Lang Lang will make a classical fan out of you

Lang_lLet’s talk for a minute about classical music. I know, I know  —  even you entertainment junkies would probably rather  talk about polka, or butterflies, or the big hurt that the Spurs are currently putting on the Cavs. Hardly anybody I know wants to talk about classical music either. I’ve been listening to Chopin etudes and Beethoven symphonies and Rachmaninoff preludes and Schubert sonatas and Prokofiev piano concertos since my junior-high days, and I love the stuff, but sometimes it sure feels like a lonely trail I chose for myself.

For that reason, I get reasonably excited — verging perhaps on overexcited — when I see something in a concert hall that leads me to believe the centuries-old ritual of public classical-music performance might actually outlive me. Last Thursday I went to hear the 24-year-old Chinese piano prodigy Lang Lang play Beethoven’s breathtaking Piano Concerto No. 5, also known as the "Emperor" Concerto, with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.

Have you heard of Lang Lang yet? He’s as close to a popular crossover star as serious classical music is likely to get going forward. I was blessed enough to attend his 2003 debut solo recital at Carnegie Hall, where he closed with a not-quite-human 16-minute performance of Liszt’s finger-breaking "Reminiscences of Don Juan de Mozart." Catch the second half of the thing here, and be sure to stick around till at least the six-minute mark, when the then-21-year-old goes global-thermonuclear as he blasts toward the finish.

addCredit(“Lang Lang: Steven Haberland/Deutsche Grammophon”)

Critics have occasionally been unfairly grumpy about the guy, essentially dismissing him as a showman instead of an artist, but they’ve let up a bit in recent years, and on Thursday I could see why. The Emperor is an august, beautiful powerhouse of the concerto repertoire — I used to listen to Claudio Arrau play it on my Walkman while I mowed the lawn back in 10th grade — and under Lang Lang’s fingers and conductor Riccardo Muti’s baton it came out surprisingly restrained on Thursday. You could tell the Lang was holding back on his old bluster at times, going perhaps for something more "mature." The guardians of classical music at the New York Times ragged on him anyway, calling the performance "dull." Whatever you say, New York Times. To me it was an often-fascinating take on the concerto, one that felt fresh and different from the many interpretations of the work that have passed through these ears over several years and many mowed lawns.

But that’s not really what gave me hope on Thursday for the future of the music. What felt exciting was the way that everybody who wasn’t insanely old and feeble got to their feet and gave Lang a standing ovation when he was done, even though he performed before the intermission, when that kind of excessive acknowledgment is rarely doled out. I also loved it that after his bows, Lang sat back down, still surrounded by the orchestra, and played an encore off his newish album of Chinese music, Dragon Songs. You definitely don’t hear encores after concertos — except, apparently, when Lang Lang is at the piano. (I talked to his publicist; she says he ends up performing encores after concertos all the time.) Purists — like, presumably, the folks at the New York Times — might dismiss as crass the crowd-pleasing impulse at play at a Lang Lang concert. They would be wrong. Classical music desperately needs the fire that this virtuoso is bringing to it.

Any Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms fans out there? (It’s okay: you get to be anonymous.) Any anybody else approve of Lang Lang? Have you heard his newest disc of Beethoven’s second- and third-best concertos, Nos. 1 and 4? Or what about the achingly lovely "River Waltz" from soundtrack to The Painted Veil, which features Lang on piano? Check both of those out. Lang’s the king!

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  • Auriana

    I’ve always been a HUGE fan of Classical music. In fact, the first cd I ever bought was a sampling of Baroque. I’ve also been involved in music since I was a child in piano, mallet percussion, and as a classically trained vocalist (trained though I’m not a soloist but I do quite well in a choir as an alto 2). I tend to enjoy the loud, angry music the best. My favorite pieces are Marche Slav, New World Symphony, Scherezade, Mozart’s Reqieum, and Carmina Burana but I love it all from Gregorian Chant to Mozart to PDQ Bach. I will definately have to give Lang Lang a listen when I’m not at work.

  • Jennifer

    Lang Lang is brilliant. I listen to http://www.beethoven.com, an online classical station at work (hoping for the Mozart effect) and they feature him quite a bit. I had no idea he is so young!
    His version of the Rach 3 is definitely worth checking out.

  • Sarah C

    Well, I guess there aren’t even dozens of us. I’m a big fan of classical music, but for those who aren’t, a great way to get introduced to classical music is through movies. Rameau’s “Castor et Pollux” is used in Marie Antoinette as she buries her child, Mozart and Wagner in the New World, Bizet in Match Point, Debussy at the end of Ocean’s 11, even Rachmaninoff in Center Stage.

