She's no flash in the pan. All of 25, pianist Yuja Wang has been doing this for a good eight years now -- blowing away audiences with her shazam performances of colossal works. Case in point: her dispatching Wednesday of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 at Davies Symphony Hall, where Wang was unrelentingly excellent, building sinister tension like a scientist.
The performance with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony was an apt one for Halloween, striking terror in the heart. Not that Prokofiev's massive concerto doesn't do that anyway, but Wang took special pleasure in her execution of this unique work. It became a delightful assault, a festive stick-up, as she measured out her moves, adjusting densities of color and touch, bar by bar -- a pressure-point massage of her listeners' brains.
It was a collaboration, for sure. The strings' first arco entrance in the Andantino was like a swift accumulation of fog: an amorphous phenomenon, precisely rendered. Wang floated through it, almost languidly. Then she dialed in a quotient of menace, escalating toward the cadenza: five or six solid minutes, a matrix of surprising lyricism and bracing convolutions. Varying the weight of her lines, she kept them all in full view; she is one eloquent player.
Her streaming sixteenth notes in the Scherzo were like electric current. The orchestra sounded Gershwin-y here, though Prokofiev is more emotionally complex; he's like Gershwin
For the Intermezzo, the orchestra turned into a lumbering elephant; Wang danced around its swishing tail. She was ferociously quiet, nibbling at the elephant, and then began to dig under its skin, nail-gunning her chords -- though this movement has an Astaire-like soft-shoe interlude, too. Strange.
There's a sparkling creepiness to the whole fantastical structure of this concerto, and Tilson Thomas never lost sight of it. The orchestra's performance was sharp like cut glass, matching Wang's razoring strength. During the finale, she sometimes resembled a post-Frankenstorm sea surge, though there were moments, too, when the pianist simply flowed through her impossible lines, easy as pie. She literally was tickling the ivories.
In 2009, only one year out of the Curtis Institute of Music, Beijing-born Wang played this same piece here with this same orchestra and conductor, gleefully eviscerating the concerto, as she did Wednesday. Sadly, she won't execute the elephant again this week. She's off to other engagements, and Lang Lang has taken over, moving on to Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, though much of the program remains the same.
Its second half is devoted to Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2: more than 50 minutes of meanderings from one emotional climax to the next. Is there another symphony by a major composer that matches this one for sheer sappiness? (Nominations are welcome.)
Wednesday, Tilson and the orchestra gave this nonsense an exuberant and sonically plush performance. The strings sounded great: dark as storm-fronts in the nearly endless first movement; flying like jet-streams in the Allegro. But the heart-on-sleeve-ness of this opus takes its toll after a while. The famous Adagio could be the alternate soundtrack to "Lassie Come Home."
As James Brown said, "Help me."
For reasons unknown, the orchestra is beginning its programs this week with short works by composers featured in last year's superb American Mavericks Festival. (It may be because the orchestra has just issued a CD of strapping performances from the festival: "American Mavericks," on the SFS Media label. It features pieces by Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and Edgar Varese.)
Wednesday's program started with Harrison's "The Family of the Court," one of the six movements from his "Pacifika Rondo."
It evokes the rituals and processions of Korean court life with the droning swoop of vibrato-less strings and the snap-clang of percussion and celesta. It's charming in Harrison's faux Asian sort of way -- and very short, at about five minutes. The orchestra's performance was peculiar and appealing, like being fed one oyster at the start of a lavish meal.
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Lang Lang, piano
When: 8 p.m., Nov. 1-2
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$156, 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org