Wang and Noseda strike sparks in high-voltage NSO program

Thu Nov 30, 2017 at 11:48 pm

Yuja Wang performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Gianandrea Noseda and the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Scott Suchman

Gianandrea Noseda is closing out the fall portion of his first season with the National Symphony Orchestra. The program presented  Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was the best so far. It featured a brilliant soloist in pianist Yuja Wang, combining three pieces created by composers visiting foreign lands.

The idea of the journey, Noseda confided in brief remarks before the second half, appeals to him as an international musician who is so often on the road.

Before the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in 1932, Prokofiev wrote to his friend, composer and musicologist Boris Asafyev, that he “had been hoping to come up with a piece that was easy but effective.” As he noted, however, “it’s turning out to be rather difficult for the pianist.”

Wang attacked the solo part of Prokofiev’s concerto with the fury of a whirling dervish. Her percussive touch, all jabs and stinging attacks, was a hard-edged thrill in this tour de force work.

She hit all the marks with remarkable clarity and a disarming nonchalance. Noseda managed to keep the lid on what turns out to be the NSO’s first performance of the piece, but signs of strains appeared, especially in the first three movements, as far as keeping the ensemble together with the dynamo at the keyboard.

A luxurious lassitude pervaded the fourth movement, the longest and most striking of the five. Wang relished little duets with the viola section, the clarinet, and other instruments, her impatience showing only a little before the fast middle section. The “Poco più animato” section, with its gossamer thirty-second note scales in the pianist’s right hand, was a mysterious delight, woven together with skill. Wang and the NSO dove into a dizzying account of the finale, with the soloist darting ahead of the orchestra impetuously, taming easily all of the knotted technical challenges.

The only flashy feature of a Yuja Wang performance that might compete with her wardrobe is her choice of encores, and she did not disappoint. The transcription of Art Tatum’s take on “Tea for Two” did not quite swing, but the fingerwork was exquisite. Opposed to that American breeziness was the “Precipitato” finale of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, a bloodcurdling evocation of the diabolical music of machine guns and bombs. Both pieces were stunning.

Noseda balanced the angular Prokofiev on the first half with a quizzical oddity, Benjamin Britten’s Matinées musicales after Rossini. Last played by the NSO in 1970, it is an ingenious orchestration of pieces by the Italian composer, created for a ballet by George Balanchine. This kooky set made an enchanting concert opener, squeeze-box Italian oom-pah-pah followed by sentimental schmaltz and back again.

As for the concluding work, if it has to be Rachmaninoff, one is better off with late Rachmaninoff. The Symphonic Dances showcase the composer’s best sides, the lush orchestration and melodic fecundity, without ever descending into lachrymose wallowing. The first movement had a luscious woodwind section, with finely scaled alto saxophone solos, not too loud and so adding just the right exotic touch. In the second movement, the brass had a menacing edge on their opening music, bristling augmented chords and other strange sounds, which led to ardent, burnished violin solos by concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef.

Noseda’s gestures can lose some clarity when the music gets frantic, and the ensemble started to come apart at the seams a bit in the finale, not to mention a questionable squawk in the clarinets in the first movement. It is evident that the orchestra and Noseda are still getting to know one another, but much of what they did with this epic movement, where the Dies Irae is transformed into a fandango, seemed a sign of great things to come.

The program will be repeated 11:30 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600.


One Response to “Wang and Noseda strike sparks in high-voltage NSO program”

  1. Posted Dec 02, 2017 at 3:44 pm by Nancy Schneider

    What were the 2 encores Friday? They were beautiful. Are they on her CD?

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