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Gerald Carpenter: Music Academy of the West to Host Pianist Yuja Wang

She will perform a solo recital on Friday, then teach a masterclass Saturday morning

UCSB Arts & Lectures will present diminutive dynamo and pianist Yuja Wang in a solo piano recital at 8 p.m. Friday in Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West.

Pianist Yuja Wang
Pianist Yuja Wang

Wang also will teach a piano masterclass with the Santa Barbara Music Club and MERIT students at 11 a.m. Saturday, also in Hahn Hall. The masterclass, which is free and open to observers, is co-presented with the Music Academy of the West and the Santa Barbara Music Club.

No amount of verbal acrobatics on my part will achieve more than a pale approximation of the experience of listening to Wang perform. The precise force of her execution, the aching emotion of the lyrical passages and the waves of power generated in her tiny frame that are exponentially increased when translated into the piano make it very difficult to square what you are hearing with what you are seeing. So, I won’t even try. I’ll say a little about the music instead.

If there is a theme to Wang’s program, it’s that of cross fertilization between one composition and another, one composer and another. She will play the Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Opus 42 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Sonata No. 19 in C-Minor, D. 958 by Franz Schubert, selected Preludes and Études by Alexander Scriabin, A Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, the “Scherzo” from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Danse macabre Opus 40 by Camille Saint-Saëns.

Three of the works — Mussorgsky, Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns — are very popular orchestral pieces that have been arranged, by other hands than the composers’, into bravura piano showpieces. This is the sort of thing that Liszt did all the time, and it is very likely that Wang will be playing his famous transcription of the Danse macabre, though Vladimir Horowitz also transcribed the work and made a hit with it whenever he played it in concert.

Liszt also prepared a piano version of the Midsummer Night’s Dream “Scherzo,” as did German-Swiss composer and piano virtuoso Sigismond Thalberg, but I rather suspect that it is the exquisite transcription by Rachmaninff that we will hear at Hahn Hall. Though Mussorgsky was a fine pianist and wrote a good deal of solo piano music, the only piano version of A Night on Bald Mountain I know of was made by one Konstantin Chernov (1865-1937), whose name is to be found in no other connection.

Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations have a richer history. The theme he uses for his variations comes from the Sonata in D-Minor for Violin and Continuo, Opus 5, No. 12 by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), and one of the wonders of this work is how Rachmaninoff transforms this tune so quickly into Russian music. But as great as Corelli was, the theme did not originate with him. It is the folia, which, as one scholar put it, “is one of the oldest remembered European musical themes, or primary material, generally melodic, of a composition, on record.”

The intense gravitas of the folia made it especially congenial to the baroque: Not only Corelli, but Henry Purcell and Marin Marais produced wonderful settings of the theme, as did Jean-Baptiste Lully, Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Francesco Geminiani, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. It shows up in Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole and in the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Minor.

Rachmaninoff wrote his Variations in the 1930s, and in the 1980s the Spanish composer-conductor Gregorio Paniagua produced a haunting and bizarre album called La Folia that explores the theme from more angles than one would have thought possible. The folia is, we may say, an essential theme.

Tickets to Wang’s performance are $30 for the general public and $15 for UCSB students. They are available from the Arts & Lectures box office in Campbell Hall or by phone at 805.893.3535.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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