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Lang Lang and NSO

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Beethoven, Piano Concertos 1/4, Lang Lang, Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris
Lang Lang, that famed piano superstar, is at the ripe age of 27 now, and over the hill, so to speak, in Wunderkind years. Friday night, in a one-night-only concert with the National Symphony Orchestra, An Evening with Lang Lang, he performed Beethoven’s Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3. It goes without saying that his playing was beautiful and immaculately clean, but unfortunately, he still has not managed to evolve beyond the teenage breakout star that he once was, both in image and sound, and Friday night was no exception.

Guest conductor Andrew Litton, of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic, shone just as brightly as the advertised star of the program. Litton's style was big and almost harried at times, but in the most exciting moments of the program, the orchestra’s sound was truly energized in a way that one doesn’t always hear with the NSO. At the same time, Litton managed to infuse the occasionally overblown with an amount of precision that, though it may not have kept the orchestra perfectly together, came admirably close. The opening work, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila, was from the onset an exciting barrage of sound. When the entire string section of an orchestra plays rushing passage scales at a frenetic tempo, there are bound to be ensemble issues, but Litton worthily held the orchestra together in these moments. The listener was sufficiently primed for the main event at this point that it was unnecessary to present another introductory work, Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe, on the second half, pleasant though it was.

Lang Lang is the kind of performer whom musicians often love to hate, but during the first movement of the Beethoven, I was prepared to dispel this collective prejudice. The first movement was a very fine performance indeed: crisp and clean with the early Beethovenian hints of fire to come. The middle section was especially beautiful, in part because of his use of the pedal, which through delicate fluttering paid a clean, modern tribute to the classical style. Come the second movement, however, what should have been the Lang Lang of yesteryear reared his head. He is famous for his showmanship, of course, and during the second movement it was as if the rapture had descended upon him. True, the music was absolutely gorgeous, but it was also over-Romanticized to the point where it could have easily been confused with a work by Chopin and wholly inappropriate for early Beethoven.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Lang Lang and the NSO, trying to look beyond Beethoven's sunny phrases (Washington Post, November 16)

Charles T. Downey, BSO Kicks Off the Season in Style (Washington Post, September 14)

Jens F. Laurson, Ionarts at Large: Falla, Bartók and Tan Dun—Lang Lang enriched (Ionarts, April 12)

Charles T. Downey, Lang Lang @ Kennedy Center (Ionarts, March 13, 2008)
The Prokofiev concerto was indeed an exciting close, but due mostly to the orchestra’s excellent playing and Lang Lang’s excessive movement at the bench. From the pianist’s first entrance, which consists of devilishly fast winding runs, his sound was immediately swallowed by the orchestra. This was obviously a combination of the writing itself and the orchestra’s sound, but also because Lang Lang’s playing simply didn’t have any bite. Prokofiev demands a sharp edge in his rhythmic sections, and Lang was perfectly round. His vertical technique also didn’t help, which is constantly up and up and up -- every note an upward exaggerated flourish instead of a rich downward sound. However, the second movement was truly beautiful; here, Lang’s skyward gazes of rapture, raised shoulders, and backward-leaning posture seemed less out of place. In the final movement, as expected, Litton led the ensemble to a rousing finish, which thrust the audience instantaneously to its feet. Lang Lang is certainly a thrilling pianist to watch, but is there anything underneath the bravado? It is always hard to tell.

The National Symphony Orchestra goes from superstar to superstar this coming week, with violinist Joshua Bell as the featured soloist, in a program of Lalo, Mendelssohn, and James Macmillan conducted by Hugh Wolff (November 19, 21, and 22).


herman said...

My dear Ms Vastek,

there are quite a number of sentences in your piece that don't make any sense at all.

I'll give one example:

"At the same time, Litton managed to infuse the occasionally overblown with an amount of precision that, though it may not have kept the orchestra perfectly together, came admirably close."

In this case I can sit and think what you really wanted to say and how you should have said it, but in many cases I'm not really sure you were sure what you wanted to say.


Sophia Vastek said...

Herman, thank you for your comment. I understand your confusion on that particular sentence – it was certainly one of those moments where I as the writer took a leap in my head so innate to me, that it didn’t even occur to me that readers would not necessarily make the same leap. A writer’s foible and I apologize. In this sentence, the “overblown” I was referring to was Litton’s conducting, not the sound of the orchestra which is the last thing that I had mentioned in the previous sentence, and hence your confusion I believe. So the meaning of the sentence is that Litton managed to infuse his occasionally overblown conducting with an amount of precision that came admirably close to keeping the orchestra together.

I’m sorry to hear that there were quite a number of sentences that didn’t make any sense to you. If you would like to bring them up, I would be more than happy to address them.

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I've seen Lang Lang perform. I must admit that I was prepared to be dismissive, but while I didn't care for his interpretation of the Beethoven I thought he dug into the Prokofiev with enough seriousness to hint at future promise. If nothing else, it will be interesting to watch this young pianist develop. While he may be past Wunderkind-hood, he certainly can't be expected to have reached a mature sound at 27! He has created a distinctive sound for himself, like it or not (I'm still not sure I do); I'm eager to see if he adds depth of musicality with the years.

Sophia Vastek said...

While I do agree that he will be an interesting pianist to watch in the coming years, I do respectfully disagree that he has created a distinct sound for himself. I think he has created very distinct publicity for himself: his rock star image, stage demeanor, and book deals (to name but a few) are all quite interesting and have certainly gained him much popularity. But his sound, in my humble opinion, is truly indistinctive. As for being expected to have reached a mature sound at his age, there obviously isn’t some final stage of maturation that musicians strive for – musical development is continuous and life-spanning. And he is certainly still early in his career and quite young. But, I would argue that a pianist at his age should be beyond playing early Beethoven the way he did, and, if nothing else, beyond making music as much of a show as he does. To be fair, I come from a French schooling of piano, which is definitely more subtle, and my teacher always eschewed exaggerated motions when trying to make so called “emotional” music – that one doesn’t need to “prove” their musicality through movement. So I’m certainly biased. Of course, musicians move in ways that they are not even aware when in the moment and making music. But at a certain point, and I strongly believe this, musicians make a conscience decision about their image, even while performing. And to me, Lang Lang’s stage demeanor is definitely a conscience decision and simply over the top and a sign of immaturity.

But I’m sure I’ll get a lot of criticism and disagreement over this.

Anonymous said...

While I have not had the priveledge of hearing Maestro Lang Lang in person, I do believe that critics should call it as they hear it. Critics of the past did not pull any punches, and neither should today's critics. If you doubt an artist's performance, say it, and don't worry about the feelings of the "politicaly correct" people who don't understand anything about musical performance. From what I have heard of Maestro Lang Lang' s performances, he is a technical show-off and does not show any musicality at this time. Hopefully, maturity will cure that. If you want real musicality AND technic, go back to the few recordings of Josef and Rosina Lhevinne for what pianistic music should be. These younger pianists should take a few lessons from the old masters. Lang Lang should come back and play Beethoven after he knows what Beethoven's "MUSIC" is all about.

Val said...

I attended this concert and I had a mixed, contradictive feeling about Lang's performance. There were some very beautiful, elegant phrases in the Beethoven concerto, but there were also moments that made me want to ask: "Why?" His Prokofiev concerto, although looked hot and exciting, seemed to leave something to be desired. However, I truly enjoyed the Chopin etude he played as encore. It was so romantic and beautiful although the speed didn't seem right.

Despite his excessive movement, I feel that I could enjoy his live performance much better than listening to his CDs.

And about the maturity in musicality: Why should he bother if most audience just don't care? He got clapping between every single movement, standing ovation, fame and wealth. Will he withdraw from the busy concert and recording schedule and spend a couple years to study what Beethoven is about?

I think the market makes him who he is, and we, collectively, probably deserve what we get.

chopinandmysaucepan said...

Why should an artist's demeanour be judged when it is the sound that is important?

Lang Lang should be praised for his courage in pushing established boundaries which conformist musicians are limited by.

His playing offers fresh perspectives and many listeners are uncomfortable because they lack the imagination and creativity to conceive new ideas. Music is not a science and whilst there are boundaries, flexibility and how we define our own relationship with music should be the key to greater appreciation.