Lang Lang

Showman or serious musician? Lang Lang a bit of both - from CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Showman or serious musician? Lang Lang a bit of both - from CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The pianistic phenomenon known as Lang Lang continues to divide audiences. The Chinese supernova remains a hero to millions of fans worldwide, who thrill to his every appearance in concerts, stadiums and Grammy Award presentations. The devoted missionary work he has done on behalf of classical music speaks for itself.

Recent performances have left other listeners with more ambivalent reactions. The boyish-looking pianist certainly has come a long way as a serious classical artist since his first big splash at Ravinia in 1999, when the previously unknown Curtis Institute student, then all of 17, announced his colossal talent to the music world. He is a far more mature, probing interpreter now that he is approaching his 33rd birthday next month.

Still, you never quite know when Lang Lang the flashy entertainer will rear his head, using his considerable gifts more for showy, self-glorifying ends, it would appear, than to fully illuminate the music at hand.

Both Lang Langs — the crowd-dazzling showman and the thoughtful musician — were on view Saturday night at a packed Civic Opera House, where the star pianist played his first recital for Lyric Opera since his 2012 appearance there. It also was his only Chicago appearance of the season.

As before, something of a circus atmosphere prevailed. Cellphone cameras flashed away (in defiance of house rules), and fans crowded around him at a CD signing afterward. Once again an overhead video camera projected blown-up views of the pianist's hands in action — an often astonishing sight to behold — onto large screens at the sides of the proscenium. This time around, the camera remained in a fixed position, a great improvement from before.

Apart from J.S. Bach's "Italian Concerto" (a bit of modest baroque bravura tucked away just before intermission), the program stuck to the kind of repertory that has cemented Lang Lang's reputation as a prodigious interpreter of the Romantic repertory.

Tchaikovsky's suite of miniatures known as "The Seasons," apparently a recent addition to his repertory, illustrated the Jekyll and Hyde sides of his artistic makeup.

The composer may not have placed great store in these 12 vignettes — each a musical evocation of a different month of the year — but the pianist, to his credit, refused to treat them as mere bon bons: There was weight as well as charm in his songful, technically assured performances.

Too bad that weight sometimes turned to excessively distended phrasing and a percussive attack in forte passages that made the concert grand sound hard and clangy. The carnival scene of "February," the reapers' song of "July" and the hunting party of "September" fell victim to this brusque approach, dazzling as were the speed and power the pianist applied so effortlessly.

Rather more satisfying was the dreamy melancholy he brought to the miniature tone poem that is "March," with its twittering depiction of a lark's song; the lilting barcarolle rhythm of "June" (perhaps the best-known number of the set); and the sheer polish with which he brought out the inner voices of "October's" autumn song, which he made to sound like a duet.

It was much the same story with the Bach, which eschewed baroque manners and sound in favor of big, rounded sonorities within which notes, accents and passage work flowed in crisp articulation. Lang Lang made the bass line of the finale roar in the Vladimir Horowitz manner, just to show he could.

He devoted the entire second half to the four Chopin Scherzos, and because he was in territory more congenial to his temperament and technique, the performance was more consistent, also more uniformly commanding.

Title withstanding, there are no jests in any of these formidable and dramatic pieces, save perhaps for the mercurial E major, the last of the set and the only scherzo in a major key. Lang Lang enlisted everything in his considerable arsenal to bring the works alive in all their fire-breathing bravura and lyrical elegance.

At times one felt a certain disconnect between those elements, as if the pianist had not quite figured out how to integrate them as a true narrative reflection of Chopin's inner life and spirit. Even so, this was spectacular Chopin playing all the way through, each fiery coda reminding us (as if we needed any reminding) that for sheer leonine keyboard mastery, no pianist today stands taller than Lang Lang.

The auditorium erupted in cheers and ovations that the artist received with arms extended and hand over heart. He favored the crowd with two encores — "Carol Dance," a charming little Chinese folk song he dedicated to his mother (who was in attendance) on the eve of Mother's Day; and a slam-bang sprint through the "Rondo alla Turca" from Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K.331.

In a parting gesture that harkened to Franz Liszt and other keyboard giants of the Romantic era, a beaming Lang Lang flung his handkerchief to the crowd before leaving the stage. You can't keep a good entertainer down.

 

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