Four hours after the concert finished, 2:30am in the morning, and still I cannot go to bed. This night of 1 March 2013, I attended Lang Lang’s debut BSO concert at Symphony Hall in Boston, where he played Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18.
Lang Lang’s performance of this concerto was staggering, and quite literally, rendered me without words. Silly as it is, I spent over 15 minutes composing a caption to put under my Instagram photo–I wanted to say that Lang Lang transcended perfection, but then it was so much more than perfection–it is the absolute, and if there is a truth, it is the absolute truth. I suppose, in retrospect, this description seems like an exaggeration, but in the moment, and for the rest of my life, I know that Lang Lang is of divinity. One strives for completeness to fill the void in life and achieve purpose, but Lang Lang is so effortlessly complete that he seems like he cannot be reaching towards the same goals. He simply cannot be. Lang Lang exists. He is.
The Piano Concerto no. 2 and I have a long history together, and I collect recordings of it. Compared to my favorite recording, Leif Ove Andsnes with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Lang Lang used rubato much more freely, and he played at a moderate pace. Moreover, he emphasized the low bass notes, anchoring himself to the orchestra, and establishing very firmly the piano can also be percussive. The first movement was sweeping and expansive, the allargandi drew me in, and I waited, breathlessly, for the resolution and release. In the second iteration of the first movement’s main theme, Lang Lang chose to place emphasis on the transition octaves, which I found particularly novel and refreshing. Despite the notoriously hard rolling chords in the first movement, Lang Lang was nimble and precise, staying ridiculously clear with his rapid pedaling despite rolling out several bass notes in succession.
The second movement was incredibly moving. Inside my head, I am currently debating whether “incredibly moving” actually describes it accurately. It does not. Lang Lang clearly reverenced every note, moving elegantly and slowly, his face in nuanced, colored delight as he delicately but surely played every note. The piano was his partner, rather than something to be commanded. He coaxed, and the piano answered, shyly and beautifully. I half thought that he would just float away with the ethereal beauty of the second movement, and often, his eyes were upturned towards the ceiling. For the whole second movement, I could only tear away my eyes once to write “beautiful” in large letters on my program. Each note was so precious, even as it died, its likeness never, ever, to be heard again except that one time on 1 March 2013. It felt so tangible, yet it faded even as I beheld it.
The third movement was likewise as effortless as the first two movements. Throughout the entire piece, the orchestra’s playing was textbook. It was flawless, and the rapport between Lang Lang, the orchestra, and the conductor, was collaborative and tight; Lang Lang frequently looked at the orchestra and conductor, and even held a long stare with the flute soloist as they played together in the second movement. The Boston Symphony Orchestra has been without a permanent conductor after James Levine left in 2011, and so it was startling to see how coordinated and balanced the orchestra was under the visiting conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. Lang Lang’s cadenza was played with an ample amount of rubato, yet, it did not seem out of place, and Lang Lang placed the rubato with good taste and did not overstay his welcome. From the headlong hedonistic days of youth, Lang Lang has clearly matured since debut.
Of particular interest to me as a pianist were Lang Lang’s body movements. He made several idiosyncratic movements: flipping his hand entirely over after completing arpeggios and scale runs, little conducting moments with his left hand to himself, playing a staccato like the piano was a hot potato (several people laughed behind me), thumping both feet during exciting parts, and using his whole body to “push” down a key repeatedly, despite the key was already depressed in the first “push.” It has made clear to me that the paradox truly exists–things that piano teachers tell you not to do as a student, can be totally subverted and allowed in professional playing. It all depends if you have control over it, and clearly, Lang Lang has developed such precision. If I were to have one quibble, it would be the tapping of the left foot during exciting moments; yet in the end, I cannot totally criticize it, because the action betrayed his unquenchable enthusiasm–undeniably endearing.
It was my first time ever seeing Lang Lang live, and I and the rest of the audience awarded him with an immediate standing ovation and seven rounds of applause, before he finally sat down and announced a Chopin encore. At that point, I could not help it, and screamed. He is such a nice performer; most performers bow out at that point, and consequently, I was extremely touched. Previously in Symphony Hall, I had seen Yo-Yo Ma perform Dvorak’s cello concerto, but even he had only four rounds of applause, and he offered no encore.
This concert made it extremely obvious why Lang Lang is at the forefront of classical music, and why his concerts are so popular. Lang Lang is personable. Even if one is not familiar with the piece, just by watching his movements and facial expressions, one feels like they understand the piece, and intimately so. The audience cannot help but feel his reverence and his love for what he does, and this proves to be irresistible. I went with three friends, and all of agreed that by the end of the concerto, we were all thinking, “Please marry me.” Next year, I can only hope that Lang Lang returns to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 and Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1.