Lang Lang up to his usual abilities, excesses in Lyric Opera concert

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By Kyle MacMillan| For the Sun-TimesIn a classical-music scene starved for mainstream attention, pianist Lang Lang is one of just ahandful of artists who have truly achieved wide popular recognition in Asia, in North America andaround the globe.

It’s not hard to understand why. Along with sizzling technique and supple fluidity, the 32-year-old Chinese-born superstar is a natural showman who possesses the ‘it’ factor – a charisma thatallows him to connect with audiences young and old, classical veterans or newbies.

Such appeal explains why the 3,500-seat Civic Opera House was nearly sold out Saturdayevening, as Lang Lang made a return appearance three years after his last concert in Chicagounder the auspices of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It was a performance that delivered all the pyrotechnics and thrills that his fans were surelyhoping for and simultaneously confirmed the doubts that some listeners have had about theaffectations and excesses of his playing.

The pianist was at his best in the evening’s opener, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons,” a big,sweeping, romantic work that was tailor-made for Lang Lang’s all-out, dramatic style and hisflair for unbridled emotions and accentuated contrasts.

Based on an idea supplied by the Russian publisher who commissioned the piece in 1875, eachof the 12 sections is devoted to a different month of the year. The pianist did a first-rate job ofconveying the distinctive mood and feel of each, from the gentle wistfulness of “January: By theFireside” to the snappy allure of “December: Ballroom Waltz.”

There were highlights aplenty along the way, including his slow, inward-looking take on“March: Lark’s Song” to his explosive, fingers-flying romp in “The September: The Hunt” thatdrew a quick round of fervid applause on its own.

At the beginning of the concert, it was announced that Johann Sebastian Bach’s “ItalianConcerto” in F major, BWV 971, would be switched from the beginning to the end of the firsthalf, becoming something of a palate cleanser.

Bach’s music demands clarity and directness, and Lang Lang’s insistence on bringing much ofthe flash and fury to this work as he did to “Seasons” backfired. His playing too oftencame off as overwrought, especially with the excessive speed and superficial gloss he imposedon the first and third sections. There was too much attention to selling the notes and not enoughto the meaning behind the notes.

Rounding out the program were Frederic Chopin’s challenging Four Scherzos, which proved tobe ideal showcases for Lang Lang’s high-flying technique, and he made the most of them withwhite-hot, muscular interpretations. But here again, despite moments of genuine sensitivity insome of the slow sections, it was hard not to wonder sometimes if these performances weren’tmore about musical affect than effect.

Screens on each side of the stage projected an overhead view of Lang Lang’s fingers on thekeyboard. While these bigger-than-life images were probably helpful to concertgoers seated atthe rear of the vast theater, they also proved distracting and made it difficult at times to zero in and concentrate on his playing.

After an extended standing ovation, Lang Lang returned to the stage. Noting that Sunday isMother’s Day, he said that his mother was in the audience and he asked her to stand and beacknowledged. He then dedicated the first of two encores — the delicate, shimmering Chinese folksong “Carol Dance” — to her and all mothers.

The evening ended with a high-spirited, crowd-pleasing version of one of the pianist’s frequentencores: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s familiar Rondo alla Turca from the Piano Sonata No. 11in A major, K. 331.

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