Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, Lang Lang thrilling in concert at Hill Auditorium
Only connect. That’s what pianist Lang Lang does — and much more. But watching the hip young man with the spiked, punk hairstyle high-five every bouquet-carrying kid who approached the Hill Auditorium stage following his spectacular performance of the 3rd Prokofiev piano concerto Wednesday evening, you see it’s charisma as much as technique that binds the audience to him.
The ties that bind were, in many senses, the theme of this concert, the finale of the University Musical Society Choral Union Series. Here, Lang was a “first among equals,” a star playing with fellow 20-something stars, members of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, a super-select group akin to America’s Tanglewood Festival Orchestra.
On the podium to conduct them was the elegant, austere Christoph Eschenbach, a cool head with a sharp eye and ear and his own knack for connecting. In the Prokofiev concerto, he had the orchestra firmly in hand and Lang more than out of the corner of his eye. Eschenbach had everyone on the same page musically, so that cohesiveness of vision was among the thrills of the concerto.
A wicked virtuoso tour de force that has gorgeous moments of lyricism to offset fusillades of power pianism, the Prokofiev was an ideal vehicle for Lang’s prodigious technical gifts and his way with pianistic color. (In the color department, the orchestra members were no slouches, either.)
With roaring applause after the first movement and a rip-snorting finale to rouse the crowd, it was hardly surprising that Lang returned for a solo encore: the radiant, singing 3rd Chopin etude (E Major) from Op. 10. Alas, Lang stopped to smell every flower, missing nary an opportunity to stretch and pull indulgently at the music’s fabric. There was beauty of tone and voicing, to be sure (and Lang seemed enraptured by his performance), but coherence fell by the wayside.
Symphonies by Prokofiev (No. 1, the “Classical”) and Brahms (No. 2, in D Major) framed the concert, and each, in its own way, raised questions of coherence as well.
In the Prokofiev, despite a fine start and a rousing finish, things turned ponderous in the inner movements, dampening the music’s charm and wit. The Brahms, which contained some gorgeous wind and brass playing and some wonderfully spun out string lines, seemed to suffer some similar disturbances. Rarely was there the build of musical tension that keeps the ear going across punctuation marks. But equally to the point, perhaps, it felt like a long slog to have the Brahms following the excitement of the Prokofiev first half. An encore of Smetana’s “Dance of the Comedians” was an excellent caffeinated close.