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Charles Dutoit, guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Guest conductor Charles Dutoit led the 20 year-old pianist Yuja Wang yesterday at Symphony Hall. (AP Photo/CP Montreal La Presse-Remi Lemee)

At 20, stepping in for a piano star

This week's BSO program made news before it took place, as the pianist Martha Argerich withdrew from all four performances, pleading physical exhaustion and doctor's orders to return home to Europe. This brilliant and reclusive pianist enjoys a passionate following and her fans must surely have been disappointed, though certainly not surprised. Argerich's cancellations have grown sadly frequent in recent years; an advance ticket purchase has become something of a gamble.

Stepping in for this shadowy piano goddess would be a daunting task for just about anyone, but the orchestra and Charles Dutoit , as this week's guest conductor, brought in a young Chinese pianist named Yuja Wang , only 20 years old and currently completing her undergraduate work at the Curtis Institute of Music. Despite her age, Wang appears to be on a career fast track, making her first appearances this season with the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony, among others.

She cuts a very diminutive figure, but last night, wearing a bright pink dress, she tackled Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with impressive virtuosity and poise. Her playing overall was musical without being mannered, her phrasing lithe, and her articulation exceptionally clean across the acres of rapid passagework. She found some unusual colors in the first-movement cadenza and one can imagine her interpretative voice growing more distinctive with time. Her sound was large enough to be heard above the orchestra without appearing strident. In fact, her temperament seemed rather Apollonian for this very Dionysian work, but she had no trouble drawing in the audience, which was on its feet cheering immediately after the final chord.

The Tchaikovsky Concerto was itself a substitution for the Beethoven First that Argerich was scheduled to play, but in a way, it fit more smoothly with the rest of this Russian program on which Dutoit led Rimsky-Korsakov's "Russian Easter Overture" and Stravinsky's Symphony in C . In the former work , Dutoit made the most of its glittering surfaces and had the orchestra sounding marvelous. The strings played with a lovely gossamer sheen and the brass sound was smooth and rich, with an especially notable trombone chorale of dark velvet.

Stravinsky's Symphony in C is a work perforated down the middle by exile. He wrote the first two movements in Europe and the second two in this country, having fled the storm clouds of 1939. It's easy to hear the piece in terms of this biographic subtext and to note, as Stravinsky did, the anxious shifts in meter that quickly begin piling up once the "American" half begins. But the piece also coheres on its own terms as a delightful excursion in the composer's neoclassical style. One can imagine Stravinsky strolling through a museum of the symphonic past with an impish smile on his face. Familiar conventions from previous centuries are given wry, ironic treatment. Sweet candy becomes black licorice.

The orchestra was in fine form, with Dutoit drawing out perfectly tart playing from the woodwinds, and angular, incisive lines in the strings. Tempos were spacious and unhurried. The work may end with a New World sound, but here it had an Old World elegance.