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A 25-year-old prodigy pianist finding inspiration in a masterpiece written by a 20-year-old prodigy composer? Sure, that makes sense. But the connection between Yuja Wang, the renowned Chinese pianist, and Frédéric Chopin, who needs no introduction, seemed to go much deeper than that at the National Symphony Orchestra‘s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat minor Thursday evening. From her fluttering fingertips to the steady pedal work of her spike-heel-clad feet, Wang radiated the Polish master’s music.
Conducted by Houston Symphony Music Director Hans Graf, the National Symphony Orchestra performed Chopin’s concerto as part of a Polish-themed trilogy, with Chopin’s work capped on either end by Witold Lutoslawski‘s “Musique funèbre” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 3 in D Major, known as “Polish” for its inclusion of the polonaise as a theme.
Lutokowski wrote his “Funeral Music” in the mid-1950s as a tribute to Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, whose works had been shunned by the communist regime that began to unravel when Stalin died in 1953. Its soft melodies encase a spirit of thinly veiled suffering, creating an eerie effect (there are seven string basses) that leaves the listener peeking over his shoulder for the knife-wielding psycho who, of course, isn’t there. “Polish” is as lovely as anyone would expect a Tchaikovsky piece to be, but with five movements instead of his standard four—-two of which feature Polish folk music themes.
The NSO executed all three pieces adroitly, highlighting the particular beauties each one had to offer. But a couple of minor snags arose, one of which neither the orchestra nor its conductor could have prevented: During quiet sections, the squeal of microphone feedback presented an unwelcome distraction. Then there was the earnest French-horn player who, perhaps swept up in the excitement of Symphony No. 3’s heartier bars, rose above the orchestra once or twice with excessive gusto.
But that’s small beer held up to the program’s shining star: Wang’s handling of Chopin’s concerto. Appearing on stage in a stunning red dress, the pianist threw herself into her playing, dancing over light black notes and quivering as she hammered out the piece’s more assertive phrases. The final movement, with its animated Polish folk dance theme, served as a superb outlet for her vibrant, emotive playing. If Chopin’s music is your passion—-and even if it isn’t—-make it a priority to see this exceptional talent perform the work of a remarkable composer.
The National Symphony Orchestra and Yuja Wang perform Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Saturday, Dec. 8 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. $10 – $85.