It’s fashionable, in certain circles, to complain that we live in a world that takes intelligence as a sign of elitism and scorns it accordingly. Yet many classical music lovers propagate this same divide by looking down their noses at anything that smacks of populism — including some of the most popular artists in the field.
Exhibit A: the pianist Lang Lang, who gave a recital — presented by the National Symphony Orchestra — at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon.
There is no doubt that Lang Lang is fiendishly gifted. But the way in which he displays his talents has brought him under fire from many aficionados — including me. He’s been criticized for overemoting at the piano, for virtuosity at the expense of art: Some refer to him as “Bang Bang,” with lip decorously curled.
I had a chance to reexamine this kind of judgment, and find it facile, when the NSO brought Lang Lang to town for a residency in 2012. Saturday’s concert reaffirmed that it’s long past time to retire the Lang Lang stereotypes. You can like his style or not, but it’s hardly fair to brand someone a populist sellout when he offers a program consisting of Bach’s Italian Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” and the four Chopin Scherzos — in other words, a generous helping of serious music.
Lang Lang remains an odd paradox: a brilliant musician who is underappreciated despite being one of the most popular classical artists on the planet. In this case, the general public — the people who flock to his concerts and buy his recordings and watch him playing with Pharrell Williams at this year’s Grammys — has it more right than the aficionados who affect to disdain him. One of the confusions about his work, I think, is that one can mistake his brilliant communicative abilities for a kind of dumbing-down.
On Saturday, he seemed to have reined himself in, particularly in the first half. In place of grand gestures, for the most part, he kept glancing out at the audience, like a storyteller who wants to make sure his points are landing: Got that? See what I mean? You with me here? As always in his performances, it was nearly impossible not to follow.
Mercifully absent was the kind of exaggeration that I used to feel pervaded his work. If Lang Lang’s Bach was not, strictly speaking, baroque, it was very much in the spirit of the music, played with light clarity and clear delineations between the upbeat first movement, the flowing second one and the madcap finale.
“The Seasons” is a challenge — not because it’s hard, but because it’s hard to keep it from being maudlin. The recital was presented as part of the NSO’s Tchaikovsky focus this season, hence the piece’s inclusion, but the work is a collection of 12 pieces written to be published in a piano magazine, one per month, and the pieces smack of the drawing room, their themes repeated over and over in the interests of clarity.
Watching Lang Lang mine them for expression without subverting their essential nature was an instructive lesson in interpretation — and an illustration of this artist’s fundamental sensitivity and musicality. He got a lot more out of them than many people might — the flurry of notes like frost crystals at the end of “January,” the attenuated line of single notes that concluded “October” — but, despite making some large claims for the scale of the hunting-tinged “September,” he didn’t force them to be more than they are.
The Scherzos in the second half of the program represented a qualitative and artistic contrast: Here, we got a more familiar version of Lang Lang, bringing out the dynamic extremes and the large emotional gestures and the dazzle of virtuosity. That’s because these pieces, with their quasi-operatic melody and drama and technical challenges, can take it. In the first Scherzo, in B Minor, the pianist yanked the line from one extreme to another, from wire-like highs to a thunder of lows, singing line to manic intensity, so that your body almost followed suit, like a passenger in a speeding train. But for all the excitement, he was never out of control; even in the most hell-for-leather passages, he could pull back to complete decorum at the touch of a finger.
Lang Lang offered two encores: a Chinese piece called “Seaweed Dance,” gentle and generically pretty, and Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, with little ornaments thrown off like afterthoughts, so that the audience at one moment began to laugh — not at, but with him. In all of this field’s censure of populism, we’ve risked breeding the smile right out of our music; Lang Lang, though, has still got it.