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Although a substitute, Yang is the real deal

The young pianist Joyce Yang pinch-hit Saturday night for the indisposed Lang Lang. The superstar Lang was supposed to have played Sergei Rachmaninoff's hugely popular Second Piano Concerto with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. He got sick.

She stepped into his shoes, at the last minute.

And she did a fine job of it, too.

It can't be easy to play one of the most recognized pieces of music in the world, standing in for one of the most recognized names. Yang is diminutive, not the type of person this music was written for. Her approach was, on the whole, delicate, instead of hearty and forceful, as we are used to hearing. But it all worked out beautifully.

JoAnn Falletta conducted the concert, which began with Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations."

This is a beautiful piece not only for the orchestra but for the hall. Kleinhans' faultless acoustics brought out all the subtleties of the woodwinds, the burnished depth of the strings, the luster of the brass.

The "Nimrod" Variation was framed beautifully. It began with a whisper, the variation before it having faded into silence. Listening to it, I kept thinking of the concert that followed the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. We had begun that concert with this music, and how moving it was.

How moving it was now, too.

The whole performance could be called understated. It was unhurried and restrained, as this piece should be. It was full of delicacy. The timpani effects were especially impressive in the pristine environment. Our new principal timpanist, Matthew Bassett, should inspire drum students everywhere to stick to those rudiments. What a sound he created!

The house, packed to the rafters, gave this piece a heartfelt standing ovation.

When Yang stepped from the wings after intermission, the whole house was pulling for her. Before she even began playing, people were standing and applauding. I was, too. You had to admire her bravery.

She began the concerto as if making history, which also endeared her to me and, I am sure, the crowd. She seemed aware of the momentousness of the occasion, as if knowing she was sitting where the world's greatest pianists have played. The opening chords began gently and built, gradually, to a satisfying forte. Then the orchestra stepped in. The concerto was launched.

The music belonged to the orchestra as much as it belonged to the piano. The BPO brass flashed during the first movement, the orchestra at times threatening to drown out Yang, who tackled this testosterone-laden piece with delicacy rather than bravado. The orchestra, though, gave Yang the space she needed to play things her own way. The sense of timing was good and the music maintained a satisfying momentum.

Beautiful moments came in the slow movement. The packed hall was totally silent as Rachmaninoff's rapturous theme passed from Christine Davis, on flute, to John Fullam, on clarinet. As Yang played her quiet arpeggios, you could see Concertmaster Michael Ludwig shouldering his violin, Falletta holding her breath. There is nothing like the drama that is live music.

The fabled last movement, like the first, had a fine forward sweep. What Yang lacked in brute strength she made up for in emotion. Her technique was crisp and sure, and her playing was well articulated, never muddy. The orchestra partnered with her admirably, backing her up, giving her room. The finale, written to bring the house down, did exactly that.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com