So I ask myself - why did I buy this? Well, because I think Yuja Wang is a brilliant pianist. And I thought it would be fun hearing her play some American music. And maybe a concerto written specially for her would be interesting. So I took the bait. Just like DG is counting on everybody doing.
But I really should have known better. There were several red flags on this one: an unknown composer; a minor orchestra; a label which is wont to promote the likes of Lang Lang; a CD lasting just 42 minutes...all indicators this wasn't going to be what I was hoping it would be.
Composer/conductor Teddy Abrams explains in the booklet (and I'm paraphrasing) that he and Yuja Wang attended the Curtis Institute together and have remained good friends. Her career skyrocketed in a way his didn't, so he decided to compose a piece for her to play with him and his orchestra in Kentucky (The Louisville Orchestra).
What started out as a kind of companion piece to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was eventually expanded into a full-length "concerto". Unfortunately, it isn't exactly what one would have expected. It's not really a concerto (at least not structurally) and musically sounds like a jumble of ideas thrown together trying to be something.
I know that sounds harsh, so let me explain what we've got here.
The orchestra plays an uninteresting introduction which serves to establish the fact this definitely isn't your ordinary Classical piano concerto but rather a sort of jazz band concert. Immediately we're confronted with closely-mic'd, sour, reedy saxophones which predominate over anything the rest of the orchestra might be doing. So we're already off to a bad start - and we're only 2 minutes in.
Then the orchestra stops and the piano plays a really long cadenza. It goes on so long we wonder if the saxophones have gone out for coffee. The piano part tries to be jazzy, but I hear a lot of right-hand arpeggios up and down the keyboard accompanied by boogie-woogie style bouncing octaves in the left hand. For over 5 minutes.
Then the orchestra comes back and plays something which doesn't seem to have anything to do with what's been going on. Then the piano plays some more - this time with some scales in place of arpeggios.
Eventually the piano and orchestra do play together, combining to create extended passages of high energy cacophony. Soon the ruckus increases into a pounding contest to see if the piano can possibly be heard over the orchestra (it can't). At one point, the music finds itself with nowhere to go and gets stuck on two chords alternating back and forth, much like a stuck record which keeps jumping back a note or two over and over until you get up and move the needle. You remember the good old days of scratchy records, right?
Soon there is another break - and yet another piano solo.
By the time we get to track 9 ("Solos"), the proceedings deteriorate into an "improvisational" jam session for trumpet and sax, with the electric guitar and piano in the mix. This is not something I would enjoy under the best of circumstances, and I found it particularly unappealing here - especially the trumpet, whose improvised riffs are not on a par with the best jazz musicians. And I simply couldn't go on. It's rare I can't finish listening to a piece of music, but I had had enough at this point and turned it off.
I wish Mr. Abrams had stuck with his original, more manageable idea of composing a short showpiece; I suspect it would have been much more compelling. In this expansion, there are lots of notes and jazzy chord progressions which aren't organized into a coherent, cogent concept. It tends to sound contrived - just a flashy creation for Yuja Wang to play.
And it's not much more than surface flash at that. It doesn't sound particularly challenging to play - though I suppose seeing all those mind-numbing notes on the page did require some practicing, even for Yuja Wang.
Making matters even worse, DG's recording is a muffled, congested mess. The engineer in the control room struggles to keep the electric guitar and trap-set in check while unduly spotlighting the saxophones and piano. The poor orchestra hardly stands a chance, rendered impossibly indistinct and underappreciated. And, frankly, that's probably just as well.
Completing the disappointment, the CD playing time is just 42 minutes.
But wait...not all is lost. The opening work, "You Come Here Often?", is an encore written for Ms. Wang by Michael Tilson Thomas in 2016. And it is fabulous. It's genuinely jazzy, genuinely creative and genuinely entertaining. And brilliantly played. Unfortunately, it lasts just 4-1/2 minutes.