These days, it’s said, there are only five classical stars who can reliably sell out a big house, and the pianist Lang Lang is one of them. On Thursday, the National Symphony Orchestra cashed in some chips by featuring him on their current program. No gala, no special event: just Lang Lang playing the Grieg Piano Concerto on a program of beloved 19th-century orchestral works, including the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, with Christoph Eschenbach in his element on the podium, and, for a welcome change, a full house.
There’s a lot of room for the classics and for an artist as popular as Lang Lang (more on that in a minute). But I couldn’t shake a feeling that the orchestra, although it played well, was squandering an opportunity to capitalize on the big audience by simply offering reliable chestnuts and letting Lang Lang provide the luster.
Certainly the “Tannhauser” overture wasn’t going to do it. This is profoundly intoxicating music, with nice, rich good-knight tunes interrupted by a depiction of Venus’s sexual debauches in lilting off-kilter winds and solo violin lines that sound not quite of this world. Eschenbach is an eminently expressive conductor, but he set off on this piece at such a glacial pace that it was almost impossible to enliven it, even though the orchestra pitched in willingly.
Then out came Lang Lang, whom Eschenbach has been able to draw to Washington with some frequency in recent years, and who sat down and played with the fire and conviction of total freshness, as if the Grieg concerto were not one of his staples, offering the audience something vivid and of the moment.
Lang Lang has been labeled overhyped and shallow by some, a whiz-bang entertainer. I’ve subscribed to that view in the past, but I didn’t think so when I heard him make his Carnegie Hall debut in this concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2001, and — in part through having had such frequent opportunities to hear him in Washington — I don’t think so now. At 33, the pianist still has some of the physical mannerisms that have drawn criticism in the past — call it an overemphatic visualization of the drama of the music — but he’s toned it down. Or perhaps I’ve just started seeing past it. In any case, what I got from his playing was a welcome excitement, entertainment in the good sense and some beautiful communicative moments. More than his effortless runs, his whip-crack-perfect fingers, what struck me were his pianissimos, consistently delicate and perfect, nestled at the upper edge of the keyboard like a robin’s egg. As an encore, he offered a Cuban Dance by Ernesto Lecuona.
The Central European warmth of Dvorak is in Eschenbach’s wheelhouse, and the improved winds and brass under his tenure put the NSO in a better position to do it justice. The symphony still suffered from his weaknesses for cacophony in big passages and leaden pacing in slow ones, but the orchestra played with a lot of verve, and Nurit bar Josef, the concertmaster, was able to match her nice work in the “Tannhauser” with another solo turn. It was a reading that left you humming the tunes. It was, indeed, altogether an engaging evening; I just wondered if, given its star power, it was engaging enough.
The program repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.