Arts and Entertainment

A Lang Lang Way From Home

At the Santa Cecilia Hall in Rome, Lang Lang delivered a memorable performance that captured both his effortless skill and his performative flair.

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The 2,800-seat Santa Cecilia Hall in Rome, Italy was packed with concertgoers and music intellectuals alike, eagerly awaiting adept pianist Lang Lang’s take to the stage on February 19th, 2024. With amphitheater-style seating that wraps fully around the stage, the Santa Cecilia venue in Rome provides pristine acoustics and an elegant, magnificent ambiance well-suited for Lang Lang’s character. Lang Lang rose to international fame as a teenager and has since become one of the most influential pianists of the modern day, performing both as a soloist and with world-renowned orchestras. Despite the Chinese virtuoso’s undeniable talent, his flamboyant, exaggerated style has garnered criticism from music traditionalists. Throughout the program—a Fauré “Pavane,” Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” and an assortment of Chopin Mazurkas—Lang Lang stayed true to this character, asserting his commanding presence but occasionally allowing it to be overshadowed by excessive theatrics.

“Andante” from Pavane in F sharp minor was a perfect start to the concert. Fauré’s music, romantic and deeply sensitive, allowed Lang Lang’s musical expression to shine without impedance. Hauntingly delicate, the opening melody has made this short piece one of Fauré’s most famous. For the first half, arpeggiated baselines complement creeping melodies in the leading right hand. As the piece shifted in and out of these motifs, Lang Lang approached each repeated phrase with nuanced musicality, tampering with rubato and dynamics but staying faithful to Fauré’s intentions. As he progressed, Lang Lang seemed to become more invested in the piece, closing his eyes and smiling up at the ceiling—it looked as if the music had a spiritual grasp on him. 

The intensity of the following piece, Schumann’s “Kreisleriana, Op. 16,” contrasted sharply with the romantic smoothness of the Fauré. Composed of eight movements called “fantasies,” the piece jarringly alternates between slow, serene moments and impassioned outbursts, almost contradicting itself in mood. In dense scenes of the music, rich with embellishments and overlapping voices, Lang Lang played with remarkable clarity, allowing the piece to maintain a steady, forward momentum. He approached the calm sections with a lovely serenity, letting the dissonant harmonies and rich progressions speak for themselves. However, he was perhaps most exciting to the audience at moments of escalation and climax; as he chased the piece’s manic scales and built up whirlwind rhythms of triplets, Lang Lang propelled his entire body with the pulse of the music, stomping his left foot with the beat and vigorously rocking his head up and down. With each release, he threw his hand into the air, jolting his head to the ceiling. Lang Lang was clearly deeply engrossed in the music, but while his dramatic flair was certainly amusing, the intensity became excessive and overwhelming. He became the focal point when his provocative interpretation of Schumann’s melodies would have sufficed.  

A brief intermission ensued before Lang Lang returned to the stage for Chopin’s Mazurkas. Chopin composed approximately 60 Mazurkas during his lifetime, the selection in the program spanning from 1830 to 1845. Beginning with the intricately lively “Mazurka, Op. 7 No. 3” and ending on the somber yet dancelike “Mazurka, Op. 59 No. 3,” the selection was well-chosen. The pieces blended together into a cohesive whole even as the keys, moods, and harmonies changed. Lang Lang brought out the depth of the bass voice in the beginning but kept this richness present as the melody wavered. As the music lay out a tormented scene, Lang Lang allowed the chords to resonate with profound grandeur while the lighter notes floated with an airy and hopeful tone. In his interpretation, he did not hold back in providing stylistic drama and emphasis that were almost humorously engaging, making this rendition especially captivating.

If the audience members thought Lang Lang had finished after he played out the program, they were mistaken. After a theatrical bow and exaggerated “thank-yous” were extended, Lang Lang returned with three more pieces. The first two were short and sweet: a brief romance and a rhythmic Chinese folk song for the New Year. The third piece, however, taken from his latest recording, felt unnecessary; titled “Rainbow Connection,” the piece was littered with sappy melodies and cheesy progressions that undermined the coherence of the rest of the concert. While the first two pieces were welcome additions, they too were not needed—the program ultimately would have been stronger without them.

Two and a half hours after the concert began, audience members walked out of the massive auditorium with smiles on their faces. Though Lang Lang may be overindulgent at times, his distinctive interpretations are what makes his performances so remarkable and what continues to drive viewers back.