Yuja Wang with St. Martin-in-the-Fields

Last night of the proms


    Every now and then a concert comes along that reminds one why music-making is man’s most joyous activity. Such a one was the appearance of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at the Kimmel Center under its venerable conductor, Sir Neville Marriner, and featuring the brilliant young pianist Yuja Wang.

    Sir Neville, who helped revolutionize the performance style of Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic repertory in the 1950s and 1960s, is now in his 80s and slow of step. On the podium, however, he sheds decades. His tempos are brisk, and he turns his phrases with a sure and practiced hand. His orchestra plays like a single instrument. He and his musicians must know the repertory they brought to town like the backs of their hands, but they played it with freshness and élan. 

    Great music never palls, and especially, perhaps, the music of the period from about 1780 to 1840. I wouldn’t do for a moment without the later Romantics and the great moderns, not to mention Bach and Handel, but there is a quality of pure delight in the music produced in this 60-year span that sets it apart. 

Overture to a century

    Sir Neville opened with a perfect curtain-raiser, Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D (K. 297), which, like No. 34, dispenses with a slow movement. The closer was Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, which I’ve always regarded as a kind of overture to the 19th Century: a symphony bigger, bolder and more robust than any before it, even the last Mozart three.

    In between were two concertos, the Mozart 24th in C minor (K. 491), and the Mendelssohn First. Mendelssohn was to have been represented by the youthful String Symphony No. 10— which, truthfully, I’d been looking forward to. The Mozart concerto was to have been performed (and conducted) by Murray Perahia, who was indisposed. A young Curtis pianist, Yuja Wang, was rushed into the breach, and gave us two concertos for the price of one instead.

A palpable silence

    Ms. Wang, born in Beijing, is all of 21, and a slip of a girl. She wore a strapless midnight-blue dress for Mozart, and a red one for Mendelssohn. From the first notes she struck, the limpidity her playing was astonishing. The classical concerto is a riff on the legend of Orpheus, whose song charms the beasts. In the Mozart, the orchestral introduction is stormy and agitated; the first notes of the piano settle it marvelously. Ms. Wang combed up her notes so elegantly that the silence at the end of them was palpable. Yet she showed plenty of fire when needed, and her first-movement cadenza (as well as the improvisations on the Rondo alla turca she played for an encore) displayed the kind of hell-for-leather technique and impetuosity of one who’s already recorded the Prokofiev Second Concerto. 

    The Mendelssohn went equally well, and that too merited an encore: Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumblebee, played with such dash that you could tell Ms. Wang had barely warmed up. Ah, youth.

Moment to remember

    But Sir Neville, too, grew more energetic as the evening wore on, and added encores of his own (Mendelssohn and Mozart) to the concluding Haydn. There was a Last Night of the Proms feel to the occasion such as our staid city seldom experiences, and Sir Neville finally ended it by giving his concertmaster a playful push toward the exit and waving his baton at the audience. It would be nice to see our own resident orchestra loosened up and having such fun.

    As for Yuja Wang, we are all going to hear much more of her. The audience loved her, as well it should, and gave her four standing ovations— two each for the concertos, and two for the encores. At the end, Sir Neville sat down on the podium and, cupping his chin in his hand, simply turned in her direction to enjoy her encore with the rest of us. If there’s been a lovelier moment in Philadelphia’s music-making this year, I’ve missed it.  

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