A Schumann-ian Program Without Any Schumann: Lang Lang at the L.A. Phil

Photo Credit: Haiqiang Lv

The L.A. Philharmonic program on February 23rd at the Walt Disney Concert Hall featured the works of Helen Grime, Edvard Grieg, and Johannes Brahms, but was also, in a way, an ode to Robert Schumann. He’s the quintessential Romanticist whose legacy deeply shaped not just Grieg and Brahms, but also many composers to come, and one could hear structural and thematic quotations from Schumann throughout the repertoire for the night.

The evening opens with a world premiere of Helen Grime’s Meditations on Joy, which expresses various manifestations of joy, from the gentle, bubbling undercurrents to the intense flashes of joy that can appear from periods of darkness. Inspired by her personal experiences and by poetry, the piece breathes life into the concept of joy and gives it an ethereal and fleeting quality. Soaring melodic lines are interspersed with percussive interruptions, as if representing the flighty nature of joy, easily dispersed by distractions but also appearing in unexpected times. Like Schumann, who was also an avid writer, Grime’s music is inspired by other forms of literary (and nonliterary) art. In this case, it’s poetry, but in previous compositions, she has drawn conceptual material from literature, sculpture, and painting.

The star of the evening is one of the most famous pianists in the world, Lang Lang, the Chinese superstar who has inspired millions to learn and appreciate classical music. Yet, many in the classical world consider him overdramatic and unfaithful to the composers’ original intentions; in some ways, that is as much a statement about the classical community as it is about Lang Lang himself. His impassioned renditions stretch interpretive boundaries–at times they are refreshing takes on well-worn pieces, but in other cases, the overexaggerations detract from the enjoyment of the piece.

Lang Lang’s performance of the famous Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 leaned toward the latter scenario, but that is not to say that it was an unenjoyable performance. There’s a different form of enjoyment, as well as the accompanying incredulity, that comes from hearing Lang Lang unflinchingly defy interpretive conventions, squeezing and pulling apart phrases like a baker shaping dough, and performing technically intricate passages with the utmost ease. Like Schumann’s piano concerto (also in the same key), the Grieg piano concerto began in an abrupt, gripping manner, though the similarities fade quickly from there. Lang Lang opened the concerto rather indulgently, and the march-like sections were treated either with excessive rubato, blinding speed, or heavy-handedness. It’s impressive, but not always musically compelling.

He played at the edges of the dynamic range, and the contrast between piano and forte, especially if they happen within a short phrase, kept the listeners on their toes. He’s incredibly attentive to the orchestra, and even though he pushed and pulled the tempo, he never did so to the extent of breaking away from the orchestra. However, his overflowing expressivity stood in contrast to the orchestra’s slightly more restrained execution. If the orchestra provided a view of the gorgeous Nordic landscape, Lang Lang’s playing was like a 3-D documentary. His mannerisms reflected his passion for performance, but at times he seemed to be in combat with the piano; he would wipe off his sweat in between movements and attack accented notes with jabs, which could be either distracting or captivating. But one thing is for sure, he never gives a boring performance, and people flock to see him live.

To the delight of the audience, Lang Lang returned onstage to perform Schindler’s arrangement of a well-known Chinese folk song, “Mo Li Hua” (Jasmine Flower). The ornamentations brought a modern sparkle to the folk song, though Lang Lang ensured that the melody blossomed loudly and clearly. Lang Lang’s fluid yet nuanced phrasing felt improvisatory but never uncertain, and even the simplest of lines got a touch of grandeur.

Otto Tausk, Music Director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, led the L.A. Phil in a magnificent performance of Brahm’s Third Symphony in F Major, Op. 90. The primary motif F-A-F stands for Brahms’ personal motto, “Frei aber froh” (“Free but happy”), yet the symphony’s tension between major and minor led one to question how much Brahms took that statement to heart. Brahms very much respected Schumann–at one point he was practically adopted into the family–and he went on to further develop not just the older composer’s compositional philosophies, but also thematic material in some cases. For this Third Symphony, he plucked out a passing melody in Schumann’s “Rhineish” Symphony (also the Third) and turned it into a primary theme in the first and final movements.

Tausk drew out the rich, swirling texture from the strings for the heroic passages as well as the tumultuous ones. The oft-neglected middle voices (clarinet, viola, french horn) shone in this symphony, contributing to the characteristically robust Brahmsian sound, and the soloists did not disappoint. The pastoral second movement was peaceful but never sluggish, and the heart-wrenching Poco allegretto evoked bittersweet nostalgia. The serpentine melody in the fourth movement was nestled among metrically dissonant and syncopated passages and dialogue between the strings and the winds. Used sparingly in the previous movements, the brass imparted a sense of triumph to the finale, though not a bombastic one, rather, the quiet victory that comes with making peace with an internal conflict.

Recommended Articles