There are two major species of concert pianists. One dresses in black and performs music by dead composers with German accents for audiences respectful, devoted and silent. Others usually dress more flamboyantly, favor a repertory full of show-off opportunities, do the talkshow circuit and draw huge, adoring crowds. As it happened, renowned representatives of both species played spectacularly well at Disney Hall within days of one another last week: Vienna-born Alfred Brendel, who played Mozart and Beethoven in white tie, and Shenyang-born Lang Lang, who played Rachmaninoff in a fine red shirt. Guess who drew the wildest ovation.
Now a tender 22, Lang Lang arrived via the traditional breakthrough, as a last-minute substitute (for the indisposed Andre Watts at a Chicago gig). Leaving no doubts from the start as to the amazement of his technical gifts, he has lately, however, been drawing knuckle-raps from critics for a tendency toward playing cute with audiences, mannerisms made easy by the outgoing nature of his chosen repertory: the in-your-face concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. At his Los Angeles engagement, however, he took a behavioral right turn — to the betterment of the music under his fabulous fingers and the overall image he projected from the Disney Hall stage.
With substantial support from the conductor, the Colorado Symphony’s Marin Alsop, in her first indoor appearance with the Philharmonic after several shots at the Hollywood Bowl, Lang Lang delivered a powerful version of Rachmaninoff’s Second (“Full Moon and Empty Arms”) Piano Concerto admirably free of crowd-wooing stage biz. It may, in fact, have been the first-ever performance of the work so brisk and tautly controlled as to forestall audience applause between movements.
Following the performance, in place of the usual trapeze act for an encore, the young pianist delivered a quiet, beautifully poetic traversal of Schumann’s “Traumerei.” There were cheers aplenty, of course, and it’s a safe bet that they were provoked as much by surprise as delight. This may very well have been the graduation ceremony for Lang Lang from piano whiz to musician.
Alsop’s program began with the thud and blunder of Tchaikovsky’s Inferno-inspired “Francesca da Rimini” and went on to a near-forgotten early American symphony, the first of Samuel Barber. Both works served the purpose of making Rachmaninoff’s flamboyant effort sound even better than it was.