Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Lang Lang, Superstar
Very few pianists have everything. But even fewer know what to do with it.
That's roughly the consensus regarding keyboard superstar Lang Lang (above, in a typical moment; note the sneakers): yes, he's definitely in the first category, but he's also not quite in the second. At the same time, he's riding at least two huge demographic waves: he's still very young, and somehow his Chinese nationality stirs an inchoate sense of globalized excitement: he's not just a musician, he's a pop-political brand. That status, along with his extreme virtuosity, explains the tingle of rock-concert excitement that stirs in the crowds that throng to his performances. They're more than happy to cheer his startling prowess, if not his powers of interpretation; after all, Lang Lang has speed and accuracy, both a pillowy touch and thundering power: he can, indeed, do anything, and he does it to the Western canon in the name of both MySpace and China, or something like that.
But all this seemed suddenly beside the point during his opening piece, Schubert's Piano Sonata No. 20, at last Sunday's Celebrity Series concert in Symphony Hall. Lang Lang approached the lengthy, complicated sonata with something suspiciously like reverence, or at least thoughtful commitment. And the results were riveting; his touch was superbly considered, indeed expertly burnished, and he skillfully sculpted the sonata's many small architectures - it recalls and recycles its own materials in subtle ways - while constantly pushing its dynamic range (yet disciplining his own impulses toward power and speed). In the end, Lang did not perhaps delineate a statement so much as a tone, but then the complexity of the sonata resists summation (indeed, perhaps its compartmental structure played to Lang Lang's strengths); it was hard to imagine a more persuasive performance, and I was tempted to immediately list it among the best keyboard performances I'd ever heard, and Lang Lang among the best performers.
But then came intermission, and, tellingly, a change in pianos, and Lang Lang began to loosen his grip on his youthful energy. At first this was exciting - he brought a kind of wild attack to the percussive drive of Bartók's Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (not for nothing do they call him "Bang Bang"), yet pounded through the dissonant thickets of notes with shocking accuracy, and even modulated his energy level (somewhat) for the piece's slower middle section. At the finish, he was so pleased with himself he was literally bouncing on the piano bench. Things began to fall apart, however, with his selections from Debussy's "Preludes." In some ways these atmospheric miniatures felt like a glove tossed before his critics; it's hard, after all, to think of a composer more antipathetic to this pianist's patented hard drive. But Lang was only giving up so much ground to the gauzily traditional approach to Debussy - he played the pieces in a different order than listed in the program, and the performances felt similarly willful in their dynamic extremes: at one moment Lang was conjuring a silver bath of moonlight, or summoning a drowned cathedral from a veil of morning mist; but at the next, the space shuttle seemed to be lifting off at close range.
And by the time Chopin's famous Polonaise in A-flat Major rolled around, I was about ready to throw up my hands; after a plausibly mature opening statement, Lang once again went into full rock-star mode, hurtling through its famous descending octaves and swinging from a shout to a whisper at will. His single encore, Chopin's Etude in E-Major, No. 3, offered precisely the same contrast: a sober, subtle depth marked the iconic opening statement, but meaningless flash marred the development. So is Lang Lang not only a superstar, but also a schizophrenic? Or are we witnessing some sort of ongoing transformation from matinee idol into mature musician? The Schubert makes me hope for the former; but another question remains, one prompted by the restive crowd and their many beeping cell phones: once this pianist has lived up to his incredible potential, and actually grown up, will his mass audience still be interested in him?