Music Review

Pianist Yuja Wang dazzles with Shostakovich concerto at the BSO

Conductor Andris Nelsons (center), principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs, and pianist Yuja Wang acknowledge the Symphony Hall audience after performing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Thursday.
Conductor Andris Nelsons (center), principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs, and pianist Yuja Wang acknowledge the Symphony Hall audience after performing Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Thursday.Hilary Scott

Sometimes one goes to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the program is impeccably crafted start to finish, with each piece clearly placed in relation to the others. At other times, it feels more like a variety show — here, have a short modern piece, a concerto, and a chestnut! So it happened this Thursday at Symphony Hall, with Chinese pianist Yuja Wang making her second BSO appearance this calendar year for Shostakovich’s riotous Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor.

In earlier years, technically spectacular Russian repertoire such as Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev was Wang’s bread and butter; with one such piece, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, she made her BSO debut as an 11th-hour replacement for Martha Argerich in 2007.


Thursday’s Shostakovich concerto was not one of those. Mischievous, mercurial, even a bit nose-thumbing, it’s a young man’s concerto and as truly carefree as Shostakovich ever gets outside of his film music. (Prokofiev allegedly called it “immature,” driving a wedge between the two.) It was originally conceived as a trumpet concerto, and the solo trumpet plays a key role. BSO principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs was on point, injecting an Ennio Morricone-esque sense of cool swagger into elongated phrases and rising to the blazing speed of the finale.

As for Nelsons, leading the small string orchestra — the man didn’t just conjure three Grammy Awards out of nowhere. You can almost always trust him with a Shostakovich orchestra, and Thursday’s performance rendered the concerto’s capricious scenes in high definition.

Nothing about Wang’s performance was understated, from the spiky but not overly aggressive sound that seemed to leap out of the piano to her dressed-to-slay getup: an acid green gown that looked like something out of “The Fifth Element,” paired with red-bottom spike heels. How she so deftly manipulates the pedals in those towering stilettos may be one of the world’s great mysteries.


She relaxed into the second movement’s plainspoken waltz, adding a Debussy-esque watercolor wash to some passagework. But the big and bold was never far away, and the grandest fireworks show came at the end with Shostakovich at his most prankish; she stormed through the cadenza, which samples Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny,” and Rolfs’s trumpet led the charge through the fanfares after. (Are we American listeners primed to think of cowboys and horses when we hear any rhythm like that? Yeehaw!) Wang came out swinging for an encore with Art Tatum’s arrangement of “Tea for Two.” Perfect.

But before that: anyone who heard the call of the shofar earlier in the week at Rosh Hashana events might have experienced some déjà vu when the horns rang out in James Lee III’s “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula,” a cosmic dance of religious ecstasy inspired by the composer’s Seventh-Day Adventist faith. Its rhythmic flourishes and leaping, soaring trajectory evoked Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie,” and it’s no doubt easier to fit on a program than that giant piece.

The second half included three selections from Smetana’s “Má Vlast,” including the famous “The Moldau,” a first-class earworm and maybe the most picturesque nature piece anywhere in the repertoire. The woodwinds ran into some choppy waters as they set off, but all that vanished in the moonlit scene, when flutes eddying under the shimmer off strings gave the sound gorgeous depth. The arcadian “Bohemian Woods and Fields” with its plodding polka wasn’t too memorable, but the orchestra hit its stride again with the martial “Blaník.”


Nelsons returns at the end of this month with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in tow. In the meantime, the next three weeks of guest conductors, including the brilliant Susanna Malkki, promise some interesting fare.


At Symphony Hall, Oct. 3. Repeats Oct. 5. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.