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A superstar pianist and a prodigy conductor make for a charismatic duo


On Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, a rising star and a superstar lit up the Concert Hall.

The rising star was 23-year-old Finnish phenomenon Tarmo Peltokoski, music director of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, making his conducting debut with the National Symphony Orchestra (on a program that repeats Saturday and Sunday). The superstar was the celebrated 36-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, there to perform Bartók’s thriller second piano concerto with spellbinding ease.

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The concerto was the centerpiece of a program that opened with Wagner’s 1862 prelude to “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” and closed with the first symphony by Jean Sibelius, Peltokoski’s fellow Finn. And while Wang brought the star power — and her bright fuchsia gown brought the gasps — there was big-night energy in the hall all evening.

Peltokoski strode to the podium with an efficiency that might have suggested jitters, but from the opening burst of the prelude to its crashing, ringing finish, he navigated its crisscrossing rush of emotional currents with visible pleasure. Arching back, he basked in Wagner’s big pushes of brass; leaning in, he guided the pining strings of the prelude with the fluid ease of a good swim.

His quick connection with the orchestra was clear as he summoned the vibrato of a trombone with a wobble of the hand, or the glimmer of chimes with wiggled fingers. Peltokoski was a joy to watch, in part, not only because of the space he allowed for his own joy, but also for the fresh colors he found in the fabric of the prelude, as though he’d beaten the dust from it. I’d be game to hear what he could do with the other four hours of the opera.

Wang — a pianist of unassailable technique and unique sensitivity — is also a musician who conveys her pleasure in not just playing, but also performing. Of course, that earns her descriptors like “naughty,” unhelpful critical discussions concerning the length of her skirts, and offhand comparisons between her appearance and “a lion tamer’s assistant.” The keyboard is up here, folks.

What gets lost in the exhaustingly superficial treatment of Wang — who just earned a Grammy nomination for her album with the Louisville Orchestra, “The American Project” — is the extraordinary depth she brings to her playing, on full display in Thursday’s account of Bartók’s ostensibly challenging concerto.

So arresting was her opening response to the trumpet’s signal theme that you might have gone the whole Allegro movement without noticing its lack of strings. Wang indulged in its rambunctious rhythms, precisely articulating Bartók’s insistently unusual harmonic language — which seems to smile wide with a missing tooth — in a cadenza deployed with stunning dexterity. Peltokoski precisely balanced the orchestra’s plumes of flute, oboe and brass against Wang’s uncanny timbral variety and speed.

The second movement was shockingly quiet, leaning into the stillness of Bartók’s strings, which Peltokoski rendered with the intensity of moonlight. The opening haze of faintly tinted, gently tilting chords was disturbed only by the dink-a-ding of somebody’s phone, a short solo from someone’s squeaky seat hinge and Wang’s delicate entrance. A plodding, almost mocking passage gave way to the movement’s surprise swerve into presto, where Wang’s dizzying fingerwork was shot through with spikes of flute and clarinet. With a blurry, two-note trill, she bore through the return of the soft strings like a drill, and she nearly vanished into the darkness of the cadenza’s grotesque shadow-play.

Peltokoski and Wang commanded the finale movement (“Allegro molto — Più allegro”) with its rumbling exchange of piano and timpani and thrilling buildup of titanic brass. Wang drew lush detail from stormy cadences that in lesser hands might resolve into pure violence. She coordinated her colors beautifully with the orchestra, which Peltokoski wrangled to an explosive, energizing finish.

It’s not often that a guest conductor and a guest performer find such comfort in the embrace of an unfamiliar orchestra. To drive home the point of this easy compatibility, the two indulged one encore, and then another, Peltokoski and Wang sitting on the same piano bench to play charmingly chummy four-handed takes on Brahms’s “Hungarian Dances” — Nos. 1 and 5.

Sibelius’s first symphony was premiered by the Helsinki Philharmonic under the composer’s direction in 1899 (though it’s the revision made a year later that we hear today). And within its four movements, you can detect all sorts of little trial versions of sound effects and rhythmic devices more fully deployed in his later symphonies — like a painter getting a feel for his own brushstrokes. In its small, interlocking melodic figures, you hear something reliable yet irregular, like birdsong. You also hear the budding signature of Finland’s most beloved composer.

Peltokoski’s reverence for Sibelius and this particular work was icicle clear throughout his sensitive, closely engaged performance. Opening with a gorgeous solo from principal clarinet Lin Ma, the first movement built into a thicket of scrubby strings that broke like a dam. The young conductor demonstrated a close knowledge of its varied terrain — its trickles of harp, its crags of brass, its long airborne streaks of clarinet and flute. Perhaps a bit too caught up in its beauty, he upstaged the pizzicato pluck of the finish with a stomp of his foot.

He approached the andante movement with an unsentimental tempo that kept its elegance intact, especially through David Hardy’s beautiful solo work on cello. A dour restatement of the themes was lifted by chilly gales of flute — Peltokoski has a knack for letting Sibelius’s wild side speak for itself.

The third and fourth movements, performed without a pause between, emphasized Peltokoski’s naturalistic approach: Listening to a third-movement theme get passed around the orchestra was akin to watching a flame spread. The climb to the fourth movement’s climax was as artfully controlled as any I’ve heard, and yet the view seemed altogether new. It was as exciting a reintroduction to Sibelius as it was a proper introduction to Peltokoski — a conductor with nothing but first impressions to make.

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.



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