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Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel Glow Brightly at Avery Fisher Hall

by James Rosenfield

Dudamel, Yuja Wang, LA Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, Ian Douglas

Photo credit: Ian Douglas, The New York Times

The superstars were out in force—at least a force of two—as Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel shone from the Avery Fisher Hall stage Monday night, backed by the increasingly strong Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Ms. Wang, famous for short dresses and high heels, would be astonishing in any outfit. Her take on Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto reminded one of a young Martha Argerich, so powerful was the playing and so varied was the sound. She drew just about every pianistic tone possible, and played not just with technique to burn but with feeling for every note; one's jaw dropped at her sheer brilliance.

Dudamel, interestingly enough, kept the orchestra relatively subdued, which had two excellent effects: it reduced the presence of Rachmaninoff's muddy, somewhat unimaginative orchestration; and highlighted Ms. Wang's contribution. The concerto is, in a sense, two pieces existing at once in an odd netherworld where magnificent piano writing is counterpoised against less than masterful instrumentation. It's as if one of Chopin's piano concerti became gigantic and started lumbering across the tundra.

The concert began with Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason's "Blow Bright," a compelling new work with a crystalline quality. Sibelius seemed to loom as a distant grandfather, the Northern Lights shone through the score, and occasional elfin dances emerged during the piece's ten-minute length. In quiet passages, the audience erupted in the loudest and most obtrusive chorus of coughs I have heard all winter—testimony to both the ever tiresome impatience of conventional concert audiences with new music (not that there was even the slightest ear-challenging aspect to the piece), and to the downside of star power, which draws audiences for the stars, and not the music. The piece should be heard more, and the composer emerged at the end for a well-deserved bow. 

After intermission Dudamel led the orchestra in a performance of Brahms's Second Symphony that was at once magisterial, relaxed, insightful, and exciting. Dudamel's abilities are just fine in this standard repertoire, and his willingness to take chances speaks to his mastery and confidence. The second movement was indeed impressive, the music materializing at the beginning, Furtwängler style. Contrapuntal lines were clearly delineated, as they were throughout the work. The third movement was relaxed, the Mendelssohn-ian string figurations outstandingly played. Then, in the fourth movement, conductor and orchestra really let loose and came out blazing, ending on a note of supreme exaltation.

The Second Symphony is in some ways the most problematic of the Brahms symphonies—superficially pastoral, but with very dark undertones. Furtwangler and Klemperer had captured this very well in the past, and so did Dudamel Monday night. He is already one of the great ones.