A Little Night Music with Lang Lang

Organizations presenting classical music events know that their future existence depends upon attracting younger audiences. The writer of this review, eighteen-year-old Kevin Chen, is a sophomore at UC Berkeley, planning to major in Molecular and Cell Biology with an emphasis in Neuroscience. He has played piano for 11 years and has won several local and regional competitions in California.

When one thinks about Lang Lang, one thinks flair and extroversion. People not only “ooh” and “ah” at the wonderful music that unravels before his fingers, but also for the show he puts on as he performs. That he wields formidable piano prowess is, of course, the prerequisite to making his audience “ooh” and “ah,” but what truly wows people is how he literally plays with the music while he plays it. His control over the pieces he performs is unequalled, and the ease with which he plays allows him the freedom to do what people know him best for: dramatize. Usually, if he isn’t doing pizzazz—such as ending an exciting cadenza with a bang—he is doing drama. The shoulders, the head bang, and the gasp: these living gestures help create the perception that people make about him.

However, at Lang Lang’s performance in UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall last night, I found other dimensions of Lang Lang’s character that were surprisingly reserved and calmly sentimental. These moments occurred during slower “filler” pieces that many drowse through during programs, dismissing them as essential only because they appear as a part of the featured opus. But for me, these were the moments I felt were the core to Lang Lang’s entire program. My first experience with this was during the Sarabande of J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat major (BWV 825). This piece brought out in Lang Lang a sort of expressiveness that was polished to a fantastic degree; it felt pensive and mysteriously introverted, like a conversation that has become more hushed, more serious, and more intimate. It was a refreshing moment after the previous Allemande and Courante movements, which were riddled with lively counterpoint,—all of which Lang Lang performed with total playfulness and energy. To follow up with the Sarabande movement gave the audience time to breathe, relax, and think, as though Lang Lang were trying to say, “I’m through playing around for now—I want to talk to you for real.” Of course, after the Sarabande, Lang Lang followed with his usual playfulness, ending the Partita with a Gigue that featured exciting bass versus treble interplay, as in a back and forth swords duel.

Much of the rest of the program progressed as one would expect. Lang Lang performed Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major (D. 960) with the pizazz mentioned earlier, ending the final movement with such vigor—including head banging—that almost the entire audience immediately leapt out of their seats to applaud at this amazing feat of spontaneous music making. After the intermission, Lang Lang played Chopin’s Twelve Etudes, Op. 25, and basically went wild. I have never seen any pianist have so much fun as Lang Lang did playing the third Etude in F Major and the ninth in G-flat Major, the “Butterfly” Etude. He played number six, “ the Study in Chromatic Thirds,” with absolutely no fatigue, and his octave work in the tenth Etude in B Minor was simply astounding. Of course, during the slow development section of this tenth Etude, one could truly tell from Lang Lang’s expression how much he deeply loves Chopin. However, when the piece returns to its violent octave mood, Lang Lang his absolutely dazzling virtuosity, during which I overheard a child of six or seven across the row whisper, “This guy is crazy!”

But similar to his performance of the Bach Partita before intermission, Lang Lang allowed a reprieve in all the excitement as he played the slow seventh Etude in C-sharp Minor. Again, I felt this etude represented the core of his overall performance, during which he put aside his showiness and let the morose, calm, reserved voice of this etude speak through its own monologue. Unlike Lang Lang’s tendency to control and play with a piece like a child playing with a toy (albeit an extremely talented child), he showed his maturity during this etude by briefly forfeiting his fun and his showmanship and communicating the piece to the audience rather than performing it.

Then again, no one can take away Lang Lang’s fun forever, and he really hit a couple of home runs as he ended the concert with the famous “Winter Wind” Etude and the exciting “Ocean Waves” Twelfth Etude in C minor. Out with a bang? He pretty much did just that!

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