ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: Lang Lang at Davies Symphony Hall

Lang Lang played Beethoven, Albeniz and Prokofiev to a sold-out audience at Davies Symphony Hall on January 18, 2011 as part of their Great Performers Series. Photo courtesy SF Symphony.

World-renowned pianist Lang Lang was in San Francisco this week for two special performances: a Davies Symphony Hall Recital on Tuesday, January 18th, under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series  and his 101 Pianists event Monday evening at San Francisco State University in which he joined 100 young Bay Area pianists in playing Schubert’s Marche Militaire. Both events were packed to capacity.

I caught his performance at Davies Symphony Hall on Tuesday evening, my first time to hear him live.  The program featured Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 3 and 23; Iberia Book 1 by Isaac Albéniz; and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7.  This was basically a run-through of the most popular sonatas from his best-selling Live in Vienna album recorded in 2008–his second live recorded recital after his best-selling Live at Carnegie Hall in 2004.  It’s also a program he has been touring with.

Lang Lang, now 28, has two decades of performances and celebrity under his belt.  In 2008, over five billion people watched him play in the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, where he was seen as a symbol of the youth and the future of China.  He is said to have subsequently inspired over 40 million Chinese children to learn to play classical piano – a phenomenon coined by The Today Show as “the Lang Lang effect.”  But as much as audiences love Lang Lang for his zeal, critics waver, praising his technical virtuosity but panning his flamboyant gyrations,  interpretation and lack of emotional connection to the music.

I came expecting something bold and spectacular.  I’d read that at his last concert in San Francisco, for an encore, he played Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” on his iPad using the Magic Piano app and the audience went wild.  Tuesday’s performance was energetic but nowhere near what my imagination had conjured in terms of showing-off.

Lang Lang conducted a workshop with 100 young Bay Area pianists practicing Schubert's Marche Militaire at San Franacisco State University's McKenna Theatre as part of his 101 Pianists event on Monday, November 17, 2011.

Lang Lang quietly walked onto the stage, sat down at the piano and started immediately with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, a very challenging piece.  It didn’t take long for me to become immersed in the beauty of his playing.  Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, written in 1796, in four movements, roughly 24 minutes, is often referred to as Beethoven’s first virtuosic piano sonata.  It’s very demanding, especially the first movement and very emotive in the second, Adagio, movement.  Lang Lang nailed the energetic second movement and then brought it to a tempered soft close. 

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, the Appassionata, composed in 1804-5, followed immediately.  It is widely considered one of the masterworks of the composer’s middle period, very dense, evocative and meant to be played with the unrelenting ferocity that Lang Lang is often criticized for.  This was one of the first pieces written after Beethoven became fully aware of his progressive and irreversible deafness and was written during the period that he was labeled with the madman/genius image.  The Appassionata was also the first piece he wrote after having received a state of the art piano as a gift from the Érard piano company. Beethoven’s statement– this is very beautiful music that is also testing the crap out of this piano, as it is my own hearing.  How did Lang Lang do?  Respectfully well.  The piece was about twenty three minutes long.  Almost immediately, I felt myself floating away on a cloud orbiting the concert hall channeling the very deep despair that Beethoven himself must have felt. When I landed, I noticed Lang Lang’s the left hand stationary in space as the right played…the right hand then slowly and weirdly directing, coaxing the left.  There were moments too when he seemed to be acting with sensitivity to accentuate that he was playing with sensitivity.  It looked like a guy trying way too hard to manufacture feelings he didn’t have and importantly, we felt that.  And this is the core of the debate about Lang Lang.  It’s completely subjective, but the antics took away from my experience of a piece played exquisitely. 

The highlight came after the intermission with Albéniz’s Iberia, Book One in three movements, a century (1905-1909) and miles apart stylistically from Beethoven.  From the first muted bars of Evocación to El Corpus in Sevilla, Lang Lang excelled at this beautiful and richly textured piece thought by many to have been truly mastered only by the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha.  Book One’s three movements are typical of the entire piece—poetic middle episodes, incisive rhythms, bold harmonies, and infused with local color.  Evocación is dreamlike with a very powerful climax in the middle section which Lang Lang mastered.  El Corpus in Sevilla, one of Iberia’s most popular segments, employs a march tune from the Spanish town of Burgos.  The great procession is at first distant and then ushered in by the piano imitating drumbeats that grow louder and louder and the excitement builds.  The movement grows quieter in its mid-section, gets festive again, and then ends with a long serene coda all mystery and poetry.  Lang Lang’s body movements and hand gestures punctuated the silences as well as the counter-rhythms.

He closed with Prokofiev’s revolutionary and explosive war sonata, Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83 a piece he was clearly at ease with but passionately banged the heck out of, ending in a flurry of speed.

He encored with Rachmaninoff’s D-Major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4, then followed with a gorgeous Chopin Etude. 

In all, I came away in awe of Lang, who like Elvis, does it his way.  Lang Lang was off the very next day (Wednesday) to play for President Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama, at a lavish State Dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao.  Lang Lang will play four-hands with Jazz legend Herbie Hancock and “My Motherland,” the theme song of a famous 1956 film called Battle on Shangganling Mountain set during the Korean war.

Details: next up in the Great Performers Series is Russian opera baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in solo recital of songs by Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky on Sunday, February 13, 2011, 8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall.  Tickets: $15 to $83. Box Office: (415) 864-6000 or http://www.sfsymphony.org

Lang Lang’s next Bay Area performance is this Sunday, January 23, 2011, 7:30 p.m., at the “Master Piano Series: an Evening with Lang Lang,” at California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose.  Tickets: Sold Out.  Check for last minute availability.

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January 19, 2011 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment