Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Full Throttle Intensity with Lionel Yu at Carnegie Hall

It’s impossible to remember seeing as many kids in a Carnegie Hall audience as there were for Lionel Yu this past evening. Not just gradeschoolers, but pretty much every age group alive had come out to see the Chinese-American pianist work up a sweat with his superhuman technique, crushing volleys of chords and catchy hooks.

Yu takes the High Romantic as high as it can possibly go – and nobody knows better than Yu that the piano is a percussion instrument. If nonstop thrills are your thing, he’s your man. His chops are astonishing: he lives in that magic space where his fingers hit the keys with a perfectly unwavering attack, just hard enough to unleash the loudest possible sound. Great drummers work the same way, allowing their kits to resonate rather than trying to beat the sound into them.

Yet as much as Yu is all about raw power and breathtaking speed, ultimately he’s defined by passion. It felt viscerally redemptive to watch this conservatory-trained composer attack the keys with blitz after blitz of icepick staccato phrases, often riding the pedal, an effect that would make a lot of piano teachers cringe. In an era where conservatories have been Sovietized to churn out an assembly line of cookie-cutter players, a rugged individualist like Yu stands out even more. That’s probably why all the kids came out to see him: his music is the furthest thing from safe or tame.

Although online pageview counts can never be trusted, his youtube channel boasts over 19 million hits. Whether or not that’s completely accurate, he’s popular enough to pack Carnegie Hall. His compositional style is deceptively simple: high-voltage variations on strikingly direct, translucent themes which often look straight back to the baroque. There’s also a very strong, and catchy Chinese folk influence in his writing, and whenever a simple progression threatens to slide off the table into video game drama or pageantry, he steers clear of cliche, shifting to a slashing chromatic phrase or an accidental.

He began the night with the epic Rolling Thunder, a red herring in the sense that it was the night’s most dynamically shifting number: this evening was all about hard and fast. Never Surrender, with its lightning cascades, dates from ten years ago when Yu was out of work and depressed and trying to write himself out of that downward spiral, he explained to the crowd. Apparently, the attempt was a success.

Gallop, with its Rachmaninovian chromatics, Arabic and flamenco licks, came across as an escape narrative. Yu’s biggest youtube hit, Fires of a Revolution, was also the most challenging piece of the night, ablaze with punishing, machinegunning staccato octaves, a whirlwind descent or three and like many of the other pieces on the bill, a lefthand that was every bit as daunting and exhilarating as the firestorm further up the keys.

The most amusing piece on the bill was Pachelbel’s Nightmare, a scenario where Yu envisioned the composer being taken over in his sleep by a “shadow” figure, the famous Canon turned from major to minor and given a deliciously severe thrashing before something approximating calm finally returns.

Yu has his limitations: like Art Tatum (or Motorhead), ballads are not his forte (they’re not forte enough – sorry). Yu could have given guest violinist Christina Bouey – no stranger to passion and sizzling technique herself – a chart that was every bit as much of a workout. Instead, she was limited to assertive, sometimes insistent phrases that any third-year student could have played, if with less dynamic subtlety. Yu can play quietly and lustrously if he wants, but those moments were gone in a flash as his jackhammer lefthand kicked in. And until he worked his way up to full blast, those quieter interludes felt muzzled.

But for sheer adrenaline, Yu is unsurpassed. Very, very few pianists have the physical prowess to be so forceful and graceful at the same time. Kathleen Supove is a rare example of one who does; Tatum was the same way. Judging from the size and diversity of the crowd, Yu’s time has come. At a point in history where the average age of audiences at the big Manhattan concert halls is 65, we need performers like this guy more than ever.

Advertisements

December 27, 2018 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment