As Yuja Wang and Encores Bring Down the House

The Russian National Orchestra has a field day playing on tour. On the same San Francisco program, they present USSR-era composers who were citizens in good standing (Khatchaturian), citizens who were slapped down and denounced (Shostakovich), and citizens who were deemed taboo as émigrés (Stravinsky). However you feel about Russian politics today, you have to admire their current catholic spectrum coming from varied pan-Russian sources.

Also they are inordinately generous in pouring out their music to the many fans. With four encores, the Feb. 21 concert ran a half-hour beyond the two-hour norm.

In its latest of many tours, the RNO even presented an American—and a capitalist at that. The world premiere of financier-composer Gordon Getty’s six-minute “Gretchen to Faust” showed a stoical composure of the dying “Faust” heroine, on a text incorporating some translated lines of Goethe. It’s a tender, lyrical piece of neoclassical understatement in which the consonant composer shows evocative woodwind writing, blended with gentle percussion. It’s a memorial to Andrew, the late son of the 82-year-old composer.

Soprano Lisa Delan conveyed the distant longing and serenity of Gretchen in lines marked by gentle jumps of a musical fifth, up and down, a device Getty had used intently (and even more frequently) in his recent opera “Usher House.” At the end, the composer joyously stood in the audience and sent vicarious high-fives toward the musicians.

Under the baton of the veteran Mikhail Pletnev, its artistic director, the RNO is a good orchestra, not a great one. They served up a tame “Firebird” by Stravinsky, as if most of the talons and sparkle had been deleted. They used the last of the composer’s four versions, via the half-hour-long 1945 suite. Because of stunning glissando effects that the composer added in 1919 and later, the earlier versions are not as bold. But “Firebird” remains one of the great achievements and breakthroughs in colorful orchestration, capped by that earth-shaking fortissimo jolt in the Kashchei scene, which probably set off several quake-related seismographs the other night.

The hit of the night at Davies was Yuja Wang, 28, in the little-heard “other” Tchaikovsky piano concerto—number two. It’s a massive 42-minute work lacking the great melodic invention of The First, but no less virtuosity. Flying octaves dominate the score, with two ferocious cadenzas in the opening movement. The slow movement quotes bits of both Gounod’s “Ave Maria” and, on flute, Lensky’s Aria from “Eugene Onegin.”

Nimble and agile, the stunning and photogenic pianist Wang delved into it with relish, showing a power and velocity that was astonishing, given her petite frame. I don’t know if the Beijing-born artist leads the league in sheer keyboard strength, but she leads the league in evening-length designer formals into which she is seemingly poured. I can’t say the same for her stratospheric platform shoes, which made the walk from the wings all but impassable.

She added two solo transcription encores: Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” and Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca,” in a dizzy, jazzy variant done by Fazil Say.

The orchestra added two encores of its own, both ballet scores by Khatchaturian: An infectious “Masquerade Suite” excerpt, which happens to be my favorite Communist-era waltz; and the “Lezginka” excerpt from “Gayne.”

The evening had opened with Shostakovich’s crash-bang “Festive Overture” (1954), which even the most tone-deaf commissar must have loved.

Russian National Orchestra under baton of Mikhail Pletnev, Feb. 21-22 at Davies Hall, S.F. Under auspices of S.F. Symphony. For info: (415) 864-6000, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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