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Yuja Wang thunders through Magnus Lindberg’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” with SF Symphony

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OCTOBER 20, 2022

While audience members prattled and plodded around the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall, an electronic poster flashed the show to come: Chinese pianist Yuja Wang sits atop a piano in a yellow mini dress with her hands splayed out and legs crossed. She’s smirking and barefoot, one foot grazing the keys, while smoke rises from the instrument behind her — she’s set it ablaze.

Wang is a celebrated piano soloist who earned international renown after replacing Martha Argerich with the Boston Symphony in 2007. In the poster and in every performance, Wang radiates star power. She’s known for playing voraciously while wearing glamorous, slinky dresses and pedaling in stilettos. 

Wang returned to San Francisco on Oct. 13 to join Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony for the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” The new concerto is slated to be performed around the world, including in Europe, New York and Toronto.

Before Wang’s headlining performance, the night at Davies Symphony Hall opened with Carl Nielsen’s “Helios Overture,” which vividly and poetically imagines a Mediterranean day from sunrise to nightfall. Salonen graciously layered the orchestra’s voices and brought out wondrous contrast. He coaxed quiet drones from the basses, the soft and sturdy soil for violins to promenade. The melody moved between instruments like fleecy clouds gliding in and out of sight, smooth and natural.

Though the tempo accelerated perhaps a touch too briskly, Salonen and the orchestra approached passages with vigilant attention to dynamics and development. They tended to shadowy motifs and warmed the inner voices, which enriched the piece’s euphoric climaxes. When the final bass rolled, Salonen indulged in theatrical flair, letting the note fade to nothing like Nielsen’s still and sunken sun.

After the enrapturing overture, a sleek Steinway rose from the stage. Wang sauntered on stage in a sequined white halter gown. Perching her iPad on the stand, she seemed unfettered and undaunted by the masochistic piece to come.

Lindberg’s newest work is the soundtrack to an apocalypse. The Finnish composer applied his quintessential maximalist approach to the concerto form and generated an astonishingly dense sound, particularly through the explosions of brass.

The notes are more numerous, and harder to distinguish, than flakes of glitter. Allusions to earlier composers — Ravel, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky — are similarly folded into the score. But these references are flares — not lanterns — and they disappear as quickly as they are recognized.

Lindberg composed the piece especially for Wang to tackle, and in a Q&A after the performance, Lindberg and Wang affirmed the collaborative nature of the project.

“We have been trimming things, and this week has been intense because we’ve trimmed so many things,” Lindberg said, referring to himself and Wang. “And I’m sure we will have small things (we are) still cleaning up… It’s a work in progress.”

Wang agreed and added, “The piece will grow with how we play it.”

Lindberg’s concerto moves through time obsessively, with orchestral voices overlapping to speak and urgently mathematical modulations in rhythm. The composition is ruthless and demands rigor from orchestra, soloist and conductor alike.

The challenge of the piece and the promise of partnership marked an exciting endeavor for Wang. Describing her preparation, she quipped, “I procrastinate a lot. And then it feels like giving birth.”

Explosive and comprehensive, Wang played with unflappable virtuosity. She conquered epic ascending and descending runs, and she struck thick, stacked chords in rapid succession. Although her masterful playing was occasionally muffled by the blanket of sound, she blistered through Salonen’s racy tempo and emerged triumphant.

The night ended with another concerto, this one by Bartók and for orchestra. Concluding with Bartók’s playful piece restored a sense of humor. It arrived like a ferry to transport the audience away from the crater of Lindberg’s apoplectic concerto. The pianist’s return to the Bay gushed with passion and grandeur; though the composition is sure to evolve in its later performances, Wang’s gift is unrelenting.

Contact Maya Thompson at 


OCTOBER 19, 2022