In Flourish Of Sparkles, Yuja Wang Flashes Her Liszt At Tanglewood

The Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons on opening night of the 2022 Tanglewood season with pianist Yuja Wang. (Photos by Hilary Scott)

LENOX, Mass. — They’re back, with all of it: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the manicured Berkshires estate, the cafeteria, the smiles.  Small audience, which happened because Tanglewood buried the lede.  

There had been chatter a couple of weeks ago about Yuja Wang stepping into the Koussevitzky Music Shed to substitute for Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who was scheduled to perform Leonard Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety symphony (not an audience favorite). That piece was quietly changed to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which Wang bounced and tore through, to the middling audience’s surprise and delight.

But there was no notice of this change in the program, no insert or announcement on the grounds or outdoor screens. Imagine the roar when she appeared.

Wang’s playing sparkled like her green mini-dress as she alternated lightning-quick smashes, caresses, and forever trills, bouncing off keys while music director Andris Nelsons conducted as if it were general treat time. Liszt probably would have loved her. She plays encores. Friday’s was Horowitz’s Carmen Variations, at top speed and volume, with added pizzazz. (Press office says nothing was added.) She didn’t need to do that: The audience and orchestra were agog anyway, craning forward and grinning.

Jack Canfield

The concert began with Bernstein’s Opening Prayer, meant to pair with his deleted symphony. After a solo trumpet fanfare, baritone Jack Canfield sang, in Hebrew, the prayer that church ministers often use to conclude services: “The lord bless you and keep you.” Too bad the voice rattled.

Nelsons, coming more into his own as time passes, ended the program with a fine performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The late, very great scholar Richard Taruskin did tremendous work interpreting this century-plus old piece for today’s ordinary listeners. People have quit throwing things as they did at the 1913 premiere and listen instead to what is now perceived as sweet little Russian folk tunes emerging from the driving, chaotic rhythms. It’s a ballet score! Of course. Solos were so vivid that at the end, Nelsons pointed out many instrumentalists for well-deserved individual bows.

Saturday’s all-American program was brilliantly revelatory, whether or not it was likable. The way to grab onto it was to think about jazz connections, Black influence throughout the 20th century, and the French permutation of jazz. Titles were Motherboxx Connection by Carlos Simon, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber, New World A-Comin by Duke Ellington with pianist Aaron Diehl, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

Carlos Simon, composer of ‘Motherboxx Connection,’ with music director Andris Nelsons and the BSO.

Motherboxx, whose speedy woodwind and string passages begin with a brass fanfare, seemed to show Simon reaching for today’s classical music. Revised from his four-movement A Folklore Symphony, it represents “a living computer with heightened awareness of racial and sexual discourses surrounding the black body.” This version, in its premiere, would benefit from another hearing.

Knoxville, setting a text by James Agee that soprano Nicole Cabell couldn’t put across over the big orchestra, is a peaceful reference to a warm Southern evening, and a family of any color could have been lying on that blanket. The Ellington (followed by an encore with piano and combo) had something of Gershwin about it, and the Gershwin seemed to draw on everyone, even as he presaged their work. People drifted out musing like anything.

Soprano Nicole Cabell sang Samuel Barber’s ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915.’

Sandwiched between Rachmaninoff’s familiar “Vocalise” and his Third Symphony on Sunday was the American premiere of an exciting trumpet concerto, night-sky-blue, co-commissioned by the Boston Symphony, London Symphony, and Library of Congress. The Scottish composer Helen Grime, friend of the renowned soloist Håkan Hardenberger, who is also a friend of Nelsons (also a trumpeter), was in attendance, and spoke shyly to the crowd.

Hakan Hardenberger was soloist in the American premiere of Helen Grime’s trumpet concerto, ‘night-sky-blue.’

The single-movement work was inspired by Vita Sackville-West’s gardens at Sissinghurst, particularly at night. But Grime’s night was not related to Falla’s sensuous Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Trumpet screams were augmented by the brass section and loud, busy, percussion. Varied drums, slap-stick, and triangle were an ongoing presence.

Tanglewood has been bringing Grime forward since the performance of In the Mist, her affecting 2008 chamber work about her grandmother’s last days. Sunday’s wild concerto shows the extent of her branching out, which has been happening over recent years. She’s on a journey that’s worth following.