Chinese pianist and cultural phenomenon Lang Lang performed at the Midland Center for the Arts Friday night, and demonstrated yet again why he is captivating audiences worldwide and is lionized by the press. From the Wall Street Journal and Good Morning America to Jay Leno and PBS Kids, his face and talent have been plastered all over. And with good reason. The concert-going public adores him.
At age 2, when he was able to pick out the melody of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody after hearing it on a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon, his parents wondered if they had a prodigy in their midst. In the intervening 20 years, with musical influences of Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein, and with Michael Jordan as his personal role model, he has mastered his craft and taken the piano world by storm. Several teachers and conservatories, competition wins, and major concert and recording dates later, he stands at the pinnacle of major acclaim and professional success.
Audiences and (some) critics alike have been stunned by his irrepressible talent, youthful exuberance, as well as his sheer delight in playing, to the point of a seeming intoxication with the music. Indeed, his entire body performs. Whether raising his eyebrows with wide eyes, or closing them with head back in reverie, or mouthing a silent “Ah!” or “Oh!” formed on his lips, there is always that nascent smile that proclaims he is pleased with the music and his role as its ambassador.
Usually a pianist’s career builds gradually over many years, during which both technique and maturity build simultaneously. As one grows in ability to play the notes of the profound works in the literature, so too will come the insight. However, as so often happens when virtuosic technique is found in the fingers of one so young, Lang has been subject to criticism for a lack of substance in his playing. The New York Times called it “self-indulgent and slam bang crass,” and the Chicago Tribune called him “the new Liberace.” Others have compared him to the tragic prodigy David Helfgott.
There was no question which side the Midland audience came down on, however. Lang likes to note that the two different homonym Chinese characters which are his name mean “brilliant (or shining) man.” Midland adored Lang’s shine.
Lang began his recital with a very personal, almost whimsical reading of Mozart’s youthful C Major Sonata. This was clearly not the performance for those expecting a purist approach, or one slavishly tied to the composer’s intentions. He seemed to be creating his own work, using Mozart’s suggestions, as in the rather over romantic approach he took to the intimate second movement.
The Chopin b-minor Sonata that followed gave Lang a much larger canvass on which to paint, and he took full advantage of it with textures and sonorities that were at times magnificently beautiful. And though both of these works provided proof that he still needs to grow in insight and stylistic accuracy, their finales gave unambiguous testimony to his prodigious power and lightning fast fingers.
After intermission came what was arguably the best overall interpretation of the evening, Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Lang showed himself to be a brilliant miniaturist in these divine little sketches, with an ability to tell an entire story in the small spaces. From the frenetic energy of the child’s game Haschemann to the ethereal somnambulate grace of Traumerei, his reach never exceeded his grasp.
After performances of two of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 Preludes, which are sadly neglected small masterpieces, Lang ended the program with two powerful works by Liszt. The set began with a subtle, soft, tender telling of Liszt’s setting of the Annees de pelerinage sonnet, after which was a transcription of the second Hungarian Rhapsody (yes, the one Lang learned from “Tom and Jerry”). The transcription was by Lang’s hero, Horowitz, who created it as a tour de force virtuosic showpiece. And never, ever have I seen a pianist obviously having such a great time in performance as Lang was here.
Lang was once quoted telling master class students, “The reason to play the piano is to have fun. Don’t think too much about missing notes.” In both aspects, he was taking his own advice, and the finale came to a crashing, crowd pleasing close.
The audience rose nearly in unison and immediately in thunderous applause, which elicited no less than three encores. First came Chopin’s c-sharp minor Nocturne, into which Lang appeared to pour every fiber of his heart’s love and feeling. After testing the world speed record for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, he was joined on stage by his father, Lang Guoren, who brought with him a Chinese erhu, an ancient instrument whose name literally means “two stringed barbarian instrument.” The two of them ended the evening with a duet of a Chinese piece originally known as “Competing Horses,” but which Lang suggested should be renamed “Two Horses.” It was a touching and heroically virtuosic moment.