Yuja Wang, a sensational pianist who has been making regular appearances at Carnegie Hall, was booked in for a series called Perspectives in which a star performer teams up with other star performers to make music. Yuja Wang’s first Perspective performance Friday night was with percussionist star Martin Grubinger from Germany who covered the stage at Carnegie with enough equipment to create an orchestra of sound—that’s exactly what he did.
It was not until we walked into the hall and got our program that we knew what was to be played. The order was changed at the last minute and was announced in an insert to the program.
Bartok’s Sonata of Two Pianos and Percussion of 1937, arranged by Martin Grubinger Sr. for one piano, introduced us to the singular approach of this percussion group which pushed pace to its limit. Yuja Wang takes to pace like a winning thoroughbred to the stretch. She’s more than up to frenzied. Angularity, jagged edges, sharp turns and Hungarian folk melodies pile up in a mountain of music: four percussionists, with two marimbas supplying much of the content with the piano, make for a rich orchestral sound. Martin Grubinger’s colleagues are Alexander Georgiev, Leonard Schmidinger and Martin Grubinger Sr. I thought the Bartok exciting, but the quiet lulls that Bartok uses to offset the tumultuous passages were not that quiet. It was as if the players were hooked on the pace and couldn’t give it up. The energy, however, triumphed. It was catching, overpowering, and altogether exciting.
A short piece by John Psathas, a Greek citizen living in New Zealand, was elegant and melodic, a counter to the tumult of the Bartok.
The second half opened with the whole of Rites of Spring with the orchestral part being played by the percussionists. It worked. I found it an entirely new piece. The cracking of the ice, the rush of the rivers, the celebration of a new earth is all there but with new sounds and new images. Again, the pace was insistent. You are caught up in it and carried along, not let down till the very end.
The arrangement of Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No. 2 I thought less successful as the dances with their solo voices did not come across in their percussionist substitutes.
As an encore Martin Grubinger displayed his talents using a pair of drumsticks on tambourine mounted on a stand while accompanying Yuja Wang’s piano. He held our attention, a major feat when the competition is Yuja in a bright red dress.
In the end we are left with a question: Is rhythm triumphant? It seemed to have dominated. Since the piano, too, is percussive, percussions are all that we heard.