It’s every classical pianist’s worst nightmare.
It was this time last year when it was reported that Chinese star pianist Lang Lang was suffering from tendonitis in his left forearm. In the interim, his appearances have been severely curtailed, basically limited to the highest profile events, such as the June 2017 Hong Kong concert marking the 20th-anniversary of its return to China, and the Carnegie Hall opening night gala last fall. In those concerts, Lang sat beside one of his protégés, playing only with his right hand, while using his left to conduct, beat time, turn pages, or simply rested on his thigh.
Now a year later, the injury has proven stubbornly persistent. In an interview with the South China Morning Post last December, Lang Lang said he was “200% confident” of making a comeback in the summer. Well, we’re not quite there yet. At the TSO Gala last evening, Lang appeared with 15-year old Maxim Lando in the special arrangement of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Lando is an alumnus of the Lang Lang Music Foundation, set up by the pianist some ten years ago to promote emerging talent.
Speaking to a sold-out house including a full choir loft, conductor Peter Oundjian waxed rhapsodic (pun intended) about his first collaborations with the young Lang Lang fifteen years ago, and how impressed he is with the pianist now as a mentor himself, to the next generation of pianists. Lang Lang took this occasion to thank the outgoing TSO Music Director for their years of music-making together, and to offer his good wishes going into the future.
The evening opened with Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, played by the combined forces of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. I didn’t do a systematic count, but just looking at the jammed stage, there must have been some 150 musicians! Given the huge forces, it could easily have turned Wagnerian in decibels — I was expecting a big blast of sound. But Oundjian kept everything under control. The musicians playing with rich, vivid tone, plenty of drama, enthusiasm and humour but not the bombast, capturing perfectly the mercurial nature of this delightful work.
After a long, 10-minute plus pause for resetting the stage seating, the TSO played Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 with lovely, mellow, translucent tone from the strings and the woodwinds, in a beautifully sustained, gorgeous, continuous sonic outpouring that just gave me the chills. This is one of those concerts where it’s quality and not quantity that counts. The first half has about 30 minutes or so of music, and the Gershwin piece in the second half was maybe half that. If you add the two unannounced short pieces by Lang Lang and Lando, plus the encore, it was still only an hour or so of music. But when it’s as exquisitely played as the Ravel, it’s good enough for me.
The second half opened with the two young pianists playing two “starters” not in the printed program — “Aquarium” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, and an exuberant rendition of “America” from Bernstein’s West Side Story. Lang Lang took the treble position, playing only with his right hand. From my vantage point in the mezzanine, I was just a bit too far to really see their hands clearly, but no doubt it was Lando doing the lion’s share of the work. Still, it was obvious that they formed an organic whole. If I hadn’t known there were two pianists playing, I would not have guessed.
Their seamless collaboration continued in the special transcription of Rhapsody in Blue, a quintessentially American, feel-good piece that always leaves the audience smiling, yours truly included. Rubato is the name of the game in this work, and to be sure, I think there was plenty of it this evening! There were some extra interpolations by Lang Lang as well. Having seen him many times, I was struck by how restrained he was, without his customary histrionics. Perhaps it’s part and parcel of being part of a duo instead of solo? Well, not to worry — by the time the grandly melodic theme rolled around near the end of the piece, Lang Lang couldn’t restrain himself anymore, his inherently flamboyant nature burst through for all to see, and the audience lapped it all up. The artists were rewarded with thunderous ovations. He, in turn, gave the faithfuls a short bon-bon from The Nutcracker.
My final thoughts? To be perfectly honest, I would have preferred a healthy Lang Lang with his big technique and, yes, even his over-the-top exuberance. But looking on the bright side, we got to hear the prodigiously talented Maxim Lando. But it’s worrisome that a whole year has not been enough for recovery. Given the big technique the public has come to expect from superstar pianists, they tend to push themselves and injuries are all too common. The greatest artist are only human, and nobody can defy the laws of nature. Let’s just hope that Lang’s injury is no more than a blip in his career which hopefully will be long and illustrious, and his next Toronto visit will find him good as new.