It was only a year ago when Yuja Wang last visited the Hollywood Bowl, leaving tongues wagging and gray-hairs clutching to their heart medication. The audience may not remember how she played, or even what she played (it was the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 3). But they sure remember what she wore—the "little orange dress." It took only that little bit of clothing to shake up the sometimes sleepy summer concert season. Her Hollywood Bowl concert became one of the most discussed in classical music last year; even gaining attention from the general public.

Yuja Wang © Felix Broede; Deutsche Grammophon
Yuja Wang
© Felix Broede; Deutsche Grammophon

Wang returned to the Bowl last Thursday night, now with every eye and camera lens in the audience trained on the stage. A chorus of camera shutters and whistles greeted her when she arrived wearing a purple gown slit thigh-high at each side. Some 40 minutes later when she pounded out the final chords to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1, her audience leapt to their feet in a standing ovation; their "bravos" occasionally pierced by a well placed wolf-whistle.

But closing one's eyes to allow an objective listen raised disturbing points. Yuja Wang is undoubtedly a highly competent technician. So are many other pianists around the globe, many of them far less physically appealing. A truth not lost on her as she also is, undoubtedly, a performer who knows how to exploit the voyeuristic tendencies of her audience to her own benefit. So much of the debate on Wang has focused on superficial aspects. Is it because the very nature of her playing is itself superficial?

As she trudged through Tchaikovsky's concerto, these points were difficult to ignore. It was a performance that never felt internalized; never had the sense of being Wang's own. Instead what was heard were glosses on other pianists' interpretations. A composite of how others played the piece—with a few wayward rubati of her own for flavor.

Her handling of the first movement was particularly problematic. Whether it was an exercise in willfulness or her attempt at aping the Romantic style of playing of pianists long gone is uncertain. But what did emerge clearly was an inability to contextualize the music within its architecture. Instead she obsessed over local effects and details; like an actor who only comes alive when the juiciest lines are uttered, ignoring completely the development that lies in between. The Andantino semplice fared better, but her Tchaikovsky-as-Prokofiev take on the finale verged on the grotesque. Her relentless pounding and manic tempo were impressive displays of her technical abilities. But it also was a telling demonstration of a lack of control that had nothing to do with score; a battle between Tchaikovsky and Yuja Wang—and the composer lost. Whether Wang will take her formidable skills and hone them to an expression that goes beyond mere display is something that remains to be seen.

The redeeming highlight of Wang's traversal of the concerto was the excellent accompaniment from the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. It was grand playing; beautifully burnished. They brought that same grandeur to Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 4, which closed the concert. It took the first movement a while to find itself. But once the performance hit its stride in the second movement—with the entrancing playing of oboist Ariana Ghez as centerpiece—one heard a fine interpretation of the piece that focused on its brilliance. Dudamel's direction of the scherzo, with its piquant phrasing and impish humor, was especially delightful. The orchestra blazed at a quick clip in the finale, yet never felt rushed because each note was allowed its full value. It was bright; not overbearing.

A wonderful end to an evening—and a perfect palate-cleanser.