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Pianist Clara Yang arrived at UNC in January, appointed as Mayron Tsong's relief after the latter left Chapel Hill for the University of Maryland. The fresh-caught Assistant Professor was barely out of grad school. Her talents, enthusiasm, and obviously-infectious personality are said already to have endeared her to her students and her colleagues. Her formal debut as a recitalist, given on the William S. Newman Artists Series, drew a pleasingly mixed audience of the faithful and far younger folks, nearly all of whom were quickly cloaked in her artistry. The program itself, consisting of big works by Handel, Robert Schumann, Hindemith, and Tchaikovsky, constituted in many respects a spectacular early holiday gift to her attendees, the Music Department, and the greater arts community. Yang may be young, but as an artist she is fully formed - and by God, she can play the piano!
We don’t hear much Handel on piano recitals anymore - the composer's keyboard music seems a casualty of historically-informed performance, much as performances of Mozart symphonies with full orchestras are things of the past. Yang opened with the Chaconne in G, an extraordinary work of considerable substance that she revealed with breath-taking technical prowess and keen interpretive insights. Here and elsewhere in the program there was a sense of the long line in which her overall focus helped keep the score's numerous small components in precise balance with one another and perfectly meshed in the Chaconne's quite overwhelming musical flow.
Schumann's Fantasy in C, Op. 17, is a great work for young artists who, like climbers of Mt. Everest, don't yet realize how hard some of the things they undertake really are. Even more than the Handel, this work requires concentration and constant awareness of the ultimate destination so its diverse sections, its emotional volatility, and its wide-ranging dynamics may fit together without seeming to be a mere parade of vignettes. Yang had the measure of the piece, throughout its half-hour course. Once more there was technique to burn combined with understanding of the music's content that belied her youth. This was quite a journey, dazzling in some respects, keenly insightful elsewhere. The sound she projected in the hall was admirable, too, thanks in part to the venue's fairly recent acoustic enhancements. The music was intense in its more dynamic sections but the blends and tone colors were clearly discernable throughout.
Hindemith's Suite 1922 is one of the classics of our time, which makes one wonder why it and his other keyboard works have largely disappeared from view (although, truth to tell, what other music by this master does one hear nowadays aside from the Symphonic Variations after Weber?). Yang made a compelling case for this five-section suite, a small gem that, in its way, is as mercurial - and in some respects as bi-polar! - as the Schumann. (In fact, Hindemith's slow movements might have been reasonable fits had they been dropped into the first part of the Fantasy.) The audience reaction was immediate and as enthusiastic as the artist's rendition of the Suite's "Ragtime" grand finale.
But there was more, in the form of Mikhail Pletnev's sometimes-over-the-top transcription of six parts of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Never mind that Pletnev has in recent years been embroiled in a nasty scandal: he knows a thing or two about the piano, and his edition of this thrice-familiar music demonstrates his keen insight and (apparent) good humor, too. Beyond that, Yang's performance constituted (as she said) an early Christmas present. Furthermore, it often sounded as if Yang had cloned herself - or her hands, at least - to generate more flying digits than Ma Nature had originally provided. There was clarity here alongside the dizzying speed and the all-over-the-keyboard torrents of notes through which the grand master of ballet's most famous work was shown to be every bit as compelling for solo piano as when heard played by one of the world's great orchestras.
The concert was dedicated by the artist to the memory of Yang's friend and former Yale colleague John Richard Miller, who passed away last month at the age of 29.
Standing ovations remain relatively rare in Chapel Hill, where audiences are sometimes slow to display overt enthusiasm. Yang began earning her standing ovation with her very first, focused chords, a few minutes after her spoken introduction just minutes after 8 p.m. When the program ended around 9:35 p.m., the waves of applause mirrored and complemented this outstanding artist's playing. Brava!