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Classically speaking: Make history new

Lang Lang

Photo courtesy of the artist and the presenting organizaiton


With the new classical season comes rejuvenation. Kleinhans Music Hall, now seventy-five years old, has maintained for some time a sustainably paced program of historically minded improvements that began with the restoration of its outside reflecting pool, and continued more recently with new carpeting and better air conditioning. (Tuxedo-wearing musicians freely admit their happiness at seeing a small crane lower the new AC unit into place last summer.) When Kleinhans opens its doors Wednesday, September 16, to host the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s opening night gala, patrons will be greeted with the latest improvement: new chairs in the main hall designed both for increased comfort and conformity to the original intent of the building’s architects, Eliel and Eero Saarinen.


Eagerness to try out the new seats aside—if, for some reason, there’s still a stray ticket available to the September 16 BPO gala, buy it: Lang Lang returns to Buffalo that evening to play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Lang Lang is today one of the world’s most popular classical musicians; this will be his second visit to Buffalo. Rachmaninoff, in addition to being a composer, was also a spectacular pianist who actually performed in Kleinhans during the hall’s inaugural season in 1940. To know the history of greatness that has been onstage here these past seventy-five years is to be overwhelmed.


Born in 1873 within the frayed periphery of Russian aristocracy, Rachmaninoff entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at age ten to study piano and composition. He premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1901, and it has been a music lover’s favorite ever since; the lone, tolling chords that open the piece recall the church bells of Rachmaninoff’s youth and herald entry into a sweeping landscape of themes and rhythmic motifs that stem from Russian roots.


What’s so striking about the concerto, however, is not just the succession of gorgeous themes (a helpless outpouring of beauty, the indulgence of which is reminiscent of early Mozart), but how entwined any given theme is between soloist and nominal accompaniment; this is not a “piano versus orchestra” kind of concerto. For the first two movements, the fluidity between strings and piano as they complete each other’s thoughts is disarmingly intimate, the cooing woodwinds and rays of brass, a broadening of the piano’s reverie. The dreamy absorption gets rattled in the beginning of the third movement by an opening canter that quickly becomes a galloping motif. The orchestra tries to soothe the matter over with yet another gorgeous theme that the piano reiterates, but then the keyboard can’t help but trace out a creeping anxiety that’s easy to discern under the soft, lurking cymbals. Rachmaninoff immediately musters an array of compositional tricks against the threatening motif, including treating it as a fugal subject, in order to tame and assimilate it by movement’s end. The entire concerto is a remarkable fusion of technique and longing, and no one is more equipped to approach it than Lang Lang, who, with steel chops and emotive heart, generates a special excitement whenever he plays.


There’s nothing new about Lang Lang’s story when reduced to its mythic essential: young phenom takes the world by the nape with a smile, naysayers sit on the porch and grumble (seen that movie, have you?). At age seventeen, the rising star, still relatively unknown in the US, filled in at the last moment for an ailing André Watts (who appears with the BPO this February) to perform the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Accolades promptly tumbled forth and his career has charged forward ever since. 


Filling in at the last moment is often a crucial part in any musical celebrity’s coming-of-age story; for instance, a young Leonard Bernstein stepped in at the last minute without rehearsal for flu-stricken Bruno Walter to make his successful New York Philharmonic conducting debut. The comparison between Lang Lang and Bernstein can be pressed further; both have drawn simultaneous criticism and praise for their unrestrained expression and enthusiasm to popularize classical music. Even though Bernstein died twenty-five years ago, books and articles are still being published reconciling showmanship and the serious musician. From one point of view, the naysaying is patently silly: far from being gratuitous, showmanship functions almost as a pedagogical cue to what is happening harmonically or otherwise within the music. Is it merely flash and sizzle if it stirs the audience to desire better and deeper knowledge of the product? Ask the people running ESPN; their entire programming schedule is a nuanced response to this question.


Critical reviews these days laud not only Lang Lang’s stellar technique, but the musical fulfillment such technique makes possible. Not that the star pianist has time to notice; now in his early thirties, Lang Lang heads his own International Music Foundation, has been recognized by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People and by the World Economic Forum as one of its 250 Young Global Leaders, gives tirelessly to charitable and educational causes, and, according to the BBC, has helped inspire forty million children in China to learn piano.


Yet what should never be overlooked in such a resume is the thirty years of truly unrelenting labor that has brought the Shenyang native to world superstardom. There may be a wry smile backstage regarding the pianist’s newly launched line of parfums (for him and for her—notes of grapefruit, jasmine, and cracked pepper), but those grumbling wags understand better than anyone the monumental amount of work needed to achieve this prominence. When Lang Lang was here a couple summers ago, he was completely hands-on during rehearsal and knew exactly what he wanted from the music. This month, as he walks onto Kleinhans’ stage, like Rachmaninoff did seventy-five years prior, the appreciation and respect will be rivaled only by anticipation.


It can’t be stressed enough how many affordable opportunities for live music there are in Buffalo. The well-attended Buffalo Chamber Music Society’s regular season’s subscription is only $120 for eight concerts (high school students admitted for free, college students with ID at discount), a tremendous deal given the caliber of talent and star-power the Society consistently books. But the BCMS also offers a Gift to the Community trio of concerts that present young, rising stars who will knock your socks off. The admission to these concerts, as implied by the series’ title, is free. The first Gift to the Community concert is Sunday, September 27 at 3 p.m., featuring twenty-six-year-old flutist Seyia Ueno, first-prize winner of numerous international competitions. Parking at Kleinhans is never easier than on a Sunday afternoon; once you’re there, all you have to do is walk in and take any seat you like in the hall’s Mary Seaton Room.            


Edmond Gnekow plays bass in the BPO.

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