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Review: Young Concert Artists Is Back, With a Superb Pianist

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Since its founding in 1961, Young Concert Artists has supported emerging musicians who win its annual competition — including offering a coveted New York recital. But during the pandemic, these recitals had to go virtual.

On Thursday the organization became the latest New York institution to resume in-person concerts when Zhu Wang, a 24-year-old pianist from China, gave an impressive recital at Zankel Hall. Zhu, making his New York debut, played a demanding 90-minute program without an intermission.

With an unusually interesting and adventurous set of pieces, Zhu proved a thoughtful, sensitive performer. He began with Bach’s arrangement for keyboard of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D minor; this was Bach’s pragmatic way of getting to know the latest currents in Italian music from the inside. A lithe, flowing first movement leads to a plaintive Adagio, followed by bustling Presto finale. Zhu balanced lyrical warmth and crisp clarity.

He then turned to Schumann’s “Humoreske,” a 30-minute suite in seven movements. Performances of this remarkable piece are relative rarities, perhaps because its constant shifts of mood and flights of fancy can seem baffling. Zhu fervently conveyed the rhapsodic sweep and mercurial fervor of the music, while bringing out the inner structure that holds it together. He was especially impressive during episodes of wistful, poetic tenderness.

He then spoke to the audience about the next work: Zhang Zhao’s “Pi Huang (Moments in Beijing Opera),” which he said offered impressions of Chinese opera, which combines music, dance and even martial arts and acrobatics. The short, fantastical piece was alive with trills and tremolos, rustling arpeggios, beguiling tunes and jittery dance segments driven by Bartokian cluster chords.

Daniel Kellogg, who became president of Young Concert Artists when Susan Wadsworth, its founder, retired in 2019, appeared onstage with Nina Shekhar, the organization’s composer in residence, to introduce her “Vocalise.” (Shekhar will have an orchestral work played by the New York Philharmonic in May.)

The term vocalise refers to a song without words. In this premiere, she adapted that concept to the piano. This ruminative 12-minute score begins and ends with an elegiac melody, inspired by Hindustani musical styles. There are stretches of thick, tart block chords, searching lyrical lines, mysterious washes of sound and delicate strands, brought together compellingly in Zhu’s account.

He ended with Liszt — choosing not some overtly virtuosic piece, but that composer’s teeming, imaginative “Réminiscences de Norma,” a fascinating reflection on Bellini’s opera in which its melodies are transformed into piano music, by turns contemplative and exciting.

Zhu played it brilliantly. And Young Concert Artists is back.

Young Concert Artists

The bass-baritone William Socolof appears on Dec. 9 at Merkin Concert Hall, Manhattan; yca.org.

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