Sunday, November 10, 2013

Di Wu returns to the Carmel Symphony Orchestra for the third time

Deeply rooted acquaintance with rising stars can pay off in ongoing collaborations that might not have happened if somebody hadn't gotten in on the ground floor. David Bowden continues to benefit from getting to know Di Wu shortly after she made her first splash in this hemisphere by winning the Hilton Head International Piano Competition in 2005.

So the Chinese native's growing prominence internationally is apparently no obstacle to her re-engagement with the orchestras Bowden conducts, most recently the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, with which she appeared as guest artist for the third time Saturday night at the Palladium.

She gave extra brilliance to both halves of the program, her fashion consciousness showing as well in striking dresses that suited each of the two composers she played. Before intermission she performed George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" Variations. The American songwriter's last concert piece expounds on the popularity of the tune that has been subjected to countless variations and recompositions by jazzmen in particular. And it's presumed that when Gershwin set down this extended work, he was capturing the flights of fancy he typically subjected the famous song to at parties: If there was a piano in the room, George would make a dash for the bench.

The 29-year-old soloist showed herself a 21st-century artist by having the notes in front of her on a tablet instead of the printed page. Her performance Saturday had the authentic Gershwin spirit. She wholeheartedly characterized each distinctive tweaking of the tune, seconding the timbral and textural cues placed throughout the orchestration. The performance had a remarkable degree of unity, considering the shifts of rhythm and tempo that give the score its steeplechase quality.

Di Wu played music by Liszt and Gershwin in her third Carmel appearance.
The standard work Wu played with the CSO was Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat, capping an all-Liszt second half. The storminess of the first and fourth linked movements was stunningly replicated, and the delicate wit of the third-movement scherzo showed the charming aspect of Wu's capability. I found the "Quasi adagio" second movement a bit ordinary expressively, though of course nothing at all clumsy got in the way of an interpretation brimming with spirit. Bowden led a nimble and, when the occasion warranted, vehement accompaniment.

For an encore, Wu offered a brilliant account of Debussy's "Feux d'artifices," the encore (she announced) that she had played in her first Carmel Symphony Orchestra appearance nearly three years ago. Wu has panache to spare, and it's likely her artistic horizons are as wide as can be as she develops further.

The orchestra performed creditably on its own, showing it could be captivating even without as attractive a soloist as Wu. Liszt's "Les Preludes," familiar to many radio listeners of old as the theme of radio broadcasts from the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan, received a handsome performance. In rapid passages a more robust violin and viola sound was needed, but all the strings played sweetly in the piece's calmer moments. Brass and percussion came through brightly in repeated moments of assertive splendor.

Two rarely heard gems opened the concert. Offenbach's Overture to "La Belle Helene" made for a saucy curtain-raiser, rife with light sentimentality and pert energy.  It whetted the appetite for another colorful obscurity, George Whitefield Chadwick's "Vagrom Ballad," one of four Symphonic Sketches the once well-regarded American composer wrote. A portrait of rail-riding vagrancy and the bygone entertainments it inspired, it elicited from the orchestra adept soloing, mainly from bass clarinetist Terri Cassel, and remarkably detailed shifts of focus as the quirky, episodic sketch moved toward its bustling conclusion.