For most of Richard Strauss’ Burleske, Lang Lang was watching the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Nardolillo, trading phrases with the musicians like they were chatting, dancing in his seat during his rests, even making a few conducting gestures and overall looking nothing like a superstar soloist who thought he was doing the kids a favor just by showing up.
But then, Strauss gave the pianist a moment alone in the spotlight, and he grabbed it.
His fingers flew across the keyboard, seeming to miss nary a note in a thrilling display that had you half expecting to see keys flying in the air like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It was virtuosic and suspenseful, Lang Lang taking a somewhat different journey through this piece than established recordings had you wondering where he will go, how this will resolve, sitting on the edge of extended phrases.
This was that old stodgy fossil we call classical music, and on what turned out to be a cold snowy evening in Lexington, Lang Lang was making it seem as alive as it was in 1885 when a 21-year-old Strauss wrote Burleske, a work that stymied some of the best pianists of his day.
Appearing on stage with spiked hair, a shimmering v-neck shirt under his jacket and a salute for the audience, Lang Lang looked every bit like the superstar pianist of today, giving the UK Symphony yet another brush with greatness.
It’s something the UK group has gotten used to ever since cellist Lynn Harrell sat in with it in 2008, launching a series of collaborations that has included violinist Mark O’Connor, soprano Christine Brewer, the Boston Pops and two visits from violin legend Itzhak Perlman.
Even in that pantheon, Lang Lang stands out.
The 31-year-old burst out of his native China in the last decade to conquer not only classical music but even make a name for himself in pop circles through performances at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and most recently on the 2014 Grammy Awards, where he added a blistering piano to the scorching fretwork of Metallica’s One.
Of course, Sunday night with the UK Symphony, Lang Lang was playing very different fare, but the spirit that carried over was enthusiastic collaboration. Between his two programmed works and his encore, Intermezzo by Manuel Ponce, he made some brief comments to the audience saying he knew the University of Kentucky had a great basketball team and now he knows it has a great orchestra too. After his performance of Burleske and Frederic Chopin’s Andante spianato et grande Polonaise brilliante, the sentiment seemed sincere. You sort of got the feeling that if he played an orchestral instrument, he might have sat in with the students after his work was done, like violinist Gil Shaham did in 2009.
It was a somewhat unusual but great program for Lang Lang’s Lexington debut, giving him plenty of room to show the range of his piano prowess. This was purely about the piano, in its beauty and majesty.
The Chopin was a particularly canny piece to program for a soloist of Lang Lang’s caliber as the Andante spianato gave the audience, which had paid premium prices (by Lexington standards) of $75 to $95 a seat, to see the artist stand alone rolling out mesmerizing phrases like water.
Granting that the ticket price is dictated by the cost of presenting the performance, it still is a shame the costs can’t be brought down a bit to make the show accessible to a broader audience. Lang Lang drew 1,207, but the 1,467 seat Singletary Center concert hall should have been packed to overflowing for this concert.
As a soloist who does take some liberties, there had to be a challenge in preparing for Lang Lang for the UK orchestra, but they did as well as they ever have for a marquee star. The student musicians seemed pumped for the evening playing Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture with notable verve to open the concert, and they ended the night with a smooth reading of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged by Maurice Ravel, a work that can be quite uneven in less experienced or interested hands. The UK percussionists really took advantage of their chance to be part of the big event with striking precision and power.
The UK Symphony once again has proven itself worthy of nights like this. And Lang Lang showed Lexington he is worthy of the hype.