There’s nothing that quite matches the experience of having a profoundly musical but technically difficult piece of music come together in high style. That happened Friday morning at Powell Symphony Hall when pianist Joyce Yang, conductor Edo de Waart and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra converged on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor.
It’s not true that the Rach 3 drives pianists insane, but trying to learn this dense and difficult score has certainly taught many of them serious respect, if not outright fear. Yang, a native of Seoul, South Korea, who studied at Juilliard and has won many prestigious competitions, gave no indication of being at all concerned about the task before her.
She’s an assertive presence at the keyboard. Leading off with strength, she seemed a little short on lyricism at times in the first movement; there was more of that later on, and it hardly seemed to matter in light of her overall achievement. Yang’s a marvel of technique, dazzling in her speed and accuracy and projecting passion for the music throughout. She made the audience sit up and take notice throughout the concerto.
De Waart and the orchestra seemed right in sync with Yang, accompanying her strongly. There were great solo passages by many of the principal and associate principal players, including associate principal flute Andrea Kaplan, principal oboe Jelena Dirks, associate principal clarinet Diana Haskell and associate principal horn Thomas Jöstlein.
At the concerto’s end, the audience rose as one, in that rarity, the wholly deserved standing ovation. Yang repaid them with an encore. “The only composer who can follow Rachmaninoff,” she said, “is himself,” and gave a fine reading of the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12.
Yang was right: Rachmaninoff is a hard act to follow. After that tour de force, Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat major came across as a little anticlimactic. That’s not fair to a fine piece of music with a lot to offer listeners; it might have been better to reverse the two works’ order, or to save the Elgar for a different program.
Almost a decade in its composition, the 1908 symphony is a lush, lyrical piece of Late Romantic writing, infused with nobility. De Waart and the orchestra gave it its due. In the first movement, the first violins achieved a remarkable blend, singing like a single voice.
That togetherness was characteristic of this performance, as the SLSO responded to de Waart’s direction in near-perfect form throughout.