The storms that blew through on Friday caused some traffic snarls at the freeway off ramps and caused some folks to arrive at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall a little late, but no one in the standing-room-only audience missed a single note from Lang Lang, who gave a superb performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto with the Oregon Symphony.
When Lang Lang took the stage (after intermission), he was greeted with thunderous applause and cheering. But that quieted down very quickly when he took his seat at the piano and after a near dead silence began to play the first notes very, very slowly, and from a super pianissimo to a fairly resounding fortissimo when the orchestra joined in. Lang Lang really took expression to the edges - but in a fantastic way - through all three movements of this beautiful and moody piece. He would slow down phrases, give some a feather touch, give others force (but never brutal), and keep it all interesting and engaging. The burst of applause at the end of the first movement only signaled that he had everyone in his grasp.
But he didn't create this magical atmosphere all by himself, but orchestra played at the top of its game as well. I heard all sorts of nuanced phrasing from the orchestra - wonderful crescendos and decrescendos - that added to the ebb and flow of Lang Lang's interpretation. Principal flutist David Buck, principal oboist Martin Hebert, principal clarinetist Yoshiori Nakao, and (I think) associate principal horn Joseph Berger had exposed passages with Lang Lang that just shined. The crisp attacks by the orchestra in the third movement were scintillating as well and the joyous finale caused the audience to erupt like champagne that had been shaken. Lang Lang came out three times to cheering that would not stop. He quieted that down by playing a Chopin Etude that was sublimely lyrical and exquisite in every sense. The audience went nuts again, but Lang Lang, after taking his bows and placing his hand over his heart, turned to concertmaster Jun Iwasaki and took his hand and lead him off stage, thus signaling the end to the concert. If he hadn't have done that, he would've been brought out for several more encores for sure.
Much has been said about Lang Lang's mannerisms. Andre Previn, for example, detests them. But I have to allow some a little theatrics for an artist who can play so well. Lang Lang did look engage the orchestra by looking at them and once in a while he would make conducting motions with his free hand. The only part I didn't care for was when he turned to the audience while playing, because it seemed to say "look at me!"
Of course, the Lang Lang performance was only half of the concert, before intermission, the orchestra played Adams' "The Chairman Dances; Foxtrot for Orchestra" and Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story." The orchestra played at top-tier level in both pieces. The Adams number sort of takes snippets from his opera "Nixon in China." The pulsating rhythms reminded me of the scene in the opera when the presidents plane lands, but it wasn't as heavy. The transitions to the Foxtrot-like passages were smooth as silk, and principal percussionist Niel DePonte expertly applied the brushes to help create a ballroom scene.
Kalmar and the orchestra played the Bernstein piece during the 2002 season and made quite an impression, but this time was even better. The orchestra was sharp as all get out. They wonderfully alternated between jaunty and relaxed lyrical passages. The trumpet section, led by principal trumpet Jeffrey Work was snappy and spot on. Principal horn John Cox and the string had a glorious moment -- well it was all pretty incredible and worth hearing again. Kudos to all of the orchestra and Kalmar for making this piece and the entire concert so memorable.
Extra note: Ron Quiring, who is on the board of Portland Piano International, told me that Lang Lang played for the PPI's recital series back in 1999 (or thereabouts) and put his autograph on the New York Steinway that belongs to the PPI (the PPI also has a Hamburg Steinway).