Ashkenazy or a Berman to essay these wild cadenzas. Yuja Wang, though, threw herself into the depths with not a single technical error or overwrought emotional situation. She is so accustomed to Mr. Dutoit’s work over the past few years that the opening movement–played far more slowly than usual–gave her a chance for building up to the incredible cadenza.

The next two movements were for sheer display, but the final movement, with its oh-so-Russian theme, again allowed Ms. Wang to show what a sensitive artist she is. At this age, Lang Lang was simply showing off his technique. Ms. Wang takes such technique in stride, and she gave a most feeling performance.

The opening piece did show off Philadelphia’s splendid string section, but commencing a concert with Barber’s Adagio for Strings is, I feel, a faux pas. When heard in the concert hall (not movie background or behind a commercial for anti-acid pills), the piece is a benediction, a final supplication, an Amen. The concert deserved a great Amen from the audience, but that came rightly at the conclusion of this splendid evening.

Harry Rolnick



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