Lang Lang up to his usual abilities, excesses in Lyric Opera concert
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In a classical-music scene starved for mainstream attention, pianist Lang Lang is one of just a handful of artists who have truly achieved wide popular recognition in Asia, in North America and around 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 that allows 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 Saturday evening, as Lang Lang made a return appearance three years after his last concert in Chicago under the auspices of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
It was a performance that delivered all the pyrotechnics and thrills that his fans were surely hoping for and simultaneously confirmed the doubts that some listeners have had about the affectations 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 his flair for unbridled emotions and accentuated contrasts.
Based on an idea supplied by the Russian publisher who commissioned the piece in 1875, each of the 12 sections is devoted to a different month of the year. The pianist did a first-rate job of conveying the distinctive mood and feel of each, from the gentle wistfulness of “January: By the Fireside” 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” that drew a quick round of fervid applause on its own.
At the beginning of the concert, it was announced that Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Italian Concerto” in F major, BWV 971, would be switched from the beginning to the end of the first half, becoming something of a palate cleanser.
Bach’s music demands clarity and directness, and Lang Lang’s insistence on bringing much of the flash and fury to this work as he did to “Seasons” backfired. His playing too often came off as overwrought, especially with the excessive speed and superficial gloss he imposed on the first and third sections. There was too much attention to selling the notes and not enough to the meaning behind the notes.
Rounding out the program were Frederic Chopin’s challenging Four Scherzos, which proved to be ideal showcases for Lang Lang’s high-flying technique, and he made the most of them with white-hot, muscular interpretations. But here again, despite moments of genuine sensitivity in some of the slow sections, it was hard not to wonder sometimes if these performances weren’t more about musical affect than effect.
Screens on each side of the stage projected an overhead view of Lang Lang’s fingers on the keyboard. While these bigger-than-life images were probably helpful to concertgoers seated at the 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 is Mother’s Day, he said that his mother was in the audience and he asked her to stand and be acknowledged. He then dedicated the first of two encores — the delicate, shimmering Chinese folk song “Carol Dance” — to her and all mothers.
The evening ended with a high-spirited, crowd-pleasing version of one of the pianist’s frequent encores: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s familiar Rondo alla Turca from the Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331.