Yuri Temirkanov, a musician I deeply respect, said nine years ago that
of all his young proteges, 15-year-old Lang Lang was far and away the
greatest talent he had seen. When Ruth Felt's SF Performances brought
Lang Lang to Herbst Theater in 2002, I went, I heard, I was blown away.
And confused. (See review below.)
Tonight, Lang Lang, 24, was back in the city, in Davies Hall, playing
Beethoven's First Piano Concerto with the SF Symphony, conducted by Mark
Wigglesworth. The contrast between the two men couldn't be greater: the
conductor from Sussex is plain and simple, provides solid musical value;
the pianist from Shenyang is a spectacular showman, with dazzling
performances that also puzzle and disturb.
I had a terribly difficult time before - as I have now - to point a thumb
straight up or decidedly down. Lang Lang's virtues are unquestionable:
fingers of steel alternating with melting lyricism (the Beethoven Largo
was simply gorgeous), staying on top of the line, always, timing that's
unerring perfection, etc. His liabilities? This is where it gets
The showmanship, shades of Liberace, an overwhelming, nonstop Mr.
Personality - all that may be annoying, but what if you just listen to
the music? I think the negatives show up there too. There are obvious
small things, such as the anachronistically chromatic notes in the already
too-flashy first-movement cadenza or exaggerating a rhythm here, a forte
there, a pianissimo somewhere else. But that's not the point.
The closest I can get to the heart of "what's wrong with Lang Lang" is
in the headline: what I heard tonight was his Beethoven, not the composer's,
and certainly not mine. Lang Lang can do anything with the piano...
and he usually does. Anything, but not necessarily the right thing. He
owns the music (I don't think I have ever seen him play from a score),
but does he *share* it, does he fuse with the music and the audience,
beyond all those moments (minutes, hours?) of glory? Not really.
When you first see Thomas Quasthoff sing, it's unavoidable to pay
attention to his appearance, but in a matter of minutes, everything
disappears - artist included - except for the music, the heart of the
music, the transmission of art from heart to heart. With Lang Lang, in
my experience, the pianist is always there, front and center, making one
crane his neck to look around or behind him to focus on the music. He
is in the way, even while playing spectacularly well.
He is still only 24. Perhaps he will cut down on all that too-obvious
Presence, and settle down to heartfelt communication of the music. Both
he and the audience would come out ahead. Also, magnificence should be
the *result* of action or performance, not an advertised label. Lang
Lang could benefit from watching tapes of the Rose Bowl, studying Vince
Young's greatness - all in the action, not the gestures or poses, physical
The Extreme Pianism of Blue Man
Janos Gereben [3/17/02]
Sensory overload is all in the mind, but tonight it took over
all of me.
Somewhere between the toughest Liszt etude played double time
and the neighing of horses in the duet with the erhu, my otherwise
somewhat disciplined monkey-mind up and left the building.
One moment, the monkey and I were in Herbst Theater, at Lang
Lang's second San Francisco Performances recital in two years;
the next, we landed on the deck of Kon Tiki, a half a century
ago, in Polynesian waters. Look! There is Thor Heyerdahl, asleep.
The sailors are yelling at him to wake up and see the incredible
fish they just caught, a symphony of colors. Heyerdahl opens one
eye, takes measure of the weird creature, says "There is no such
fish," and goes back to sleep.
Back to Herbst again. Monkey mind says: "There is no such pianist,"
and I agree, but we don't go to sleep. We are stunned, amazed,
want more. We get more. This time, "real music." The Liszt
transcription of Schumann's "Widmung," sung from the heart, the
piano disappearing. This too he can do.
"Lang" means either "blue" or "man" in Mandarin. This is Blue
Man. He is a literally incredible pianist and a pretty good
musician too. But why should a 19-year-old have a sign on his
back: "Kick me, I am not perfect"? Because where he is perfect
already, superlatives fail. If he went into another line of work
as an acrobat, he would be twirling a thousand plates simultaneously.
Monkey sees, monkey doesn't believe.
In the five years since I asked Yuri Temirkanov who his favorite
young musical protege was and he virtually stammered about "this
young Chinese boy who will become the greatest pianist in the
world," Lang Lang went on to conquer concert halls (playing
several times with Temirkanov) and started recording, but nothing
can substitute for the LIVE experience of this magical business.
What makes the Lang Lang phenomenon even more remarkable is that
there is nothing simple about it. His concert is just one damn
thing after another. In fact, the first half gave no indication
of what was to happen in the second.
The opening Haydn Sonata in E could have been played by a number
of other pianists. It was impressive in that Lang Lang's technique
is so overwhelming that you just tune it out as a given, but it
wasn't a particularly great musical experience. In fact, the
second movement was utterly unidiomatic, a kind of measured,
stately Bach-like performance, pedantic at that. The Presto
picked up, but it was still "no Haydn."
And then came, immediately and stunningly, the Mendelssohn
Fantasies or Caprices, Op. 16, in a heartfelt, quietly passionate,
superb performance, the pianist's love for the piece palpable,
moving. What next? Nothing expected. Lang Lang vaulted across
the stage, jumped the piano and started banging out the Schubert
Fantasy in C Major so thoughtlessly that both the Mendelssohn
magic and my new respect for him started diminishing. Soon enough,
however, something resembling Schubert emerged and if not all,
most things were right with the world. All in all, however, this
first half made for an interesting, impressive, "good/bad"
concert, Blue Man nowhere to be seen.
He did arrive after intermission and warmed up for the major
exercise with two Chopin pieces, a decent Waltz in A-flat Major
and a lyrical-not-maudlin Nocturne in D-flat Major. And then
came the Liszt Paganini etudes, leading up to No. 6 in A minor
and the single most, yes, incredible performance in all my years.
I know pianists with fingers of steel and those with hands without
bones. Lang Lang has "normal" hands. What he does with them
cannot be described because there is no comparison. Not the young
Andre Watts, not the young Van Cliburn, not even the new crop
of Russian wunderkind, perhaps not even - forgive me - Horowitz
on a bad day.
The fluency, the stainless-steel legato in the midst of the
greatest storm of notes must be experienced to be believed, and
still you'd have trouble raising the jaw again and closing the
mouth. It's too bad that in the past I used the line "must not
miss" for other musicians; it should have been reserved for Lang
Lang and his Liszt.
The first encore was an exotic, delightful surprise. Who'd enter
the stage but Guojen Lang, the pianist's father, an erhu virtuoso.
They performed the popular Chinese piece "Racing Horses," the
two instruments trotting, competing, passing one another, at the
end, the erhu (the winner?) neighing uproariously. Then the
superb Schumann and the weird, unplayable miniature Scriabin
"Mosquito" (with the ease of "Chopsticks") . . . and the
mind-boggling consideration of where this 19-year-old may be
heading. Yes, there is no such fish.
Janos [log in to unmask]