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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lang Lang: One of a Kind

Piano prodigy to perform with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

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New generations of concert prodigies appear with predictable regularity, receiving numerous honors at young persons’ international competitions, yet too often they wear out their early promise by having to compete with a pop-culture environment that treasures youth but whose musical sensitivities are pervasively undermined by the likes of the embarrassing “American Idol” and the flamboyant tackiness of “Dancing With the Stars.”

One can only be grateful for the equally flamboyant Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who has created his own niche, almost single-handedly bringing forth a new awareness of the great Romantic classical traditions. He is still regarded as a youthful prodigy at the age of 27.

His prodigiousness may have preceded his birth. Lang Lang’s music-loving mother played Western classical recordings continuously during her pregnancy, hoping for a gifted son. He was born June 14, 1982, in Shenyang, China. What fortune brought his mother was an eager tyke who was playing the piano at age 2 after hearing a Liszt Rhapsody in a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon. He gave his first public concert at 5, winning the Shenyang Piano Competition. He entered Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music at 9 and won international fame at the Young Pianists Competition in Germany at 11. His appearances with the Chicago Symphony in 1999 at age 17 finalized his success.

Since then Lang Lang has made several TV appearances and performed on the soundtrack of the film Painted Veil.

He has none of the icy, bloodless precision often decried as a shortcoming of some fine Asian performers, nor does he try to “redefine” the composer’s intentions with intrusive mannerisms of his own, although he has sometimes been criticized as “flashy and willful.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. His most idolized pianist is the great Arthur Rubinstein, whose renditions of Chopin and Rachmaninoff have never been equaled. From this great Romantic pianist, Lang Lang has quoted the dictum, “The right hand may embellish the rubato to whatever poetic heights, but the left hand maintains the steady tempo to which the movement must always return.”

 

Recordings Speak Volumes

Lang Lang’s own fine recordings speak volumes of his re-energized Romanticism. His Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto begins with an uncharacteristically slow introduction, as if preparing the listener for the soon-to-come dramatic configuration of the often taken-for-granted first movement, but more importantly leaning toward the nostalgic yearning of the great adagio—a favorite of several film scores. Lang Lang views this most poignant of all concertos as all of a piece rather than a series, avoiding the sleight-of-hand sentimentalism that cloys the familiar melodies.

His approach to Tchaikovsky is very Russian. He admits to a love for the neighboring country’s music. Once more Lang Lang displays his misunderstood “willfulness” by highlighting the andante’s tempos to a savoring, quiet reticence, although audiences are more accustomed to hailing the boisterous warhorse of a first movement.

His feeling of central unity works even better in his superb recordings of the Chopin concertos. This composer was never much of an orchestrator and his early concertos are not his best work, but Lang Lang caresses the music with a tentative touch, allowing the listener to fully savor the slow movements, the heart of the compositions. He does not allow the pieces’ wayward, often-uncertain development to diffuse their poetic wholeness or permit the truly beautiful moments to slip away.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is the first to really surpass the work of Mozart. Its tricky serenity is untypical for this composer, but the drama is carefully submerged in that glorious first movement cascade. According to Lang Lang, “It is almost impossible to find the relaxation necessary to begin the opening theme—you feel alone and powerless.” Like the famous Rubinstein recording, Lang Lang lets the work breathe at its own tempo, treating the dramatic moments as refreshing asides.

Lang Lang’s unique perception of this musical culture may not have come from his native birthright, but he embraces it with a new, refreshing understanding that derives not just from a love of music, but with a feeling for music’s universal greatness. Apart from his superb musical gifts, this is something for which music lovers should be grateful. Like all the greats, he is one of a kind.

Lang Lang will play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. on April 21 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

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