Review: Pianist Yuja Wang sets off fireworks of her own at the Bowl

Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Dressed in a strapless, snug, sparkling gown with a black zipper down her back Tuesday night, Yuja Wang has clearly become the belle of the Bowl. Ever since her Hollywood Bowl debut four years ago wearing a short skirt that became a fashion statement, in classical music circles at any rate, audiences expect that the 28-year-old Chinese pianist will be a dazzling presence the moment she walks on stage. Hi-def Bowl monitors help.

The dazzle continued for the next 45 minutes in her electrifying performances of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto followed by Vladimir Horowitz’s encore favorite, Variations on a Theme from “Carmen.” Hers is a nonchalant, brilliant keyboard virtuosity that would have made both Prokofiev (who was a great pianist) and even the fabled Horowitz jealous.

That electrifying virtuosity too has become expected in Wang. In the century since Prokofiev wrote his concerto, relatively few pianists have dared attempt it (it all but drove the composer to distraction when he played it). Wang has made it her calling card.


ESSENTIAL ARTS & CULTURE NEWSLETTER >> Get great stories delivered to your inbox

She played it at her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut in Walt Disney Concert Hall with Charles Dutoit conducting. She recorded it with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

This time, joined by Lionel Bringuier, Prokofiev’s concerto served to open the Bowl’s L.A. Phil season. The French conductor, who is the same age as Wang, had been the conductor at her Bowl debut, and he invited her to play Prokofiev’s Second last fall for his first concert as music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich. It takes a lot to animate Swiss audiences, but she and Bringuier managed the near-impossible on that occasion.

Tuesday night, then, became an interesting occasion to take stock of Wang, who has gone from being a young sensation in 2009 to a superstar able to draw an audience of 9,999 to the Bowl. In some ways, she has changed very little from her from the L.A. Phil debut, but in other ways, she has undergone a remarkable transformation.

The technical challenges in the concerto are something she appears to have overcome long ago. She was as utterly secure in the first movement killer cadenza six years ago as she was Tuesday. Her cool, crystalline tone is the same. Her rhythmic sense appears inborn; a machine couldn’t manage the perpetual mobile Scherzo more accurately than Wang. She still values contrapuntal clarity.

The flair factor and physicality are the major differences. Her Bowl debut with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto was her demanding vehicle then, a kind of coming out. Her personal style had been undergoing a makeover from modestly understated to something flashier. Hollywood and the big Bowl screens, however, induced her to startlingly strut her stuff.

There was an almost unreal cockiness in all this, as if Wang had to prove that a femme fatale could also be the next Horowitz. Now that she’s proved it, what next? Can she really be the next Horowitz?

She is, obviously, a radically different kind of person than Horowitz, who was a neurotic, hothouse flower of a pianist. Fortunately, Wang is a woman of the world and her time. But where she now resembles Horowitz is in her physicality. She no longer looks to be self-consciously proving herself. Like Horowitz, you get the feeling that her body, not her, is the music, that the connection with the keys is a force greater than mere willpower. Also like Horowitz, Wang exhibits a coolness that, through rhythm and attack, is scalding. The showmanship is intense.

Horowitz, however, never went beyond that. His later career became an attempt to maintain his youthful dazzle. Wang is the perfect 28-year-old pianist, as Horowitz was at his age. But she also appears to be far more sophisticated than Horowitz ever was. Rather than the next Horowitz, she is coming into her own as the first Wang.

In the Prokofiev concerto, Bringuier didn’t exactly let his soloist lead, but he did partner very closely, as if happily taking energy from her. He, too, has been a delight to watch come into his own since becoming an assistant conductor of the L.A. Phil at 20.

He opened the concert with a charismatic performance of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor.” His big piece was Debussy’s “La Mer,” which he let flow with the naturalness of a conductor who was born in Nice and knows the French sea well. In Ravel’s “Boléro,” Bringuier did not inhibit individuality in the many instrumental solos, yet they would never have worked without his maintaining an ingratiating fluidity.

There was some final sparkle with glittery fireworks accompanying an encore from Bizet’s “L’Arlèsienne” Suites. Fireworks are always a treat at the Bowl, and no less so this time. But on this evening, like an extra dessert, they weren’t necessary.

Twitter: @markswed