Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

Summer Whites in the great outdoors; avoiding Lang Lang

Decidedly NOT a picture of Lang Lang (Gustavo Dudamel, July 12, 2011) (photo: Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

Though the Hollywood Bowl has been open for about a month, the Los Angeles Philharmonic play did not play in their white jackets (and blouses) under the venue’s iconic white arches until this past Friday and Saturday when they gave the word premiere performances of the full film score to West Side Story.  They followed it with more movie music on Sunday, this time a cross-cultural endeavor playing compositions of A. R. Rahman.  Traditional “Symphony Under the Stars” concerts finally  were on the bill last night as Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra played music by Borodin, Mussorgsky (with orchestral help from Ravel), and Prokofiev (with pianistic help from Lang Lang).

I am not a fan of Lang Lang.  I respect his amazing technical ability at the keyboard, but his interpretations and visual machinations are not to my taste.  After seeing him perform a gooey rendition of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto in 2000 with Zubin Mehta and the LA Phil, I vowed to avoid him in the future.  A subsequent encounter six years later was more of a veritable free-gift-with-purchase of tickets to see Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct Le Sacre du Printemps at Walt Disney Concert Hall; the good news was that Lang Lang brought a piece I liked, Bartok’s 2nd Concerto, to WDCH; the bad news was that he didn’t bring much that I liked to Bartok’s 2nd Concerto.

With this in mind, my strong desire to experience Mr. Dudamel’s take on Pictures at an Exhibition and the happy thought of picnicking with yummy food and wine at the Bowl were overruled by my even stronger desire to avoid Lang Lang; the thought of fighting with stack parking and the Bowl’s hit-and-miss sound system certainly made my decision that much easier.   After reading reviews by Tim Mangan, Mark Swed, and Richard Ginell (links below), it seems like I didn’t miss anything from the 29 year-old pianist that I now regret.   The three gentlemen writers seemed to agree on many things about the concert . . .  if I may summarize:

Mr. Dudamel’s interpretation of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures had a great deal going for it:

    • ” . . . a strong reading of the score, the various pictures vividly painted and fervently felt.”  (Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register)
    • “Dudamel at his most memorable in a magnificent account” (Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times)
    • “Dudamel didn’t take any extraordinary chances with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” . . .  neither did he take it for granted, making each section sound fresh and engaged at conventional tempos” (Richard Ginell, Variety)

Lang Lang is still a technical wizard who is not quite as annoying as he used to be, but he still has not developed into a truly compelling artist:

    • “Would he deepen musically or was he destined to become a concert hall clown, as the late pianist Earl Wild had predicted?  Lang Lang has made little progress and seems now frozen somewhere in the middle, his artistic development temporally stunted.” (Mr. Swed)
    • “It is still a too-light account of this percussive and sometimes glowering score, and Lang Lang showed a tendency to speed for speed’s sake, but his finesse and his casual command of the difficult bits were palpable.” (Mr. Mangan)
    • “Lang Lang seems to have been acquiring the first layers of maturity. . . . His virtuoso displays in the Prokofiev Third are not as muscular and lockstep in rhythm as they once were.” (Mr. Ginell)

The Bowl’s amplification was good, not great:

    • “One feels that the Bowl’s amplification isn’t quite all it could be – it rendered the L.A. Phil’s overall sound with an unpleasant edge. On the plus side, however, it did capture quite a bit of detail, and if a viola part of a harp solo suddenly popped out unduly, a great many of the niceties of Ravel’s spectacular “Pictures” orchestration shown through.” (Mr. Mangan)
    • ” . . . lots of detail revealed underneath the big tunes and a rather hot level of amplification (Dudamel seems to like it that way at the Bowl).” (Mr. Ginell)
    • “The amplification was bold, exposing instrumental details and making a visceral impact. But great performances deserve great equipment. It’s time for a major upgrade in the sound system.” (Mr. Swed)
Besides the LA Phil, ’tis also the season for other orchestras throughout the country to don their own Summer Whites for their classical music concerts in outdoor venues.  While the big local band spent this past weekend in the Cahuenga Pass playing along to click tracks, Lang Lang himself happened to be at the Ravinia Festival playing the Liszt First piano concerto.  It seems we may have gotten the better performance here in Southern California:
  • “The now-retired [Alfred] Brendel, long one of our most distinguished Liszt pianists, once remarked that one peculiarity of Liszt’s music is that it ‘faithfully and fatally mirrors the character,’ tastes and whims of its interpreters. Play Liszt like it’s vulgar trash and it will sound like vulgar trash. Lang Lang’s recent manhandling of the First Piano Concerto at Ravinia was Exhibit A.”  (John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune)

Michael Hovnanian

Speaking of Ravinia . . . Michael Hovnanian, blogger and bassist in (as he likes to describe it) “an orchestra located in a large Midwestern city,”  gives us a typically wry account of the first weekend with his orchestra in that venue.  His must-read most recent article (linked HERE)  goes into some convoluted yet eventually clear analogies to get musical civilians some insight into how “Extraordinary Overtime” for his orchestra  is like the NFL or even Batman.In case you need a cheat sheet for Mr. Hovnanian’s blog post:

  • The pianist on the first night was Lang Lang
  • The pianist on the second night was André Watts (Liszt 2nd piano concerto)
  • The conductor on all three days/nights was Christoph Eschenbach
  • The orchestra all three nights was the same

3 thoughts on “Summer Whites in the great outdoors; avoiding Lang Lang

  1. You know, I couldn’t agree with you more about how unappealing this concert seemed on paper. I too wanted to avoid Lang Lang and given Dudamel on the podium, my desire to hear the Prokofiev stood little chance. What’s more frustrating about this though is that two artists I am compelled to see, Yuja Wang with Lionel Bringuier on the podium are scheduled to perform the sappiest of programs with Rach 3 and Tchaikovsky. Talk about serious competition for the most frustrating program of the season on paper. Glad to say, I’m not sad to have missed it.


    • Brian, I too passed on that concert despite my desire to see Bringuier and especially Yuja Wang. Theae days, it’s tough for me to get the Bowl on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, so I don’t move the mountains unless I find artists and repertoire equally compelling.

      Your comment raises an interesting question: when having to choose between :
      A) A concert with preferred performers doing less-than-preferred repertoire, OR
      B) visa-versa,
      . . . which do you typically choose?


  2. Pingback: Yuja Wang and James Conlon triumph with the LA Phil « All is Yar

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