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Lang Lang returns to Baltimore, still dividing opinions

In today's paper, I have an interview with the ever-controversial Lang Lang, who returns to the area for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-opening gala on Saturday. I mentioned the pianist's style divides listeners into love-him and hate-him camps, and, coincidentally, the hate-him side reared up right on cue in Thursday's New York Times.

Michael Kimmelman, in a report from the Lucerne festival in Switzerland, doesn't mince words about Lang Lang's account of Chopin's F minor Concerto: "I can't recall a more galling soloist," he writes. Kimmelman, who is hardly alone in his judgment, castigates the pianist for swooning and swaying, and for turning the performance into "a jumble of hyped-up anecdotes" and "flashy passages strung together."

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Now I really can't wait to hear Lang Lang play on Saturday. (He'll tackle Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 with the BSO. A far cry from Chopin, to be sure, but a work that will certainly give the pianist plenty of opportunity to "gall" -- or impress.)

I remember well first hearing this guy back at the start of his meteoric rise, which happened to involve the BSO -- the first American orchestra he performed with, and the orchestra he teamed up with for his Carnegie Hall debut. I remember the excitement of those early performances, the spontaneity and individuality of the playing. I thought the kid had something. He could be reckless or careless, but

hardly boring.

I noticed that some critics, who would lament one day about all the faceless, ordinary soloists out there, would then tear into Lang Lang the next day for being so outside-the-mold. I also thought it odd how some folks would complain about Lang Lang's animated facial expressions and tendency to move all over the place, but not mention similar emotive physicality in, say, Yo-Yo Ma.

That said, I came to have my own reservations about some Lang Lang performances, those where I felt his interest in rushing or slowing a tempo, his way of alternating between heavy pounding and drawing back to mere wisps of sound, ended up putting more attention on him than on the music.

Over the years, though, Lang Lang has also expanded his repertoire and has turned in some fine music-making. Only 27, he's got plenty of time to grow, to deepen, to surprise. In time, he might even sway his most virulent detractors.

Here's a clip of Lang Lang playing Chopin, a performance guaranteed to divide opinions. Feel free to express yours.

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