Lang Lang returns to Ravinia for a double shot of Beethoven and Prokofiev

July 28, 2013
By Michael Cameron

Lang Lang performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Saturday night with James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Patrick Gipson

The annual Ravinia Women’s Board Gala has a place in musical lore as the occasion in 1999 when a 17-year-old pianist debuted to clamorous popular and critical acclaim as a last minute sub for the ailing Andre Watts. His place set in the musical firmament, the Lang Lang, Inc. juggernaut was soon launched via lucrative endorsements and product lines from Sony, Adidas, Audi, Montblanc, and Steinway, and turbocharged through a host of film and video game soundtracks.

His reputation among critics and serious music lovers has been a much bumpier ride, and Lang Lang’s return Saturday night with James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony for this year’s benefit boasted a host of thrills and more than a few exasperations. His physical presence was a tad more restrained than in some years past—the hair was a bit less spikey, the Adidas have given way to Armani, and the distracting affectations were toned down, limited to the occasional conducting gesture by whichever hand was not occupied with the keys.

Soon after his career break-out, the pianist was quick to broaden the pigeonhole programing of crowd-pleasing Liszt and Tchaikovsky with a healthy dose of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. His Mozart has much to admire, but his Beethoven concertos have been a mixed bag.

Beethoven’s early Concerto No. 1 in C major is still clearly yoked to classical formal schematics, but the pianist was determined to tease out the latent lyrical potential of each phrase, even with gestures that seem to be conceived with some other raison d’etre.  In quiet contexts, phrases began and tapered at the very edge of audibility, an impractical strategy in an outdoor setting.

In the often ravishing Largo, one had the impression of a coquettish diva flirting with her suitors, phrase after silky phrase spun with meticulous control of volume and color. But Beethoven’s music needs more than lyrical manipulation if the big picture is to emerge.  In the first and third movements the ear longed for passages with extended backbone, plateaus in the landscape to converse with the contours.

For all the relentless melodic micromanagement, it’s something of a paradox to observe that the pianist is quite fastidious about tempo, rarely utilizing rubato to make his points. This helped create a notably tight synchrony with Conlon and company, certainly more so than the Ax/Dohnányi Beethoven collaboration on opening night.

After this exemplar of late classical style, the pianist took on the quasi-neoclassical C major concerto of Prokofiev, a work the composer himself premiered with the CSO and Frederick Stock 92 years ago.  His reading of the work four years ago at Ravinia was well-received, and, with notable caveats, on this occasion he proved himself a good match for the Russian master.

Some of the drama in this concerto is driven by the discomfort of the protagonist contending with its savage technical demands. It was almost unnerving to see Lang Lang tear through the thicket with nary a drop of sweat, figuratively and literally. His personality is well suited to the work’s occasional impishness, but the more sardonic elements lacked edge.

The pianist was on the front edge of the pulse in the opening of the third movement, a rare but welcome point of fissure in the otherwise tidy connection of soloist and orchestra. Save for an odd reticence in the soaring climax near the end, it was a bracing finale for the two-concerto marathon. His single encore, Michael Torke’s banal Tiger Fanfare, received a far better performance than it deserved.

Normally ushers don’t seat late-comers after tuning, but since there were dozens of well-heeled donors among the tardy, an exception was made, much to the chagrin of the visibly irked Conlon. A spirited account of the overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino was the first of three nods to this year’s big birthdays. The all too brief March from Britten’s Matinée musicales was a delight, and the brass was in spectacular form in a lusty performance of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre.

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