Typically the audience sits quietly waiting in between movements, but after the first movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 by Yuja Wang with Rossen Milanov conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra there was a loud vocal "woah" by most of the audience, immediately followed by a spontaneous applause. That pretty much describes the overall performance, breath-taking amazement where only an expletive can accurately convey the experience.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Vail Valley, for the final concert of the weekend at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. Rossen Milanov, the Associate Conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, opened the festive program with Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. The opening movement, Alborada is fast, fun and frivolic. Milanov kept the pace lively and carousing. The second movement starts with the Philadelphia Orchestra's amazing horn section over soft and supple lower strings. Then Milanov glided in the upper strings with the melody creating gorgeous swells with his hands; the orchestra responded to every request. The tension and volume of the orchestra was in perfect balance allowing an English Horn solo to cut through the mix, yet still allowing subtle dynamic changes throughout the rest of the orchestra. Toward the end of the 2nd movement the subtle ascents and descents of the flute matched the fading strings perfectly.
In the 3rd movement David Kim had the chance to show off just why he is the Concert Master of the Philadelphia Orchestra. His skill on the solo violin sparkled with the lovely, light melody, richly embellished with double stops and rapid flourishes. Again, the entire orchestra showed excellent control of dynamics and balance. Rimsky-Korsakov provides numerous opportunities for others to shine as well, with great moments for trumpets and horns, a sumptuous clarinet solo. It is said this piece the perfect example where orchestration is married to the music, and there is no one better at orchestration that Rimsky-Korsakov. With the perfection of orchestration is also the chance to highlight the superb musicianship of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I could list every name in the orchestra, or at least all the first chairs as being in perfect form -but that would seem a bit redundant. Perhaps it is best to say this piece really shows the complete world class quality of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Milanov maintained excellent leadership bring the piece to a energetic close and a great climax! The enthusiastic standing ovation by the audience was proof of how well they played.
There was a brief break as the stage was set up for Yuja Wang and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3. If there was a downside to the concert, this was it. The break was a distraction, allowing much of the audience to leave their seats. Yes, it is an open air amphitheater and a more relaxed atmosphere in the festival, but the break disturbed the flow and (IMHO) meant the Prokofiev needed to capture the audience's attention fresh.
Fortunately, this was not a problem. The sweet solo clarinet started off immediately focusing everyone's attention to the stage. Then, the orchestra provided a quick shift into an intense rhythmic section, picking up the pace, preparing us for the rapid finger of Yuja Wang - as if anything could appropriately prepare us that. Ms Wang attacked the keyboard with amazing flourishes flying across the entire keyboard which then led to powerful full spread chords. When the music shifted to a macabre dance with strings, Ms Wang fluttered about the keyboard with such intensity and speed everyone in the audience was locked in awe at fluidity of her hands. Whether she was playing pounding chords, or skitter across the keys constantly crossing her hands, her hands and fingers were a blur. Milanov kept the orchestra moving at breakneck speed, which I suspect was actually increased from the standard tempo to better show off Ms Wang's ability. By the end of the movement, if there was any doubt of her mastery of the piano it was completely gone by then end of the first movement as the overwhelming exclamation of the audience clearly expressed. "Woah" is perhaps the only way to describe Ms Wang! - and there were still two more movements.
The second movement starts slow giving us a chance to hear Ms Wang's emotional expression... but this is short lived as we entertained with another rapid ascent and a quick acceleration into yet another flurry of madness across the keys. Eventually the slow section returns. Ms Wang flows soft expression across the audience as Milanov quietly removes the orchestra from the mix until Ms Wang is left alone - until even her part dies away (the fourth variation in a set of five). The final variation of the movement picks up the pace again with a lovely romp with the orchestra providing the theme while Ms Wang explores every aspect of the keyboard (practically simultaneously).
Prokofiev called the final movement an "argument" between soloist and orchestra, yet for me there was as much team work as argument. Milanov kept the orchestra restrained allowing them room to grow. At other times Milanov ensured the various musicians echoed elements of what Ms Wang performed on the piano with precision down to the intensity of the crescendos. Eventually the battle explodes to the point of glissandos up and down the keyboard while the orchestra builds intensity to a fevered pitch. By the end it amazed me the audience was not already on their feet cheering both opponents on... They did clammer to their feet for a rousing final applause.
The second half of the concert was of Sibelius Symphony No. 1, a wonderfully romantic piece that Milanov decribed as slow to unfold, much "like a glacier melting, with a beautiful passionate chocolate surprise inside." Milanov obviously understands and loves this piece a great deal. The way he approached the orchestra was with such passion he tossed aside his baton in the fourth movement and yet kept every aspect in check. Starting with a timpani roll beneath a gorgeous clarinet solo, the piece does unfold ever so subtly. With the strings enter with a tremolo, eventually carrying on elements of the melody, Milanov sweeps across the orchestra caressing in each new aspect of the music. Sibelius created vast number of crests and valleys for Milanov to navigate, and he does so as if he were intimately familiar with the Nordic landscape Sibelius captures in his music.
After the strong, impassioned first movement, Sibelius slows down to allow the lushness of strings and horns to quietly call out to the audience. But, as with the first, the movement builds to full forces with strong rhythms, only to then fade back to the beautiful horns. The woodwinds come in prancing about the landscape. With each new element, Milanov prepares the orchestra and initiates each in perfect time. There are hundreds of stags, entrances and accents, each masterfully directed. As the movement dissolves away, Milanov rocks the orchestra to sleep.
In the third movement Milanov intricately interweaves melodies from all part of the orchestra. The fourth movement brings the previous elements together, what with rapid entrances, and subtle sections adding romantic sweeping strings to bring the piece to a grand, sweeping close. While this is a difficult piece to hold together, Milanov did with precision and skill. He did not quite get the nuances out of the orchestra that Charles Dutoit is capable of, still he did tackle a difficult piece extremely well. There is a bright future for this Bulgarian!
This was my first opportunity to hear Yuja Wang live. I reviewed her CD Sonatas & Etudes and have been eager to hear her live ever since. Following her career, and the numerous glowing reviews from everyone who has ever seen her, I was not disappointed in the least - quite the opposite. Ms Wang is even more amazing in person then on her CD - which is seldom the case, and in this case, an extremely difficult to do (her CD is just that good).
If you ever get the chance to see her live, so do! I missed see her recital at the Aspen music festival and I regret that!