Review: Pianist Joyce Yang gives a revelatory performance

11:34 AM, Feb 07, 2014

Joyce Yang will be performing with the RPO this week. (KT Kim/ / Provided photo)/


Written By Daniel J. Kushner

What: RPO presents “Gershwin & Ellington” with guest conductor Michael Morgan, pianist Joyce Yang.
When: 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 8.
Where: Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $92; $10 for students.
For tickets: (585) 454-2100 or rpo.org.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s Thursday concert — an ode to Black History Month featuring American composers —contained both some of the season’s best and worst moments so far.

In excerpts from Florence Beatrice Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, the RPO employed a bright, vivid sound from which it would draw for most of the concert. Price’s composition possesses a cinematic flair, and the RPO delivered the rhythms with breezy confidence and the melodies with fluidity. Guest conductor Michael Morgan’s style was understated and reserved, but it elicited great nuances of dynamics and articulation.

The next piece on the program was Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World, “Daybreak of Freedom,” in which the orchestra was joined by Mayor Lovely Warren, who spoke the words of Martin Luther King Jr. as narration. (The Rev. Dr. Rickey B. Harvey of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church will be the narrator when the concert repeats Saturday.)

At times, the orchestral sound overwhelmed the narration at the expense of clarity, but overall, the balance was good. There was an energy and vitality in the RPO’s playing that is not always present.

During a more solemn interlude, the strings had particular resonance and warmth. From deft solo turns from the flute and clarinet and the angular interplay between the woodwinds and strings to the pungent yet regal trumpets, this was the orchestra’s most successful performance of the program.

In the concert’s close, Duke Ellington’s “Harlem,” what would have been a fine introduction to the piece was sullied by bungled intonation at the top of the trumpet’s tessitura, in a critical moment of dramatic emphasis. As a whole, the piece enabled the orchestra to show the freewheeling side of its personality.

The inconsistency also was evident during Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major, a work that indeed deserves to played with more frequency. For the second time in the concert, a flubbed note was heard from the French horn section. Also, the trumpets were noticeably behind the beat at an especially emphatic entrance toward the end of the first movement.

Yet pianist Joyce Yang also arguably gave the best solo performance of the season to this point.

Yang’s best playing is characterized by swiftness, precision and attention to detail. Her interpretation of the Gershwin concerto had all of these qualities in abundance.

Yang brought a visibly playful approach to the composer’s jauntier motives and an elegant grandeur to the more unabashedly romantic passages. The pianist clearly relished performing the piece, making it an even more delightful listen.

And though Gershwin is widely celebrated for his melodies, the guest pianist’s performance highlighted the composer’s rhythmic inventiveness, an aspect of his style that usually seems to get less attention.

Ultimately however — as is too often the case — a few hiccups from the ensemble kept the program from reaching its full potential, even with Yang’s revelatory performance at the piano.