I wonder what it must have been like to hear Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody the first time it was performed in public in 1934, in Baltimore, with the composer as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Stokowski (he was also the soloist the first time it was performed here in San Francisco), long before the music was over-used in film soundtracks to the point where it became a source of parody for "romantic music." I imagine the audience must have been dumbstruck by the beauty in the score. It's still there, but at this point, like one must do with certain Beethoven symphonies, Ravel's Bolero and Vivaldi's Four Seasons, it takes some effort to block out the music's contemporary associations and take it on its own terms once more. It's worth it however, because its absolutely gorgeous, inventive music, and as the late Michael Steinberg points out in the concert's program notes, full of darkness which only make it all the more alluring.
Wang and MTT made this easy to do, in what was perhaps their best performance together at Davies so far, with an outing that was precise without being fussy and brimming with passion. Wang's past concerts here have always been a mix of undeniably superb technique coupled with an underlying question mark about how deep her heart was into of the matter at hand. She dazzles, and brilliantly, but she doesn't smolder. At least I would have said that before this performance, where she went through each of the work's variations with equal intensity and without her propensity to overwhelm. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra were right there with her all the way. There was no encore, which surprised me because the applause for Wang was tumultuous. There was, however, waving of orange towels signalling the Giants had won the game.
The second half of the concert featured Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which the orchestra just performed a month ago in a subscription series. This outing felt less cohesive overall, though principals Mark Inouye and Tim Higgins were both in exceptional form this evening and MTT seemed pretty loose, waving goodbye to a couple seated in the front of the orchestra section who departed after the second movement. And yes, since I must comment on what Wang the fashion icon was wearing, it was a long, red, backless gown with extremely sexy black platform slingbacks. She looked great, but the real fashion statement this time was displayed on the keys. So much so in fact, this post doesn't even need a photograph of her.