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After whetting the appetites of Aussie music lovers earlier this week with an exquisite solo recital, the giddy anticipation ahead of Chinese-American piano megastar Yuja Wang’s Australian concerto debut with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was palpable at a packed Sydney Opera House yesterday evening. However, before the headline act of the concert, the SSO, under the baton of prodigious 29-year-old French conductor Lionel Bringuier, offered the second helping of German composer Jörg Widman of the 2015 season, following Christian Tetzlaff’s performance of his violin concerto earlier this year.
Receiving its Australian premiere, Con brio, described as a “concert overture for orchestra,” was conceived as a response to Beethoven’s symphonies, and uses the relatively modest forces of a Classical orchestra, omitting lower brass and an extended percussion section. Widman deconstructs and distorts the very fabric of Beethoven’s music, lurching from moments of musical familiarity into a more exotic, mercurial palette of extended instrumental techniques and dissonant harmony. SSO have reserved several concert openers this season for short, contemporary works, securing a platform for modern music by pairing 21st-century repertoire with more popular box-office draws. This piece is one of the more testing aesthetics of 2015’s selection, but nonetheless highly rewarding in its restless dynamism and inexhaustible invention.
Widman plays with the links between the great compositional innovators of Germanic music; from Beethoven through to Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School and beyond. There’s an impression that the last 200 years of German composition have been spun in a centrifuge, with a dizzying array of musical artefacts hurled out in relentless, unpredictable succession. Con brio will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but the SSO must be applauded for being willing to challenge its audience as well as delight them.
Next, to perform Brahms’ leviathan Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Yuja Wang swept onto the stage with the breezy, insouciant, almost awkward air that has made her one of the most endearing personalities in classical music. Known for her racy concert attire, it would be remiss of me not to commit a few words to Wang’s dress: a neon green, figure hugging, full length gown with a substantial, and somewhat unmanageable train (a contrast from the scandalising short skirts she’s infamous for), paired, of course, with her trademark platform stilettos.
However, while her youth, dress sense, and personality quirks might have earned her notoriety, as soon as the first pearly tones of Brahms’ music issued from the piano, one becomes aware of just one thing: Wang’s astonishing and apparently limitless artistry and talent. After the brief tranquillity of the opening pastoral evocation, Wang unleashed the crisp articulation, brawny technique and piston-like athleticism that she has so frequently showcased in the past through the gargantuan repertoire of Stravinsky, Prokoviev and Rachmaninov. Perhaps through some subconscious connection to that music, Wang seemed able to infuse the Brahms with some of the dark, earthy, tectonic energy of the Russian concertos she is so celebrated for, most dramatically in the crackling, electrifying tremolandi at the climax of the first movement.
Wang’s robust technical powers are a marvel in their own right, but she is also capable of so much more than just shock and awe. Displaying breathtaking dexterity, she was able to offer moments of extreme tenderness between the intense Romantic hyperbole of this concerto. Rather than investing any energy in any outward, physical projection of this emotion, Wang communicates solely through the music. This gives a slightly chilly appearance to her performance, but close your eyes and the sincerity of her delivery is unquestionable. This was most potently displayed in the heart-wrenching cello duet in the third movement, performed with stunning sensitivity by SSO principal cello Umberto Clerici.
A thesaurus full of superlatives apply to Wang’s performance, but suffice to say this was truly world-class playing. After several terrifyingly whiplash-inducing bows, Wang awkwardly tottered off stage, noticeably struggling with her extraordinary gown. The audience clapped long and hard, but sadly their applause was not rewarded with an encore.
And oh yes, there was Dvořák’s Symphony No 8 as well – this might sound a touch harsh but following the ravishing pyrotechnics of Wang’s Brahms the relatively unsophisticated music of Dvořák felt like an anticlimactic way to conclude this performance. However after SSO’s and Bringuier’s animated and richly contoured account, I stand corrected. The lower brass, making their first appearance of the evening, took a little while to settle into the balance of the performance, but otherwise this was impressively vibrant and alive playing from the entire ensemble. Bringuier’s direction is extremely precise and this accuracy produces an impressive level of structural clarity in the music. This highlighted the frankly eccentric character of Dvořák’s eighth, especially in the final movement, which pendulums dramatically from stately grandiloquence to a swashbuckling romp. A detailed, purposeful but above all thoroughly entertaining end to an evening of deeply satisfying music-making.