If the worlds of classical music and sports stardom were to collide, one can say that Lang Lang is the pianist version of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer. Renowned for imbuing classical piano with gymnastic dynamism, Lang Lang’s dazzling virtuosity has earned him the spotlight (including The TIME 100 Most Influential and “People”’s Sexiest Men Alive) and flashy sponsorships. The man even has his own theme of Adidas shoes.
Yet in a sold-out Zellerbach Hall last Wednesday, Lang’s signature energetic style was surprisingly subdued as he began with a thoughtfully polished, crystal-clear interpretation of Bach’s Partita no. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825. A delicate touch informed Lang’s keen sense of the pieces’ stately, highly structured intricacies. With steady ease, Lang’s hands danced through the middle sections’ complex technical arrangements, but also deftly transitioned into a slower, introspective mood, shading varied resonances with well-placed weight and feeling.
Lang Lang is known for unexpected approaches, but the night was also indicative of his intent to showcase artistic maturity. More than six years have past since Lang’s last appearance at Zellerbach Hall. Then, in his sprightly youth, the Chinese-born Lang had just shed his prodigy pianist title, but already generated a fury of global buzz.
Like all of those with rockstar personas, Lang constantly attracts polarizing critical reception. While Lang Lang is a household name in many East Asian countries, and a central cultural figure for a government eager to rally national pride (he played at the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony in Beijing), he has been under fire for campy showmanship. Characterized by dramatic swaying and facial contortions, Lang Lang is frequently considered by critics to be overwrought, squeezing emotions out of music in vulgar ways.
In response, the chosen programming at Zellerbach seemed too careful, aimed to quell complaints by presenting Lang as a fully-fledged virtuoso without losing too much flair. The result, while successful for the most part, sometimes bogged down the performance. Forced seriousness was most telling during Lang’s rendition of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. As Schubert’s last piece, written when the composer was deathly ill, the sonata contains meditative mood changes that should allow for subtle dispositions. In a promising opening, Lang delved into warm, sonorous melodies, later closing in sunny cadences with trademark alacrity. However, while Lang’s technique was impeccable, the middle Andante dragged, muddled by drawn-out, repetitive interpretation.
In the end, Mr. Lang is best when he sticks to his old guns. The rest of the night was a sure-fire showstopper: Chopin’s Twelve Etudes, Op. 25, which Lang played in concert halls since age 13. Like short poems, each with a unique temperament, the Etudes are a perfect vehicle for Lang to showcase his dexterous brilliance and precision. Beginning with Étude No. 1, or the “Aeolian Harp,” Lang brought cascades of notes into sublimely smooth, dreamy flow. By contrast, Lang was unbarred in Etude No. 11 “The Winter Wind,” his hands sweeping across the keyboard at dizzying speed to work up huge crescendos like the relentless onslaught of a storm. Lang Lang the showman was very much present, swerving his entire arms into the air after high notes with flourish.
The dramatic display was not unwarranted: Lang kept the audience breathless, at the edge of their seats. As he finished strong in Etude No. 12, unloading an arsenal of arpeggios with fervor, the crowd issued a nearly audible collective gasp. When Lang blazes though pieces, sparks fly. Call it flamboyant or distracting, but the electric crackle of excitement Lang Lang generates is real.