Lang Lang & Youth Orchestra of Bahia at Royal Festival Hall

Fountains of Rome
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
The Firebird [1919 Suite]
Rhapsody in Blue

Lang Lang (piano)

Youth Orchestra of Bahia
Ilyich Rivas

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 21 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Lang Lang. Photograph: Felix BroedeThe Lang Lang juggernaut rolled out again with a programme that showed off the Youth Orchestra of Bahia in some style and revisited aspects of the Lang Lang phenomenon that aren’t always inspirational if often amazing.

The YOBA appeared last year in the South Bank’s Festival Brazil, and this Brazilian cultural ambassador, like the Teresa Carreno and the now almost veteran Simón Bolívar youth orchestras, for the hugely successful and genuinely inspirational El Sistema more than justified the public’s appetite for this particularly up-beat sort of music-making. Compared with its Venezuelan counterparts, the YOBA, in its first Royal Festival Hall concert, was quite restrained and were kept on a short leash by the 18-year-old Venezuelan conductor Ilyich Rivas. There was no doubt about his charisma rating – an imperious manner on the podium, glistening curly hair, a precise beat and an instantly audible and visual rapport with his players. Occasionally the imperious side slipped into something more martinet-like in the more hectically rhythmic passages – although the orchestra was never less than rock-solid secure – but this didn’t impinge on a gloriously translucent, graceful performance of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, a dawn-to-dusk day in the life of the Eternal City as splashed through four of its best fountains. There was some fabulously refined playing in this orchestral showpiece that keeps a lid on grandstanding sonic splendour; everything told, from a stealthy, eloquent cello solo to dashes of muted percussive colour.

Sometimes the strings sounded rather subdued in Stravinsky, but this had to be set in the context of some magnificent, strongly characterised brass and woodwind playing. Rivas’s conducting was at its most interventionist here, and there were moments when he could have backed off to give these fine players more space, but the unfolding pace and echt-sounding Russian accents were compelling. In the ‘Lullaby’ section, there was a brief but heart-stopping bassoon solo from a player who also provided one of the wow-moments in the Chopin.

Those now all-too-familiar tics of the Lang Lang approach were out in force – the romantic poses, the indiscriminate hyper-phrasing that in the end gives you too much information, the extrovert version of the romantic artist that flirts a bit too closely with parody. The best of Chopin doesn’t parade its treasures – some things say more if left in the realm of suggestion – and Lang Lang doesn’t get this. The quality of his many styles of touch; the sound, from the fullest pianissimo to a mighty bell-like fff, is of a calibre that stretches the piano to its limits; his hands have a suppleness that you suppose comes from bone, but which might not be bone as lesser mortals know it. Technically, he can do anything, and his stage manner is obviously infectious, to judge from the packed Hall and all those millions of children inspired by this cool Chinese dude, a style icon of spiky hair, shades and sharp suits, to take up the piano. But you begin to wonder when the melancholy maestoso of Chopin’s first movement quickly lapses into self-important rhetoric, and when the exquisitely played skein of decorations in the slow movement becomes so attention-seeking as to jeopardise the music. Then, a brief passage of busking with a solo bassoon unequivocally points to a natural generosity of musicianship and gave you an idea of what’s also available in the Lang Lang package.

This was definitely a concert for applause between movements – and you do wonder, like in a pop concert from a squirming boy band, when a familiar coy gesture from this pianist pin-up won’t be enough to generate mid-music squeals and clapping. It was annoying after the slow movement and got in the way of the segue into the finale, where Lang Lang’s brilliant insouciance in the dazzling coda made Chopin sound like Saint-Saëns. Which is a result of sorts, I suppose. The Gershwin started with a wonderful upward slither from the clarinet, a series of mini-plateaus punctuated with little blasts of accents – it was memorably sexy and lazy. Lang Lang was a bit too literal – again – with the music’s jazzy question-and-answer sessions with the orchestra too much listen-to-me rather than listen-to-Gershwin – but these Brazilians were certainly relishing the captivating rhythm of the piece.

My main beef with Lang Lang is that I want to make up my own mind about the music I’m listening to without being constantly dug in the ribs by his prodigious flow of stylistic commentary.

The orchestral encore was the familiar “Tico, tico”, with the now mandatory El Sistema business of Mexican-wave and double-bass twirling, which is beginning to feel a bit tired.

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