Poet at the keyboard (and on her feet)

Di Wu's Philadelphia piano debut recital

3 minute read
This city of well-schooled concertgoers is accustomed to prodigies who are good-looking, engaging and can play the ivories off any piano masterpiece. But when they can describe their programs as succinctly and as wisely as 25-year-old Di Wu did Sunday afternoon at Trinity Center, it's a bonus. In a bit of irony, since she's spent her last five years in Philadelphia, this concert was Di Wu's Philadelphia recital debut.

Di Wu is a graduate of both Juilliard and Curtis, where she still studies with Gary Graffman. Last month she performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its preseason memorial concert for the late Leonore Annenberg. And yes, she is the same native of Xiamen, China who was a finalist in this year's Van Cliburn Competition.

Sunday's first half was a love story of music very close to her own heart, Di Wu told her audience, taking the microphone from the Trinity Center stage but speaking to the crowded venue in an easy communicative style, as if we were all old friends. She played Clara Wieck Schumann's fifth Mazurka (from Soirees Musicales, Op. 6), a theme used by Clara's husband Robert Schumann for the 18 waltzes in his Davidsbundlertanze, his wedding gift to her. Di Wu's musical points were brief and germane as she played both works; she also recounted how Robert had gone so far as to backtrack the date of the Davidsbundlertanze composition so he and his beloved could share the same opus number.

For both works, Di Wu's tone and voice were as well crafted as her sense of escalation and of pause. If Schumann's impetuosity (reflected in his fictitious Florestan character) didn't come off quite as potently as in the waltzes for Schumann's other alter ego, Eusebius the dreamer, perhaps it was due to Di Wu's lyrical bent. Whatever. Poetry— hers or Robert Schumann's— overrode the storms during the wonderful Davidsbundlertanze; and the music's silent inflections toward its end were haunting.

Riffs on Gershwin and Jerry Lee Lewis

The second half featured Astral's composer-in-residence, Aaron Jay Kernis, with Ballad(e) out of the Blues: Superstar Etude No 3. The Philadelphia composer's late parents loved Gershwin, Monk, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and Kernis's music riffs upon these with drama. Di Wu's rhythmic command and balance was dazzling. She should try her hand at even jazzier fare.

Two of Nicolai Medtner's Fairy Tales from Op. 20 followed, sounding (as Di Wu had prepared us) "like a Russian Brahms, thick and melancholy." Both works flowed, demonstrating this artist's melodic sweetness. But her arsenal holds more than sweet tone.

Swimming with Ravel

Di Wu ended with Ravel's keyboard triathlon, Gaspard de le Nuit. Di Wu called Ravel her favorite composer, explaining, "He's water." Yes, that's an odd depiction, but Di Wu added that while some of Ravel's works "have edges," often she feels as if she's swimming while playing his music.

Certainly during Gaspard's first piece— "Ondine, the siren who is not so brutal"— the audience heard where Di Wu's heart lay interpretatively: The music undulated, evoking waves and tears. Of her three fine readings, this was the superior account.

"Le Gibet" was given a becalming reading, Ravel's hangmen framed in solemn mist. "Scarbo," Ravel's answer to Till Eulenspiegel, scampered across the keyboard, a huge and ceaseless noisemaker, full of surprises, delighted to shrink or swell and at last to burst. Di Wu knows what she wants to say at the keys and away from them. Often, it is poetry.

What, When, Where

Di Wu: Philadelphia piano recital debut. Presented by Astral Artists, October 4, 2009 at Trinity Center for Urban Life, 2212 Spruce St. (215) 735-6999 or www.astralartisticservices.org

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