For two decades, the Carnegie Hall Perspectives have allowed major artists to organize concert series where they could select programs showcasing their known strengths or explore new musical territories with collaborators of their own choosing.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Yuja Wang and the New World Symphony © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Michael Tilson Thomas, Yuja Wang and the New World Symphony
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Wednesday’s night concert was the final performance in the Stern Auditorium for two separate 2018-2019 cycles, those curated by Michael Tilson Thomas and Yuja Wang. The series’ “conjunction” – as MTT referred to it in his few words addressed to the public – was no surprise. The conductor and the pianist have been particularly close collaborators for many years and Yuja Wang has always considered Tilson Thomas as one of her most important mentors. She called him “an inspiring figure” in an interview published earlier this year in the Playbill magazine, continuing: “All the concertos that I know, I’ve learned with him because he’s one of the few conductors who sits down and works with the soloist from the beginning of the piece to the end. We really think about every phrase.”

The object of their latest collaboration was here Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto, his last effort in the genre and not the most successful one, at least from posterity’s point of view. The music seems to reflect the composer’s vacillations, his inability to decide between remaining in a Western world where he didn’t feel fully appreciated and going back to the Soviet Union. Lacking memorable tunes and quite far from a classical concerto structure while avoiding obvious dissonances, the music gives one the impression of a detailed modello rather than a fully-fledged composition. It’s a piece easier to admire after getting familiar with its varied piano writing, balanced orchestration and all the hints of future developments in Prokofiev’s output. Wang’s rendition was as outstanding as ever. There are probably many pianists today having a technical prowess similar to the one she displayed in the Toccata: Allegro con fuoco, but few that would exhibit it with such a modesty. Her ability to rapidly switch from ludic to melancholic playing, from fanfares invoking to diaphanous sounds is amazing.

Yuja Wang and the New World Symphony © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Yuja Wang and the New World Symphony
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

As an encore, the pianist offered a preview of the following night’s performance involving the same participants plus soprano Measha Brueggergosman in a program featuring Michael Tilson Thomas, the composer. A short piece full of wit and charming jazzy inflexions – You Come Here Often? – could have been composed by a Prokofiev contemporary. It found a perfect interpreter in Yuja Wang.

If You Come Here Often, was an unexpectedly early New York première, the program started with a scheduled one: Julia Wolfe’s brief orchestral piece Fountain of Youth, co-commissioned by the New World Symphony and Carnegie Hall. In Wolfe’s own words, the opus pays tribute “to this incredible orchestra of young people”, to the “forever young” maestro as well as recalling Ponce de León’s exploits in Florida – where the evening’s performing ensemble is based – in search of a fabled water source. Composed for a large orchestra, the work starts with a combination of lower strings and grating sounds that might evoke the “creation of the world” or just an invasion of cicadas. With its roots in Minimalism and interesting sound combinations, alternating between gloomy and ebullient, the opus could very much be in its entirety a description of a tropical forest teeming with life. Its landscape was too densely populated for any chance to discover a real “fountain of eternal youth”.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New World Symphony © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New World Symphony
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

A work of true revolutionary character – also full of those recognizable tunes missing in the first two works – was performed only after the interval. Composed almost two centuries ago, Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique can still evoke, in the right interpretation, the shock felt by its first listeners confronted with the score’s novelty. It wasn’t necessarily the case on this occasion. The “Scene in the Fields” sounded especially long-winded. “A Ball” lacked sufficient élan and fluidity and the instrumentalists were overcautious without good reason. The rendition was very clean, with balances between instrumental sections always adequate, with brass glowing and strings providing a warm, full sound.

****1