Symphony opener a tour de force
“I can't believe we made it,” one woman draped in a heavy necklace whispered to her companion. “I need Rachmaninoff.”
“Lang Lang!” cooed one school-aged patron to another after his ticket was inspected. “He's going to bang bang.” Both Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Lang, the 26-year-old Chinese rock star of pianoland, left the audience roaring for more at the end of the sold-out concert.
Lang, the spiky-haired prodigy known for his slightly bad-boy approach to classical music, played with the piano rather than simply playing it. He bounced at his seat during convulsive chords, lifting his hands just high enough to make a statement between velvety arpeggios, and at times looking away as if it were all too beautiful to bear.
It was a virtuoso performance – one that even had the well-dressed audience clapping between movements, and some were in tears.
In Liszt's “Les Preludes,” a symphonic poem considered by some to be inspired by a French poem by Alphonse de Lamartine about life and death, the ensemble performed as music director Jahja Ling has said he dreams it would: like one organism, listening to one another and watching his cues intently.
The happy-go-lucky theme shared by the winds and strings was all ice skates and hot chocolate on a wintry afternoon – a postcard of leisure – but it reached just the right swagger before the finale. In the final moments, Ling demanded longer, meatier notes from the orchestra, and he got them.
Lang's take on Rachmaninoff was as tempestuous and triumphant as befits a work that is, in its own way, about life and death.
This concerto, after all, is what brought Rachmaninoff back from artistic limbo when he was on the brink of abandoning music. Tolstoy had insulted him, and the public had widely ridiculed his first attempt at mixing lots of instruments together (the first symphony, that is). Why not retire early, or travel the world, or go into accounting? Why keep struggling?
Writing the concerto was his ticket out of depression. Lang's opening ran the gamut of expressiveness, from tentatively introducing himself to the piano to totally dominating it, all in just the first eight chords. At times he played so fast the melody became something else – a blurt, a moan – but the interpretation didn't go against what Rachmaninoff was aiming for, under the circumstances.
The second movement shifts between lilting, dreamy passages, stormy reproaches, and nothingness – particularly in the cadenza, when the pianist's fluttering fingers must reduce the sound of a pounding trill into gossamer softness.
Lang went further, drifting to complete silence.
Then, drawing his finger, still silently, over the keyboard, he rested it on the low G with calm assertion, in a subtle move that made this concerto unmistakably his.
In a recent interview, Ling called Lang a technical master. They've worked together once before, when the pianist auditioned for Ling 10 years ago. As for the symphony, Ling said that since he arrived in San Diego, the group has evolved to where it can tackle anything.
Before the concert, Mayor Jerry Sanders made a surprise appearance and declared Oct. 4 “San Diego Symphony Day.” This opening night, which took place between a cocktail reception and a dancing soiree at the US Grant Hotel, has set the bar high indeed, and one can only wonder how the rest of the year at Copley Symphony Hall – with favorites from Mahler, Holst, Shostakovich, Beethoven and Bach, and a world premiere by Bright Sheng – will play out.