Piano superstar Yuja Wang, dressed as if she were on her way to the most glam cocktail party on the East Coast, stopped by Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium Thursday evening to perform a piano recital for Duke Performances. Hers was the first piano recital since the $15 million renovation of that majestic hall.

Can’t tell you about the cocktail party, but the recital was terrific.

Wang is the most recent Asian sensation in classical piano, following paths blazed by Yundi Li and Lang Lang. Like Lang Lang, Wang is a former student of Gary Graffman of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Extraordinary talent is required to merely gain admission to Curtis, and when Graffman took her on as a student at age 15, he is said to have been more impressed by her thoughtful musicianship than her formidable technique.

As is the case for all young pianists today, spectacular technique is a given – even a requirement if one is to impress on a touring level. But Wang is the total package – a performer of passion and brilliance and with great reserves of expression and nuance.

Not all that sensitivity was always present in the opening selection, Prokofiev’s popular Sonata No. 3. This staple of music school and conservatory repertoires is a short and thrilling example of the composer’s early primitivistic, percussive style. Wang attacked the piece at a quick clip, and occasionally the torrent of sound became muddied. (The hall may have had something to do with that; even renovated ones aren’t sonically perfect.) To her credit, the contrasting passages of tender lyricism were shaped beautifully and with obvious affection.

Still, as brilliant as the playing was (and by the way, I don’t think I heard a missed note all night, for what that’s worth), some level of commitment was missing. It seemed less a performance than something that needed to be checked off on a to-do list.

But by the time she reached the achingly beautiful second theme in the first movement of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3, her engine was working perfectly. Chopin, never comfortable working in the longer forms, nevertheless created in his third and final sonata a masterpiece of bold ideas, soaring melodies, and stunning contrasts in mood, tempo, and dynamics. Wang’s performance of the deeply-moving slow movement was a marvel – her best, most sensitive playing of the evening. By the time she struck the final chords of the last movement, her sense of commitment was palpable.

The second half of the program began with a composition by Nikolai Kapustin. Ah, Kapustin! The Ukrainian composer, pianist, and arranger writes absolutely fabulous music, but he presents a bit of a problem for the old-school classical world. While he writes in traditional forms – sonata, prelude, etude, etc. – he does so in jazz idioms. He ends up producing music that draws from the best of both worlds: from classics, virtuosity and attention to form; from jazz, rhythms and riffs and moods that recall everyone from Art Tatum to Duke Ellington to McCoy Tiner. (If you want to give him a try, go to YouTube and enter “Kapustin concert etudes.”)

Wang played his popular Op. 41 Variations. Here the tempos were fast and the artist’s hands, a blur of activity, but again one sensed a kind of emotional distance. Nothing was really wrong with the performance, and believe me, the audience ate it up.

Perhaps Wang was reserving her passions for the works that followed. The incredibly beautiful Op. 48 Nocturne by Chopin came first, and here she provided for the first time a performance riveting from beginning to end. At one point midway through the piece, Chopin calls for an incredibly difficult agitato section to be played pianissimo (very softly). Many pianists don’t even bother to try. She did, and the result was marvelous.

That was followed by a lovely reading of Chopin’s quasi-lyrical Ballade No. 3 in A-flat, which, until the exultant finale, requires the pianist to balance moods of serenity and menace – no easy task. For Wang, no problem.

The program concluded with a virtuosic and athletic performance of a virtuosic and athletic piece: Stravinsky’s “Three Movements from Petrouchka.” It is in compositions such as this, which demand the utmost in technique as well as mastery of numerous hair-pin turns of rhythm and dynamics, that a well-prepared artist will shine. Shine she did.

Wang rewarded her delighted audience with three encores: Rameau’s “Le rappel des oiseaux,”* a jazzy setting of “Tea for Two,”** and Vladimir Horowitz’s Carmen Fantasy.

Wang added a couple of her own touches to Horowitz’s revered encore piece, to great effect. The audience response? Well, because she had earlier performed two jazzy pieces, let’s say it this way: she blew the lid off the joint.

Now, to the question surely being asked by Wang’s internet followers.

What was she wearing?

Hey, this is fair game! An admitted fashionista, Wang shows up for performances in a variety of flattering gowns and dresses. Her press material even refers to her “charismatic stage presence.”

Charisma on this night took the form of a skin-tight red sheath cocktail dress, cut to mid-thigh – all atop five-inch heels. No further comment is really necessary, but one can assume that for died-in-the-wool classical fans who have endured decades of starchy performances played by even starchier performers, Wang’s tasteful if bold choice in clothing is a blast of fresh air. Much like her playing.

A footnote: We won’t really be able to take the full measure of this remarkable artist until she programs or records more Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. It’s simply not possible that she is uncomfortable with these composers; Graffman would have bounced her out his studio if she was.

Next time, Ms. Wang?


Meanwhile, Duke’s Piano Series continues on November 9 with Kirill Gerstein. For the program and other details, click here.

*/**Edited/corrected 10/27, with gracious thanks to an observant reader. The Rameau sounded like Scarlatti! And the “Tea for Two” was most likely Art Tatum’s version, one recording of which is available here.