When Christoph Eschenbach and the National Symphony Orchestra convened for Thursday night’s concert, the guest of honor was absent.
Lang Lang, in the middle of his week-long residency with the orchestra, is playing a different Beethoven concerto with them every night — the Second on Thursday, the Third on Friday and the Fifth on Saturday. But due to atrocious traffic in downtown D.C. (ask me how I know), Lang Lang was unable to leave his hotel until after the concert was scheduled to start. The NSO therefore rejiggered its program so that Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” and Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony were played together as the first half, and Lang Lang’s Beethoven was in the second.
It was kind of refreshing to vary the standard concert formula by having the orchestra course served first. And Eschenbach’s Strauss and Dvorak had very similar flavors. “Till Eulenspiegels” began a bit muddily — with the solo horn sounding slightly tentative — but soon found its way into a vivid account of the story’s various episodes, culminating in floor-shaking, dark, ominous chords at the gallows scene (Till, a peasant folk hero, is hanged) that transcended the Gothic aspects of the story.
The Dvorak also is tinged with peasant folk colors, and in Eschenbach’s hands, it’s a lush, heart-on-the-sleeve, downright Straussian kind of piece.
This was one of the works that the NSO took on its Asia tour with Ivan Fischer in 2009, and it was interesting to contrast Fischer’s taut, lean approach with Eschenbach’s bigger, looser-limbed, romantic one. Eschenbach’s was a much more emotional Dvorak, although the third movement was occasionally sluggish and the fourth lost some of its dramatic (again quasi-Gothic) impact through lack of precision.
Lang Lang made it to the theater by the end of intermission and launched into the Second piano concerto (which is actually the first) with considerable energy and considerable flair. I’ve written a lot this week about the widely held view of Lang Lang — “widely” by many within the field — as some sort of willful wunderkind whose showy exaggerations threatens to overshadow his marvelous talent.
It’s true that there have been several cases of gifted artists who have sold out, and it’s also true that there are several phenomenally successful artists regarded as classical stars by the masses but with horror by actual music lovers. So perhaps the classical audience has reason to be extra vigilant in defending against vulgarity.
And Lang Lang can verge on the vulgar. Or so I’d always thought. But as I encountered and reencountered him this week, part of my ongoing thought experiment (which runs along the lines of: Let’s just suppose that some major artists such as Daniel Barenboim and Eschenbach are right about this musician, and I’m the one who’s been missing something) has been to try to suspend my prejudices against things I think I don’t like:
What if I didn’t feel the need to roll my eyes every time he throws his head back from the keyboard or conducts with one hand while playing with the other (something Eschenbach, by the way, also did in their joint recital Wednesday). What if his exaggerated phrases, pulled out like taffy, are about something other than willful imposition of his ego on the score? How, indeed, is it a manifestation of ego to make time stop the way he did in the second movement of the Beethoven, holding out a fragile line like glass while the orchestra barely breathes around you?
I have certainly heard Lang Lang give performances I didn’t like. But I certainly enjoyed his Beethoven’s Second on Thursday, from the virtuosity of its first movement to — despite (horrors!) some possibly vulgar rubatos — the infectious cheer of the close.