Few artists possess the flair and showmanship of Russian pianist Yulianna Avdeeva. Fewer still can boast of artistic genius to match such an air of finesse. Perched center stage by the grand piano at Davies Symphony Hall on Nov. 12, Avdeeva was a spectacle of pure class. Utterly precise yet expressive beyond measure, the pianist led the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra through a mesmerizing interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. Indeed, her creativity was the catalyst for a glorious evening at the San Francisco Symphony.
In the final night of its San Francisco debut, as part of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performer Series, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra was a picture of classical music perfection. Gliding through pieces by Beethoven and Dvorak, the Poles played with such fluency and ease that the performance felt less like a formal concert and more like a stately ball. All the while their conductor, Antoni Wit, took care that each note was given just the right weight, delicately framing each passage. And with Avdeeva as its special performer, the evening was always going to be a rousing symphonic treat.
Opening the concert, Avdeeva arrived on stage curt and aloof, settling at the piano in a manner brusque and detached. Yet she came alive the second her fingers settled on the keys, greeting them intimately as an old friend. From that moment on she was a marionette controlled by a hidden ventriloquist, fingers dancing from note to note and arms shooting emphatically through the air. At times she even bent her nose inches from the piano keys, before tilting her head back as if in prayer. This remarkable effusiveness gave the impression that Avdeeva was speaking, almost forming sentences through the music.
If Avdeeva was speaking, the orchestra members accentuated her every word, providing polished accompaniment to her exquisite solos. It was a deep appreciation of both piece and pianist that enabled them to do so. Their rendering of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 was beautifully understated, as they carried the performance when needed but remained deferential to Avdeeva. Conductor Antoni Wit was instrumental in overseeing this, carefully guiding the orchestra through each sequence while ensuring graceful and seamless transitions.
After Avdeeva’s departure, the second half of the program was where the orchestra truly came into its own, through an impassioned interpretation of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. At this point Wit took full command, vehemently wielding his baton and coaxing out each sound with determination. During softer passages, meanwhile, he seemed to paint entire pictures in midair and caress each note as it flew by. In this fashion, Wit swept through alternating moments of ebullience and melancholy, gripping the audience in the process and commanding a deserved standing ovation at the culmination of the piece.
Perhaps even more indicative of the orchestra’s prowess was the encore, a fierce and inspired version of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. Returning to the stage with a brief nod to the audience, Wit prompted the first phrase with all the force he could muster. The musicians responded with equal intensity, clearly enjoying the opportunity to impress with this lively finale. It was here that the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra displayed its utmost passion and charisma.
Nonetheless, the latter parts of the concert could not compare to Yulianna Avdeeva’s masterful earlier performance. The pianist’s clarity and eloquence were truly remarkable — a sign of an exceptional artist. Her deep, physical connection with the music, moreover, made it nearly impossible to pay attention to anything else. It was this kind of showmanship that invited the audience to appreciate the significance of each moment and to share in the musical experience.
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