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The Return of Lang Lang

The Return of Lang Lang
The BPO opens its season with a superstar

It seems that the term superstar is tossed around ever more freely nowadays and nowhere more so than in the world of music. While the rampant overuse of the term is far more prevalent in popular music genres, the classical musical world has not itself been immune from this phenomenon. That being noted, it is a very safe bet that almost everyone would agree that the Chinese pianist Lang Lang is currently the one undisputed superstar in the classical musical firmament.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will open its new season in Kleinhans Music Hall, which, by the way has been extensively refurbished this summer with fewer, but much more comfortable new seats, on Wednesday September 16 at 8pm in a gala performance under the baton of BPO music director JoAnn Falletta featuring Lang Lang as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. The program also includes Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla and the Suite from Swan Lake, a perennial favorite by Tchaikovsky.

A brief reminder of Lang Lang’s history with the BPO might prove interesting to many local musical lovers. The most heavily promoted, and anticipated concert of the BPO’s 2010-2011 M&T Classics Series was the BPO debut of Lang Lang at a single concert event in January 2011 as soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. Unfortunately, Lang Lang had to cancel his appearance the day before the event. The BPO management team did a remarkable job of coming up with a more than suitable replacement soloist at the very shortest of notice. Joyce Yang, the young, rising pianist New York City based pianist was contacted, and after an extended late night practice session she took a jet to Buffalo the following morning. The resulting concert has moved into the annuals of Buffalo classical music history. The members of the sold out, Kleinhans Music Hall audience, did not exhibit the slightest sign of disappointment that Lang Lang had been replaced, but rather welcomed the very gracious and genial Joyce Yang with the kind of total and immediate acceptance that may well have been instrumental in her fiery, passionate performance that evoked a genuinely spontaneous standing ovation. Yes, it was just the kind of last minute debut that becomes the stuff of legend. Yang has been invited back to perform with the BPO, and not surprisingly, she did not disappoint her many local fans.

But, what about Lang Lang? Well, he came to town the next July, but performing a different work, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. There were more than a few individuals in that audience of long going BPO supporters who might just have been a tad disappointed that Lang Lang was performing one of the most overplayed works in the entire repertoire. Yet, in some way that is not at all easily understandable, Lang Lang performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto in a genuinely original fashion, opening it up in a way that made it seem like a new work. This writer must confess that he had a somewhat negative feeling about Lang Lang, based on an intense dislike of hyperbolic publicity. However, having heard him perform live only once, I highly recommend not missing this rare, second chance to hear Lang Lang in Buffalo, at the BPO gala next Wednesday.

Rachmaninoff has been quoted as saying that his Second Concerto is, “more uncomfortable” to play than his Third Concerto, but it’s safe to say that most concert pianists would agree that the Piano Concerto No.3 is a more challengingly difficult work to perform. The Third Concerto is the first work that Rachmaninoff was able to write after emerging from the deep depression that resulted from the disastrous, critically trounced premiere of his Symphony No.1, so it’s not clear, at least to this writer, if the composer was referring to either the physical or the emotional difficulties involved in performing the Second Concerto. When asked about this question via email, Lang Lang only replied: “All Rachmaninoff’s piano concerti are different from each other; variety is the beauty of Rachmaninoff. I focus on his piano concerto one and concerto two this season.”

When asked if he had ever commissioned new works from contemporary composers, Lang Lang replied “I have played the premiere of a few new works, but my focus is still on classical works now, and I do collaborations with musicians from different genres sometimes.”

In August, Lang Lang performed before 45,000 people in a stadium concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Singapore as an independent country. As a part of the celebration, he helped raise a huge amount of money so that fifty Steinway-designed Lang Lang baby grand pianos could be purchased for city schools. “The performance in Singapore this past August was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country of Singapore”, wrote Lang Lang, “and I was honored to be part of it and was happy to make the 50 pianos event happen. I established my foundation in 2008 as my second career (he personally donated five million dollars), to support public music education for children, and support talented musicians. I have received many supports when I was young, and to me, it is the time to give back to society. It is so important to keep music education in public schools; the young generation is the future of classical world”.

My final question was about Lang Lang’s upcoming performance in Havana this October, where he will be performing an outdoor concert in the Plaza de la Catedral in Havana, along with the great Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, under the baton of the American conductor Marin Alsop, who will be leading the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in a concert celebrating the 500th anniversary of the City of Havana. What are his thoughts on this historical event? “This is absolutely a historical moment when America and Cuba both open doors, and it will lead to more cultural cross-pollination. I’m honored to be part of this special project.”

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