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September 10, 2009

Lang Lang returns to Baltimore, still dividing opinions

In today's paper, I have an interview with the ever-controversial Lang Lang, who returns to the area for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season-opening gala on Saturday. I mentioned the pianist's style divides listeners into love-him and hate-him camps, and, coincidentally, the hate-him side reared up right on cue in Thursday's New York Times.

Michael Kimmelman, in a report from the Lucerne festival in Switzerland, doesn't mince words about Lang Lang's account of Chopin's F minor Concerto: "I can't recall a more galling soloist," he writes. Kimmelman, who is hardly alone in his judgment, castigates the pianist for swooning and swaying, and for turning the performance into "a jumble of hyped-up anecdotes" and "flashy passages strung together."

Now I really can't wait to hear Lang Lang play on Saturday. (He'll tackle Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 with the BSO. A far cry from Chopin, to be sure, but a work that will certainly give the pianist plenty of opportunity to "gall" -- or impress.)  

I remember well first hearing this guy back at the start of his meteoric rise, which happened to involve the BSO -- the first American orchestra he performed with, and the orchestra he teamed up with for his Carnegie Hall debut. I remember the excitement of those early performances, the spontaneity and individuality of the playing. I thought the kid had something. He could be reckless or careless, but

hardly boring.

I noticed that some critics, who would lament one day about all the faceless, ordinary soloists out there, would then tear into Lang Lang the next day for being so outside-the-mold. I also thought it odd how some folks would complain about Lang Lang's animated facial expressions and tendency to move all over the place, but not mention similar emotive physicality in, say, Yo-Yo Ma.

That said, I came to have my own reservations about some Lang Lang performances, those where I felt his interest in rushing or slowing a tempo, his way of alternating between heavy pounding and drawing back to mere wisps of sound, ended up putting more attention on him than on the music. 

Over the years, though, Lang Lang has also expanded his repertoire and has turned in some fine music-making. Only 27, he's got plenty of time to grow, to deepen, to surprise. In time, he might even sway his most virulent detractors. 

Here's a clip of Lang Lang playing Chopin, a performance guaranteed to divide opinions. Feel free to express yours. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:04 AM | | Comments (7)


I've not seen Lang Lang in recital, but twice in concerto appearances. The first was definitely better, or at least he was more in control. Part of the reason may have been the conductor on that occasion, who was one whom many on this blog love to bash (and I don't count myself a particular fan of this conductor), namely Franz Welser-Most. FWM did a very good job of keeping LL under control, I thought.

As much as Mr. Kimmelmann's article is a screed against Lang Lang, the money quote is his closer, to me:

"Whatever else he may be, Mr. Lang is sincere. He has peddled his sincerity all the way to the bank.

That and his virtuosity, so his fans say, have made him classical music's latest matinee idol.

The question is what does his playing say about us."

Years ago Lang Lang played the Beethoven Choral Fantasy with the BSO and the now defunct Baltimore Symphony Chorus (the 2nd greatest musical loss to this city after the loss of the Baltimore Opera Company). I think he was 14 or 15 at the time and like all trained circus monkey children he was impressive to see. As he gets older frankly he becomes more of a dancer / performance artist on the piano then a good or even great pianist. There are Pianists who live in the Baltimore metro area that are far more talented however they weren't 14 and living in a repressive communist country and then thrust on tour. For the record I am not a pianist but I am an Opera singer, and I can only hope the demand for locally grown produce in the food stores fuels the demand for locally grown artists instead of over payed hacks from afar. to quote Dennis Miller "that's just my opinion, I could be wrong". Peace

i was only able to get to the 1:40 mark of this dumbed down tasteless performance of chopin. no wonder the poor musicians of the BPO are having trouble hiding their feelings of disgust. that kind of chopin playing isn't fit to be played in an elevator.

Lang Lang bangs the piano... a lot of folk find that exciting, I prefer interpretation and subtlety. A lot of more interesting pianist out there, I for one will miss the opening of the BSO because of the soloist.

I like the guy -- he's a bit like Brett Favre, the NFL quarterback: a bit of a mess, definitely not always as thoughtful as he should (or could) be, but _supremely_ entertaining to watch, and he will usually "score a lot of points" with repertoire that works for him. He is, of course, over-hyped, but that's the fault of the great marketing machine swirling about him. (The same is true of Favre.)

I've seen him perform both of the Chopin concertos live, magnificently, and I've heard his recordings (which definitely lose the visual benefit of seeing his interaction with the piano), so while I wouldn't worship the guy, I wouldn't berate him, either, because he has talent to spare. (Perhaps too much emphasis on the talent at times?)

I first remember seeing him perform Chopin's 1st (er, 2nd ;^) piano concerto on TV (September, 2005, Live from Lincoln Center), and I thought he was positively brilliant at the time. The Tchaikovsky 1st should be perfect for him, too!

Although I don't think he will secure the same place in history, a lot of these comments and critiques are reminiscent of the conducting style of Bernstein. I for one always find it fun to hear an interesting interpretation of music, regardless if I like it or not. That in itself makes it worthwhile to me.

Your comparison is most apt. Thanks for writing. In talking to Marin Alsop about Lang Lang the other day, she also brought up Bernstein and the similarities to Lang Lang (that part didn't make it into my story, alas). Personally, I love hearing very different approaches to music, and I have often been thoroughly won over by this pianist's take on a score. I suspect I'll often be impressed in the future. But I also think it's possible to question the lack of restraint and, sometimes, lack of taste that he displays. At any rate, it sure will be interesting to hear what changes, if any, he makes to his style as his career continues. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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