Monday, September 16, 2013

Lang Lang and Oregon Symphony play Prokfiev

Lang Lang. Photo by Philip Glaser.
Thursday night, September 12 saw Lang Lang, perhaps the world's premier concert pianist, join forces with the Oregon Symphony under Carlos Kalmar to play Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The orchestra opened with Copland's El Salon Mexico, a sort of tone-poem that established Copland's signature style. There were some fun moments; a drunken-sounding trumpet artfully played over purposely sloppy discordance painted a delightful mental picture. However there were hiccups in the infectious rhythms demanded by this work, and the orchestra sometimes felt sluggish reacting to the maestro. Everything was there...just not always at the exact right time. By the time it was done, one almost wished they could have just started the whole short work over from the beginning and played it one more time and it would've been perfect.

Fortunately, since the next work was Copland's Suite from Billy the Kid, the desired mulligan effect was pretty much there. From the hypnotically persistent ostinato at the beginning the OSO really hit its stride. This very programmatic piece was redolent with its images: the slow, ponderous, irresistible ambling across the vast oceans of grass, a card game in which one could almost see the expressions on the faces of the gamblers, a night under the brilliant prairie stars...By this time the OSO had warmed into the precise syncopations for which Copland is so famous. There were moments of unison between piccolo and xylophone that were genuinely exquisite, and when they nabbed young Bill Bonney, you could tell this was a crowd itching for a hangin'...

Lang Lang took the stage for the Prokofiev in the second half with his customary ease, projecting an air of quiet self confidence that soon gave way to his gesticulatory showmanship, and from a physical, from an attitudinal standpoint it is certainly clear why he is so popular.  However from a strictly musical standpoint, while the solo passages were smooth and wonderful to hear, he often feels too polite...he is too deferential to the orchestra. While certainly a brilliant pianist, he's not a 'natural born' concerto soloist, so to speak, in the way that say Van Cliburn was,  nor does he display the same seemingly limitless technical wizardry and natural feel for a concerto as Yuja Wang for instance. It would be quite something to hear him give a solo or chamber music performance.

That said, there was a lot to enjoy from his performance. In the first movement it was great fun to watch his left hand, like some manic bird pecking back and forth around his right as it rumbled up and down the keyboard. His physicality is a strength in live performance...he revels in his 'rock-star' status, and rightly so. In the second movement he played with delicacy and grace at a breathtakingly fast pace, executing the most complex, keyboard-spanning arpeggiation with a style that sounded like an effortless roulade. In the finale he certainly showed his technical chops, but like always, more was wanted...more forcefulness and musical presence.

The orchestra closed with the delightful Capriccio Italien by Tchaikovsky, appropriately bombastic and festive as this chestnut should be.

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