Teen phenom Wuu

If seeing weren’t believing, it would be natural to assume Elliot Wuu has at least three hands. Only 18 years old, the remarkable young pianist commands a keyboard with the power, speed and finesse of artists twice his age – or two artists twice his age.

Wuu’s dazzling skills were on display Nov. 4 in one of the most successful Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra concerts in recent memory. That is, if a roaring standing ovation at the end of the first half of a concert indicates success.

The work that brought the Tilson Auditorium crowd to its feet (for the first time of the night) was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Written in 1934, the concerto-length piece was described by the Russian composer himself as “very difficult.”

How difficult? As Daniel Powers’ program notes for the THSO concert reported, Rachmaninoff put off practicing for the debut of his own work because “with every year I become more lazy about this kind of fingerwork.”

“Lazy” is the last word anyone would apply to Wuu, who is tall, lean and has a boyish face that likely will get him carded until he’s 50. California-born, he sits far back from the grand piano and has large but graceful hands that, Saturday, shot from the cuffs of a deep-plum dress shirt and dark jacket:

All the better for viewing and appreciating Wuu’s version of “this kind of fingerwork.”

Depending on the variation (there are 24 plus a coda), Wuu made the Steinway sparkle like sunlight on gently moving water or growl with an energy that seemed volcanic in intensity. He moved through the rhapsody’s frequent glissandos (rapid runs from one end of the keyboard to the other) as if they were entry-level piano exercises instead of some of the trickiest business in a musician’s repertoire.

The orchestra itself was stellar, playing much more than a supporting role for its energetic soloist. The horns, especially, were in fine form, adding a lushness and depth that are essential to any Rachmaninoff work.

Maestro David Bowden was, as usual, on top of it all, allowing every musician his or her head yet never losing control of the entire, spirited team. His delight, as the audience rose to its feet, was visible from the far reaches of the Tilson balcony.

Wuu answered the standing-O with a Liszt encore then returned after intermission to dazzle again, in a solo spotlight, with Mozart’s Variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

As they had in the concert’s opening piece – Saint-Saens’s “Danse Macabre” (shout-out to first violin Alan Snow) – the THSO musicians proved their own artistry in the evening’s final selection: three movements from the “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz. Addressing the audience before the work, Bowden said Berlioz was brilliant “and he was crazy.”

He was also known to use hallucinogens and was prone to wild and violent fantasies, which came through fiercely in the orchestra’s interpretation of “A Ball,” “March to the Scaffold” and “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”

At the last note, conductor, musicians and audience alike were exhausted but electrified. And, once again, a standing, whooping ovation was the only rational response.

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