Joyce Yang Debuts with the San Diego Symphony in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto

Joyce Yang, the much-heralded Korean concert pianist, joined the San Diego Symphony this weekend in a performance of Segei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Having graced the roster of La Jolla SummerFest in several recent seasons, she is a known quantity here, and the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall was filled with fans of both Yang and Rachmaninoff.

Joyce Yang [photo courtesy of the artist]

Joyce Yang [photo courtesy of the artist]

I recall Yang’s astounding performance of Sergei Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G Minor at the 2015 SummerFest, and my expectations of her Rachmaninoff concerto were high. For readers whose memory of Russian music history may be hazy, Taneyev, a pupil and colleague of Tchaikovsky, was one of Rachmaninoff’s teachers at the Moscow Conservatory, and these three composers formed a holy trinity of high Romantic style in czarist Russia.

The concerto revealed Yang’s many keyboard virtues—including sonorous depth from the piano’s lowest range, beautifully sculpted phrases, the sparkle of cleanly etched filigree in the rapid treble passagework, and the consistent strength of her playing against the sonic blast of full orchestra. Guest conductor Johannes Debus and the orchestra gave her sensitive support and delivered rich ensemble tuttis with assurance.

Although the two lead musicians moved together in graceful unity, I felt their performance on Saturday (November 12) remained curiously earthbound. For starters, the tempo of opening movement seemed overly deliberate, tamping down the drive of this magnificent exposition, and in the Adagio sostenuto, Debus’ understated elegance muted the composer’s ardor. The finale came closest to red-blooded Rachmaninoff, but it arrived too late to rouse this listener to this beloved concerto’s signature level of ecstacy.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) proved another story entirely. Conducting a sagely scaled down orchestra of some 40 players, Debus elicited a crisp, buoyant account of Mozart’s last symphony. Fewer strings gave the winds greater prominence in Mozart’s textures, ensuring a more colorful and bristling texture.

Each movement revealed an unmistakable sense of operatic expectation, perhaps a predictable characteristic considering that since 2009 Debus has been the Canadian Opera Company’s Music Director. It is easy to hear strains of Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni—completed the year before Mozart wrote Symphony No. 41—wafting through the melodic riches of this jubilant symphony.

Johannes Debus [photo (c) Tony Hauser]

Johannes Debus [photo (c) Tony Hauser]

As a conductor, Debus led with sweeping, expressive arm movements, although he remained rooted on the podium—no bouncy dancing through vigorous movements for this conductor. The orchestra responded with alacrity to his clean and detailed direction.

To open this concert, Debus led a cool, shimmering account of Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ short Impressionist tone poem “The White Peacock.”

[themify_box style=”shadow” ]This program performed by the San Diego Symphony at the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall was given November 11-13, 2016. The Nov. 12 concert was attended for this review. The next concert given by the San Diego Symphony will be on November 18, 2016, with Cristian Măcelaru conducting Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony “From the New World.”[/themify_box]

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