United States Various, An Evening with Lang Lang: Lang Lang, Gina Alice Redinger (piano), Orchestra of St. Luke’s / Jahja Ling (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York,12.10.2023. (RP)
Rossini – Overture to Semiramide
Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22; The Carnival of the Animals
Kodály – Dances of Galánta
The Orchestra of St. Luke’s began their season with a concert that was a bouquet of orchestral color and melody. Entitled An Evening with Lang Lang, this was an opener for one of New York’s great orchestras that was as glamorous as it was musically rewarding.
The appearance of the pianist and his wife, Gina Alice Redinger, guaranteed the excitement generated by true stars. Fans rushing to the stage with bouquets of flowers and iPhones held high are a finale that is hard to top in the classical-music sphere. It was a program, however, designed to showcase the OSL as well as the pianists, and it did just that.
They began with the Overture to Rossini’s opera, Semiramide, and Jahja Ling led the orchestra in an energetic performance. The overture’s opening Rossini Rocket, the composer’s signature technique of building excitement through ever louder repetitions of a musical phrase, fired brilliantly. Pleasures of a different sort immediately followed with the OSL’s horns playing with a honeyed, mellow tone. Great slashes of sound propelled the overture to a rousing conclusion.
Although best known today as a composer, Saint-Saëns was a master of the keyboard. Liszt proclaimed him to be the best organist in the world, as well as an acknowledged piano virtuoso. As with all such geniuses, when Saint-Saëns set about composing piano concertos, his innovativeness transformed the genre. The Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, perhaps the most popular of the five that he composed, was no exception.
The concerto is a showpiece for both soloist and orchestra, and neither disappointed here. Lang Lang summoned up all the lyricism, power and precision which is his to command. He played with his usual, yet extraordinary, mix of control and abandon, displaying a total mastery of the instrument. The orchestra was as impressive for the refinement and sensitivity of the playing in the concerto’s more intimate moments, as for the grandeur and bombast, all of which is so redolent of the Romantic era, with which Saint-Saëns laced the score.
With the audience eager for more, Lang Lang sat down at the piano and shouted ‘Feed the Birds’. He then transfixed the audience with a mesmerizing performance of the song from Mary Poppins, purported to be one of Walt Disney’s favorites, which managed to maintain its simplicity and sincerity while simultaneously being a virtuosic tour-de-force.
Another salvo of orchestral color, albeit with a distinctively Slovakian flare, came with Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, which opened the second half. In crafting this score, the composer summoned the music of his youth spent in Galánta, which was then part of Austro-Hungary but is now in modern-day Slovakia. The orchestra reveled in the Hungarian-flavored dances, and Jon Manasse delighted in the clarinet solos that peppered the piece. An exhilarating swirl of dance propelled the work to its exciting conclusion.
Fun now entered the equation with Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals. Ling led the orchestra, Lang and Redinger in a musical parade of animals that included an exotic species seldom encountered in nature: pianists doing warm-up exercises. The two pianists ripped through scales and trills with panache and a good-natured display of one-upmanship, but it was Saint-Saëns’s depictions of creatures from the animal world that prompted smiles.
The shimmering sound of piano and strings in depicting tortoises was stunning. Double-bassist John Feeney, lumbering along to the accompaniment of a waltz on the piano, captured perfectly the sway of an elephant in motion. Cellist Myron Lutzke glided serenely to the placid accompaniment of the piano in ‘The Swan’. Ling and the OSL pulled out all the stops in the finale, as did Lang and Redinger, before the sounds of a donkey hee-hawing brought everyone back to earth.
For an encore, the pianists played Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5 in F-sharp minor. Subtlety may have given way to showmanship in a performance of this Brahms favorite, perhaps more aptly termed a battle of the stars, but it exponentially upped the adrenaline level in the hall.
Before the concert, Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director, made a brief statement denouncing Hamas’s attack on Israel and the ensuing atrocities. Whether by design or not, Lang Lang wordlessly expressed an expression of hope for peace in the last music heard that evening, which echoed and amplified Gillinson’s far more somber sentiments.
The pianist played ‘It’s a Small World’, the beloved ear-worm of a Disney song composed shortly after the Cuban Missile crisis in 1963. The lyrics describe ‘a world of hope and a world of fears’, before concluding with the message ‘there’s so much that we share’. Lang Lang could not have chosen better.