Wang delivers the thrills in spectacular Prokofiev with CSO
On an October night in 1921, a pale, bespectacled 30-year-old Russian hotshot composer-pianist took the stage at Orchestra Hall with conductor Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform his new concerto in its world premiere. The composer was Serge Prokofiev, the work was the Piano Concerto No. 3, and the rest is history, with the brilliant keyboard showpiece still among Prokofiev’s most popular works.
Amazingly, Prokofiev’s Third Concerto hasn’t been presented by the CSO downtown in 22 years. That long hiatus was remedied in spectacular fashion Wednesday night with a volatile, hair-raising performance by Yuja Wang, with Sakari Oramo conducting.
The slender 26-year-old Chinese pianist possesses one of the most complete and commanding technical arsenals in music today. Wang made her CSO debut six years ago in Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto and her remarkable power and full-metal bravura are even more well suited to the percussive Third.
As is often the case with Prokofiev, even in this acclaimed work, there’s not a lot of depth or heart in this music, for all its solo pyrotechnics and showy brilliance. Still, it served as an apt vehicle for an unapologetic power player like Wang.
Her open-throttle bravura can be a bit relentless, yet Wang also relaxed into the fitful moments of repose, bringing a rapt expression and subtle tonal shading to the more inward variations of the central Andantino.
Still, it is the virtuosic writing that really shone with Wang’s power, clarity and articulation at lightning speeds staggering by any measure. Her blazing octaves and race with the orchestra to the coda was about as thrilling a performance of this showpiece as one is ever likely to encounter. Prokofiev, doubtless, would have approved. All credit to Oramo and the orchestra for keeping pace with their excitable young soloist so adroitly.
The short program, part of the Afterwork Masterworks series, concluded with Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5.
Carl Nielsen led a life of little drama and turmoil. Yet the Danish composer’s music is rife with conflict and agitation, an unsettled world where the center cannot hold. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.
The work is unorthodox in structure, split into two large movements, divided into smaller sections. The Fifth is replete with characteristic Nielsen elements—high-flying string lines, rustic, folklike wind writing and two fugues.
The first movement offers the most striking music, notably when malign militaristic percussion breaks in on the amiable proceedings; though written between the world wars in the 1920s, one can clearly sense storm clouds on the European horizon in this work. The second part of the movement offers an indelible, heart-warming theme—Nielsen’s most memorable inspiration—which an insistent snare drum attempts to throw off balance and destroy, playing in a different time signature. The battle between opposing forces grows in volume and intensity, until the lyrical theme emerges victorious over the chaos, in one of the most extraordinary moments in 20th-century symphonic literature.
The Finnish conductor clearly has an idiomatic feel for this music and Oramo led a notably roiling and dramatic performance. He drew a fine sense of mystery in the opening bars, underlined Nielsen’s singular harmonic palette and gave insistent bite to his restless rhythms. Oramo also elicited notably transparent tectures and fine clarity, even in the most hectic passages.
The Fifth is not quite a masterpiece with the bifurcated second movement less inspired than the first, yet Oramo’s inexorable buildup to a resounding coda made the neccessary and effective payoff.
Kudos to John Bruce Yeh for his evocative clarinet solos and Cynthia Yeh, whose powerful ad libitum snare drum explosions contributed much to the success of the performance. David Herbert, the CSO’s new timpanist, also contributed superbly, sitting in this month before coming aboard permanently in July.
The program, with the addition of Brett Dean’s Amphitheatre, will be repeated 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.
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