Last night’s concert of the New York Philharmonic began with a startling, stirring drumroll: a prelude to the national anthem. Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s music director, was on the podium. I thought back to earlier days in New York.
James Levine would open the Metropolitan Opera season with the anthem; Lorin Maazel would do the same at the Philharmonic. The two men conducted the piece very differently. Levine was straight, compact, and efficient. Maazel was more expansive. Both conducted the anthem with first-class musicianship.
Van Zweden? He was in between the two approaches. I like all three—all three approaches, that is.
Last night’s concert was the Philharmonic’s “Fall Gala.” There were two works on the program—two masterpieces of Beethoven: the Piano Concerto in B flat (same key as the anthem!) and the Fifth Symphony (in C minor). Serving as soloist in the concerto was Lang Lang.
I heard him play this concerto in Salzburg a month and a half ago. On that occasion, the orchestra was the Camerata Salzburg, conducted by Manfred Honeck. I wrote the following about Lang Lang:
He was not at his best, indulging in assorted eccentricities: harsh accents, excessive rubato, overpersonalization. His worst critics say he is always this way. Not true. When you show up at a Lang Lang performance, you never know what Lang Lang will show up. This is part of the excitement, I suppose. In any case, Lang Lang provided many wonderful moments in the Beethoven, as a talent at that level can’t help doing, even when he is disappointing overall.
I could say the same about last night.
Lang Lang has great imagination, and his fingers can do whatever his mind commands. He applied many ingenious touches to the Beethoven. In the first movement, he began his cadenza before the orchestra had stopped playing. Effective? Smart? Arguably, yes.
For me, however, Lang Lang was often willful and cutesy. He was entertaining himself, rather than serving the music. There was a stop-and-start quality to the first movement (and other movements). Lang Lang loves cat-and-mouse games. As he has explained in interviews, he loved the Tom and Jerry cartoon, as a child. It is possible to take this cat-and-mouse quality too far.
Lang Lang often played very, very softly. But this was not an “honest piano,” as a pianist I once knew would say. It was disembodied and un-singing, or un-carrying.
The middle movement, Adagio, was elastic to the point of flabbiness, or soupiness, I believe. It lacked a spine. It was therefore sleepy, in my opinion. I found myself thinking, “I hope Lang Lang, this great talent, does not go too far down the road of eccentricity—the road traveled by Gavrilov, Pogorelich, and other greats.”
In the last movement, the rondo, Lang Lang did some spicy, tangy playing. But he also did some more stopping and starting. I sometimes label this “pushmi-pullyu.” It is a hallmark of Lang Lang’s playing.
But there are other hallmarks—brilliant, commendable ones—and, as I say, it always pays to show up, whenever this kid is on the stage. (He is now thirty-seven, believe it or not, but I still think of him as a kid, and he may too.)
I’ll tell you something funny, or potentially so. Lang Lang is a great hugger—of conductors in particular. I remember him with Maazel, when the pianist was quite young. He was jumping up and down as he embraced Maazel, filled with enthusiasm. Puppyish. The look on Maazel’s face was priceless—a study in perturbation.
Last night, when Lang Lang moved in for the hug—Van Zweden sort of stiffed him. Or rather, denied him. He was not rude. It’s just that the sturdy Dutchman stood his ground, and Lang Lang had to settle for a vigorous handshake. I was possibly the only one who noticed—but I tend to notice such things, and I had to smile.
One other extraneous note, please: Lang Lang played no encore. (In Salzburg, after the Beethoven B-flat, he played Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song.”) Maybe he had been told that the gala audience needed to get to dinner? I don’t know.
Jaap van Zweden conducted the Fifth as expected. He was bracing and disciplined. After a loose, indulgent piano concerto—whatever you thought of it—the air was cleared. I thought of something I once wrote about Mravinsky, the great Russian, and, this morning, I have looked it up on the Internet. The year was 1996. Boxed sets of Mravinsky had just been released. About a recording of the Fifth Symphony, I wrote,
It is like fresh air, this performance, as though the conductor has scraped the barnacles off the hull of an abused masterpiece, so that we can perceive it once again. Mravinsky refuses to “interpret”; he transmits the music as it emerged from the composer’s pen.
Nonetheless, I have some complaints about last night. The first movement was a little brusque, a little rushed for me. And the orchestra, which played very well, could not make a rich sound, which is sometimes desirable here. But the second movement? I loved its breathability. That movement is marked “Andante con moto,” and Van Zweden did not forget the “moto.” He moved that baby along—but did not rush it. It was all very musical.
Jumping to the very last pages of the symphony, I will tell you that Van Zweden lost his baton. It flew out of his hands. No problem, though, as Van Zweden carried on with those hands—like Stokowski, Karajan, Masur, and many other batonless conductors before him.
The audience began applauding before the last note had finished. What do they think this is, the opera?
Van Zweden and the Phil. played no encore, which I regarded as a bit of a cheat. Encores are part of the concert experience—like dessert at the end of a meal, or at least an after-dinner mint. But Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, true, is a pretty good note to end on.