Yang joins Symphony for Tchaikovsky

Nov. 22, 2013 | 0 Comments In the Star-Advertiser Friday Print Edition

--Courtesy K.T. Kim

–Courtesy K.T. Kim

BY STEVEN MARK / smark@staradvertiser.com

If you want to applaud after the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 when Joyce Yang and the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra perform it on Sunday, it’s OK.


With special guests Joyce Yang, piano, and Jean-Marie Zeitouni, guest conductor

» Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall, 777 Ward Ave.
» When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24
» Cost: $32-$90
» Info: (800) 745-3000 or ticketmaster.com

You would have the blessing of none other than the late, great pianist Van Cliburn, whose winning interpretation of the work in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958 propelled him to international celebrity and fame.

“One of the first times I played that piece was for the Fort Worth Symphony season opening. Van was in his box,” said Yang, who was a silver medalist in Cliburn’s own piano competition in 2005. “I remember him saying, ‘I got so excited after the first movement, I was the first one to clap.'”

When others in the audience questioned his apparent breach of etiquette, his response was “What!? What!? That was a great first movement, and this first movement just asks for celebration afterwards,” Yang recalled.

Cliburn was not the only one impressed. “More than just a demonstration of dynamic range, Yang’s performance was built of exquisite phrasings and seamless transitions from big, thundering chords to tiny, transparent runs,” a Milwaukee reviewer said in 2011 of Yang’s Tchaikovsky.

It’s a description entirely keeping with the colorful tone quality, flawless technique, thoughtful musicality and lively stage presence that Yang has presented in solo and chamber music appearances here over the last few years.

Yang likes the collaborative aspect of the Tchaikovsky and is happy to bring that sensibility to her first concerto performance in Hawaii.

“Instead of the piano just trying to gel the thing together, it’s really a conversation between the piano and the orchestra,” she said. “We take turns establishing new melodies, showing the audience new routes.

“Each new melody is as significant as the last one, so the challenge is to not make it sound like it’s 10 different pieces interwoven into one, but it’s one palette.”

It’s a picturesque description that encompasses Yang’s habit of visualizing music.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni will guest-conduct the Hawai'i Symphony Orchestra's upcoming concert. --Courtesy Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Jean-Marie Zeitouni will guest-conduct the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming concert. (Courtesy Jean-Marie Zeitouni)

YANG HAS BEEN generous in visits to Hawaii, last year helping judge young musicians in the Hawaii Music Teachers Association competition between performances.

She described her planned performance of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, a standard on the concert repertoire, as comprising different scenes, landscapes lovingly created by a painter.

“(The first movement) is like a pasture or the ocean, something where you’re just amazed at how it unfolds in front of you, like seeing the whole world in one by standing on a very, very tall mountain,” she said.

“The middle movement is much smaller. If we were to compare it to nature, it’s like one flower. We’re defining it in a very fairy tale-like way. It’s like one buttery, yellow flower; of course, that’s because D-flat is butter yellow to me.”

Leading the orchestra will be Jean-Marie Zeitouni, a French-Canadian conductor who gave several well-received performances with the Honolulu Symphony in years past.

He has programmed a night of “Grand Russian Music” featuring Glinka and Stravinsky along with Tchaikovsky, which will display the colorful musical styles of the old empire, from folk music of its ethnic enclaves to classical Western European traditions.

“It’s a big land and there are lots of traditions,” he said. “Some of them are more Western, and some of them are more exotic.”

The program includes Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka,” which originated as ballet music and features a combination of notes so unusual for the time that it became known as the “Petrouchka chord.”

“It’s like having chords from two different keys played together,” Zeitouni said. “It created quite a disturbing effect, especially to the people of 1911 who were listening to it for the first time. To our ears, which are used to a lot of noise, a lot of machines, it’s not as disturbing.”

The work will put the symphony’s talents on full display.

“The orchestra colors are very varied, the level of virtuosity is very high,” he said. “It’s a music of pure energy.”

He said he is looking forward to working with Yang for the first time on the Tchaikovsky piece.

“The pianist needs to feel like there is no limit to the freedom and poetry that she is allowed to take,” he said. “This really is our job to create this.”

Just be careful to curb the enthusiasm until the piece is really over. Yang recalled a performance in which people gave her a standing ovation after the first movement and started getting up to leave.

“It was like, ‘No, no, no, two more movements!'” she said with a laugh.

Recently she’s been busy putting the finishing touches on two recordings due out in March — her first since her 2011 CD “Collage,” which was praised in Gramophone magazine for “beautifully atmospheric playing.”

Yang will release a disk of Brahms and Schumann quintets recorded with the San Francisco group the Alexander String Quartet. She also will offer a solo recording called “Wild Dreams,” including transcriptions of Rachmaninoff songs, rare Hindemith pieces, Bartok’s “Out of Doors” and Schumann fantasies.

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