Ya-Fei In Works Large and Small

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Some wines (and concerts) make the sensorium vibrate with pyrotechnics, only to disappear from memory the next day. Others (Château d’Yquem comes to mind) surreptitiously breathe their magic into the soul, with a rich afterglow that continues to delight and surprise. The sweet power of Ya-Fei Cheung’s concert at Jordan Hall continues to bring me subtle treasures as I write.

The first was the power of contrasting scale. In last night’s Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts concert, delayed by a blizzard and threatened by a hurricane, Ya-Fei gave us piano works ranging from the delicate miniature of fleeting love to the towering vastness of eternity. His program enlisted extensively in alternating works by Schubert, Chopin, CPE Bach, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. Despite her dazzling dress, as she took possession of the stage, there was a warning: listen to the depth tonight, elegant and stylish, not a fire of vanity.

YFC opened with four of Schubert’s small ops. 94 Musical Moments, starting with the second, A flat major Andantino. Starting from deep sadness, she subtly used dynamics to reveal many shades of loss – and only now do I realize how much the theme of loss would dominate and unify the program. She gave a very personal account of the famous Moment III in F minor, Allegro moderato, downplaying the militaristic overtones and instead emphasizing the dancing, fiery vulnerability with which youth approaches life, unaware of its dangers. Nicely followed by Moment V in F minor, Allegro vivace, she imbued it with a tumultuous and exhilarating force reminiscent of the famous manifesto of youthful romanticism by René de Chateaubriand: “Debout, desorages storms! With the latest Moment VI, Allegretto, YFC has subtly created a vast miniature world of its own, a back pay tenderness, restraint, sorrow, fear, joy, anguish, terror, resignation, comfort and hope as lied encapsulating Schubert’s incredible sonic gift.

Chopin’s Great Symphonic Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58, opened in the reading of YFC with a deceptively sweet first theme, as if opening our minds to welcome a broader, hopeful perspective in the second theme. A turbulent development gave way to a momentary pause in the clouds, prayerful in the recap and sweetly dreamy in the conclusion. YFC exploited hidden textures in the Scherzo, giving it a seething, flowing elegance in the A section, then contrasting it wonderfully with an understated, dark mid-section, to return with a new resolution to the effervescent dance. In the Sonata’s Largo heart we heard a nocturne-like narration, a sad journey to a wanted unknown, the trio section arriving as a paradoxical descent upwards with a mysterious astral glow, permeating the return of the section with the feeling of cosmic communion. YFC gave a surprising, compelling and deep intensity to the cadence – how final is the finality? (Echoes of Keats: “Now, more than ever, it seems rich to die.”) As if to broaden the cosmic dimension of his interpretation, YFC gave the Finale’s memorable odyssey some sparkle, making it soar, in the Milky Way and beyond, like a journey through the symbols of the Zodiac, bringing its mythical powers to life. (The glorious images of the Webb telescope came to mind, as the coda took us into the unknown.)

Chuang accepts floral applause (photo Chung Chen)

Then came three memorable surprises.

YFC gave a sensitive and captivating reading of CPE Bach’s Rondo in E minor, Wq 66, “Adieu à mon clavichord de Silbermann”. Pedaling lightly, YCF gave the sad rondo, in its successive returns, an unexpected eloquence because it seemed to ruminate on the loss as such, on the years that pass, on the many thresholds we cross, never to return to our steps, on the finality. And she imbued the cadence with an almost unbearable sense of finality. Wow.

YFC proposed a modernist version of Ravel’s short eight Noble and sentimental waltzes which are more generally interpreted as nostalgic. YFC turned them into a gripping series of parisian paintings or street scenes of an urban landscape. The playful (“very frank”) opening, with its boulevardier combination of bravado and cowardice, well-breathed discord and hidden threats of violence. Walz II transmitted the secret anguish of idle dreams, where meaning becomes lost, unrecoverable. Waltz III celebrated the rain, with a cup of tea shared with ghosts. Waltz IV plunged us into a “crowd bath”, a walkabout along the quays, where the most intimate solitude reappears (V) and where sparrows and pickpockets bring us back to social liveliness (VI); so we turn to a cafe and mingle with busy waiters and quarrelsome lovers who come to verbal blows (VII) before dusk and night envelop the city in its shroud, blurring the boundaries of parks and cemeteries , deserted streets and catacombs. Where are we going? Who are we?

YFC has found and conveyed a deeply personal vision of Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36, in its succinct 1931 version. After a clear statement of the themes, YFC used subtle dynamics to create great intensity and concentration in the opening Allegro stirring movement, giving it the complex color of doubt, ambivalence, even as the chimes of bells vied with the thunder to take hold of a landscape that was both familiar and foreign, beloved and desolate.

In slow motion, she depicts fate through the countless pathways of patience. How it slowly fills us with its liquid power. How he reveals secrets. How it hurts. How it brings light. How it gets to us. How he remembers. How it causes turmoil, rebellion and the struggle to escape! (YFC did the trio section masterfully!) How it comes back, loyal, forgiving. How is it going there, with us. How it brings wisdom.

In the third and final movement, YFC seizes the tempo, Allegro molto, to unleash a landscape of love, strong as death. With compelling chords shot through with bursts of brilliance, she created a dialogue to convey the pure energy of love in its possessiveness and desperation, generativity and reciprocity. Its elegantly negotiated coda affirmed that love is in essence rewarded. Loss, after all, is impossible.

After receiving flowery tributes from young admirers and aspiring pianists, YFC treated us to a sweet, dreamy rest in Schumann’s Romance, Op. 28, No. 2. Like the embers of a fire that never kindles to dazzle but provides light for months and years to come, YFC has illuminated us with lasting memories.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Cambridge Center for Astrophysics and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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