May 1, 2019 was an auspicious day indeed, as pianist Yuja Wang gave the penultimate concert of her Residency with the New World Symphony, a body of 87 young graduate student musicians, under the baton of her friend and fellow Perspectives classical superstar Michael Tilson Thomas. It was an evening of love, life, and music that continues to dazzle in the mind, as much as it resonated in the moment. And for those who still cannot get enough, the concert was recorded and simulcast!—for those of us who attended, as well as those who subscribe to medici.tv and carnegiehall.org/medici, for the next three months. My heart sees generations of young musicians inspired to a career in music from this one bold stroke!
The concert program began with an atmospheric piece by contemporary classical composer, and co-founder of the Bang on a Can Collective, the estimable Julia Wolfe. This was the New York premiere of her piece co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the New World Symphony and, in it, Wolfe opines what the “Fountain of Youth” might sound like, if we found it. Turns out, it sounds quite a bit like a history of Western music! In it, one can almost taste the influences of the composers who came before. I thought I sampled a bit of Richard Strauss, a soupçon of Igor Stravinsky, and a whole delightful swirl of new-Wolfe! It is a piece that is atmospheric, dense, and light at the same time. From the thrumming opening that could be the Beginning of Time or the hammering hearts of hummingbirds, this piece is an unbroken line of light from Zarathustra to Ponce de Leon to Blade Runner and beyond. At times cinematic, other times dramatic, it is an ouroboros of sound that doubles back on itself and, as one hears and sees the sound expand and contract, both in number of instruments and dynamic range, our sense of suspense is manipulated by the intervals. From chaos to sonorous, there is a modern Asian-esque modality with energy, percussion, and life, with every instrument playing–then a contrasty caesura of positive-negative space before the final expression. Pure delight!
Next, the beauty of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto Number Five in G Major, Opus 55, with Wang, brought us from the ancient and timeless “Fountain” to a more familiar extension from timeless to early contemporary classical. In this seemingly modern extension of Wolfe, Wang scintillated through Prokofiev’s score, which could have seemed heavy in less expert hands. Her emerald gown caught the light sending sparks everywhere around her equally electric hands, through the bold Allegro con brio, the clockwork passages of Moderato ben accentuate, into the playful, swirling harp-like passages in the Toccata, where being able to watch Wang’s hands added dance to the music, as her left hand gracefully crossed her right, for beautiful florid abundance. The Larghetto was tender and lush, spiraling with sound, as Wang’s hands once again chased one another, steel hands in velvet gloves, as they wrested the meaning and beauty, coaxing it from the score. The Vivo was brooding, dark like brandy and conversation, then becoming bucolically peripatetic. It made for a beautiful combination of orchestra and soloist, yet we were not satisfied.
As this was their penultimate concert together as Perspectives residents, Wang gave us Tilson Thomas’ work “You Come Here Often?,” a sonic take on an evening searching for the right club, and the right experience. Wang was brilliant as the composer looked on. That puts a button on an act!
Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” has long been a favorite work and it is absolute perfection in its impassioned madness. Tilson Thomas conducted without a score, exhorting his young musicians to tap into the zeitgeist of another young person working through his own demons. This fever dream was composed when Berlioz himself was in his late 20s, and in the throes of an unrequited passion. This opioid-driven passion for a singular Irish actress, Harriet Smithson, became something that burrowed deep within to reveal this Orpheus’ journey to return to himself. Inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, Berlioz created the program symphony with its singular chaos and catharsis in five movements, rather than the traditional four. Imagine hearing it when it was written–how it must have thrilled and chilled the heart!—through Reveries and Passions, to the Ball where the Waltz is graceful and tinged, then the Scene in the Fields, a zen lullaby of its own, which leads into the martial March to the Scaffold and the masterful Witches’ Sabbath, which most famously takes its theme from the traditional Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) melody, providing a flourish and a funeral that is well worthy of the current rage, “Game of Thrones.” This concert was a beautifully fitting finale for a fantastic well-wrought residency! Thank you Carnegie and artists for such dazzling Perspectives!
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s. We’ll see you there!