Millions of people who’d never attend a symphony concert experienced classical music’s biggest star when Chinese pianist Lang Lang performed with heavy metal band Metallica in January during the Grammy Awards.
It was apt placement for Lang, a 31-year-old musician who combines the informality of a pop star with the skill and musicality of a classical virtuoso — which means Lang is as close to a rock star as a classical artist gets.
In concert Saturday with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra at the sold-out River Center Theatre, Lang dazzled concertgoers with technical feats and charmed them with his audience-engaging, even hammy stage presence.
Lang, guest star for the symphony’s Irene W. and C.B. Pennington Foundation Great Performers in Concert series, joined conductor Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra for Richard Strauss’ “Burleske” and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.
The orchestra also paid its guest a special tribute via a performance of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in D minor.” The pianist credits the bombastically entertaining Liszt symphonic work, which he first heard as a small child while watching the Tom and Jerry cartoon, “The Cat Concerto,” for inspiring him to be a pianist.
Performing with the orchestra during both halves of the concert, Lang first played Strauss’ devilishly difficult and rarely performed “Burleske.”
Lang stepped on stage with natural flair. His thick black hair brushed high in a near pompadour, he wore a skin-tight tux and a collarless white shirt that couldn’t accommodate a tie if it wanted to.
Sitting, sometimes bouncing at the symphony’s Steinway grand for “Burleske,” Lang merely looked the part of a rock star. His performance of “Burleske,” a piece composed by one of Western music’s great Romantics, showed the young pianist to be an old-school Romantic. Lang follows the likes of such 20th-century piano maestros as Sergei Rachmaninov, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz.
Romping through “Burleske,” Lang executed epic keyboard descents, impossibly rapid sequences and dramatic fireworks with apparent ease. It was a vivacious performance, too, joyfully animated by his sparking touch.
Often a playful presence at the keyboard, Lang appeared to be enjoying the show more than anyone. His expansive hand and arm movements and tendency to gaze directly into the audience and the orchestra, however, could be seen as grandstanding that diverts attention from the music. But Lang is so phenomenally skillful and gifted that his mannerisms can be forgiven.
Returning in the concert’s second half for Ravel’s piano concerto, Lang presented another masterful take on a piano-symphonic masterwork that so fits his vibrant musical personality. He handily sustained his keyboard precision during the swift, percussive parts that come early in the piece and through the explosive abandon he demonstrated deeper into the movement.
While the designed-to-dazzle first and third movements of Ravel’s concerto impressed, the work’s simple, slow second movement featured Lang’s most beautiful playing of the night. In contrast to the thunder and speed in the outer movements, Ravel’s song-like Adagio assai was lovingly shaped delicacy and elegance.
Returning for a delightful encore featuring a solo piano arrangement of a Chinese traditional piece, “Spring Festival Overture,” Lang first said, “It’s a great pleasure to come to Louisiana. It’s a beautiful state and you have this amazing orchestra.”
Always a fine regional ensemble, Muffitt and the orchestra went the extra mile Saturday, staying in exciting, complementary step with their very special guest.