Review | Yuja Wang Dazzles in Rachmaninov with TSO


Among classical artists today pianist Yuja Wang is unquestionably one of the select few who can fill a hall and drive an audience into a frenzy. She was in Toronto last week for three concerts – her second set of concerts in the city this season – and by all accounts nearly every seat was filled and she brought the house down. Wang is only 36-years old but she is already a superstar, partly for her often skimpy outfits but also for her electrifying musicianship.

It was clearly Yuja Wang who filled the seats at the concert I heard on Sunday, June 18, but she appeared only in the second half of the concert. Before that her fans had to sit through what was probably a difficult hour of mostly unfamiliar music.

The concert began with three world premieres by young Canadian composers. These 5-minute pieces were commissioned by the TSO as part of their NextGen Composers program. We heard Hraunflaeoi by the Canadian/Icelandic composer and cellist Fjola Evans, Lines, Layers, Ligaments by University of British Columbia doctoral student Matthew-John (MJ) Knights, and Picante by Mexican-Canadian composer Luis Ramirez. Young composers need all the help they can get in finding time and financial support to write music, and it is even harder to get a performance. The TSO is making a major effort to help, most recently by commissioning ten Celebration Preludes and Bjarnason’s Trilogy for Orchestra, and the NextGen pieces. However, I think is a mistake to include the NextGen pieces in main series subscription concerts. These are student pieces that are simply not ready to be programmed alongside works by well-established composers. By all means encourage young composers but let their first efforts be tried out first in workshops or contemporary music concerts.

Photo: Allan Cabral

Apparently it was Gustavo Gimeno’s idea to program the Symphony No. 1 by Shostakovich right after the short works by the NextGen composers. Shostakovich was 19 when he wrote this symphony and it caused a sensation; a remarkable achievement for such a young man. And, of course, Shostakovich went on to become one of the foremost composers of the Twentieth Century. But to program such an exceptional and substantial work right after the fledging efforts by the three young Canadians cannot help but make them look inadequate by comparison. A very poor programming idea.

Gimeno and the TSO gave the Shostakovich symphony a performance that was both expressive and dynamic. The numerous solos were beautifully done, especially by concertmaster Jonathan Crow, cellist Joseph Johnson, oboist Sarah Jeffrey and timpanist David Kent.

Before the Shostakovich Gustavo Gimeno paid tribute to Associate Principal Second Violinist Wendy Rose who was playing her last concert with the TSO after more than 40 years of service. She was born in Montreal, studied at Juilliard with Ivan Galamian and at the University of Toronto with Lorand Fenyves. She joined the TSO in 1981.

Just a few months ago Yuja Wang thrilled audiences by playing all four Rachmaninov piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in a single concert at Carnegie Hall with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. That was a remarkable feat that few pianists would dare to attempt. Toronto heard Wang in only one Rachmaninov concerto last week but it was the longest and arguably the best of them: the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30. The opening of the concerto is deceptively quiet and low-key and Wang made it sound even more introspective than usual. Gimeno had the volume in the accompaniment scaled way back so Wang could reduce her volume to a mere whisper. It was an unexpected opening that had one on the edge of one’s seat, leaning forward to hear such an understated beginning. Throughout the performance I was struck by how often Wang underscored the melancholy and ruminative qualities in the score. But there were fireworks too when the music called for them. Wang clearly had no interest in merely exploiting the opportunities for technical display this concerto provides. Rather, she offered a carefully considered view of the whole piece with climaxes built step by step to moments of great excitement. It was a totally involving performance with soloist, conductor and orchestra working together to bring out the best in the music. The TSO played splendidly throughout the concert but the players seemed particularly alert in the Rachmaninov. And there were some especially fine solos from Associate Principal horn Christopher Gongos.

For the record, Wang chose to wear a long silver gown on this occasion but with a slit up the side. At the end of the concerto the audience exploded with one of the loudest and most sustained ovations I have ever heard in Roy Thomson Hall. Wang rewarded the audience with two encores, the second of which brought the house down again: the Horowitz Carmen Variations in a staggering display of virtuosity.

Photo: Allan Cabral

For music-lovers who would like to hear more Rachmaninov from Wang and Gimeno, in just a few weeks time they will be playing the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Gimeno’s other orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg, in Luxembourg and on a European tour starting July 2.

  • Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno, conductor
  • Yuja Wang, piano
  • Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto
  • Tags: Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Yuja Wang, Gustavo Gimeno, Roy Thomson Hall
  • June 18, 2023





About Author

Former conductor and broadcaster, Paul E. Robinson, is the author of four books on conductors, Digital Editor for Classical Voice America, and a regular contributor to La Scena Musicale.

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