On Thursday night, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a program of all-Russian music to a sold-out audience that featured 24-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang in her ASO debut. The concert was led by guest conductor Roberto Abbado, who is certainly no stranger to the orchestra. The show was well calculated to be a crowd pleaser, and word was that when the house opened, there were only six tickets left, which sold in a New York minute.
The concert opened with Dmitri Kabalevsky’s “The Comedians,” 10 brief episodic pieces that the composer pulled together into a suite in 1940, drawn from incidental music he had composed for a children’s play, “The Inventor and the Comedians,” two years earlier.
Surprisingly, this was the first time the ASO has ever performed it in a subscription concert. In the mid-20th century, it was a rather popular light classical work. The second movement, “Galop,” was popular enough in itself that the average person on the street would likely be familiar with it and its prominent xylophone part, even if unable to name it or its composer.
The suite’s amiable modernism — often sprightly, sometimes raucous, sometimes delicate, and even darkly witty in the ponderous “Pantomime” movement — was allowed full range of expression by Abbado and the orchestra, demonstrating that classical music can indeed be serious and fun at the same time.
It was even more surprising to read in the program notes that the ASO had not performed Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” in a subscription concert since 1965. That boggles the mind, given that it is one of the staples of string orchestra repertoire and one of Tchaikovsky’s finest works.
Although it’s regularly performed by both small and large string groups, Tchaikovsky himself wrote in the score, “The larger the string orchestra, the better will the composer’s desires be fulfilled.” Nevertheless, Abbado elected to perform with only about half of the available string players on the orchestra’s roster. The result was less lush than with a larger group, but with emotional vibrancy and elegant clarity under Abbado’s direction. He abandoned the baton for much of the “Serenade,” directing with his hands, then taking it up again for the final movement. The performance received an enthusiastic ovation, laced with a few shouts of “Bravo!”
The focal point of the evening came after intermission: piano soloist Wang performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the standard repertoire. She demonstrated that she has the technical chops for it.
The young pianist wore a brilliant red dress with a low-cut back, and from the keyboard side of the audience, one could see muscles ripple up the back of her rib cage in motions where great force was required. It demonstrated the “old school” notion of a pianist’s power emerging from the base of the spine, transmitted bone-on-bone to the fingertips, because that kind of pianistic power does not come from arms and hands alone. But also, along with the necessary power, Wang demonstrated a remarkable clarity and ability to voice the music, bringing out Rachmaninoff’s lyricism, and that too with all the appearance of being physically unaffected.
Except for a brief passage near the beginning, where there was noticeable disagreement between tempi of soloist and orchestra, Abbado was able to mediate between the youthful Wang’s propensity for expressively fluid tempo and the cohesiveness of the entire ensemble.
At the conclusion, the audience immediately broke into tumultuous applause and shouting of “Bravo!” Wang was called back several times, and Abbado called the orchestra to stand multiple times in recognition of its role.
Wang returned to the stage to play a single encore, a solo piano transcription of “Melodie” from Christoph Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Eurdice,” though the audience was never told what it was. Coming after the Rachmaninoff, it was actually a bit of an odd letdown, making one wonder why she did not select a different encore with a bit more brio.
The concert will be repeated tonight and Saturday.