Gustavo Dudamel is considered the hottest young conductor in classical music. Lang Lang is considered the hottest young pianist in classical music. So when the two of them happen to collide on the same stage, as they did at Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night, one would expect some kind of well-attended musical explosion. What we got was a solid, engaging, at times exciting collaboration in the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, though not something that topped the Richter scale. And the attendance figure for the night was only 9,513, a little over half-full. That’s a lot of people for a classical music concert, but considering that Placido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma sold out the place in 2009, it’s not that much for a Bowl meeting between two reputed superstars (granted, there is a repeat performance today).
The merchandising of Lang Lang was in high gear Tuesday night, with T-shirts, buttons and such on sale — many bearing the unsubtle logo of the Chinese pianist’s name and face encased in a star. Also driving expectations was a hilarious video of Lang Lang inserting a martial-arts display in between bouts with the Prokofiev on the piano (entitled “Lang Lang Gone Mad,” it has drawn close to 1.5 million hits on YouTube).
But that was posted five years ago, and since then, Lang Lang seems to have been acquiring the first layers of maturity (his latest album, “Live in Vienna” on Sony, is his most satisfying to date). His virtuoso displays in the Prokofiev Third are not as muscular and lockstep in rhythm as they once were — one can’t quite imagine shadow boxing or kung fu now. Though the variations in the wonderful second movement lacked overall unity — episodes in search of a whole — Lang Lang’s rhapsodic playing is more controlled, less indulgent. Dudamel tried to act as the sparkplug, flicking sharp accents at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and his pianist, but Lang Lang could contain his extreme impulses and channel them toward musical ends. He added a solo encore, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, rendered meltingly.
At the top of an all-Russian orchestral night, Dudamel pulled off an extroverted set of Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” — minus the first dance — with lots of detail revealed underneath the big tunes and a rather hot level of amplification (Dudamel seems to like it that way at the Bowl). Although Dudamel didn’t take any extraordinary chances with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” — in the usual Ravel orchestration — neither did he take it for granted, making each section sound fresh and engaged at conventional tempos, even striking real pangs of fear in “Catacombs.”
The video cameras weren’t quite as focused upon Dudamel as they have been at past Bowl appearances, so while members of the Philharmonic were gratefully spotlit, we didn’t get to see enough of how well the charismatic conductor communicates with them. Maybe tasteful split-screen images are a solution.