Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ With the National Symphony Orchestra with Pianist Yuja Wang, Conducted by Lionel Bringuier at Wolf Trap

It was a stifling hot, totally sticky humid July evening in the DC area. Cooling breezes under the glowing wooden open structure that is Wolf Trap’s Filene Center at first were few and far between even with an 8:15 p.m. performance.

Then the evening burst into something way cool.

Bringuier-©-Paolo Dutto.
Maestro Lionel Bringuier. Photo © Paolo Dutto.

This evening became a dynamic, shimmering nearly two-glorious-hours of music to step forward with, back into the future to the time jazz was new, America full of happy promise, and all seemed so right. This particular evening was one of the summer concerts presented by the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). In this case under the wonderfully lively baton of Conductor Lionel Bringuler making his NSO debut. The evening’s repertoire included the well-known to many:

  • Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
  • Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
  • Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

One of the reasons for the weather becoming way cool was the performance by celebrated pianist Yuja Wang (born in Beijing in 1987), and it began before she played a note as she boldly stepped into audience view from the wings of Wolf Trap’s Filene Center. As Ms. Wang moved with an unhurried pace moved to center stage and the piano was to suck the stifling heat and humidity completely away; replacing it with clearly prodigious musical goods along and the artistic visual style of the burgeoning Millennial generation.

With the dramatic flair of her long, cut-out, turquoise silk gown, and perhaps 5 inch high heels, Wang made an immediate shrewd impression that brought soft utterances of “Wow!” from many of the patrons. With her Louise Brooks’ short hair bob look, Wang had Wolf Trap audience at the ready to be wowed.

And “Wow” us she did so. Her theatrical entrance was just a test to wake us up. Effortlessly, efficiently and with well-placed emotion, Wang put her piano skills on display and earned a well-deserved standing ovation.

Without a piece of sheet music in sight, sitting before her grand piano, Ms. Wang played two icons of “Jazz-Age” music. She took the audience into George Gershwin’s 16 minutes of secular heaven; his 1924 Rhapsody in Blue and the unmistakably complimentary 23 minutes of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major composed after Ravel had met Gershwin in New York and heard the Rhapsody. Who knew slap-sticks can open a musical performance with such panache?

Wang’s practiced ease with both pieces was clear. She was magnetic. Her fingers blazed across the piano keys with a contained at-the-edge, well-displayed, controlled brashness. At other times her fingers barely skimmed the keys with the slightest touch, her foot working the piano pedals with wafting into the air that were clear and sweet. Her work was not merely technically proficient, but was more; it had color with the notes her piano produced. (Let me pay compliments to the unseen, unknown piano-tuner who had to work magic given the weather conditions and expected effect on a piano).

After intermission, Conductor Bringuier and the NSO performed the showpiece that is Ravel’s arrangement of Modest Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition. The performance was 32 minutes long and multi-movements of musical verve – especially for those who like deep mood changes and calculated Russian dissonance in their musical taste. It was full of panache. So let me praise the musical talents of the playful NSO performing through the oppressive weather conditions.

 Yuja Wang. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.
Yuja Wang. Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap.

As a group with the many solos that Gershwin, Ravel, and Musorgsky composed and arranged, there were a plentitude of NSO stand-outs. Not a squeak to be heard with that famous Gershwin clarinet opening for the Rhapsody. A harp’s out-of-nowhere shined in the midst of Ravel’s Piano Concerto, violins plucked and bowed with stylish elegance, trumpets and saxophones giving off plenty of verve and percussions for Musorgsky’s ode to a friend’s art. All also with well-placed, wonderful flamboyance.

The NSO at Wolf Trap and Yuja Wang provided just an exceptional “sure-footed” evening of how the mysterious wonders and synergy of music to remove us from time and place. And place us somewhere us singly and as a communal experience. The gorgeous musical evening had to end, of course. There were no encores even those the gathered thousands in the audience clearly wanted that. Alas we had to trudge back into the still humid evening to begin again to come to terms with the horrible events of recent days here in America.

For two luscious hours, heaven was made audible and visible to me.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the National Symphony Orchestra with Pianist Yuja Wang, and conducted by Lionel Bringuier, played on July 8, 2016 at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap – 1645 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For upcoming Wolf Trap performances call the box office at 1-877-wolftrap, or go to their events calendar.

As a New Yorker always and still, I cannot let this opportunity go by to link to the opening scene of Woody Allen’s memorable Manhattan. It will forever be in my cognition, Woody’s words, NYC images and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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