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Music review: Lang Lang and friends

November 4, 2009 |  4:32 pm

Lang Lang isn’t really enough Langs for a pianist of so many aspects, for one who gathers extravagant accolades, attracts adoring fans in rock-star quantities and – when not inspiring downright critical disgust – generates considerable bewilderment from the keyboard establishment.

Langlanggallery Tuesday night in a program entitled “Lang Lang and Friends” at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa as the centerpiece of the Philharmonic Society’s ongoing celebration of Chinese culture, Lang was the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, the poetic, the prosaic, the imaginative, the banal, the tasteful, the tasteless, the exhilarating, the disturbing.

Dressed in a stylishly tailored tight, shiny suit, he was Liberace and Ed Sullivan, lounge lizard and rarefied chamber musician, eloquent preserver of traditional Chinese culture and international hustler (his official bio shamelessly hypes hotels he stays in) all rolled into one. He was everything people love and hate about him.

But at 27 and possibly the world’s most famous pianist, he is more a work-in-progress than ever, even if he is already thinking about his legacy. His “friends” Tuesday ranged in age from a Los Angeles prodigy, Ray Ushikubo, who turned 8 in July, to Guo Gan, a magnificent erhu player from northern China whose father taught the ancient two-string instrument to Lang’s father.

Much of the first half of this long concert was the showcase for one young pianist’s educational efforts toward even younger ones. Ushikubo played a Chopin waltz. Lang Lang joined a 9-year-old Pasadenan, Marc Yu, in Schubert’s sublime late Rondo for piano four-hands. Later, three slightly older but still pint-sized pianists, Derek Wang, Anna Larsen and Charlie Liu (Lang Lang International Music Foundation scholars), were led by their host in a rousing account of Mack Wilberg’s showy Fantasy on Themes From Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Such proficient talent moves everyone. But the exploitation of the cuteness factor requires delicacy lest childhood be stunted, something that Lang presumably knows quite a bit about. These kids have something special and now a taste of the stage (the concert was also given last week at Carnegie Hall in New York). But I hope not to see any one of them again in a professional setting for a decade.

Kslfbanc Two older friends were Guo and a tenor, GeQun Wang. Guo was a wonder, his erhu sweetly filling the air with an astonishing sweet and sumptuous sonic perfume, which Lang accompanied with exquisite sensitivity and a sense of fun. Wang sang two Chinese folk songs and “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” (recognizable from the Woody Allen film “Match Point,” Lang helpfully reminded us). Wang wasn’t particularly impressive, but Lang certainly was, as he strung out Donizetti’s melody in the piano introduction with a velvety smoothness that even Pavarotti might have envied. Is conducting next for Lang? I wouldn’t be surprised – or uninterested. 

After intermission, Lang, violinist Dan Zhu, a soloist from Beijing with a quickly rising reputation, and Hai-Ye Ni, the principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, performed Tchaikovsky’s epic, nearly 50-minute Piano Trio. Lang has just made a fabulous recording of the work with Russian violinist Vadim Repin and Latvian cellist Mischa Maisky, emotionally intense string players with large personalities. Lang rises to the occasion brilliantly, playing off his colleagues’ big personalities.

Tuesday’s performance, though, was disappointing. Zhu is a elegant player, but his tone is not large and was often overpowered. Ni’s tone was equally underpowered, and though she displayed a certain elegance, her nervously large vibrato allied to her slender sound proved a combination able to induce seasickness.

Lang dominated, often exaggerating. He was always compelling to hear, but this was a trio of players better suited for Haydn than an over-the-top score by a death-haunted Russian. Get the CD.

– Mark Swed

Photos: Top, Nine-year-old Marc Yu with Lang Lang at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Tuesday night; middle, erhu player Guo Gan with Lang Lang. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times