  • Rob W

    I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Lang Lang before he made it ‘big.’ He was performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with the Baltimore Symphony at a concert hall in Bloomsburg, PA and is execution of the piece was flawless. I also had to opportunity to meet him and shake his hand during intermission as well as exchange a few words before he personally autographed a CD for me. Being a year younger than him, it definitely inspires me to see such an avid musician at a relatively young age.
    Greg, I personally feel being one of the few listeners of classical music is a blessing in disguise. We get to keep all the talented music to ourselves and let all the others roll around in their ‘garbage’ they call music.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the link and the introduction. I always enjoy classical music when I hear it, but find it difficult to know where to find good musicians or good pieces. Know I have some ideas to check out!

  • aliya

    When I was younger, I studied classical music very seriously, and I HATED it. I just didn’t get it. My colleagues (all pre-teens and teens) loved it, and I couldn’t stand it outside of rehearsals & classes.
    I’m convinced that hating it must’ve just been my form of teenage rebellion, because as soon as I stopped studying it, I couldn’t stop listen to it. I don’t know Lang Lang (as a woodwind player, I learned early on to resent the string & piano players for all the attention they got, LOL), but I’m a huge Beethoven fan.
    Still, nothing anyone says or does can get me into opera. ;)

  • Greg Arkadin

    I’ve been avidly listening to classical music for several years now. I haven’t heard Lang Lang, but my guess is that one of the issues holding back growth in this genre is that people tend to latch on to one recording of a piece and not investigate other interpretations. Lang Lang might be terrific in Rach 3, for example, but a listener might find Weissenberg’s version even more exciting. And the clerks at music retailers likely won’t be much help.

  • Martha

    It’s very encouraging to see exciting musicians like Lang Lang getting non-grey hairs into classical music. It’s also fun to see how joyous he is when he plays. Critics can grump all they want about excessive showmanship, but they’re wrong. WRONG! Anything that gets people to enter the majestic, awe-inspiring and aesthetically satisfying world of classical music is OK in my book.

  • Martha

    By the way, Gregory, I’m surprised at your comment about not seeing encores after concertos. Do you mean just piano concertos? My husband and I go to a lot of BSO concerts featuring violinists and they often play short encores…all except Josh Bell, no matter how hard we try.

  • K

    Hooray! I am so happy to see a Popwatch entry about classical music.
    Although I can only wish to have seen Lang Lang’s Lincoln Center performance, I experienced a similar hope-for-the-future-of-music moment thanks to the Fry Street Quartet. I may have been the youngest one in the audience when I saw them recently, but their energy was fantastic and would get any crowd excited. I’m with Gregory and other posters here–if showmanship gets folks engaged, then show away. As long as the musicians are truly musicians, no reason why they can’t be theatrical as well.

  • jds

    I prefer the cooler style of Leif Ove Andsnes to the hotter style of Lang Lang, but that’s just a matter of degree; I’m perfectly happy to listen to Lang anytime.
    I saw him once when he not only performed, but he chatted with the audience. He said that his name did not repeat, that the first name and last name were written with different characters. They were also pronounced differently, he said: “My first name is pronounced ‘lang,’ and my second name is pronounced ‘lang.'” Okay then.

  • Swerds

    Love, love, LOVE classical music but don’t get the exposure here in the (somewhat rural) midwest I don’t get to hear about newer artists as much as I’d like. I will definitely look up Lang Lang’s work.
    Now does anyone hear anything about the Chiara String Quartet?

  • Hamburger Royal

    I’m so glad to see a popWatch entry on classical music, and especially centered on Lang Lang, one of my favorite solo artists. I was vey happy to have seen him in Germany a few years ago right around the time of his break through. He’s definitely worth any admissions. be sure to check out his Chinese work, too as it brings a new and unusual flavor to classical music.
    To the anonymous poster who was wondering about good musicians and pieces: Check out Hilary Hahn, especially her rendition of Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending. I was lucky enough to hear her interpretation live and it was a life-defining experience.

  • jc

    I saw the Friday Lang Lang concert. I didn’t love the concerto portion–not Lang Lang himself, just thought the tempos chosen were a little draggy. BUT I was blown away by his encore…just unbelievable!
    That being said, I also think you should make an effort go to hear Yundi Li the next time he is at Carnegie Hall. I heard him in recital at Alice Tully Hall a few years ago. Fantastic. Not the bombast of Lang Lang…but equally (if not more) impressive.

  • yuna

    my classical education consisted mainly of purists who worshipped the ground that horowitz walked on – and i remember being awed, but felt no personal connection to their style of play. while lang lang is a bit flashier than i prefer, i love that i can relate to his youthful interpretations… and seriously wish i had chosen juilliard instead of my liberal arts education.

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