Ms. Vardanega played Klavierstücke Opus 118 by Brahms. We were transported to a different world, and became transfixed by a bewitching musical presence. Vardanega draws the listener into her spell with a subtle, warm tone. In this, she seems to be unique in contemporary piano playing. Her tone gives no hint of the terrestrial.
Young Audrey Vardanega’s exquisite pianism was anything but humble. In this final set and in all the music she played in this concert honoring George Cleve, Audrey Vardanega clearly and forcefully established herself as a major talent.
I don’t believe I have ever heard a teenager play with both the facility and understanding that Ms. Vardanega displayed. Leaving her age to one side, she played with the kind of freedom, authority and strength, especially in the first movement, that one expects from the world’s finest pianists. The movement of her hands during the Allegro maestoso was as beautiful to watch as the performance of a great dancer, while the notes flowed from her fingers with a brilliant poetic logic. The music became so transparent, that, if it had been jazz, I would have felt free to laugh out loud with delight.
As a pianist, her relationship with a-different-instrument-at-every-venue is perhaps less personal, and because of the size of the instrument definitely less physical. Yet somehow she managed to turn the Steinway into an extension of her body, so the music could flow directly from her brain and hands into the hall. Vardanega’s musical eloquence showed not only in the way she made sense of Chopin’s crazy piece and its loose, improvisational structure, but also in her dialogue with Chan, during the Beethoven and Brahms duets.
Audrey is 15 now, and she has blossomed into one of the truly great classical pianists of her generation. Even a musical illiterate like me can appreciate how good she is because she includes the audience in the sheer joy of making music. It’s a rare quality that only the greatest artists share. Louis Armstrong had it. So does Fredericka Von Stade. And Audrey has it in spades.
Vardanega was captivating. The pianist, who made her Midsummer Mozart Festival debut in 2010 at age 14, returned Thursday in a performance of even greater insight and assurance. The Piano Concerto No. 14 is widely considered Mozart’s first mature work in the genre, but it retains all the marks of the composer’s impetuous youth. Vardanega played it with an ideal blend of charm and headstrong exuberance.
The fun got ratcheted up still higher with a super performance by young piano soloist Audrey Vardanega: clear and assured, spinning her pearly-toned figurations through the Piano Concerto in G major, the Oakland native was fleet when she needed to be fleet, patient when she needed to be patient. She didn’t over-play a stitch; she is no mere whiz kid. Poised and soulful, she is all of 16. Cleve presented her two summers ago, at 14, and she was impressive even then. But Vardanega — pianist for the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra — has taken some leaps forward these past two years. She understands this music of shadow and light, and approaches it as a team player: i.e., suspending lovely trills amid Cleve’s slow tempi in the Andante, then making the briefest eye contact with the conductor and seamlessly re-entering Mozart’s solo-orchestra dialogue. Perfect! These small touches accumulated; it was a poetic performance by the soloist and orchestra, together.
Artfully played with shadow and light
This concerto is a fiercely striding piece, and Vardanega’s tone reminded me surprisingly of jazz pianists in the Stride tradition (think of the recently deceased Oscar Peterson). I have a hunch that I won’t be quibbling with Vardanega’s interpretation once she reaches the ripe old age of, say, 14.