Successful performances often fail to coincide with successful programming; listeners always remember either “the work” or “the artist.” This was not the case at Davies Hall on Wednesday night, when Yuja Wang brought her Shostakovich concerto (which she has already been playing all over the world this fall) to the San Franciscan stage for the opening night of the concert set.

Yuja Wang © Fadil Berisha
Yuja Wang
© Fadil Berisha
The world premiere of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber overture, composed just this year and dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas, immediately plunged us into what became a night-long luscious narrative, at once musical, dramatic, and literary. The piece draws its literary inspiration from Cao Xueqin’s tragic Chinese epic of the same name, and its musical idioms and syntax from both Eastern and Western traditions. At a concise six or seven minutes, the story manages to transverse through several contrasting scenes, sometimes soaring with lyricism, sometimes exploding with strained percussion music of a quasi-ceremonial nature. And while Sheng's plentiful use of pentatonicism reflects the narrative’s historical origins, the piece's aggressive coda was tinged with a bit of Bartók and Shostakovich – so it nudged us right into the next piece.

Although Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto has sharp teeth, Yuja Wang blazed through any and all of its difficulties with abundant fire, and glittered through all the subtle ironies and humor so akin to the composer. And even though the piece was initially conceived as a trumpet concerto, today we do not dare doubt which instrument is meant for the forefront. Unfortunately, this may have been overstated by the seating choices: instead of joining Wang on stage, principal trumpet Mark Inouye remained in his usual spot with the rest of his section. This way, some of the fun duet moments, like in the finale, when the pianist indignantly slams an elbow cluster chord in response to the trumpet’s ironically jolly melody, and the sweet, borderline Mahlerian duet in the slow movement, where the trumpet plays a muted haunting melody and the piano responds with a waltz-like tune, did not feel dialogic enough. And even though one of Wang's strong suits is chamber music, she did not glance once at Inouye throughout the piece. But could she, when he was so far away?

Despite the physical disconnect, the musical thread not only seemed to perpetuate the high energy established by the Sheng, but made it impossible even for a moment of lenient listening. Wang played octaves sometimes like sharp needles, sometimes like booming hammers – rarely does one hear a pianist equal Martha Argerich’s mad unruliness in this piece – and embodied the dance-like rhythms of the piece so fully that at times, she seemed to be dancing herself. As a foil, she presented the somber and lyrical passages of the slow movement with a rich, internal stillness. And although Inouye, at first, played less piercingly than one would expect from a Shostakovich piece, he quickly warmed up and seemed to have almost as much fun as Wang by the end. 

After an overemphatic ovation, Wang returned to the stage and flung at the audience one of her all-time specialties – Fazil Say's comically virtuosic arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. This didn’t do much to assuage the listeners’ excitement, but it was obvious that any additional desserts would have overwhelmed the main course. 

Stravinsky’s Chant du Rossignol, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s Eastern-inspired story, strengthened another connective thread of the night and served as retrospective comparison for the Sheng, whose compositional techniques now seemed like the Postmodern version of Stravinsky’s Neo-Classicism. And if we ever doubted Inouye’s stamina, the important trumpet solos from the second half of the piece, which he played with a gorgeous tone and phrasing, proved otherwise; Shostakovich was not his sole task that night. 

A second Stravinsky piece, especially the Firebird, might seem like overkill after this unstoppably electric narrative. But as the concerto and Rossignol were only about 20 minutes each, this last chunk of Russian density, similar in length, felt almost to fly by. MTT’s varied and versatile choreography in the three contrasting middle movements recalled Wang’s spiky dances from the concerto’s finale, and the concluding movement – atypically affirmative for Stravinsky – guaranteed an ovation just as enthusiastic as the first half’s.

Neither half seemed to be the highlight, and no soloist nor piece emerged as the sole monarch of the evening. Pieces and soloists, “works” and “artists,” “musical content” and “musical unfolding” all formed one cohesive whole. And if the first performance was this stellar, the rest of the week is bound to be spectacular. 

****1