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Yuja Wang with the TSO: A rising star gives notice

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra

  • Yuja Wang, piano
  • Peter Oundjian, conductor
  • At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

There's clearly a constituency for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's abbreviated "Afterworks" concerts, presented at 6:30 in the evening on weeknights. But unfortunately it wasn't a big enough constituency to fill Roy Thomson Hall to much more than half capacity on Wednesday - even though a rising star was on the program.

The rising star was the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who, at the age of 24, has been touted as the next Lang Lang. That's a tall order to fill, but by all accounts she's filling it, with a string of rave reviews as proof. The San Francisco Chronicle recently credited her with a "practically superhuman keyboard technique" and "artistic eloquence that is second to none." And The Washington Post dubbed her a "a pianist of rare gifts."

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Evidently, Wang is also a good sport. At the outset of the concert, she obligingly played a few themes from the programmed solo work - Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor - while CBC Radio 2 talking head Tom Allen chattered enthusiastically about the music that the audience was about to hear. (That's the format of these 6:30 concerts.)

Rachmaninoff once declared that his Third Concerto was for "elephants," meaning that it was intended for large people (like Rachmaninoff himself) to play. However, it would be hard to imagine a less elephantine person that the svelte Wang - especially in a skimpy red dress that looked suitable for a little post-concert clubbing.

Yet when the concerto began, it soon became apparent why she's garnered so much attention. From beginning to end, there was not a single note that she "just played." Every phrase was expressive, with a place in the greater scheme of things. And under her fingers, her instrument glowed richly with many colours: at times bright and glittery, at others muted and dreamy.

As for the most challenging sections, such as the first movement's cadenza, technical concerns simply weren't an issue for Wang. Even as she flailed furiously at keys with matchstick-thin arms and fingers of steel - taking risks that were downright scary to watch - there was a well thought-out ebb and flow to her phrasing. Her performance wasn't just dazzling, it was, in many ways, insightful and sophisticated.

All that said, there was sometimes a harshness in passages that called for a strong and substantial tone. This is where Wang was at a disadvantage, due to sheer body mass. As with so many other human endeavours, size counts when playing the piano - especially in a Rachmaninoff concerto. And when she tried to compensate for lack of heft with sheer force, the result was brittle and strident. But she is young yet, and this is a piece she will surely grow into.

Throughout the concerto, the TSO provided well-balanced and secure support to Wang - even if, on a few occasions, music director Peter Oundjian seemed a little surprised by the brisk tempi she favoured.

In the second half of the program, it was the orchestra's chance to shine, in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloé Suite No. 2. Here, Oundjian emphasized the subtleties of Ravel's score, with a fluid and organic reading. In the second movement, TSO principal flutist Nora Shulman's extended solo was pleasantly cool and charming.

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The concerto performed on Wednesday was enfolded into two more TSO concerts this week, the first on Thursday and the second on Saturday night. On Saturday evening, TSO audiences will hear Wang play Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, as well as Rachmaninoff's orchestration of Resphigi's La Mer et les Mouettes and Debussy's La Mer.

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