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Review: Lang Lang (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

★★★★★ The superstar pianist dazzles Brisbane in an unforgettable concert.

Lang Lang performances these days come with some heavy expectations. This is a pianist who has become one of the most visible classical music performers in the world, and who is routinely referred to as a classical superstar. He’s performed as part of the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, not to mention a truly astonishing list of collaborations ranging from jazz pianist Herbie Hancock to the band Metallica. This is, of course, without mentioning the list of orchestras and conductors he’s worked with, which can be essentially summed up with two words – “almost everyone”. Reading the biography included with the programme notes for the concert was head-spinning – performing for four American presidents as well as the Queen is a decent thing to have on your resume. With such impressive credentials, a concert featuring Lang Lang in little ol’ Brisbane is something to get excited about.

In the lead-up to the performance, the entire concert was brought forward by a week for unspecified reasons. Originally, QSO was going to play Manuel de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite and feature Lang Lang only in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3. However, with some well-organised date-and-time reshuffling by QSO, the concert instead included Lang Lang performing some of his favourite solo pieces. To me, this seems like more sensible programming in any case – why bring in a world-famous pianist for a single piece?

The concert began with the famous Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This is a piece that requires the utmost sensitivity to delicate nuances of colour by both the orchestra and conductor. Although it’s a piece I’ve heard many times before, I’m always struck by Ravel’s inventive timbres that bring Mussorgsky’s piano original to life. One section that is a favourite of many (including me!) is the moment in The Old Castle when the alto saxophone makes a rare orchestral appearance, taking over the noble melody from the bassoons. Also worthy of mention are the entire wind and brass sections, who brought a fine sense of control to each Promenade. QSO was firing on all cylinders here, perhaps inspired by guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto. His conducting was fantastically physical, with an intense sense of momentum and power behind it, easily evoking the images in each piece – I could swear at one point he actually leapt into the air at the climax of The Great Gate of Kiev. Asking whether there were any Spanish members of the audience, Prieto announced that the orchestra would be playing the famous Intermedio from La boda de Luis Alonso by Gimenez as an encore. This was a real firecracker of a performance with a wonderful sense of fun. I feel like I’ll only be disappointed in future concerts when they don’t include the percussionists donning sombreros (wrong country, though!), and banging away on oven trays.

After the interval, Lang Lang entered the stage for the performance of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto to great applause and a palpable air of excitement. The programme notes suggested that the piece is one of the more successful mixtures of Prokofiev’s compositional style, combining Romantic lyricism and dissonant Modernism, a description I’d agree with. In fact, it’s this combination of stylistic approaches that made this performance so successful. The piece veers incredibly rapidly between moods and styles, changing direction at the drop of a hat, but Lang Lang brought a kind of gentle muscularity to the piece, finely balancing the different sections. He was clearly enjoying himself, occasionally turning to the orchestra or Prieto and conducting along as well with an airy wave of the hand. Weaving expertly between the more hard-edged passages and the expressive melodic lines of the second and third movements, Lang Lang, QSO and Prieto brought the piece to an uproarious and electrifying climax.

Finally, Lang Lang closed the concert with what QSO had referred to as a selection of favourites to replace Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat. Although I’d quibble a little with the terminology (if you’re playing some favourites after a concerto... isn’t that just a set of encores?) this was a fabulous way to end the concert. With a total of four extra pieces, including a poetic reading of the Tänze in E Flat from Schumann’s Davidbündlertänze, these performances left the audience wanting even more. At this point, the poor orchestra was still patiently waiting to leave the stage, only stopped by Lang Lang removing the concertmaster’s bow to draw the orchestra off-stage. This was a fine way to close a memorable evening, full of passion and intensity from pianist, orchestra and conductor alike, all of whom exceeded the audience’s already sky-high expectations. As a long-time Queensland resident, this was probably one of the best-ever performances I’ve seen from QSO, so a hearty bravo to QSO, Prieto and Lang Lang!

LANG LANG
Venue: Concert Hall, QPAC
Reviewed: June 7, 2016
Reviewer: Paul Ballam-Cross, Limelight
Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto