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Lang Lang to launch centennial of 'most supportive' BSO

Pianist Lang Lang returns to the BSO on Sept. 12.
Pianist Lang Lang returns to the BSO on Sept. 12.(Harald Hoffman/Sony Classical)

To help celebrate its centennial season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is welcoming back several notable soloists and conductors who have made music with the ensemble over the years. Next week sees the return of two longtime favorites, megastar pianist Lang Lang and former conductor-in-residence Christopher Seaman, for Saturday's gala concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The Chinese-born Lang Lang perked up ears when, as a 16-year-old student from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, he made his BSO debut in 1998 with another blossoming talent on the podium, Alan Gilbert, current music director of the New York Philharmonic.

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"Oh my God, I am so excited to be coming back to Baltimore," Lang Lang says by phone from Beijing. "I always talk about Baltimore. The Baltimore Symphony was the most supportive American orchestra for me before any other major orchestra in America. At the time, nobody really knew who I was. Gary Graffman, my teacher, spoke to [BSO artistic administrator] Miryam Yardumian, and she said, 'OK, we'll give him a chance.'"

That chance led to several others with the BSO. His technical elan, unabashedly expressive phrasing and exuberant stage presence quickly made him a favorite of local audiences.

Yuri Temirkanov, BSO music director from 1999 to 2006, became an admirer as well.

"He's a phenomenon," the Russian conductor told The Baltimore Sun in April 2001, a week before Lang Lang made his sensational Carnegie Hall debut playing the Grieg concerto with Temirkanov and the BSO. That event, greeted with a rafter-shaking ovation, sealed the young man's route to fame.

"I have really enjoyed all my concerts with Temirkanov," Lang Lang says. "He really is a warm and passionate person. He helped me tremendously."

The pianist has also worked several times with Temirkanov's successor at the BSO, Marin Alsop, including for the 2009 season-opening gala. (Alsop is in London next week, where she will conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Last Night of the Proms at Royal Albert Hall.)

Alsop and Lang Lang will be reunited next month for a concert with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in Havana, marking the 500th anniversary of that city's founding.

"I have not been there before," Lang Lang says. "I just never had the chance. It will be great to work with Marin again. And I'll be playing with [Afro-Cuban jazz pianist] Chucho Valdes, a little bit like what I did with Herbie Hancock."

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Collaborative ventures outside the classical realm are part of Lang Lang's appeal. He doesn't recognize musical boundaries. In addition to jazz forays, he has performed with Metallica and Pharrell Williams at Grammy Awards shows.

The pianist has also enjoyed exposure at such mass-appeal events as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He has played for presidents and members of royalty.

Although critics have differed in evaluations of the pianist, he continues to flourish and develop musically, living up to the summation his teacher, Graffman, offered in an interview with The Sun in 2001: "He seems to have everything."

"I still work with him," Lang Lang says of Graffman. "We got even closer now. I can communicate more, now that I am getting older. We can have a regular conversation, not just student-teacher."

The pianist continues to add to his repertoire— "I am focusing on Spanish and French music, and a little bit of Latino stuff," he says — and to take a new look at works from his earlier days.

"I am trying to memorize pieces I did many years ago," Lang Lang says. "After an absence of 10 years, it takes a lot of time to pick them back up and relearn them, but it's really a lot of fun. I like to refresh and relearn. There are a lot of concertos I learned, but didn't have a lot of chance to perform."

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Those include the one by Grieg that he made such a splash with 14 years ago with the BSO.

"I didn't play it for a long time, and when I picked it up again, I thought, 'Wow, this is beautiful,'" Lang Lang says. "And I'm going back to Brahms' [Piano Concerto] No. 1. I think there are still places for me to improve upon."

The pianist also focuses his energies on the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, founded in 2008. One of the organization's projects, Keys of Inspiration, involves partnerships with urban schools.

"My foundation is helping the next generation to study music," Lang Lang says. "We are developing new method books and trying them out at public schools in Harlem and Boston. It's just the beginning, but we already have a lot of students. I feel optimistic about the future of music. I'm confident about the next generation."

Lang Lang sounds confident in himself, too.

"I'm still very excited about playing concerts and doing projects, and I feel quite refreshed, which I think is a good sign," he says. "Once you're touring a lot, you can get bored and become not as interested as you were. I feel more interested than ever before."

The next couple of months will find the pianist playing concerts all over North America and Europe. His first engagement of the new season is the BSO gala, where he'll see some familiar faces in the orchestra and on the podium.

"Lang Lang is an old friend," Seaman, the returning conductor-in-residence, says from Australia. "We've worked together before, most recently at the Sydney Opera House. I like him a great deal. He's got enormous talent, and that's what I care about."

The British-born Seaman, author of the recently published "Inside Conducting," has the same opinion of the BSO.

Popular with players and audiences alike, Seaman was hired by then-music director of the BSO, David Zinman, for the newly created post of conductor-in-residence. Seaman stepped down in 1998 after 11 years to become music director of the Rochester Philharmonic (he's conductor laureate there now).

"David wanted an experienced conductor to work regularly with the orchestra right across the spectrum [of repertoire], and that's what I did," says Seaman, 73. "They played heart first, which was wonderful in the big romantic tunes. I'll always remember that. I am just delighted to be reunited with the orchestra."

That reunion will start with a season preview concert, when Seaman will conduct some of the works that will feature in the months ahead.

"The program includes Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' with [concertmaster] Jonathan [Carney], and me at the harpsichord, which is how I do it, and how I did it when I was in Baltimore," he says. "And, somehow, they are allowing me to do the complete 'Enigma Variations' [by Elgar] on the concert, rather than just some chunks. It's the whole schmear — that's a word I learned in America."

The gala concert will showcase Lang Lang in Rachmaninoff's soaring Piano Concerto No. 2. Orchestral works on the program include Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 4 and Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

Conductor and pianist sound decidedly upbeat about heading to Maryland this week.

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Lang Lang could be speaking for both when he says: "Baltimore is such a unique city in my career and always will be."

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