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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Yuja Wang's blazing hot 'American Project'

Pianist Yuja Wang
Julia Wesley
Deutsche Grammophon
Pianist Yuja Wang

A brand new piano concerto by composer Teddy Abrams dares you not to smile throughout as orchestra and soloist lead one another around corners opening one musical Jack-in-the-box after another of Jazz, rock, Hollywood razzmatazz, Latin grooves and classical piano that all come crashing together on “The American Project,” a new album featuring superstar pianist Yuja Wang.

Wang, who said in a recent podcast she can pretty much play anything on her instrument, makes good on the claim (it ain’t boasting if it’s true, you know) working her way through nearly 40 minutes of music with nary a break, though admittedly one of the most alluring moments in the work comes about two-thirds of the way through when the orchestra trades licks amongst the guitar, woodwinds, and saxes.

I was immediately taken from the get-go, if you can’t already guess. It’s a tip-off that you’re in for something hot when the conductor counts off the piece out loud instead of waving a baton. Immediately the Louisville Orchestra is off to the races with a driving riff that sounds like Henry Mancini might have been listening to ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”

A minute later, Wang’s piano enters and sets up a boogie-woogie solo break, the first of four semi-improvised “cadenzas” that bridge the piece’s sections. Early on, the solo piano hints at themes and riffs to come, while alluding to some of the concerto’s inspirations, including George Gershwin (there are rhythmic hints of “S’Wonderful” and the finale lands on the same chords as “Rhapsody in Blue”).

Look man, when it comes to surprising and delightful new music like this, it’s hard for me to truly judge the playing, but holy forking shirtballs, Yuja Wang and the Louisville cats are working up a sweat and having a blast while doing it. I think you’ll dig this. If there's anything wanting on the album, maybe the strings could have been mixed a little hotter, as they sometimes get overpowered by the brass and saxophones.

The companion piece on the record, Michael Tilson Thomas’s “You Come Here Often?” is a grooving fusion-influenced solo work that opens the disc as a nice appetizer for the Abrams concerto.