“Yuja Wang, CSO rock Ravinia with exciting Brahms concerto”

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

Today’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra residencies at Ravinia are far more about glittery guests than they are about moving the orchestral repertory in new directions that have become anathema to a big-money summer music festival now dominated by pop attractions.

Management came up with two such guest artists to begin the CSO’s six-week term on Tuesday night. Both the French conductor Lionel Bringuier and the Chinese piano superstar Yuja Wang were making their Ravinia debuts. Both turned in strong performances several degrees above the summer fest norm. And so, for its part, did the orchestra, even if the humidity at times took a minor toll on intonation and ensemble polish.

Bringuier and Wang share the same age (30) and are frequent collaborators. By now they’ve achieved a close working relationship that came in handy given the limited rehearsal time available to newcomers to the CSO’s hot-weather retreat. Together they have recorded sparkling performances of the Ravel piano concertos, either of which would have made a more suitable coupling for the Mussorgsky-Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition” than the Brahms First Piano Concerto they presented instead.

The fast-rising Bringuier, who serves through next season as chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, Switzerland, has been widely hailed in the musical press, especially for his work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Insofar as it’s possible to judge on the basis of a single performance under imperfect outdoor conditions, he’s the real deal — clear of beat and gesture, attentive to detail, quick to pick up on, and run with, the orchestra’s vibe. I’d love to hear what he could achieve with the CSO during the downtown subscription season.

Since her downtown Chicago debut, at 19, in 2006, Wang has been conquering the concert and digital world with her superhuman technique, flying fingers, dexterity, power — and flair for fashion. Her Orchestra Hall performances so far have been devoted mainly to flashy 20th century showpieces such as the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2. Clearly her choice of the Brahms as her Ravinia calling card was calculated to display Wang the musician, as opposed to Wang the showboater. Apart from some self-regarding touches, her playing achieved just that.

The glitter was confined mainly to her outfit: a clingy, iridescent, off-the-shoulder mini-dress that won her stunned applause before she had even taken her seat at the piano.

She attacked Brahms’ torrential chordal passages and fistfuls of double octaves as unflappably as before, and at top speed, but this time you felt she was using her technical prowess more as a means to an end than the end itself. Rather than being daunted by the score’s heroic demands, she appeared to be redoubling her capabilities as those demands grew more strenuous.

The central Adagio brought pages of lyrical deliberation that, to my ears, felt a bit studied alongside the more spontaneous drive of the outer movements, although the pianist’s poetic dialogue with the woodwinds was beautifully achieved. Bringuier drew particularly sensitive playing from the CSO in the slow movement, maintaining a big-boned yet singing symphonic framework throughout.

Naturally the crowd was up on its feet in an instant, roaring its appreciation, refusing to let Wang leave the stage until she had played an encore. In fact, she delivered two: a blistering Variations on a Theme from Bizet’s “Carmen,” as arranged by Vladimir Horowitz; and a slyly jazzy version of Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo,” in conflated arrangements by Arcadi Volodos and Fazil Say.

If Ravinia has lost one Chinese keyboard supernova (Lang Lang) this summer, Wang proved herself to be far more than an adequate substitute.