What I learned today: Lang Lang’s hair gel > Josh Bell’s hair wax. Ha! But no, seriously – even though Lang Lang didn’t move as much as Josh Bell did, he played three pieces compared to Josh Bell’s one. And his hair remained pretty much the same, i.e. Asian popstar style.
So today’s concert was Lang Lang playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Christoph Eschenbach as the conductor. Although the program said Lang Lang would play Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, for some reason they switched it around so he played Chopin’s Andante Spianato in G Major first, followed by Grande Polonaise in E-flat Major. I suppose all musicians are whimsical in that way – Josh Bell had also done the same thing when I went to his concert.
Andante Spianato was more of an introduction to Grande Polonaise, so it started off really light and slow, with a lilting melody. Like most of Chopin’s work, the style had many running grace notes. The orchestra didn’t even come in until later, and had more frequent ‘interjections’ when the music transitioned over to Grande Polonaise, which was faster, louder, and livelier. This time, Ravinia somehow managed to place a camera directly above the pianist, so captured a bird’s eye view of Lang Lang’s fingers racing impossibly fast on the black and white keys.
On the other end, I really applaud Eschenbach for managing to conduct the entire time, because despite a conductor’s low profile, it’s nowhere near as easy as it looks. Plus he’s a 70-year-old man. I wonder what he thought of as he listened to his ‘discovery’, Lang Lang, perform tonight. For those who don’t know, Eschenbach was the conductor when Lang Lang made his major debut at Ravinia 12 years ago to replace someone else who couldn’t make it. Great musicians tend to be discovered that way, like Josh Groban was.
All too soon, Lang Lang’s performance ended, although he did give an encore and left with a bouquet of yellow flowers in his arms after plucking a few to hand over to Eschenbach and some CSO musicians. But I was kind of disappointed when I saw all these people leave just because Lang Lang wasn’t playing after the intermission, as if the CSO wasn’t ‘special’ enough to merit their attention and time. So to make up for that, I’ll include them in this review!
They played Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14 by Berlioz. I particularly liked the movements “A Ball” and “Scene in the Country”, although the entirety of the piece really brought the whole concert to a complete and satisfying closure. What I liked about “A Ball” was its waltz-like quality that reminded me of The Blue Danube; it was both playful and full of dreams. You could picture the couples twirling on the ballroom floor.
“Scene in the Country” was beautiful because even though the whole orchestra was used, Berlioz really highlighted instruments one at a time, similar to the way people are drawn to different details in a scenery before stepping back to see the whole picture, then zooming in on something again. There were flute solos, oboe solos, clarinet solos, bass solos, and even the harps got their own solo, which is extremely rare in an orchestral piece as they tend to be instruments used to add to the depth of the piece rather than forcing its mellow sound to play by itself. But I loved the way how after each ‘solo’, the strings would blend in again, as a person walking through the country would start and stop at a flower here, a rock there, a cloud there…all the while looking, and admiring nature’s beauty. I believe the CSO and Eschenbach really captured that feeling tonight at Ravinia.
Like most symphonies, Symphonie Fantastique ended with all the grandeur of drums and the brass section blaring and strings stringing and woodwind singing, and I laughed in my mind at those early leavers who truly missed out on so much. Sure, I don’t dispute the fact that Lang Lang’s playing was stellar as usual, but missing the forest for the tree makes it quite a heavy loss for those who didn’t stay just a bit longer. Perhaps they had a legitimate excuse, like they have to feed their kids, but it’s still a little sad. But the standing ovations easily blew all those cares away, because as I’d predicted, tonight was certainly a night to savour and enjoy thoroughly, which I did. Thank you, Lang Lang. Thank you, CSO. Thank you, Eschenbach. And thank you, Ravinia, for the beautiful venue. The only thing I won’t thank is the weather, which turned strangely cold, and I’d forgotten to bring my jacket.