Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Evan Wong: Remember That Name – A Prodigy of the Piano
It was a special Tuesday evening in Jordan Hall, the New England Conservatory of Music’s acoustically perfect and visually stunning concert venue. The NEC Philharmonia, one of three symphony orchestras that the school boasts, was presenting their spring concert. The hall was filled with anticipation and more than the usual assortment of the glitterati of the Boston music scene. The large crowd forced the house managers to open the balcony – in my experience, a rare occurrence for a student concert at Jordan Hall.
Under the baton of Julian Kuerti, assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, the Philharmonia open with a stirring rendition of John Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords (Gli accordi piu usati). Professor Harbison of MIT was in attendance and acknowledged the approbation and appreciation of the audience and members of the orchestra.
The musicians cleared the stage to allow for the school’s prized Steinway concert grand piano to be wheeled to center stage. The orchestra members returned, tuned up under the watchful gaze of concertmaster, Ying Xue, and welcomed to the stage Kuerti, now accompanied by young Evan Wong, a recent graduate of the Walnut Hill School. In his first year of studies at NEC, Wong is the winner of the 2009 NEC Piano Concerto Competition. With this performance he was making his orchestral debut. And what a debut it was!
From the opening strains of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, it was clear that the audience was in for a special treat. This piece is a part of the standard repertoire for almost every great pianist. It is technically challenging and emotionally draining. Wong, Kuerti and the orchestra played together in a glorious display of symphonic music at its best. Over the years, I have heard in concert many of the world’s finest pianists – from Van Cliburn to Emmanuel Ax to Peter Serkin to Evgeny Kissin. So, I am not easily impressed. Last evening, I was impressed. Not only did Wong demonstrate mastery of the keyboard and of Rachmaninoff’s complex rhythms, chord structures, scales and arpeggios, he showed an openness of spirit and a stage presence that belied his tender teenage years. This was a performance that would have brought the crowd to their feet in any of the great concert halls in the world. During the familiar and lyrical 18th variation, the andante cantabile movement that even most casual music fans would recognize, the effect was so beautiful and electrifying that I sat spellbound and moved to tears. That does not often happen to me during a classical concert.
As the final notes reverberated through the rafters of the historic concert hall, many in the audience leapt to their feet, clapping, hollering, and exulting in what we had just experienced. Wong and Kuerti were called back to the stage three times. As the lights came up to signal intermission, I began to reflect on what I had just heard and seen. Could Wong’s performance have been as exceptional as I had thought, or was I over reacting? So, I took advantage of the break to do a quick poll of the professional musicians I recognized in the audience. John Harbison affirmed my assessment that on a technical and emotional level, it was an extraordinary performance. Benjamin Zander, the legendary conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra was next in my sights. I waited for him to congratulate Wong and the pianist’s family, and then I asked his opinion:
“If Rachmaninoff were alive, he would be amazed that a high school kid was able to play his Rhapsody with such mastery. I have seen and heard Evan perform in the past, and he has always been somewhat reserved. Tonight, he opened himself up to the music and to the audience. It was very special.”
I feel privileged to have been at Jordan Hall to experience the magical moment. As I left the building, I was almost tempted to gaze at the sky to see if a super nova had appeared, signaling the birth of a king. A new star has appeared in the musical firmament. Remember the name Evan Wong.