Yuja Wang, Magnus Lindberg, Anton Bruckner and the TSO

As we tentatively poke our heads out, looking for signs that normal life has resumed after the pandemic, concerts like tonight’s from the Toronto Symphony affirm relationships & collaboration, the latest in a series of celebratory moments in the orchestra’s 100th anniversary season.

The first & worst sign of COVID to hit me in 2020 was Yuja Wang’s scheduled TSO concert in April: first in a heart-breaking series of cancellations. She might be the most exciting pianist in the world right now, between her stylish appearance, her flamboyant interpretations, brilliant technique and the encores to really impress. Thank goodness we now pick up where we left off in April 2020.

Magnus Lindberg’s piano concerto #3, composed with her in mind –co-commissioned by the TSO, the San Francisco Symphony, Orchestre de Paris, China NCPA Orchestra, Norddeutscher Rundfunk and NY Philharmonic—had its world premiere last week in San Francisco. One of the concerts included this encore, shared from YouTube.

You won’t hear better piano playing anywhere. The TSO rose to the occasion in response.

Yuja Wang under the watchful eye of principal cellist Joseph Johnson (photo: Gerard Richardson)

It will sound cliché, but Yuja makes it seem easy. Her deportment throughout the concerto and in her two delicious encores showed no signs of effort or struggle, just the joyful exuberance, sharing something beautiful with an adoring audience. While she has every right to behave like a diva –especially given the wild response from the Roy Thomson Hall crowd tonight—yet she’s the picture of humility, sharing the spotlight with TSO conductor Gustavo Gimeno, composer Lindberg (who came up onstage to a rapturous reception) and the orchestra.

Her bows always freak me out. She drops so far (an athletic move you don’t expect to see in a concert hall) I worry she’s going to hit her head. But she always comes up smiling, thank God.

Don’t get me wrong. Although Yuja beamed happily, this concerto does look challenging to play. But she’s Olympian in her technique, a true athlete of the keyboard. At times Yuja’s fingers were going quickly, at times she was boldly hitting octaves with precision with no apparent loss of accuracy even though the targets were widely spaced. Her energy seems limitless.

Yuja Wang and the TSO (photo: Gerard Richardson)

Lindberg’s composition reminded me at first of Ravel but more dissonant, the music emerging out of a wash at the beginning of all notes, gradually finding its way not just to tonality but something very beautiful, resembling a style we might call “impressionistic”. In short order I thought hmm reminds me of Gershwin in the extended chords but not really bluesy. What if Gershwin’s family never left Russia and then grew up in the same milieu as Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff? That’s what I thought I found in this music, sometimes melodic with chords and clusters, not as syncopated as jazz, and often luscious & sensual. There are some dissonant moments to make us appreciate the many moments of great beauty.

In the program note Lindberg alludes to the novels of William Faulkner and his narratives from several points of view. I’d want to hear it again, but I thought I encountered something like this, phrases or events that recur, sometimes in parts of the orchestra, sometimes entirely at the piano, a lovely metaphor even if this might be the normal self-referential writing you’d expect in a concerto from the middle of the 20th century or of course earlier, sometimes in a dialogue or working together. Everyone seemed very thrilled, between Yuja’s playing and the lovely sound of the TSO.

Lindberg, Gimeno and Wang enjoy the applause with the TSO (photo: Allan Cabral)

Yuja gave us a pair of encores. The first, paraphrasing music from the scene among the blessed spirits in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, was truly like a trip to heaven, as we heard some of the gentlest softest playing I’ve ever heard in Roy Thomson Hall, the audience dead silent in respectful awe. That was followed by something I can’t identify (sorry), a late romantic study of some sort, that was as big and brash as the first was gently angelic.

Most of our evening was the Bruckner 4th Symphony after the intermission. The symphony is called “the romantic” which also describes Gimeno’s approach to tempi & dynamics. Passages that were more introspective and soft were slowed, allowing space for reflection. But in the big powerful parts, especially when the full orchestra was called for, Gimeno pushed the pedal to the metal. The big climaxes in the last two movements were virtuoso displays from the whole orchestra. It was fun watching the applause afterwards, when Gimeno raised every section to give them recognition. The orchestra clearly respond to his leadership.

We began with a short celebratory fanfare composed by Janet Sit, with the whimsical title Omega Threes <*)))< Let me be clear, I’m not sure I fully understand that title although I do recall that for dietary health we’re supposed to eat fish oils to get our Omega Threes. The piece is a 21st century alternative to Saint-Saens “aquarium“ movement from his carnival of the animals.

The concert repeats Saturday night Oct 22.

Yuja Wang accepting the rapturous applause tonight
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