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Classical pianist Lang Lang

MUSIC REVIEW: Lang Lang opens Tanglewood season with passionate performance of Mozart piano concerto a la Leonard Bernstein

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By Friday, Jul 6, 2018 Arts & Entertainment 6

Lenox — In the summer of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, flamboyance is king. It is king because Lenny was the king of flamboyance. He could make an amorous peacock look anemic. On and off the podium, Lenny wore his heart on his sleeve, and he achieved great fame for his dramatic and animated style of conducting. So who should appear on July 6, Tanglewood’s opening night, but Lang Lang, a pianist famous for his dramatic and animated style of performing? He was at Tanglewood to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K.491, and more than a few critics, anticipating a blood meal, were licking their chops in anticipation.

Finding fault with the Chinese pianist’s every glance and gesture has become something of a pastime for the many critics who describe his performance style either as excessively passionate — too hot — or as calculating and cold. Which is it? No telling. But it looks like Lang Lang’s detractors have nearly reached consensus about one thing: their lexicon of worn out barbs and insults. One of their favorite attack words, “vulgar,” appears with remarkable regularity in the sour diatribes of critics worldwide. (They seem especially sour in London.)

Not everyone appreciates exuberant expressivity in classical music performances, but critics in the year of Bernstein’s 100th birthday are finding it more difficult than ever to maintain even the appearance of reasoned thinking in their expressions of contempt for a pianist whose indecorous indulgences offend them deeply even as they celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s own indecorous indulgences (in particular his famously balletic podium manner).

Some may protest, “Ego-driven performances are, by definition, vulgar.”

Perhaps they are, but Lang Lang’s performances are not, by definition, ego-driven. They are passion-driven, but more than a few commentators seem incapable of distinguishing between the two. Yet they persist in saying, “I know vulgarity when I see it,” which simply means, “I know perfectly well what my own opinions are, and that’s proof enough of their validity.”

Through an endless stream of ever-changing facial expressions, pianist Peter Serkin reveals his innermost feelings about the pieces he plays. He may not realize he does this, because it’s not a calculated act. Imagine the incredulous look you’d get from Mr. Serkin if you requested that he eliminate all facial expressions from his performances “because making faces is vulgar.” He’d be rendered speechless, don’t you think? So would Lenny, and so would Lang Lang.

Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood in 1981. Photo: Walter H. Scott

First on Friday evening’s program was Mozart’s overture to “The Magic Flute”—a perennially accessible crowd pleaser, a perfect season opener and a perfect prelude to the headline act. This could have been a routine exercise for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but it wasn’t, because the conductor was Andris Nelsons.

The headline act was Lang Lang.

Last on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which (as anyone could have predicted) the BSO and Andris Nelsons dispatched with characteristic aplomb. They know the piece. Slightly less predictable was Nelsons’ choice of tempi for this performance. Would he tip his hat to Lenny by playing the piece far too slowly? The answer, of course, is no. If anyone alive knows the proper tempo for all the movements of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, it is Andris Nelsons. (You can always find Bernstein’s slow version on YouTube.)

*  *  *  *  *

On July 6, Lang Lang performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 at Tanglewood in the manner most natural to him. (This was after a year’s absence due to an injury to his left arm that caused him to change his program from the first Tchaikovsky piano concerto to the Mozart Concerto No. 24, which involves less of the pounding typical of Romantic era concertos.) He lifted his left arm high above his head whenever he felt like it, mugged for the audience a few times, tilted his head back at irregular intervals, played every note in the piece as though it were his last day on earth, and generally failed to conceal his immoderate enjoyment of making music in that exact spot at that exact time. Everyone knew he was having the time of his life. But it wasn’t vulgar. It was Mozart.

Lang Lang is clearly incapable of keeping his exuberance to himself. Just like Lenny.

Lang Lang and Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons after their July 6 opening night performance at Tanglewood. Photo: David Noel Edwards


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6 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Doane Perry says:

    Great review, David!

  2. Victoria says:

    What was the encore piece?

  3. david noel edwards says:

    The encore was Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, B. 49

  4. Kellie Young says:

    I have seen Lang Lang play a number of times. I am elated that someone finally took the stick out of the behind of classical piano. How refreshing. I have met Lang Lang. He is a genuine, kind, gentle soul. His contributions to the future of classical piano cannot be measured. He also dedicates himself to the youth of the world and their pursuit of their musical aspirations. He is a rare gift to the world both as a pianist and human being.

  5. John Bogenberger says:

    Music should be played with passion. Critics of Lang Lang are probably motivated by jealousy as were the critics of Liberace back in his days. It’s the entertainment value and joy that Lang Lang brings to his audiences worldwide that is important. Lang Lang is so successful because he does what he does. Nothing worse than expressionless music by other performers.

  6. Michael Tierra says:

    Music performed on a stage is entertainment. It can be served up in many forms. Lang Lang is a great and inspiring pianist and entertainer. It’s time that classical music is let out of academia and the museum. So long as it is played with devotion to the intentions of the composer and the gestures of the performer are congruent with the expression of the music. I say let’s have more classical soloists who can both inspire and entertain.

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