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SCRUTINY | Yuja Wang’s Fingers Fly With Toronto Symphony Orchestra

By Arthur Kaptainis on June 18, 2023

Yuja Wang
Toronto Symphony Orchestra rehearses with soloist, Yuja Wang. (Photo TSO/Facebook)
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3. Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1. Works by Fjóla Evans, Matthew-John Knights, Luis Ramirez. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno, conductor. Yuja Wang, piano. June 17, 2023. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra season ends formally in a couple of weeks, after a run of pops concerts and film presentations. For classical loyalists the grand finale was a trio of weekend appearances in Roy Thomson Hall by Yuja Wang, with Gustavo Gimeno on the podium. I was present for the second, on Saturday evening, and was duly impressed.
Rightly characterized as a great virtuoso, Wang has a distinctive ability to make her fingers fly in subtle ways. The opening theme in octaves of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is marked piano and commodo — quiet and comfortable. In this performance the instruction seemed to apply to much of exposition.
The tide began to rise in the development, leading to the rich arabesques of the cadenza, one of the longest and most elaborate in the repertoire. We could not have asked for more articulate playing in the Intermezzo, where the TSO winds and strings combined with the soloist to create a palpable atmosphere of melancholy.
Careful work by Gimeno assured that we heard a concerto for piano and orchestra. None of this is to say that keyboard heroics were lacking. The finale was taken quickly and the concluding bars were suitably uproarious. But again I was most smitten by the ebb and flow of the quiet central section. Intriguing artist, Yuja Wang.
As usual, the pianist was a sight to behold, wearing her trademark stiletto heels and a glamorous gown with a slit up the side. Her worldwide fame assured a packed house (even on her second visit of the season) and a fair quota of listeners of Chinese ancestry.
There was much cheering and applause, before and after the performance. The odd encores included a jazzy piece that Wang read from a tablet — Gimeno functioning as the digital page-turner. A young girl delighted the crowd by mounting the stage with a hug for the soloist.
All this made up the second half. Before intermission we heard Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, a phenomenal achievement for a 19-year-old, as Gimeno pointed out in some spoken remarks. The raucous humour of the piece came through, even if some climaxes were overblown and the Lento seemed drawn out. The many solos included one for the timpani, inventively used as a melodic instrument.
Much rehearsal time probably went to three five-minute scores by young Canadians commissioned through the TSO NextGen program. Best was Luis Ramirez’s Picante, a quixotic piece that moved from off-kilter rhythms to a lyrically cinematic conclusion. There was little movement of any kind in Fjóla Evans’s Hraunflæði (Icelandic for “lava flow”). We have heard trombone glissandi before. Both this and Lines, Layers, Ligaments by Matthew-John Knights relied heavily on percussion — to limited effect.
The TSO has devoted much time and money to the exploration of short-form new works, commendably in principle, but without durable results. A portfolio to work on in the orchestra’s second century.


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Arthur Kaptainis
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