The San Francisco Symphony
Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, November 2, 2012
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Lang Lang, piano
Cowell – Music 1957 (1957)
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Opus 26 (1921)
Rachmaninoff—Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27 (1907)
Long live the spirit of Victor Borge!
“What?” you say.
This odd notion popped into my head recently, as I witnessed for the first time pianist Lang Lang perform live. In town at the beginning of November to play the Prokofiev Third Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, he was such a stunning and (to me) unexpectedly enjoyable success, that I found myself pondering the very nature of musical stardom, almost as much as the music itself…
When the ubiquitous Chinese pianist first made a name for himself, a great splash erupted over his tendency to mug ecstatically with seemingly every note, stare goofily into the middle distance like a teenage heartthrob and fuss with his eyebrows. Vast audiences, responding ecstatically to Lang Lang, seemed to confirm with uncritical numbers that surely something shallow or at least unsophisticated was going on here. Gazillions of people swept away to the harmonies of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev—delivered by a pianist with a face more expressive than Mickey Rooney’s? Well, surely saccharine, obvious and naive elements had to creep into the music itself? And then…well…there is just this certain distrust of popularity, isn’t there?
But we should all stand corrected who thought this. I certainly do. Close your eyes, and Lang Lang’s pianism is insightful, electrifying and subtle. It is solidly grounded in good musical ideas. Open them, and it is twice as exciting. That’s where Victor Borge comes in. Lang Lang has mastered the art of bringing the audience into the performance and letting it not only experience the music, but how the performer feels about the TASK of performing it. But Victor Borge got there first. He made it personal. In performance, his drama always became the listener’s drama. Here’s how it worked.
We’ve all seen the old Danish Master play a long trill or set of repetitious chords leading to a cadence. As the passage gets lengthy, his face registers alarm: “Here I am making a fool of myself onstage performing this and it won’t end!”, he seems to say. And of course, in Borge’s world, the music does go on for ever or morph into something idiotic. It fails to end. He is horribly embarrassed and does all sorts of things to get out of the situation, usually without avail. As he telegraphs every hapless event with his body language and facial expressions, the audience finds itself in the pilot’s seat with him. That is very different from the behavior of a more typical pianist, who moves with the music and emphasizes it as it happens, with an arm movement or a dive of the head. Typical pianists don’t peer at the piano and say “Whew!” when they get things right (or seem to say it). Nor do they approach unusual chords and telegraph the audience a look saying, “Now watch, this one is REALLY cool!” But Borge did that.
And Lang Lang does it in spades. Like a ten-year-old with irrepressible enthusiasms, he gives the audience not only their music, but his amazed reaction to performing it. It is the personal and creative nature of this, I think, which makes the combination so winning. There is no more popular pianist on the face of the earth—deservedly so, I now believe. He retracts his fingers like a snake’s tongue and sneaks up on Prokofiev with them. He holds MTT at bay, shushing him sarcastically with his left hand, so he can listen to something. In slow passages, he holds his hands up to the light and checks for broken fingernails. As the Prokofiev concerto revs up to the lyrical development climax in the first movement, he approaches it like a child pushing a toy friction-truck up a hill: “Vroom!” As he accomplishes runs, he cleans up the work of one hand with brush and dustpan motions from the other. There is just no end to the archness!
All of this simply brings the house down. It even did so before the pianist played a note. Lang Lang was received onstage like the President of the United States. And Michael Tilson Thomas found himself being patted on the back like a guest at Lang Lang’s star showing. But such is the nature of the fact of Lang Lang’s fame, that all this took place in good humor. MTT, in his own natty way, dealt with all this just fine! Not to mention the performance itself, which was as good as I will ever hear. Lang Lang has an amazing ability to alternate penetrating finger assaults with kitten-soft use of the pedal. And he is laser accurate. The perfect recipe for Prokofiev. After the concerto, he gave us a waltz from Les Sylphides, done with bewildering speed and accuracy.
There was other music on the program, if you seriously want to know. The evening opened with Henry Cowell’s Music 1957, which is a classic bit of Americana, a set of rather simple variations that could have been written by Piston or Virgil Thomson. It was sonorous, but probably forgettable. Composers like Hanson and Cowell were starting to get uncomfortable-sounding in their own skins around 1960. You can predict the drill, in a way. First comes a lot of xylophone for a few years—that’s where we find the Cowell—then come the halting and failed attempts to sound like a lean version of yourself using tone rows. Defense mechanisms of tonal composers—and unfortunately not very effective ones.
Uncontroversially, the evening came to a close with a fine red-blooded performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. I am always struck with the thought that the piece is a bit over-written, but that may just be my gripe. I tend to think all composers should cut something on general principle, like a woman removing one bracelet before heading out to a party. In any case, my wandering thoughts eventually landed on the notion of Lang Lang conducting the symphony, instead of Tilson Thomas.
It could happen some year….And boy would that be the day!