Yuja Wang Plays Magnus Lindberg World Premiere at the SF Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony conducted by new Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen is offering a magnificent concert this weekend. It features a rarity by Danish composer Carl Nielsen, a world premiere piano concerto by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, and a modern masterpiece by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. The Nielsen concert opener was the 1903 Helios, which he composed while visiting his sculptor wife who was on a study grant in Greece. It's written for a huge orchestra and depicts the Mediterranean sun softly rising out of the sea, blazing across the sky, and softly setting. It prompted my usual reaction to hearing a Nielsen piece, which is that I want to hear his music performed more. (Most of these photos are courtesy of Kristen Loken, and the ones of Yuja Wang dressed in black are mine.)
This was followed by the technically awesome pianist Yuja Wang pounding the stuffing out of Magnus Lindberg's Piano Concerto #3. (Pictured above are Wang on the right next to composer Lindberg, and conductor Salonen.)
I went to the second performance of this concert and was glad of it because the concerto is astonishingly complex and is probably improving with each playing. Wang had swapped her backless white concert gown of opening night for a black dominatrix concert outfit on Friday, and looked confidently fabulous in both. As usual with this performer, she was impossibly virtuosic whether she was playing long solo candenzas or holding her own while being swamped by the huge orchestra.
The program stated the three-movement concerto was 20 minutes long which turned out to be incorrect. An usher told me it was actually 32 minutes but it felt even longer, in a good way. This is a major work which thoroughly held my interest from beginning to end. Starting softly, the first movement built into a maximalist orchestra that contained so many textures it was hard to keep track until the piano would reassert itself and anchor the music back into a more comprehensible simplicity, especially during the long solo piano cadenzas in the first two movements.
This is the second, fiendishly difficult piano concerto written expressly for Yuja Wang that I've heard this year. The SF Symphony performed John Adams's Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, which was written for Yuja and the LA Philharmonic in 2018 but performed by Víkingur Ólafsson and the SF Symphony this July. It feels amazing to hear new pieces that will probably become part of the classical music repertory for years.
After intermission, Salonen conducted Bela Bartok's 1945 Concerto for Orchestra. Salonen has a characteristic conducting style which sounds like a scraping off of accumulated years of performance practices and starting anew. He led the SF Symphony and Chorus in a massive, magnificent performance of Mahler's Second Symphony a couple of weeks ago that made the piece seem fresh and Friday night he did the same with Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. I was hearing and seeing things I'd never noticed before, such as the precise division and combinations of the different horn sections and the importance of the two harps and the sheer weirdness of the five-movement work. Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle noted that the pieces were all there but not put together on opening night, but by Friday the assembly was near-complete. It was a thrilling performance, and if you read this in time, you can buy tickets for tonight's final performance on Saturday.