Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Joyce Yang

Sept. 28, Virginia Commonwealth University

Joyce Yang wrote this review for me. Well, almost: Most of the descriptive language about her piano playing is quoted or paraphrased from her verbal introductions to the program she presented to open this season’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts at VCU’s Singleton Arts Center.

The 27-year-old, Korean-born Yang, silver medalist at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, boasts not only highly advanced technique and an unusual degree of tonal brilliance but also the gift of classical gab. She describes music cogently and uncondescendingly for non-musicians, and does so with a well-modulated voice, well-practiced delivery and a sunny personality.

And she proved quite candid about how she intended to play selections. Her description of pieces in the program’s first half as “primary colored” and with “edge” applied as much to her approaches to them as to the pieces themselves.

Her treatment of a set of four Debussy preludes, for example, was more fauvist than impressionist in coloration, and her timbres and percussive playing in a pair of Scarlatti sonatas and Bartók’s “Out of Doors” Suite were similarly bright and sharp. (Way too much so, to my ears, for Scarlatti.)

Yang is a muscular pianist, not so much a keyboard-pounder as a martial artist whose glancing blows produce a sound of explosive brilliance. She has a softer touch, too, displayed in several of the Debussy pieces and more effectively in three Earl Wild arrangements of Rachmaninoff songs, but that mode of playing also proved to be brilliant and edgy.

Her sound and technique came across best in the Bartók and in Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, which she played in its 1931 revision. She described this pared-down version, shorn of connective and transitional passages, as a “schizophrenic” mash-up (my word, not hers) of contrasting thematic material. It is that, and so was her manner of playing it.

So, in a quite different way, were “Scarlatti Cadences” and “Brainstorm” by Sebastian Currier, densely scored and hyperactive “parodies” of Scarlatti, which Yang played in a set with sonatas in D major and A minor by the old master.