ROCKPORT — The panorama of Rockport Harbor that fills the floor-to-ceiling window behind the stage of the Shalin Liu Performance Center can be distracting. On a summer afternoon, it’s hard to resist the idyllic scene of sailboats skimming over the waves.
But with her energetic and thoughtfully programmed recital on Sunday, pianist Joyce Yang upstaged the view, capturing and holding the attention of a packed house with a performance of music from three (actually, four) centuries. That she did so was even more impressive considering that she was filling in on short notice for ailing pianist Dubravka Tomsic. At the outset, the well-spoken Korean musician, winner of the silver medal at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, jokingly thanked the crowd “for not refunding your tickets.”
No apologies were necessary. Yang showed herself an imaginative and dramatic artist with a flair for the unexpected. Her clever program resembled the ones Vladimir Horowitz used to put together, starting with a couple of Scarlatti sonatas to cleanse the palate, progressing to some dreamy romanticism (Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke”) and culminating with red-blooded virtuosity (Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata). But along the way she also sprinkled some contemporary curiosities: two affectionate parodies of Scarlatti’s style by American composer Sebastian Currier (“Scarlatti Cadences” and “Brainstorm”), and three ornate arrangements of Rachmaninoff songs (“Dreams,” “The Little Island,” “Vocalise”) by the great pianist and arranger Earl Wild (1915-2010). The pieces talked to each other across centuries, creating a multi-dimensional conversation that gave the recital a rare intellectual coherence.
Yang plays with an extroverted, athletic style. This approach worked better for some selections than others. The opening Scarlatti sonatas (in D major, L.14, and in A minor, L.429) were crisp and forceful, with a nice contrast of subjects, although here and throughout she used excessive volume. In the Currier miniatures, she made the most of the humorously exaggerated Scarlatti ornaments and boogie-woogie bass. But Yang’s rendering of the eight small portraits in the familiar Schumann cycle felt rushed, lacking in fantastic reverie. They sounded like postcards, not dreams.
Wild’s Rachmaninoff arrangements explode with technical intricacies that Yang defused with aplomb. To finish, she attacked the Rachmaninoff Sonata (the 1931 version) like a runner leaping hurdles. As her promising career unfolds, perhaps this gifted artist will also linger along the way to enjoy the view.