There’s no better way to celebrate the year of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday than with a concert from Yuja Wang. The San Francisco Symphony began the month of March with a lively contemporary program that culminated in a return to the past for a titanic final act: Wang playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
The night opened with Gabriella Smith’s “Tumblebird Contrails,” an ode to the buzzing soundscape of the California coast. Smith, grounded and gently erudite in an all-black ensemble, appeared in person to introduce her piece. While working on an ecological research project in Point Reyes, she explained, she felt moved by the musical qualities — rhythm, shape, form, texture — permeating the ocean and the environment.
“Tumblebird Contrails” conjures the natural world with such disorientation it almost feels supernatural. The piece builds with heady drones and open-ended buzzing motifs that could represent seagulls or sand or seafoam. Brass rose from the orchestra with the transcendence of smoke. It was baffling to watch Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct a piece with such an elastic and unpredictable sense of time. The orchestra’s insistent ebbing and flowing occurred at all levels of the composition and created a sonic density verging on a hallucination.
The symphony followed the earthy “Tumblebird Contrails” with “Nyx,” composed by Salonen himself in 2010. “Nyx” takes its name and themes from the shadowy divine figure from Greek mythology associated with night and creation. Salonen, who’s usually silent on stage, briefly spoke to the audience to explain his work. His self-deprecating quips and soft pride at the previous night’s performance eroded the atmosphere of stiff formality that often lurks in Davies Symphony Hall.
“Nyx” relished indeterminacy. Salonen composes a mood that harrows and haunts with harmonies that harken back to 19th century Romanticism. Ideas overlapped to buttress dramatic and nebulous polyphony, which swelled with cinematic grandeur. The clarinet’s difficult solo rang like an incantation, deliciously devilish. The piece dramatically undulated between light and dark textures. When the orchestra came back with a roar, the notes whizzed and soared in a flurry of textures like supernatural spirits.
If the show were to end there, the night would have been fine, even pleasant. But Yuja Wang emerged as a disarming reminder of why it pays off to take risks.
Wang debuted like a shot of espresso. She donned a sizzling bedazzled red romper and glittering Louboutin stilettos. Style and spectacle are basically Wang’s calling cards, and her outfit radiated fearlessness and ferocity.
Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, like all concertos, unfolds in three parts. “Allegro ma non tanto,“ the first section, begins deceptively straightforward as the pianist introduces a simple diatonic melody. As the section and concerto progress, however, the piano part becomes increasingly complicated. The sheer difficulty of this piece, in its severe technical demands, precludes many pianists from performing it. But Wang is not known to shy from a challenge.
Wang played with the kind of intense virtuosity that felt like she was beating Rachmaninoff to the punch. Her touch was precise and resonant throughout the concerto, and her fingers moved with the quick dexterity of a hummingbird. During her featured solo in the first section, she thundered through the rapid, sweeping chord progressions with a fury a la Zeus throwing his thunderbolts. The wild cadenza in the “Intermezzo,” another moment of high drama, affirmed her peerless gift to play with both infinite stamina and evocative artistry.
The symphony’s performances “Tumblebird Contrails” and “Nyx” were enjoyable — interesting and experimental, but ultimately safe. But as soon as Wang came on stage, even though the stage was crowded with diligent musicians, it proved impossible to look anywhere other than the piano. In her ruby romper, Wang glittered like starlight. She never appeared fatigued, but instead seemed energized by the rigor of Rachmaninoff, which made the explosive “Finale” all the more cathartic.