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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Restrained Lang Lang at Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Plus: Edo de Waart continues to shine

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Pianist Lang Lang is one of the brightest stars on the scene. His first appearance with Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, nine years ago when he was a boyish 18 years old and just beginning his international career, was remarkable. Exuberant showmanship was rendered with titanic technique then. Lang has inevitably changed over the years, evidenced by his performance last week with MSO.

In Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 Lang was tasteful to a fault, though his fans in the hall cheered him heartily. The critic who once called him “Bang Bang” would not have recognized this playing, characterized by fluidity, evenness and limpid lyricism. Though beautiful on its own terms, the poetically phrased and restrained performance often sounded underplayed in balance with the orchestra, and had a self-conscious air about it. I wanted more bite and assertiveness. A mushy rendition of a Chopin Etude as encore brought the same concerns.

This one-night special concert also included a dramatically urgent Overture to Coriolan by Beethoven, conducted by Edo de Waart, and a Beethoven Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”) that paled in comparison to the MSO performance of a few weeks ago, possibly the peak of the season.

De Waart was back on the podium for the weekend subscription concert. A late change in programming brought principal cellist Joseph Johnson out front for Saint-Sans’ Concerto No. 1. One of our best musicians, he is always good, but this performance blossomed to new heights, with rich, consistent tone and sure-footed, heartfelt phrasing.

Though he has less than one complete season here under his belt, de Waart has made me expectant about even the most standard repertory. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”) on last Friday morning’s concert was quite simply a great performance. The warm tone of the MSO of the Delfs years is still there, but tightened up and astutely refined. De Waart has the master’s touch of bringing both discipline and drama to romantic music. I was caught off guard with tears in my eyes in the final movement. With de Waart’s extended contract through 2016, I wonder if the city realizes the extraordinary artistic possibilities ahead.

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