World's most famous pianist comes to O.C.
His name is Lang Lang (of course) and he's only 26. Wednesday night he came to Segerstrom Concert Hall for a sold-out recital that launched the 55th season of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. Chinese dragons greeted audience members on the blue carpet outside the hall, a new modern sculpture, "Conversions," in the lobby within. Lang Lang arrived regally onstage a few minutes after the appointed time and lifted the lid covering the keys. On a big screen behind him the keyboard suddenly appeared, captured from a camera, pointed straight down, high above the stage, As he began Schubert's A-major Sonata, D. 959, Lang Lang's disembodied hands appeared on the screen, gracefully skimming the keys. We were to witness his every holy stroke.
It would be hard to live up to all this, but Lang Lang almost did. He is, by any fair estimation, a remarkable pianist, if not the be-all and end-all that his publicity would have you believe. His recital, featuring sonatas by Schubert and Bartok and pieces by Debussy and Chopin, was pleasing, virtuosic and sometimes profound. His reading of Schubert's penultimate sonata was perhaps the most impressive of the evening. His approach to the long, goldenly lyrical work was marked by simplicity and patience, a willingness to allow the music to spin its own magic. Sunniness and serenity were the prevailing moods, various beauteous gradations of soft were probed, and a variety of rich colors were dispatched. His pacing was assured, never dawdling.
If other pianists have underlined Schubert's angry and tragic outbursts more convincingly, he didn't miss them altogether. They were kept within context.
But it seemed partly a matter of technique. Lang Lang has more finesse than power. His hands and fingers dart lightly over the keys most of the time, rather than press firmly into them. His attacks tend to the soft and warm, not sharp and steely and muscular. This results in a certain mushiness of texture and tone at times, and a feeling of volume without torque.
Nevertheless, Bartok's percussive Piano Sonata emerged as a thrill ride, taken at dazzling speed and with dramatic vehemence. Lang Lang looked as if he was riding a horse to the finish, his head bobbing and his feet kicking. A set of seven Debussy Preludes – played out of the order in the program book, which didn't translate their descriptive titles, so few could have known what pictures the composer painted – were given lucidly textured and poetic accounts, though the pianist may have gilded the lily a little too often. Sometimes forward progress seemed to stall. A cell phone went off, and kept ringing, during the quietest part of "La cathedral engloutie," which was otherwise majestic and otherworldly.
He ended with Chopin's A-flat major Polonaise, "Heroic," in a performance that mowed it down more than it captured the sculpted terrain. Lang Lang turned it into a mere virtuoso showpiece, in other words, but he did generate gale force wind.
The experiment with the big screen, I think, was a success. What I liked most was that it proved unobtrusive. With only the tops of the pianist's hands visible (and not his emotive face or his other somewhat toned-down antics), and no changes in the camera angle, it was easy to tune in or out of the visual.
His encores were Chopin's Etude, Op. 10, No. 3, the opening and closing tangibly delicate, and "The Flight of the Bumblebee," taken at a truly frenetic pace.