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Form Over Matter? Lang Lang at the Kennedy Center

He has the ability to tell a story with every two notes he plays. There is never anything mechanical about it. People who have this degree of facility and technical – almost acrobatic – control of the instrument, usually don't have the sensitivity or the intelligence to go with it... whereas for Lang Lang it is so natural that one almost takes his facility for granted, which one shouldn't, because it is quite extraordinary. You know... he is like a cat on the piano.

So spoke Daniel Barenboim about Lang Lang in 2001. It is, in two to three sentences, a rebuttal of the most typical and often repeated (usually harsh) criticism of Lang Lang and his playing. Barenboim's statement, if anyone's, should give everyone reason to pause in their lambasting of Lang Lang, who gave a solo recital at the Kennedy Center's sold out Concert Hall as the capstone of WPAS's 2004/05 Celebrity Series. Still, the question invariably arises: which one is it? Vapid playing of amazing technical skill? Empty showmanship with all the right notes? Or that and intelligence and sensitivity, telling a story with every two notes he plays?

The classical music superstar came out on stage with the light-footed air of consciousness of fame in a humble exterior. Light, too, was the Mozart Piano Sonata K330 and its interpretation. Purled off with accuracy and ease, it came closer to the "Dresden china" approach than I should have liked. I've heard Marc-André Hamelin, one of the very few pianists with greater technical facility than Lang Lang, similarly and disappointingly tiptoe through a Mozart sonata. Perhaps excessive technical skill gets in the way when playing Mozart? The result, then and here, was perfectly beautiful harmlessness.

Chopin's 3rd piano sonata in B minor, op. 58, was next. It, too, seemed on the light side, miles away in character from Pollini's performance of the 2nd sonata in a WPAS concert last year. It was friendly smiling Chopin, mild-mannered, well-behaved without dramatic outbreaks, and a surprisingly narrow dynamic band. I thought there was nothing maestoso about the first movement. There was a continuous flow to the performance that underplayed audible "anchor points," like the recurrence of the first movement's theme that humbly came and went. Between physical showmanship and routine playing, the Largo and the Finale Presto ma non tanto were capably done but somewhat pedestrian. That this was distinctly a minority opinion was made clear when the audience rose up almost as one to give Lang Lang a standing ovation.

Schumann's Kinderszenen opened the second half's musical course of Romantic bits and pieces. Softness and that curiously mild-mannered touch dominated Lang Lang's playing. Except for the choices of tempo, his playing is not theatrically exaggerated. Dynamically muted, his tone is round and friendly, even in more tempestuous or bold passages. His tempi can be fast but are more often slow, maybe even overly so, dwelling at every emotional nook and cranny offered by the music. "Curiose Geschichten" was taken to such extremes that it fell apart. An increasingly noisy and restless audience seemed to indicate that he had, for a little while, failed to capture them with his drawn-out performance.

One of the distractions about Lang Lang is his habit of acting out the music's emotion with his entire body. These interpretative dances about whichever piece he is playing at the time may just be one of the reasons why so many critics love to bash his performances. It elicits an internal response along these lines: "Don't tell us how we are supposed to feel about the music through your swaying, contorting, and arm-flapping, but make us feel it through the way you push the keys." From his nose on the black keys to arms fully extended, leaning far back, then hands moving through the air with maximum gravitas, he masters the whole range of The Romantic Pianist's 101 Most Hackneyed Movements. With and because of these antics, he looks like the very image of the piano virtuoso. His performances are marvelous on sheer visual grounds. A German saying goes "the eye eats along," i.e., that food's appearance is very important and legitimately so. Would it be less legitimate for music to have to look good, too? (The Takács String Quartet, for example, is so much fun live, not least because they look so great doing Bartók.)

I suppose that it is a matter of priority. Some, especially in this town, put a premium on their food looking excellent and being served in the right, happening place; others demand it foremost taste good. Lang Lang looks better than he tastes... err, sounds. That the broad public readily forgives him that discrepancy may be related to the fact that, for all the quibbles, he still sounds darn good. Breaking into the Rachmaninov B-flat minor prelude from op. 2 with lots of gusto, though a tad pedal-heavy, was rather exciting and certainly entertaining. Ditto for Prelude No. 5 from the same set. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody (in Horowitz's transcription), too, went some way in proving his ability. Of course, he did almost hop off with the piano bench during his acted out wild ride, but what would come of classical music if it were all stiff, dry, proper? It's show business, after all, and Lang Lang is its rock star, drawing in thousands of newcomers to serious and well-played classical music. For that I'd let him hop out of the Kennedy Center.

The Liszt rhapsody's last note was still reverberating, when the audience leapt to their feet again, hollering and bravoing Lang Lang back to the piano bench. Moonlight Reflects on a Lake, if I caught the title correctly, was his Chinese encore and sounded like early, tame Tan Dun. Which virtuoso program does not end with Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee? And so Lang Lang indulged the audience with a performance of that, also.

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