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Eschenbach, Lang Lang rock the KenCen with Romantic Era hits

Written By | Oct 30, 2015

WASHINGTON, October 30, 2015 – National Symphony Orchestra conductor and music director Christoph Eschenbach returned to the podium Thursday evening to lead a triumphal series concert highlighted by two stirring 19th century hits plus a slightly lesser-known symphonic gem from the same Romantic Era.

The program included Richard Wagner’s Overture to his opera “Tannhäuser,” Edvard Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A-minor,” featuring piano soloist Lang Lang, and Antonín Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 8.

It’s not often that one can describe a symphony concert as “viscerally exciting,” but this one was. True, some eccentric musical choices stood out here and there, particularly in the Grieg, the kind that routinely irritate some listeners and critics. But this concert was reminiscent of America’s golden post-World War II concert hall era, a time that was notable for its fiery conductors and barnstorming soloists, particularly when it came to the pianists.

Veteran keyboard artists like Artur Rubenstein, Emil Gilels and Gina Bachauer, as well as younger sensations like Leon Fleisher, Glenn Gould (when he was still performing live) and even that great 20th century lion Vladimir Horowitz—once he decided to end his self-imposed concert hall exile—were guaranteed to fill the seats of any concert hall back in the day, attracting audiences by programming the Romantic piano concertos they loved, performing them with power, panache and yes, with occasional buckets of dropped notes on an off-night.

Our own era seems to be cranking out young classical pianists by the dozens these days—dedicated young artists with otherworldly technique and shockingly deep repertoires. But of all these fine young artists, the only one we’ve seen who matches a brilliant technique with the showmanship of those mid-20th century giants is Chinese pianist-phenom Lang Lang. He’s worshiped like a rock star in his native land, and packs audiences in like sardines when he performs abroad as well.

Grieg, Liszt and Lang Lang

Thursday evening’s Kennedy Center Concert Hall audience wasn’t quite sardined. But the hall was indeed nearly full, eagerly awaiting Lang Lang’s take on Grieg’s much-beloved “Piano Concerto in A-minor,” Op. 16 (1878). And the pianist didn’t disappoint, turning in a brilliant, though at times highly idiosyncratic and risky interpretation of this popular work that kept the audience on the edge of its collective seat.

The NSO program notes for the concert recount the oft-told story of Lang Lang’s utter entrancement when, at the age of two, he watched “The Cat Concerto,” a Tom and Jerry cartoon whose background music—as was so often the case in our vintage American cartoons—featured a classical music piano favorite, in this case, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” It apparently affected toddler so much that he wanted to play the piano himself

The story might seem far-fetched to some, but it’s really not. Many young kids (including this critic) got hooked on classical music when they first heard it in cartoons, so Lang Lang’s bio-note here, fanciful though it may seem, is eminently plausible.

More importantly, the story may also provide something of a key to explaining this pianist’s very different approach to the Grieg concerto, a work that is formal in the manner of the Robert Schumann piano concerto—also in A-minor; but also fiery and technically daunting. This latter characteristic was very much in the tradition of that original barnstorming, rock star pianist-composer Franz Liszt, who genuinely admired the younger composer’s only piano concerto.

The Grieg concerto is highly original, episodic in nature, and somewhat angular and exotic in its sound. The music evokes Grieg’s Norwegian spirit, but with largely conventional tonality as opposed to the modal, folk-music-style experimentation of later strongly ethnic composers like Bartók and Kodály. That said, the concerto is also loaded with plenty of challenges for the virtuoso pianist.

In the customary performance, the Grieg concerto is always an exciting experience that somehow always manages to seem properly and comfortably contained within its era. But Lang Lang, Maestro Eschenbach and the NSO seemed to have agreed to take a different approach. In the main, it seemed that all were determined to let the wilder Scandinavian part of Edvard Grieg’s spirit out of the box and into the concert hall.

This in turn gets us to the key idea (we think) behind Lang Lang’s approach here: he’s not only channeling Norway’s mountain kings and trolls. He’s also channeling the Lisztian spirit that has always dwelled within this concerto.

