Yuja Wang lets loose with the Philadelphia Orchestra - on her own terms

Yuja Wang: Who cares what she wears? She sounds great

Did you happen to see the orchestra the other night? Was it a terrific show?

If you answered yes to these questions, you can pat yourself on the back. You are integral to keeping alive one of western civilization’s great ideas, and, in the process, have launched a limitless personal journey that connects you to three centuries of the human experience.

On the other hand, if you come to the orchestra to literally see it, or with the primary expectation of being entertained, we might have a problem.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s first subscription concert of the season was Thursday night, and by Friday morning social media was buzzing about something to be seen: the dress. The dress and outfits like it, in fact, have fueled chatter for a few weeks, having recently been the leitmotif of a sprawling New Yorker article – what Yuja Wang wears. And sure enough Thursday, Wang stunned with something long, diaphanous, curve-hugging and sparkling.

As far as I’m concerned, the Curtis-trained pianist can wear whatever she wants. The dress is only worth mentioning because it is so perfectly emblematic of the trend at this orchestra and others to emphasize the visual side of the experience. Film, theatrical elements and other visuals might lure ticket buyers. But if you’re in the business of presenting an orchestra and simultaneously drawing attention away from it, are you really cultivating interest in the core art form? Surely if how we talk about the music matters, then whether we talk about it really matters.

I suppose Wang is lucky to have dual-channel appeal. But I hope no one misses the fact that sound is by far her greater quality. She is a magnificent pianist. It was fascinating to hear her hold an astonishing firepower in abeyance until the encore, and late in the encore at that. She limited rubato and showiness in the first half of Chopin’s Waltz in C Sharp Minor. But when the same material appeared again, she let loose with liberties and thrills while emphasizing inner voices often overlooked. A tone polished to a fine sheen and great speed joined to make a warhorse something different, something more.

Likewise, there was little obvious in her Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor. The ways she hears Chopin is different from many other pianists. In place of excessive drama came refinement. The first movement was heartfelt, but delightfully unfussy. Even in moments when she could have shown off, she didn’t. Oddly, the orchestra, led here by music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, didn’t always take her cue, surging in spots more excitably than she.

The program’s second half, the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, confirmed many of  the ensemble’s best assets: a wall-of-sound rich trombone section, the power of four harps to totally change the orchestral texture, and at least a couple of outstanding woodwind solo players. Nézet-Séguin didn’t offer much remarkable in the way of a personal imprint, though I was taken with the way he suspended time in a stretch of the first movement (starting with the oboe solo after rehearsal number 16, for you score-readers). It was an unusual stroke, and one that invoked the hallucinatory aspects of this piece that make it startling even now.

Additional performances: Friday at 2 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m., Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Sts. Tickets are $10-$157. www.philorch.org, 215-893-1999.

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