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Pop Star Pianist: Lang Lang with the NSO

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Chopin, Scherzos / Tchaikovsky, The Seasons, Lang Lang
(Sony, 2015)
The excitement was palpable at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday, with throngs of concertgoers crowding the stairs and lobbies leading to the Concert Hall. This sort of pre-concert commotion is an unusual occurrence for a National Symphony Orchestra subscription concert on a weeknight. Yet pianist Lang Lang, the evening’s featured guest, is not your usual piano soloist. Perhaps the closest thing classical music has to a pop star, the Chinese pianist has a loyal following, a social media presence, and all the trappings associated with stardom. In Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, he delivered a muscular performance filled with moments of incredible speed, technique, and more than a bit of musical style.

It was fortunate that Lang Lang had Christoph Eschenbach on the podium. Eschenbach's sensitive accompaniment seemed to owe something to his experience as a keyboard soloist. The NSO was a willing partner for most of the concerto, allowing Lang Lang to plumb the piano's dynamic range, from a barely perceptible pianissimo in the third movement to a thunderous fortissimo that ended the concerto. The NSO and Eschenbach get credit also for carefully following Lang Lang during his frequent rubatos, which allowed the pianist to let loose his dazzling technique, particularly in the first movement's cadenza and later in a short cadenza in the finale, where Lang Lang's lightning-fast cross-hand work elicited gasps from the audience. It was in the first cadenza, though, that Lang Lang demonstrated that he can use his prodigious technique to create stylish interpretations. His coloring and voicing in the cadenza, allowing him to imitate the sound of a harp at times, displayed a depth of interpretation heard far less during earlier appearances in Washington.

As expected, the finale featured Lang Lang pushing the speed limit, displaying energy and feats of extreme pianism, culminating in a raucous ovation, which was rewarded with a memorable encore. Without having to concern himself with an orchestra, Lang Lang raced through Ernesto Lecuona’s Cuban Dance. That he played it faster than any dancer could manage to move mattered little. His hands seemed to go three times as quickly as they did in the Grieg.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO offers chestnuts, and Lang Lang, in enjoyable evening (Washington Post, October 30)
With its copious exposed solo parts the Grieg highlighted the state of the NSO. In the second movement, for example, newly appointed principal horn Abel Pereira joined the ethereal string introduction midway, resulting in some of the most gorgeous orchestral playing of the evening. When the theme transferred to the flutes and clarinets, however, the sound quality diminished. Pereira’s gorgeous playing was on display in the night’s opening work, Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser and again in the closing work, the Symphony No. 8 in G major, op. 88, of Dvořák. While both pieces were dispatched with more precision than we're used to hearing from the NSO, neither compared to the musicality the orchestra and Eschenbach showed in the Grieg.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday night, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

1 comment:

George H said...

I have always wondered if Lang Lang is the only among the younger generation (like 40 year or younger) of (performing) pianists who have these techniques.

I doubt it.