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January 14, 2005

Piano prodigy makes up for inconsistent orchestra

A conglomeration of early classical music—two Haydn symphonies, No. 86 in D Major and No. 99 in E-flat minor, flanked by the early modern Bartók Piano Concerto No. 2—made for an unusual concert at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 6. The result, although initially disconcerting, proved to be dazzling upon better acquaintance with the material.

Although vastly different stylistically and tonally, the combination of old and modern allowed the audience to explore new dimensions of both. The hidden melodic nature of Bartók's music accrued the greatest advantage by far. Haydn's inclination to favor the charming melody over harmony created an atmosphere in which Bartók's own simple melodies shone through his incessant and overpowering atonal harmonies. The Haydn work also benefited from this comparison; it appeared after the Bartók as a fresh and powerful work rather than the usual carefully calculated piece.

However, the performance was unpredictable and oscillated between brilliance and its antithesis. The orchestra began with Haydn's earlier symphony, appearing to be uncomfortable and hesitant. The first violin section especially suffered from a weak and scratchy melodic timbre. The bows treaded lightly and wavered uncontrollably on the strings. Although it is true that Haydn should not be played with untoward gusto, neither should he be played so lightly that the melody appears consumptive.

Moreover, the orchestra—and, again, especially the strings—were out of tune for large sections of the piece. This was unfortunate in the extreme; this piece, relying so much on melody, needed to be in tune. Worse, coupled with the weak musicianship, the work was sporadic in terms of intonation. Sepia-toned, crackling, out-of-tune music does not work for any genre, especially not for music of the Classical period where each melodic note is naked, and completely exposed to the imagination. The second violins, violas, and cellos valiantly tried to boost their cousins through their parts, but their support was either not enough to be of use or so loud that it drowned out its counterpart.

Furthermore, Haydn hails from the Classical period, and his music does not call for a large amount of players per part. Thus, each player, in order to help the piece achieve expression, needs to play more forcefully and make his part account for more. Sadly, this was a fact which everyone apparently did not realize. However, the winds, and especially the reed instruments to their magnificent credit, carried the piece entirely. They were always sound in their intonation, rhythmically perfect, and, moreover, they made eloquent use of dynamics.

The second Haydn, symphony No. 99 in E-flat minor, was a vast improvement over the first. Due to an augmentation in the number of players and to a renewed confidence on the part of everyone, the CSO executed it with a vastly improved sound. The flute solo during the first movement, played by Mathieu Dufour, was moving not only due to an excellent palette of dynamics, but because the notes themselves were incredibly, uniquely clear. Although the melody was repeated several times, Dufour managed to maintain its freshness and beauty.

In addition, the strings were unmistakably improved during the second symphony. Not only were they in tune, but through controlling their bows, they were able to strengthen their playing, and even use dynamics. Their dynamic plan, much like the flautists', was well chosen, and was beautifully congruent with the composer's melody.

Unfortunately, the piece wavered during the second movement and became dull. Conductor Daniel Barenboim set the tempo too slow, and the piece dragged itself along lachrymosely. Moreover, the orchestra did not try to help, either by exaggerating its dynamics or its expression, and this sadly hurt the second movement. The third, however, picked up philosophically where the first left off, and the audience was literally kept on the edge of their seats by the gripping tension created by Barenboim and his superb use of the crescendo-decrescendo technique. The countless melodic transitions were seamless, with a gorgeous melodic line. Between the first and second Haydn symphonies, the CSO provided a treat to its audience.

Lang Lang, a young and very accomplished pianist, joined the CSO to perform Bartók's second piano concerto. From the moment he appeared on stage, it was evident that Lang Lang was no ordinary pianist. Dressed uniquely in a blazer and slacks as opposed to the usual tuxedo, his hair neatly molded in to a long and cascading mullet, he smiled amicably at the audience, and began what was to be an unexpected and incredible performance.

Lang Lang seems to have an intrinsic knowledge of performance. He blends seamlessly with the orchestra and at no time did it seem as if one was leading the other. There was no semblance of stylistic disagreement from either party. He responded well to the mood set at the beginning of the movements, especially the second, when he did not play for quite some time. Lang Lang also transitioned brilliantly during sudden changes from slow to fast tempo, or from soft lyrical melodies to loud and booming ones, never losing sight of his discussion with the orchestra.

Perhaps Lang Lang's greatest accomplishment was that, unlike most Bartók performers who allow the atonal harmonies to overpower the simple inherent country tunes, he managed to not only bring out these melodies, but was also able to neatly and completely meld with the harmonies. He allowed the piano to sing. Although it was evident that Lang Lang plays flamboyant music better than intimate music, he was still able to shine in both stylistic realms. Rhythmically, dynamically, and tonally he was simply excellent.

Lang Lang's only fault was that he tended to get carried away and thus move with too much exaggeration. He repeatedly jumped out of his seat and moved his head and torso dramatically; this, unfortunately, detracted from his virtuosity. His facial expressions also were uncontrolled, and it was at times too easy to forget the music and simply watch him. In spite of this somewhat uncalled for showmanship—perhaps even because of it—he was able to maintain the audience's attention by making the piece seem ever unpredictable and exciting.