Review - Yuja Wang at Royal Festival Hall

Tony Cross gets Brahms and The List after his first experience of live classical music watching Yuja Wang at Royal Festival Hall this week...

So, this review needs to begin with a story. Let me take you back to 2002. A pub in London’s West End. It might have been the King’s Arms, which is now no longer a pub. I was whinging to my best friend Rob that here I was in one of the world’s great cultural centres, surrounded by theatres, art galleries, live music venues* and cinemas. And yet, if you made a film of my life it would only need three sets: the upstairs bar of the King’s Arms, the office & my bedroom. That was it. My life in a nutshell.

I was determined it was going to be different. So, Rob & I started to make a list. Of things, we’d never done but were going to do. Initially there were a lot of sporting events on that list because Rob was obsessed with sport. We started ticking them off. Then I started adding what a snob might call ‘proper’ culture to the list.

I went to my first opera, La Bohème, at the Royal Albert Hall. It turns out I quite like opera. Who knew? I went to the theatre and cinema with friends. I then realised as all my friends settled down and partnered up that I’d have to get used to going to stuff on my own. So, I did.

Yet I never quite got around to live classical music, until now. Even though it was on THE LIST. I know almost nothing about classical music, although there are bits and bobs of it that I like. I recognise composer’s names but look in awe at people who can spot the difference between a Brahms and a Liszt when listening to the smallest part of a tune. Music is also one of those things, like Maths, that my brain struggles to deal with. I wish I could play an instrument.

Which brings me back to Yuja Wang, who is a young Chinese pianist. In the first half, she played Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op.28, which with all my lack of knowledge and musical understand I found bitty and frustrating: like listening to the soundtrack of a film you’ve never seen. Just as a tune got going, it was over.

However, the second half, which was Brahms: 25 Variations and fugue on a theme by Handel, Op.24, was wonderful. As were the encores. Now, I don’t know enough about classical music to tell you what those encores were but the penultimate one, which I’m told was Prokofiev’s Toccata Opus 11, was majestic. There were points where her hands blurred as she played and you find yourself thinking: how the hell doesn’t she miss those keys?

There are moments when you look around at the horrible world we live in and think humanity is hard to like. But there are also moments like this. When a young woman, fingers blurring, plays a piece of music that smacks you about the brain and makes you realise what Walter Pater was going on about when he said ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’

It’s nice, at 46, to be reminded that human beings are about the sublime as well as the ridiculous because it is easy in these interesting times to let cynicism roll right over you like a warm, comfortable wave.

Yuja Wang is coming back to the Royal Festival Hall on May 11th, playing with the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia. She’ll be playing Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Respighi. I wish I could go. But I can’t. I will however try and get to see more ‘classical’ music.

*Don’t get me started on how London’s managed to screw that part of its cultural heritage up recently.

Image - SouthBank Centre © Norbert Kniat


Chopin – 24 Preludes, Op.28
Brahms – 25 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24

Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.4
Schubert (arr. Liszt) – Gretchen am Spinnrade
Prokofiev – Toccata
Rachmaninov (arr. Kocsis) – Vocalise

Get tickets for the May concert HERE
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