Pianist TONY YIKE YANG brings musical drama to Stratford!

Review by David Richards
Stratford ON, August 4 2016

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Tony Yike Yang,  ​Photo by  Jan Richards

Yesterday afternoon, Jan and I had the pleasure of driving through the rolling hillsides of southwestern Ontario to Canada’s ‘city of summer’, Stratford. We weren’t headed as we so often are to the illustrious Stratford Shakespearian Festival. Instead, we had set out for the Stratford Summer Music Festival. Our destination was St. Andrew’s Church where Tony Yike Yang, the young award-winning Canadian pianist, was the second featured soloist in the festival’s acclaimed International Piano Series.


The Stratford Summer Music Festival, the foremost of its kind in Canada and in its sixteenth consecutive season, takes places over a span of six weeks, and is currently in its third full week. With multiple events on most days, a third of which are free, music lovers have a multitude of offerings from which to choose. There is a plethora of concerts, masterclasses, lectures, and ‘musical brunches’ including ‘Bach Walks’, ‘Music for an Avon Morning’ and ‘Barge Music’. Styles of music range from choral, percussion and flute ensembles to opera and big band jazz. This week alone, there are twenty-two musical events. Artistic Director John Miller is to be congratulated for making the festival the success that it is. For Miller, the variety and quality of the performances are what make the festival so very special.

Tony Yike Yang, the youngest ever finalist in the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland, made his festival debut last night in dramatic fashion with a program that few but established artists would attempt. At age 17, he is on the cusp of a career that appears to have no bounds. Yang performed the music of Scriabin, Liszt, Chopin and Prokofiev with equal aplomb demonstrating a vast range of emotional and musical expression. When asked following the concert why he chose this particular program, his answer was clear: he chose music that he likes.

Scriabin’s Sonata Fantasie in G sharp minor, Op. 19 is a work requiring great virtuosity. Yang’s performance brought out the vast variety of musical expression that Scriabin is said to have depicted in the music ranging from “the quietude of a summer night on the seashore” to the “vast expanse of an ocean in stormy agitation”.

As dramatic as Yang’s interpretation of the Scriabin was, it was but a prelude to what was to follow. Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B minor, S.178 takes one on a journey through heaven, hell and purgatory. Yang made sure we felt every instance of pain, sorrow and joy along the way. Very rarely if ever is this work attempted by an artist, so young. What the performance may have lacked in the deepest of understanding that only life experience can bring, Yang made up for in dramatic intensity.

Yang continued to embrace the emotional complexities of Chopin’s late works in his Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat major Op. 61 and that of Prokofiev with the war-time Sonata No. 7 in B flat major Op.83. Both works were the musical expressions of composers in great turmoil.

Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie was written within 2 years of his death while suffering from tuberculosis, the loss of his love, and abject poverty. While full of melancholy, the work manages to express hope for Chopin’s homeland, Poland.

Prokofiev, having returned to Russia in 1936, was under great pressure from Stalin’s regime to write patriotic music. Nevertheless, this sonata expresses the many horrors of wartime oppression.

Yang not only embraced these daunting scores, but was able to achieve a level of understanding well beyond his years delivering stunning performances of both. The finale of the Prokofiev was breath-taking.

Yang will be performing in Toronto and Vancouver in the next two weeks for piano teachers’ summits before leaving for performances in Warsaw, Poland towards the end of August. Upon his return, he will begin undergraduate studies at Harvard University while simultaneously continuing his musical development at the New England Conservatory. Toronto audiences will have an opportunity to hear him perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83, “War Sonata No. 2: Stalingrad” on November 10th at Koerner Hall in a concert of young rising Canadian stars entitled Generation Next.

The Stratford Summer Music Festival continues through August 28th. A vocal academy and percussion school are in full swing.

On Thursday of this week, Toronto Concert Reviews will be at the Toronto Summer Music Festival concert entitled Hanover Square 1801 featuring Jonathan Crow and principals of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.