Pianist Lang Lang has turned 30 and now he’s dressing like a grown-up. And that’s too bad. Much of the thrill of a Lang Lang concert is the anticipation of what shiny new affront to good taste he’s added to his wardrobe. Flair is what the boy wonder brings to a field crowded with several other very good—-but let’s face it, not as fun—-pianists. You want technical prowess? There’s Maurizio Pollini. You want subtlety? There’s András Schiff. You want someone who can play Rachmaninoff in a turquoise sharkskin suit while suspended from the ceiling? There are only so many people you can call.
So it was a bit of a letdown to see Lang Lang walk—-not strut—-onto the Kennedy Center stage Thursday in a normal dark suit and with his hair more or less combed, not spiked. Maybe his old mentor, Christoph Eschenbach, wore off on him. I didn’t see the other performances in his ongoing week-long residency with the National Symphony Orchestra, so I like to imagine Lang Lang showed up as his usual, bedazzled self on Sunday, and by Thursday, the maestro’s Darth Nehru uniform had drained all the color out of him.
They’re an odd couple indeed, Lang Lang and Eschenbach. They go back over a decade, when Eschenbach heard the then-unknown 17-year-old from China audition for his Ravinia Festival in 1999, then took him under his wing and prepped him to go pro. “He’s the most influential musical figure in my career,” Lang Lang said in a feel-good post-concert discussion with Eschenbach that drew a mix of questions ranging from cute (11-year-old girl: “What age did you start to enjoy practicing?”) to creepy (weird stalker lady: “I’m the person who bothers you a lot on Facebook, I don’t know if you remember me?”).
But it took a while before Lang Lang’s fans, including both regular and (in)famous Washingtonians—-Paul Wolfowitz was there—-got to see him. The star was delayed, we were told due to a traffic tie-up outside his hotel. So the program got juggled. This weekend’s three performances feature two set pieces, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and Dvořák’sSymphony No. 7, which bookend a different Beethoven piano concerto each night. On Thursday, the Strauss and Dvořák went first. They are two very different pieces from the late 19th century: If they were film scores, Dvořák’s would be the new Bond flick; Strauss’ would be Kung Fu Panda 3.
It was the sillier of the two, Eulenspiegel, that left the weightier impression. The tone poem, based on a German folk tale, was supposedly a big middle finger to Strauss’ haters. But it’s more goofy than defiant, with French horn and bassoon lines providing the physical humor. It’s also a rare NSO program led by the woodwinds and brass, with the strings playing a supporting role. The orchestra noticeably had fun with it; several smiles were visible throughout. Dvořák’s symphony, on the other hand, felt less well rehearsed and less impassioned than it might have been. Eschenbach appeared to be pulling for more dynamics contrasts and swells in the first and third movements, which the strings didn’t really deliver.
But the house wasn’t packed for Bavarian fairy tales. After intermission, a tardy and demure Lang Lang showed up to give the first of his trio of piano concertos. Thursday’s, the second, isn’t quite the most audacious of Beethoven’s concertos, so it took some effort on Lang Lang’s part to sex it up. He mostly did this with gratuitous hand gestures: mock conducting, making points of order. My favorite was The Thinker, in which he perched his chin on his left fist while attacking a cadenza with his right. It’s hard to say how much of Lang Lang’s signature style rests on the visual flair, as his critics charge; close your eyes and you might even imagine you’re hearing a normal person playing the piano. But there are enough moments that remind you of his personal verve, from that dramatic cadenza and exaggerated lingers to full on Jerry Lee Lewis keyboard slamming.
Lang Lang continues Friday with Beethoven’s third piano concerto, and Saturday with his fifth, the “Emperor.” The daily variety of programming throughout the week, which has included both solo and paired (with Eschenbach) piano recitals and a kids’ concert Saturday, is a sure money-maker for the NSO. By squeezing in six different performances from Lang Lang, they have given superfans an excuse to buy multiple tickets. Fortunately, neither party seems to mind.
Lang Lang performs with the NSO again Friday, Nov. 9 and Saturday, Nov. 10, both at 8 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. All performances are sold out.