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Why do audiences love - and critics hate - Lang Lang?
Why do audiences love - and critics hate - Lang Lang?
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Pianist Lang Lang
with the Seattle Symphony
October 14
Benaroya Hall


Why is Lang Lang so controversial? Many critics really dislike his playing, yet audiences, like Seattle's, almost invariably love him. What I'm going to suggest might just be as controversial as Lang Lang himself.

The simple explanation (NOT the one I'm suggesting) would be that Lang Lang's manner, his sometimes flamboyant gestures, etc., reminds us of Liberace. This line of reasoning goes on to claim for Lang Lang the same reason for fame as for Liberace, namely his showmanship, NOT his musicianship. It would limit Lang Lang's gifts to the level of Liberace's. Thus, one could write him off as superficial and little more than a showman who sells himself to the common audience but doesn't fool the critics.

But I'm old enough to remember Liberace well. I enjoyed his showmanship but never ascribed any great artistry to the man other than the artistry of camp, at which he truly excelled. Lang Lang, on the other hand, wows me on every level. His musicianship, while sometimes not like any other pianist, strikes me as profoundly communicative, sincere, and extraordinarily poetic. He makes me experience ecstasy, tears of joy, and awe. The message is as far from camp as you can get! And no one questions his amazing technical skill.

To me, Lang Lang embodies the rare, altogether exciting combination of talent, inspiration, and charisma that comes along very seldom indeed.

So, what's the problem? As I try to suggest an answer, let me underscore that I do not know anything about Lang Lang's personal life, and I am not saying that he is Gay. What I am saying is that his manner, dress, and visible emotions might make some people uncomfortable because they SEEM Gay.

Let's get specific. In this concert with the SSO, he wore all black. But on his lapel was a very large, very sparkly broche in the shape of large wings. People in the last row couldn't miss it. His shoes were shiny black crocodile skin (or semblance thereof). So far, so good. A little unusual, but not off-putting to most people.

But then you come to his manner. He did sometimes throw his arms in the air at the end of a phrase. He did often look as though he was in an ecstasy, in a sublime state of inspiration that could look phony unless you believe he's sincere and is only showing us some of what's going on inside. He did indulge in motions that had little to do with pulling great sounds out of the piano, often swaying to the music or "conducting" it with his left hand. His whole body was very animated, sometimes making one wonder how his fingers could still find the right keys, what with all the bouncing around, head-bobbing, and swooning. (Leonard Bernstein was also criticized for "dancing" too much on the podium.) He appeared, like the great mezzo-soprano Cecelia Bartoli, to be on speed.

But I buy it. I feel it's his own way of staying in the zone & of helping his concentration stay inside the music.

Many people, however, can be more than a little annoyed by what they see as a distraction. They might also be made uncomfortable at witnessing strong, sometimes downright feminine emotions in a man. Put this reaction together with an ornamental broche that most American men would not wear unless they were Gay and very "out," and you might just get unconscious homophobia disguised as music criticism.

Those who are not put off buy up all the tickets, fill the house, and erupt in wild standing ovations at the end of all his concerts. The critics, who have to come whether they like him or not, are left to explain away an incredible talent.

Tackling this subject has left me little space for the music we heard. Before Lang Lang took over, Schwarz led the SSO in two 20th-century Polish works. Andrzej Panufnick's 'Hommage à Chopin,' (1949), in five very short movements, was pretty boring except for the beautiful playing of soloist and Principal Flute, Scott Goff. Four of the five movements were slow and repetitive, almost as if a prelude to the minimalist music that was to close the century. Written for strings and flute, it made one miss the other orchestral choirs.

Such was not the case in another work for strings, Grazyna Bacewicz' 'Concerto for String Orchestra,' (1948). What a great work! Totally fascinating from beginning to end, full of terrific ideas that were orchestrated with astounding imagination and skill. Basically tonal with some "modern" harmonies tossed in, it made me want to explore more of this woman's work.

Lang Lang and the SSO closed the first half with Chopin's 'Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22.' It was the perfect "appetizer" for the composer's 'Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 21' that followed intermission. No time here to go into detail except to say that one couldn't have asked for a more exciting, poetic, and satisfying performance. The pianist responded to the wild ovations with one encore: Chopin's "√Čtude Op.10 No.3 in E major." It was so lovely that tears washed my face.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu

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