This evening to hear Lang Lang in recital at the Sydney Opera House.
The SOH was crawling with photographers, attracted by the Vivid Festival light show.
Lang Lang is a phenomenon and this was an occasion.
If I had played Beethoven Op 2 No 3 at my LMus exam oh so many years ago the way Lang Lang played it, “Uncle” Warwick and Sonja Hanke would surely have failed me for the second time. I do not suggest for a moment that I ever could have played like that. And I don’t just mean because (I’m reasonably sure) I did not observe the exposition repeat in the first movement (that’s AMEB examination performance practice, at least for grade exams: examiners haven’t the time to hear something twice). Lang Lang observed it.
It was big playing, stadium playing. In the first half I thought I was probably too close. The second Beethoven was the ‘Appassionata.’
My elderly neighbours (about 80; my guess: European Jews via South Africa) evidently enjoyed it. He played along with the Beethoven with his right hand with the occasional emphatic gesture with his tightly-furled program in his left. (Actually, that is quite distracting, but I overcame it.) Nevertheless, they were demanding critics. “He is better than he was when I heard him here last time,” she said. She enjoyed the Op 2 No 3 more than the Appassionata, but was critical of both: “He doesn’t have the tradition.”
Of course, LL does have a tradition and quite possibly more than one. A big bit of that has to be a Chinese tradition. His program biography takes him straight from the Beijing Central Music Conservatory to the Chicago Orchestra (via the Beijing Concert Hall), but he did stop by the Curtis Institute on the way.
In the second half, being close didn’t seem to matter any more. Maybe if I were Spanish or Russian I might have been more sensitive to the phenomenon, but now the theatrics seemed more well matched to my own possibly cliched expectations. In the Albeniz (Iberia Book I) LL took his time when he felt like it (dramatically) and had wonderfully controlled pianissimos, as well as some pretty exciting big moments. The Prokofiev 7th sonata was a bold choice for his audience. It’s a great work of course and it was a totally energized performance.
LL has lots of little expressions – eye rolls, rolling off the keyboard at a droll ending, singing (there is one little expression which I think of expressing a kind of chin-down solid baritonal effect which cropped up repeatedly). It is easy to be critical of them, but I think they are part of the means by which he makes such a strong projection. My favourite is his fondness for literally counting himself in (with a little conducting gesture) to a new, brisker tempo.
The last movement of the Prokofiev was fast; it was loud. Yes, that is exciting; yes, it was fun. I laughed for sheer delight when it was over.
There were 3 encores, eventually: Chopin Op 25 No 1 (The ‘Arp one); 彩云追月 (Coloured Clouds Chasing the Moon), and a transcription of the Rakoczi March (which sounded better live than it does here). I’m not expert enough to say exactly whose it was. At first the audience clapped along. (There was rather a lot of clapping.)
In China, you see Lang Lang on billboards. (He’s up there with Jackie Chan and Yao Ming, though not necessarily all on the one billboard. Each can command his own.) He is a Chinese cultural hero. His Chinese audience were out in force tonight. When the second encore started you could hear a ripple of recognition go through the hall. I don’t think it would be amiss for LL to announce such a number by its Chinese title as well, because people don’t always recognize the translation. (Try this yourself: Endstation Sehnsucht.)
He’s certainly quite a different sort of player to Radu Lupu, whose recordings consoled me through my recent hard times.