Music Review: DUDAMEL & LANG LANG (LA Phil)

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by Tony Frankel on May 24, 2019

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Star pianist Lang Lang overcame his left-hand injury — the tendonitis that caused him to hand off four of five scheduled Beethoven Concertos with the LA Phil this month. His limited schedule has allowed for quicker recovery time, but it also allowed four other pianists from around the globe to show off their gifts: Yulianna Avdeeva (Russia), Javier Perianes (Spain), Beatrice Rana (Italy), and Conrad Tao (Urbana, Illinois).

It’s uncertain, however, why Lang Lang chose to do Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major last weekend. I’m guessing the choice was made before Lang Lang’s recovery, but this lesser and oft-played Concerto, combined with Haydn’s London Symphony and Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, made for a stately concert, one which we wouldn’t expect from the Chinese superstar; the program would have been much better suited for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Still, for synchronicity’s sake, Haydn did compose the London – his final symphony – circa the time that Beethoven wrote No.2 while he was a protégé of Haydn.

Written when he was 14 (!), Beethoven shows his debt to Mozart (and Haydn, though he would not acknowledge it) while asserting his own personality in the opening, even before the entry of the soloist. Beethoven’s first two piano concertos were printed in reverse order, so the second is actually his earliest work for piano and orchestra, and it sounds noticeably less mature than No. 1 — and smaller, too; it’s scored sans trumpets and percussion — two horns were used at Disney Hall.

Dudamel’s conducting was judicious and forthright, a richly woven tapestry enveloping Lang Lang’s refined playing. Indeed, a very relaxed Dudamel led with an unusual lightheartedness, which I appreciated as it’s rare for a more thoughtful, sensitive reading of the Concerto No. 2, which is often played bombastically to compensate for its classicism.

Interestingly enough, something has indeed changed about Lang Lang, who at 36 still offers that seeming effortlessness which astonishes. Also present was his trademark buttery, playful technique and soul-searching dramatics which present themselves like a medium in a trance. This is the thinnest I’ve ever seen Lang Lang, which actually made him look taller and more mature. What we got was the kinder, gentler Lang Lang, who stressed the Mozartian qualities rather than the Beethovenian, but with lazy trills, glossy arpeggios, sweet pianissimo passages, and a slowed down, tender cadenza in the third movement. Even with emphasis at the end of a phrase, the fire and flourish was all internal — which made the fourth movement perfection.

His encore also avoided any fireworks, but it was lovely. Yann Tiersen’s “La Valse d’Amelie” from the film Amélie has exquisite, aching, searching, fairytale passages like those we hear in Satie and Saint-Saëns. It is included on his most recent double-CD called Piano Book, which has him returning to the solo works that made him want to become a musician.

While Dudamel conducted Beethoven’s 9-minute Egmont Overture as if it were Haydn — lyrical, pastoral, a wee bit slow, pulling back on contrast — there were exciting moments, especially the way the strings mimicked an organ blast, and that pile-driving finish. With the orchestra remaining in almost the exact same configuration, Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major wasn’t what I’d call “somber,” but it was sometimes languid, lugubrious, and almost elegiacal in nature, which matched the unusually cloudy and rainy day in L.A. Even the Allegro wasn’t that allegro. Still, we got a major dose of spirit in the Finale: Spiritoso.

For the first time in eons, it seems, there was no applause after the first movement ended. But then Dudamel cocked his head to the West Terrace seating area, where someone’s phone was going off. After smiling as if to say “now everyone in the house knows whose phone rang,” and patiently waiting for silence, THEN he got applause.

photos courtesy of LA Phil

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Lang Lang, piano
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
ends on May 19, 2019
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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