Showing off talent

Yuja Wang Sonatas & Etudes

Before last week’s opening Gala, Ann Pratchett and Renee Fleming hosted a interactive talk about their books. One question came up about the internet and Ann Pratchett criticized how commentators on websites have a tendency to give their reviews ‘gladiator style’, meaning thumbs up or thumbs down. What results are reviews that either excoriate the work reviewed as a pile of worthless garbage or the most incredible experience this side of heaven. But generally with no explanation or justification. And the result is only the form of interacting with the author and the creation without substance. It is a criticism that can be leveled at American society in general, valuing quick, snappy decisions based on instant impressions as sincere and authentic while being suspicious of anything that results from deep thought and study.

But these impressions turn out to be merely shallow and incomplete. I was talking over lunch this past week with a regional manager of a major shipping company who was lamenting the difficulty in identifying job applications with a particular ability. Things like grades are too one-dimensional, and the interview does not allow for depth. The only way she can evaluate the applicant, was to have them work for a year.

And so it is with the creative arts. It is a mistake to evaluate a work on one aspect, or an artist for a single work, or even work in a single environment. An evaluation needs to be across a range. And that is what made last weekend’s concert rather enjoyable, it showcased a range across style in a single concert.

Michael Gandolfi’s Garden of Cosmic Speculation opened up the concert. Prior to the piece, the composer spoke about it. The complete piece is actually 11 movements. But for performances the composer expects only a selection of the movements to be played, and any subset is appropriate. It becomes very much like going to a large garden or an art museum, there is no time to see the whole thing if you do it right, to experience it deeply you must go and select what parts of the museum to see, and leave the rest for another day. Musically, the four movements feel very different, almost like each was a separate work. And this provides an example of showing his range as a composer in a single work.

Having Yuja Wang play Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was a great choice. It is very easy to have Ms. Wang play pieces to show off technical brilliance. Certainly most publicity for her revolves around her ability to perform fast, technically demanding pieces. And many soloists use such pieces to showcase their skills. But Ms. Wang is capable of more. And in Rhapsody she was able to show this. There are the expected fast, loud and technical sections that demonstrates her command of the keyboard. But there are also flowing melodies, intricate delicate sections and textured nuance that show off not just mastery of a piece, but an understanding it to let it shine. And by not trying to dominate the piece, I am more impressed by this interpretation of it, and by Ms. Wang artistry in addition to talent and skill.

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