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Yuja Wang & the TSO

Wang returns to Toronto for a lights out performance of Rachmaninoff’s No.3


JUN 19, 2023 | COMMUNITY

PERFORMANCE DATE JUNE 16, 2023 ROY THOMSON HALL PROGRAM: Matthew-John Knights - Lines, Layers, Ligaments Fjóla Evans - Hraunflæði Luis Ramirez - Picante Shostakovich - Symphony No. 1 Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No. 3

June 16 2023 - Yuja Wang’s Rachmaninoff - Photos by Allan Cabral
June 16 2023 - Yuja Wang’s Rachmaninoff - Photos by Allan Cabral

There’s a writerly trope that Blaise Pascal used to sign off his longer letters with something along the lines of “excuse the length of this letter, I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” What does this have to do with Sergei Rachmaninoff? Admittedly very little. But this often misattributed quip might help explain the difference between the length of the score Rachmaninoff intended for his Piano Concerto No.3, and the much shorter length of his initial performances of this incredibly verbose and laborious work. And why so verbose? Put yourself in the composers shoes for a moment: your Piano Concerto No.2 was a near-instantaneous hit, the slow movement of which is a miraculously tender elegy so rarely captured within the concerto literature, and you even managed to pull off the gimmick of a church-bell motif right from the outset. How do you follow up on that and get lightning to strike twice? You can’t — a truly infectious melody like that of No.2’s Preghiera is a once-in-a-lifetime hook-up. You’d have to go in a completely different direction altogether and, as Rachmaninoff did, land on an impossibly virtuosic and technically precipitous script for the soloist’s part. Perhaps the composer realised he went too far in this direction and, shuffling from his writing desk into the pianist’s bench, had to scale things back a little.

Add to this impulse the demanding appetites of the American audiences that he would be performing for on his first tour of the country in 1909. On his journey over, Rachmaninoff brought along with a dummy keyboard to keep his fingers loose and build the prerequisite muscle memory for the concerto’s endless rivulets and eelish coils. Ultimately, the American audience’s enthusiasm for the composer’s performance was underwhelming in comparison to that for No.2 — even under the auspices of Gustav Mahler during Rachmaninoff’s stop at New York Philharmonic. The flair and flourish demanded of the soloist wouldn’t meet its match until Vladmir Horowitz picked up the score nearly a decade later. Thus began the steady procession of first-rate pianists that would take a swing at this monumental piece: Volodos, Shelley, Bronfman, Argerich (in particular), Berman, and so on. By the end of the previous century, so many pianists had solidified (and in some cases, liquified) their legacy via No.3 that Hollywood responded with a rather exaggerated biopic (Shine, 1996), inspired by the life of pianist David Helfgott whose mental breakdown was purportedly exaggerated by his preparation to perform this concerto. So when Yuja Wang was subbed in for Martha Argerich in 2007 for a Boston Symphony concert, a fiery torch was being passed to the next generation of pianists who could carry No.3. Nearly 15 years later and Wang holds the almost exclusive reigns on this work, perhaps alongside Khatia Buniatishvili’s hold on No.2.

That is the background behind the highlight of this uniquely Toronto Symphony program. The Russo-Canadian program opens with an emphatic endorsement of the next generation of Canadian composers, featuring world-premieres of three expansive but abbreviated works by Fjóla Evans, Matthew-John Knights, and Luis Ramirez. Evans’s Hraunflæði (“laval flow” in her native Icelandic) was inspired by the six-month long eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano, but it is the shimmering aftermath of cooling lava that we glimpse in her incredibly busy and bubbling score. Though the three works are not thematically connected, it was in Lines, Layers, Ligaments by Vancouver’s Knights that we hear the explosions that engendered the natural scenery being investigated by Evans. Lines, is altogether more muscular, particularly in the elaborate and athletic percussive section which conductor Gustavo Gimeno - a trained percussionist himself - squeezed for all its worth. Seemingly mediating between the prickly pizzicato and subterranean rumblings of Hraunflæði, and small bombs that repeatedly rupture the connective ligaments of Lines, Ramirez’s Picante lands along more melodic lines. As with the other two pieces, much of the showboating is handled by a colourful array of percussive instruments. Here Ramirez aims high in Scoville Units with a slowly-gathering momentum that reaches a climax reminiscent of the way the body’s senses respond to especially spicy food. Between erupting volcanoes, rupturing ligaments (the sensation of which is first heat then pain), and capsaicin-induced hot-flashes, one can indeed superimpose a subtle theme of how these three works explore the different ways nature can work itself up to a fever-pitch.

June 16 2023 - Yuja Wang’s Rachmaninoff - Photos by Allan Cabral

Before intermission - of a concert that was long in duration but not in experience - came Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.1. Gimeno expertly and humorously advocated for the naive age of 19 which the composer was when he wrote this piece as a student at the Leningrad Conservatory. It turned out to be a subtly clever pairing with the three preceding pieces by the TSO’s NextGen composers, as the Symphony No.1 seemed to flow from the same ebullient inventiveness. Be it in 1924 or 2023, new music always has the same scent to it: an indistinct combination of recognizable fragrances coalescing into a chimaera that hints both of the studious air of a conservatory and wild and free atmosphere of a cosmopolitan frontier. Despite the visible training-wheels that squeak and screech throughout this work that sounds a lifetime away from Shostakovich’s No.10, the Symphony No.1 nevertheless spread like wildfire. Upon getting its first listen in St. Petersburg, it arrived in Berlin within 12 months, and crossed the transatlantic to Philadelphia within two years. In it, there are definitely exhalations of the air he breathed at the conservatory: Stravinsky, Krenek, Hindemith, Milhaud. But also the first inhalations of something distinctly Shostakovich. The second movement is particularly striking — and here the TSO indeed strikes back — with its frenetic pace launching hot on the heels of cellos, basses, clarinet, and piano. The last of which would induce giggles in the audience later in the movement when an interaction between Gimeno and some rather pointed notes on the piano seemed to call back to his earlier commentary about the novice composer, as if to say: I did warn you