Lang Lang earns the applause
In another age, in another kind of venue, there would have been lighters flicked and Frisbees flown Friday night when Lang Lang came to town. As it was, the boisterous ovation in Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall when he appeared on stage confirmed, before he played a note, that the 26-year-old pianist is a superstar. An even more enthusiastic reception followed his performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, and while some purists undoubtedly sniffed at his approach, the shouts and applause were enough to drown them out. Lang has been an energizing and polarizing figure in classical music since he substituted at the last minute for Andre Watts in 1999 at the Ravinia Festival, playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony. He has been both praised for his technique and reproached for his interpretive excesses, but he's the kind of artist who manages to obviate criticism: Like him or not, he's a phenomenon, and he can sell out a concert hall in no time flat. Recent reports suggest that he has toned down his dramatics at the keyboard, and Friday night's performance hardly seemed excessive. True, he looked heavenward in apparent rapture through much of the second movement and gestured as though conducting from the piano from time to time, but plenty of pianists have felt similarly unconstrained at least since Glenn Gould turned his recording sessions into sing-alongs. Lang's technical capabilities far surpassed his theatricality in any case. His tempos were elastic, but even the most note-dense passages in the outer movements of the Rachmaninoff were crystal-clear. His strength was obvious - the thumping bass at the beginning of the first movement and general power throughout asserted the dominance of the soloist -but he was a keen listener engaging in an intense conversation with the orchestra. Kalmar, who in the first half of the concert led the orchestra in John Adams' "The Chairman Dances" and Leonard Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story," listened right back, and the interaction between pianist and conductor was key to the success of the performance. Where Lang pulled at the piano lines like taffy, Kalmar was there to step in at the right moment; where he changed the color of the piano line, Kalmar was there to adjust the orchestra's palette. Urged by a rapturous standing ovation, Lang returned for an encore (Chopin's etude Op. 10, no. 3, if I'm not mistaken). It seemed the perfect closer: the outer parts were clear cantabile; the tumultuous middle section might as well have been Rachmaninoff.