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A Valentine From Joyce Yang and the VSO

Joyce Yang, piano  and Bramwell Tovey, conductor 

Works by Good, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and Ravel - Orpheum, February 11, 2012 

     Could there be a better way to program a Valentine’s concert than starting with Scott Good’s ‘The Kiss’, followed by Rachmaninoff’s romantic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and letting everyone waltz into the night courtesy of Ravel and Richard Strauss?  Probably not, and much of the audience might have been tempted to send a special valentine to Joyce Yang for her enticing and electric performance of the Rachmaninoff, definitely the highlight of this celebration.

     Joyce Yang is the 25 year old Korean/ American pianist, admitted to Julliard School at age 11, who has recently received almost universal acclaim for the conviction and insight of her performances.  Declared the ‘the most gifted young pianist of her generation’, she was the youngest ever to win a medal in the Van Cliburn competition, and more recently has become the recipient of both the Artur Rubinstein Prize and the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

Joyce Yang

Joyce Yang

The pianist certainly gave a most vital performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody, characterizing every detail of this complex work with thought, precision and feeling.  For all its variety, she obviously sees the work whole and is able to balance its different parts to give us the complete story.  While the passion and intensity of the playing in some of the more dramatic variations was close to spellbinding – and what a gorgeously rich piano tone she has — this was not a showy performance as such.  It was more the outpouring of someone completely in love with the music and who had internalized the deepest responses to it.  I was especially impressed with her ability to sustain softer passages with concentration.  Small and subtle variations in phrasing and dynamics frequently revealed new insights that seemed absolutely right, even if tempos were sometimes on the slow side.  The restraint and poise in the famous (‘falling in love’) Variation 18 showed masterly keyboard control, giving us a rapturous flow of sentiment without sentimentality.

I thoroughly enjoyed this performance from beginning to end but there is no doubt that the orchestra might have been sharper in profile, bringing a stronger ‘whiplash’ feel to its many exchanges with the soloist.  Some parts of this accompaniment were really too sluggish (and possibly vague) to match the soloist’s precision and detailing.  The performances after the intermission however carried the celebration forward. Ravel’s La Valse moved fluently to its strong conclusion, while the Suite from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (including it famous waltz sequences) gave us passion and love in a more bittersweet form.

But it is to Joyce Yang that we want to give the special Valentine.   If the Gramophone magazine a few years ago featured her in their ‘Artist to Watch’ column, I am certain that we should watch her even more closely now.   Her recent CD, ‘Collage’, performing a wide variety of composers united under a painting metaphor, appears on Avie AV2229.

© Geoffrey Newman 2012


Joyce Yang plays Rachmaninoff