While the lengthy, always interesting and episodic first movement of the concerto was taken at a temp rather too slow in this critic’s opinion, it gave both the pianist and the orchestra a chance to reveal the surprisingly complex textures hiding within the solo part as well as the orchestration. Making things more interesting still, Lang Lang imposed far more exaggerated tempo shifts than are normally encountered here, giving the music an even more primitive feel while also offering plenty of opportunities for Liszt- and Horowitz-style showmanship—the stuff, quite frankly, that piano-loving audiences still adore.

On the other hand, Lang Lang flipped some of this eccentricity on its head in his excellent performance of Grieg’s deep and haunting second movement. This is music that expresses deep and mystical longings—all of which the pianist grasped and gathered before releasing it into an audience that was so quiet that you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Along with the highly sensitive contribution from the NSO, this was, perhaps, the most exquisite performance of this beautiful movement this critic has ever had the privilege to hear.

The final movement of the concerto more than offset any of the first movement’s idiosyncrasies in this performance. Alternating wild, thumping, folk-style tunes and rhythms with yet another second-movement style passage of quiet and haunting beauty, the music is not only marvelously interesting and rewarding but also offers the best opportunity yet for Franz Liszt-style pyrotechnics.

Once again, Lang Lang did not disappoint, attacking the Steinway grand with tremendous yet precise ferocity, bringing the concerto to an exciting close as the quiet passage returns with the full orchestra, joining the pianist in a triumphant coda and conclusion.

At the concerto’s final downbeat, the audience erupted into almost-deafening applause that quickly evolved into a wavelike standing ovation. As nonstandard as this performance was, it was, quite simply, ripping good stuff in the old, golden age barnstorming tradition and everyone knew it.

Realizing his audience needed a little bit more, Lang Lang returned to the stage to perform something completely different, an off-rhythm, almost jazzy “Cuban Dance” by composer Ernesto Lecuona—perhaps the pianist’s sly wink toward (hopefully) improving U.S. relations with our island neighbor. It was an interesting gesture, a dashing performance, and a nice way to cap a wonderful guest-starring appearance with the NSO.

Overture to “Tannhäuser”

Of course, there were two more items on Thursday’s menu, the Wagner and the Dvořák. We’ve gone pretty long on the concerto already, but we need to give these other works their due.

The overture to “Tannhäuser” (1845) contains some of Wagner’s most popular and identifiable early music particularly if you, à la Lang Lang, happen to be a fan of that ever-popular Bugs Bunny cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?” The overture’s broad, triumphal main theme returns again and again, each time with greater power and drama, heralded in its final iteration by those endless yet brilliant up-and-down, chromatic octave passages in the violins.

It’s all great music and a stirring way to open what was an exciting evening of music. Better yet, the NSO brass—always a key element in Wagner—sounded at its robust and most-convincing best in this performance.

Dvořák’s “Symphony No. 8 in G-major”

After the intermission, the concert concluded with yet another fine performance, this time of Dvořák’s delightful, emphatic but oddball “Symphony No. 8 in G-major,” Op. 88 (1889). Not as often played as it should be, the symphony reflects this easy-going but profoundly talented composer’s knack for the surprise. As a European weather reporter might put it, the symphony is “sunny, but with some cloudy or thundery spells.”

From its unpredictable, episodic first movement, the symphony pauses for more contemplative territory in its second. A brief, gracious third movement suddenly ends with a surprising robustness, leading to the trumpet fanfare that announces the symphony’s raucous, jagged, but ultimately celebratory finale—one that Maestro Eschenbach and the orchestra rolled out with energy and joy.

Oftentimes in the concert hall, some of the most delightful surprises happen when you least expect them.

It was disappointing to see that a small portion of the audience had exited the Concert Hall during the intermission, apparently feeling they’d gotten their money’s worth with the Grieg concerto. In so doing, they missed a truly enthusiastic performance of this lovely yet assertive Dvořák symphony.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

Two more concerts in this series remain: Friday, October 30 and Saturday October 31, 2015 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Curtain time for both is 8 p.m.

Tickets: $35-$129. For tickets and information, visit the NSO’s Kennedy Center website, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324 (Toll-free).

Next up for the NSO, November 5-7: Christoph Eschenbach conducts the orchestra in a rare performance of Gustav Mahler’s massive Symphony No. 3, featuring Anne Sofie von Otter as the mezzo-soprano soloist, plus The Choral Arts Society of Washington and Children’s Chorus of Washington.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17