Pianist Wu Han joins UW Symphony at the Hamel Music Center
It was just last Thursday that pianist Wu Han was part of a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performance at Shannon Hall, as part of the stunning array of artists who have come to town for the Wisconsin Union Theater’s “100 Years Concert Series.” Wu Han is co-artistic director of the CMS of Lincoln Center with her husband, the celebrated cellist David Finckel. The pair have also been part of the programming for this special season of the WUT. Saturday night a wonderful idea came to life: Wu Han was the soloist with the UW Symphony in Madison’s newest gem of a venue, the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall at the Hamel Music Center.
It was serendipitous timing for yours truly; it was my first experience in the new hall, and the first time I had heard the UW Symphony “on their own,” the other occasions being when smaller groups from the orchestra played for University Opera.
Conductor Oriol Sans (pictured above, courtesy of oriol-sans.com) is in his first season as director of the group, and he opened with recent music, the Suite No. 1 from Powder Her Face, an opera by Thomas Adès. The orchestra brashly and confidently attacked both the mixed meters of the three movements as well as the pitch-bending swoops. They treated it like a romp in the outer movements, and the sizable audience was happy to go along for the ride.
One can’t quantify to what degree Wu Han inspired to play “better,” but it seemed clear that there was an extra gear to the enthusiasm and execution of the players. There was no surprise in Wu Han’s execution; her soft sequences and range of touch on the Steinway are always wondrous. She was also, unsurprisingly, her usual gracious and ingratiating self: after three curtain calls, she spoke to the audience before her encore and the first thing she did was to say, “Aren’t these kids great?!” She admitted that she spent much of the afternoon trying to decide what encore to play, before hitting on the idea that since 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the Wisconsin Union Theater is in its 100th in presenting concerts — and the Hamel Music Center is not yet a year old — that she should play a pastiche of Beethoven themes with “Happy Birthday” woven into them. She did not mention the particular arranger (and it might have been her own), but by any authorship it was a hoot. Particularly amusing were the sections set to the “Pathetique” and “Moonlight” sonatas, and of course the great Symphony No. 5. Whether there is an ongoing relationship between Wu Han, Finckel and the Lincoln Center artists, we can only hope that they are back in Madison in the near future.
With Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 on the second half, we had a chance to get some additional insights into Oriol Sans and his young charges. The opening movement quickly revealed how strong and warm the strings are, and how exquisite the acoustics of the hall. Sans employed some interesting gestures that, while visually arresting, clearly worked for the orchestra. On one occasion he stopped beating with his right hand, and did a long, upward pulling gesture with his left. Later there was a brief stretch where he used neither hand, letting the music flow in a completely natural way.
The third movement is notable for its relationships between its two sections in rhythms and tempi, and Sans paced it perfectly, the orchestra navigating the shifts seamlessly. The finale was music of unflagging energy…leaving one looking forward to the next opportunity to hear this group (not to mention any reason to return the hall!).