Review: Joyce Yang at the UW World Series

By Melinda Bargreen

Sometimes you don’t have to win the gold medal.

Joyce Yang is doing just fine with the silver from the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition – building a strong concert career, as well as earning a string of other awards (including a recent Avery Fisher Career Grant).

An appreciative President’s Piano Series audience heard Yang’s challenging Seattle debut in a program of Bartók (the seldom-played “Out of Doors Suite”), Schumann (“Fantasiestücke”), and an unusual second half of all Rachmaninoff (three Earl Wild transcriptions, and the B-Flat Minor Sonata No. 2 of Op. 36).

Yang took to the microphone for an unusual amount of narration throughout her program, a concept that doesn’t always fit with a formal recital but worked just fine in this case. Attired in a beautiful silver-spangled dress, she discussed the character of the Bartók pieces, which emerged in stunning variety: by turns relentlessly percussive and gauzily subtle. The “Fantasiestücke” were probing and eloquent, with interpretations that turned on a dime – just as Schumann’s score does.

The second half was a real lesson in technique, with plenty of challenges presented by two of the greatest pianists of the last century: Rachmaninoff and Earl Wild. The latter, famous for his transcriptions as well as his miraculous fingers, was represented by three eloquently embroidered and gussied-up transcriptions of Rachmaninoff – the sort of pieces Wild himself loved to play. Yang performed “Dreams,” “The Little Island,” and a particularly effective reworking of the “Vocalise.”

After that came unvarnished Rachmaninoff, in the form of the B-Flat Minor Sonata. In her remarks, Yang called this three-movement work “Mount Everest,” and indeed it is: the sonata sounds like a piano concerto for which the piano itself also provides all the orchestral accompaniment. The scope and scale of the sonata are both huge, and Yang gave the piece a particularly powerful reading. So much so, in fact, that she joked afterwards about needed several curtain calls in order to restore the feeling to her numb fingers.

The audience called her back again and again, finally winning a charming encore: another Wild transcription, this time of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” festooned with keyboard embroidery in the best virtuoso style.

At 27, Yang has a strong musical personality, and she obviously loves both performing and relating to her audience. This is a potent combination that bodes well for a first-class concert career.

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