The trademark red concert dress and ebullient stage presence told you that Di Wu was back, the Chinese-born, Curtis Institute-trained pianist who has become something of a local favorite as part of the Astral Artists roster. On Wednesday, she returned to the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, but in a recital that made you wonder if she is her own best advocate.
Nobody really knows how long-term audience relationships are cultivated, but Wu's program of Haydn, Brahms, and Prokofiev wasn't the sort to advance her presence here. Her playing was wonderful, particularly in the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which had her hands often shooting in opposite directions on the keyboard with force and accuracy. So why did Beth Levin's far-less-tidy Beethoven recital earlier this month leave me feeling closer to the artist?
The main piece on the program was a keyboard transcription of music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet - one of the few scores of its kind that one can listen to, start to finish, in unstaged form. But in piano transcription, orchestrally conceived sonorities that penetrate the core of Shakespeare's story (not to mention one's psyche) come out sounding blunt and muddy no matter who is playing them. One heard Wu constantly looking about for episodes in which the music allowed her to exercise her keen ear for pianistic sonority. And she found them maybe 70 percent of the time - not enough for the second half of a concert. Her more personal tempo changes felt like acts of interpretive desperation.
Usually, Brahms is great for establishing a firm audience rapport, but his Paganini Variations, however formidable the piece, is a virtuoso showcase that's great for winning contests. But being impressive can also create a certain kind of distance, particularly in an intimate venue such as the American Philosphical Society, since such pieces are more about the fingers than the heart. Even more impressive - and thus more distancing - was her encore performance of Debussy's Prelude "Feux d'artifice" that turned the composer's exquisitely detailed sound painting into, well, an encore piece.
She's won a place in her audience's ears. Now it's time for her go deeper.