Saturday, November 14, 2009

NSO - Glinka, Beethoven, Weber and Prokofiev - 11/13/09

Conductor: Andrew Litton
Glinka: Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 1 in C Major, Op. 15 - Lang Lang
Weber: Overture to Euryanthe, Op. 81
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3 in C Major, Op. 26 - Lang Lang

Friday the 13th is supposed to be, for better or worse, a special day, and we definitely got a mixed bag of luck yesterday with a rain that kept on obstinately falling for the third day in a row, but also "An Evening with Lang Lang" programmed by the National Symphony Orchestra and featuring the young piano virtuoso whose claims to world-wide fame include amazing technical skills, an incredible personal story and brazen, crowd-pleasing performances. Yesterday, he was in town for not just one but two very different concertos, respectively composed by a young Beethoven and a mature Prokofiev. Not surprisingly the sold-out audience definitely looked more eclectic than usual and was apparently as eager to have a look at the still hot musical phenomenon as to actually listen to whatever music he was going to play. But a full auditorium is always a welcome sight, regardless of the motivation, and then it is on with the show.

The overture to Russla and Ludmilla opened the festivities with full-blown exuberance, totally in tune with the fairy tale that inspired Glinka's popular opera.
The general mood remained lifted but toned down with Beethoven's first published piano concerto (although not the first he ever wrote), which Lang Lang played with an enchanting grace that I frankly did not expect from him. The composer and pianist not being exactly known for their, ahem, light touch, it was a wonderful surprise to hear the elegant intricacies of the first movement, the shimmering delicacy of the second one, and the enthusiastic brio of the rondo-finale, all gently emphasized by a mostly tasteful, if sporadically borderline nonchalant, treatment. Andrew Litton was holding back the orchestra just enough to let the piano daintily express itself and acquaint us with a brand new concept: Lang Lang the sensitive artist. Misplaced clapping from an obviously uncertain but deeply appreciative audience added a dash of endearing spontaneity to the proceedings, at least once you got past the instinctive annoyed feelings.
Weber's overture to Euryanthe opened the second half with a lot of lyricism from a lot of violins for an unabashedly melodic prologue. Not very subtle, but it sure got our blood pumping.
Prokofiev's relentlessly tricky third piano concerto was the perfect opportunity to reconnect with an altogether familiar image: Lang Lang the technical wizard. His fingers flying all over the keyboard with mercurial precision, he expertly negotiated the thankless minefield without losing his newly-found lightness. The score was unusual, yet well-balanced: even if moments of conventional lyricism showed a more content side of the composer, his enfant terrible persona was never far off and frequently resurfaced with exacting challenges of speed and dexterity for the pianist. The last movement was in fact so bursting with virtuosic sparks that I can't even remember getting up to join the fast-rising, unanimous and long-lasting standing ovation that more than made up for the earlier, unexpectedly aborted one.
Even better, it earned us a lovely encore, which sent us fully elated into another dark and wet night.

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