Lang Lang gets a little help from little friends
The Chinese pianist Lang Lang is probably the only classical musician in the history of the world to have his own limited edition sneaker. Dean Corey, president of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, was sporting a pair Tuesday night at Segerstrom Concert Hall when he came onstage to welcome one and all to the evening’s entertainment, a show (that’s the right word) called Lang Lang and Friends.
Lang Lang arrived with tousled hair and wearing a shiny, narrow dark suit that could have come straight out of the Bobby Darin Signature Collection. He was even carrying a microphone. Alfred Brendel he is not. The pianist served as host (sometimes awkward), interviewer, accompanist, motivator and chamber musician for the event, part of the Society’s “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” festival collaboration with Carnegie Hall.
The concert lived up to its name. The performers were Chinese and Chinese-American musicians, some of them old friends of the pianist, many of them just kids, emerging artists that Lang is mentoring and helping through his International Music Foundation.
First came pianist Ray Ushikubo, an 8-year-old from L.A. so small that he needed a special contraption to reach and manipulate the pedals. He played Chopin’s Waltz No. 5 in A flat with poise, soft touch and even a little rubato. It was cute. Next, Marc Yu, a 10-year-old from Pasadena, sat down with Lang Lang, who took the second part, for a polite reading of Schubert’s Rondo in A, D. 951, for piano four hands. The two had played the same in Carnegie Hall just last week.
One always worries a little when kids are put into this kind of pressure situation, but on Tuesday these ones seemed happy to be there. Yu was relaxed enough to mimic the arm and body swaying of his idol and partner.
Three more junior pianists, Derek Wang, 11, Anna Larsen, 9, and Charlie Liu, 9, joined Lang before intermission for a whiz-bang performance Mack Wilberg’s Fantasy on Themes from Bizet’s “Carmen,” a rather tiresomely polytonal treatment of the opera’s big moments, however lively.
Guo Gan, an erhu player – the erhu is a Chinese string instrument, played with a bow – came on in traditional Chinese robe for two numbers, the plaintive “The Moon Reflected on the Er-Quan Spring,” and the headlong “Horse Racing.” In both, Lang showed himself an unselfish and sensitive accompanist.
Tenor Ge Qun Wang, who helped out the young Lang as a translator when they were both at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, sang “That is me, Mama” by Gu Jianfen, the traditional “Ussuri Fisherman’s Song,” and, as an encore, Donizetti’s “Una furtiva lagrima,” capably, scoring especially in the softer moments.
It proved a long half of short snippets, with small talk in between, not exactly the perfect set-up for the second half, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor. Perhaps nothing could set this long piece up ideally; though inspired enough moment to moment, it goes on too long, and its elegiac mood and endless variations grow wearisome.
Still, it was perhaps as stirring a performance as one could ask for. Violinist Dan Zhu, a young international soloist and chamber musician, displayed a penetrating but carefully calibrated tone, outlining phrases crisply, elegantly and intelligently, never overdoing the swoon. Cellist Hai-Ye Ni, principal in the Philadelphia Orchestra, also showed admirable taste and burnished tone, though her sound was sometimes covered in climactic moments.
For his part, Lang, finally able to play a leading role, proved a model chamber musician, thundering and growling when the music called for it, dropping into delicate background when the strings had the main line. What’s more, there was great variety and imagination in his playing, a spontaneity that allowed the music to dance and ruminate vividly.