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On Thursday, as at any Lang Lang concert, there were quite a few small children being dragged to the Kennedy Center by their parents—most of them Asian—telling their kids: This is going to be you in 20 years. Piano lessons start Monday. I was once one of them—in a different era, with a different generation of Asian pianists, violinists, and cellists, taking over a field long dominated by Europeans and inspiring a whole new arena of tiger parenting.
This is the new, family-friendly Lang Lang. Not the one you remember from the Beijing Olympics, with the spiky hair, insane satin-and-sequin suits, and rock star persona who had inspired stodgy classical critics to walk out on him. Lang Lang has long been making a bid for classical-establishment respectability, and his appearances at the Kennedy Center reinforce the serious-musician persona a little bit more each time.
And there have been a bunch of them. Lang Lang and National Symphony Orchestra director Christoph Eschenbach have a long history together, going back to when the then 17-year-old pianist was a last minute substitute at Chicago’s Ravina Festival in 1999, which Eschenbach was directing. Lang Lang stole the show, and Eschenbach subsequently took him under his wing as a mentor. The Kennedy Center has benefitted from Eschenbach’s personal ties with high profile musicians since he arrived (soprano Renée Fleming is another), and now that he’s leaving in 2017, you can expect them to milk those friendships for all that they’re worth.
And that personal connection was palpable on Thursday, with intense, lingering eye contact between the two as Lang Lang played Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor and Eschenbach conducted the orchestra. It’s an old Romantic favorite, and there aren’t many surprises a pianist—even one as demonstrative as Lang Lang—can pull on an audience. And he mostly toned down the dramatics, with the exception of a few expressive yet unnecessary gestures at the beginning of the first movement: Shoulder rolls, hands flying off the end of the keyboard at the end of the flourish, head bobbing and weaving like Stevie Wonder (or Eddie Murphy’s old SNL impression of Stevie Wonder).
At times he pretended to conduct the orchestra himself from the piano. And in the cadenza, he took a lot of pauses for effect and exaggerated dynamic shifts. Still, this was a subdued Lang Lang, his hair mostly combed and in an un-bedazzled dark suit, and a first timer could easily be unaware of his reputation for excess. In particular, his delicate handling of the quiet ending of the adagio was terrific; you could hear the entire audience hold its breath, and collectively exhale at the end.
The two orchestra-only works on either end were serviceable, and rounded out a feel-good program. It opened with the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, another Romantic favorite with an immediately recognizable theme (“weturn my wuv,” as Elmer Fudd once sang to Bugs Bunny). Eschenbach conducted it exceedingly slow—meant, I suppose, to heighten the majesty as it builds to a big crescendo. But the pacing made it feel sluggish, as well as unbalanced between the strings (twittering) and the horns (blaring). If the Washington National Opera takes the same approach to Wagner for its upcoming Ring cycle, we’ll be in for some very long evenings.
Dvořák’s 8th Symphony was better—pretty and upbeat, and conducted with more vigor, though there were moments when the orchestra felt tired. As with the Grieg, the adagio movement was the highlight: languid, sweeping, with almost a calypso rhythm underlying the central melody.
But the packed house wasn’t there to hear Wagner or Dvořák, of course, but to hear Lang Lang. And lest you forget, underneath all the flair and hair is someone who is really good at his instrument: One with skill to match the panache, and versatility, as he demonstrated both with Grieg and his encore, a jazzy “Cuban Dance” by Ernesto Lecuona. Personally, I love the guy, perhaps more for what he represents than who he is. All those little Asian kids being dragged to the Kennedy Center will one day encounter the robot stereotype: that Asian musicians are all technique and no feeling, precision without soul. Hell, it’s a stereotype that pervades the Asian-American experience beyond music. One could blame a host of factors, from the Suzuki method to America’s fucked up racial history, but it’s also true that a previous generation of Asian soloists were a lot more boring than Lang Lang. Most of those kids won’t grow up to be professional musicians. But to have a role model who is unabashedly flamboyant, a bit cocky, and looks like he’s having fun is a healthy thing, regardless of what they grow up to do.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. $35 – $109.
Photo via the Kennedy Center