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Review: Mehta, Lang Lang and Vienna Philharmonic at Disney

March 5, 2009 |  2:00 pm


No orchestra is without off nights, not even the Vienna Philharmonic.  That this peerless ensemble had not been at its best in its Walt Disney Concert Hall debut Tuesday night became clear during the second of its two programs under Zubin Mehta, on Wednesday.

Perhaps the players needed a day to settle into the hall, although they do travel annually to perform in Suntory, the Tokyo concert hall with acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota, who masterminded the Disney sound.  And that doesn't mean that Tuesday’s performance of the Bruckner Ninth was without considerable glory, despite a critical blown horn note or three, or that Wednesday was perfect.

But Wednesday's performance of the “Rienzi” Overture by Wagner was a thing of wonder.  Mehta micromanaged.  A horn or wind solo two seconds long could have a dozen dynamic gradations.  When the orchestra swelled, it seemed to control the breathing and heart rates of 2,200 listeners in the packed hall.

This is the earliest Wagner in the standard repertory.  The composer was not yet 30 when he wrote it, hungry with ambition, and only he, at that point, knew he would become Wagner.  Mehta’s performance came from the other end of history and mined the score for every glimpse of the revolutionary greatness to come.

Next up was Lang Lang as soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 –- and trouble. 

The Chinese phenomenon will be 27 in June.  He is one of the great talents of his generation.  But superstardom appears to have stunted his growth.  Adulated by fans (particularly young and female), he seems never to be able to get enough love.

Lang’s mannerisms at the keyboard are the not the basis of his immaturity.  Let him moon and moan and fall into the throes of ecstasy if that is what he feels.  In the booklet accompanying their new recording of Chopin’s two piano concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic, Mehta, who has long championed Lang, says that he has watched the pianist practice and that even when Lang thinks no one is looking, he plays the same. 

Wednesday, Lang slowed down and sped up recklessly.  His fingers danced and dallied.  He made love to the keyboard.  And yet the performance had little sense of spontaneity.

It did have poetry.  The slow movement solos were preposterously slow and sentimental, but it is hard to argue with a pianist who can defy gravity to the extent Lang can with his floated tones.  But once you know what Lang can do, you know what he will do.

Mehta can follow anyone (as those who witnessed him accompany Vladimir Horowitz in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion years ago surely will never forget).  He let Lang be "Lang Lang."  But in those rare moments when the pianist watched the conductor, Mehta also attempted to keep him from derailing the concerto entirely.

Lang is probably at a crossroads.  Greatness is within his reach.  First, though, he must slay the little Liberace devil on his shoulder who completely ran the show during his encore of Chopin’s Étude Opus 10, No. 3.

Chopin supplied no challenge for an orchestra of Vienna’s caliber, but in Schubert’s C-major Symphony after intermission, the Viennese were clearly in heaven.  Mehta kept things on the crisp and brisk side (with most repeats not taken). He led a straightforward performance whose emphases were subtle –- a hint of rubato in a swelling bass line of the trio section, say –- and effective. 

Schubert's melodies were left to their own lyrical devices.  Inner lines found their rightful place in the texture.  Dotted rhythms marched in convivial lock step.  The energy was just right.  The playing was exquisite.

The encores were two polkas: Joseph Hellmesberger’s “Leichtfüssig” (Light-footed) and Johann Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch.”  Mehta was playful, light-footed yet macho.  The Viennese can be touchy about their New Year’s Eve fare.  Wednesday, they ate out of Mehta’s hand.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Pianist Lang Lang with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday. Credit: Stefano Paltera /For The Times

Comments () | Archives (4)

Chopin's 1st mvt was better than I expected.

I was so looking forward to these two concerts and yet, I found the evening quite disappointing. The Chopin concerto was performed at a very fast tempo (particularly the 1st movement) sweeping aside its melodic romanticism; Lang Lang played brilliantly fast or hang the notes perhaps too long at times, but if he felt emotion, it did not transmit it to the public. As in the concert the previous evening, it seemed that Mehta worked against the ensemble's strengths. One could hear the beautiful andf amous sound of the orchestra in the two encores, but yet again, Mehta conducted them so furiously fast, that one worried they would trip , which they did not, but left us with a performance that falls short of memorable. I n the end I decided I did not need to buy any of Mehta's or Lang Lang's records or books on sale.

They showed us the face of God (Schubert), and then subjected us to Looney Tunes. How rude.

A dead fly can spoil the most exquisite lobster bisque. Regrettably, what rendered this promising evening unpalatable was neither Wagner’s juvenilia that opened it nor the concluding piece of Strauss’ ballroom trash. Much more difficult to swallow was the grimacing buffoon at the piano who merits a separate scatological metaphor for not only vandalizing Chopin, but also causing Mehta to nearly lose control over a venerable ensemble. If Swed’s overly charitable assessment is best explained by his obligatory professional tact, it is also worth explaining that tactfulness seldom mixes with hypocrisy, unless one is writing an infomercial.


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