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In Lyric recital, pianist Lang Lang goes easy on the antics

Lang Lang performs before near capacity crowd Saturday Civic OperHouse. | Robert Kusel photo

Lang Lang performs before a near capacity crowd Saturday at the Civic Opera House. | Robert Kusel photo

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Updated: June 15, 2012 10:53AM

“Are you going to the circus?” was the question I heard most often in the run-up to Saturday night’s piano recital by international classical superstar Lang Lang at the massive Civic Opera House.

A rather frenetic radio campaign by presenter Lyric Opera of Chicago touted the performer as a “dervish of the keyboard” and promised an overhead camera and live screen projection of “Lang Lang’s hands.” And a tendency to spectacle by the Chinese-born, Curtis Institute (Philadelphia) graduate that has run through his phenomenal, almost 13-year career was a reasonable cause for worry by some.

But those who have watched this young man closely — he turns 30 just next month — since his last-minute, major venue debut at Ravinia in 1999 know that he is a performer of many parts. When he wants to focus his unique and even breathtaking technical ability and share his artistic investigations rather than crazy hairdos, onstage antics or over-the-top programming or interpretation, he can hold an audience as few others can with playing that is remarkably musical.

Perhaps because he truly values his connection to Chicago — not only his Ravinia debut and early mentorship from Christoph Eschenbach but his later much tougher schooling from former Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Daniel Barenboim — or perhaps because he knows how to value an event historically, it was clear from his first walking out on stage Saturday that he was in serious, though not solemn, mode.

Love him or roll your eyes at him, Lang Lang is all about sincerity. And in presenting major works of Bach, Schubert and Chopin he was wanting both to demonstrate his desire to be accepted as an artist and to do something more. I think that he wanted to show the near capacity crowd of more than 3,500 and the critics and potential naysayers among them the power of an old-fashioned piano recital, the possibility of a single person on a stage and the silent attention of several thousand people creating a communal artistic event.

Amid uncertainty since the concert’s announcement last summer of how a piano recital would fit in to Lyric’s purpose and whether the large house could be sold, new general director Anthony Freud appeared down to the wire to be taking a big public relations and financial risk. The apparent box-office success instead would show him to be remarkably canny and forward-thinking. The evening took me back — in feel, if not in every aspect of onstage execution — to the excitement and involvement that would come from Vladimir Horowitz’s Sunday afternoon recitals at Orchestra Hall or Claudio Arrau’s rare appearances at the Auditorium Theatre. When an all-ages, all-backgrounds crowd — certainly the largest representation of Chinese ticketholders at a major concert in Chicago — sees how important a piano recital can be, all aspects of classical music benefit.

This is Lang Lang’s current standard recital program, and in its hold-the-shenanigans version it succeeded musically as well. His is big, old-fashioned Bach playing, and you can put up all of the historically informed performance arguments you like without taking a thing away from a slow-movement Sarabande in the B-Flat Major Partita No. 1, BWV 825 that shows how he can combine complexity with a slowing down of time. His offering of Schubert’s last sonata, also in B-Flat Major, D. 960 was astonishingly well-balanced and flowing, none of the start-and-stop for effect that he can easily slip into.

Chopin’s second book of 12 Etudes, Op. 25, has been a Lang Lang calling card since he was a little boy. Here, in the last ones, we did get some theatricality at the piano bench, an occasional “Taxi!” gesture with a raised right hand, and even a once-trademark moony stare at the audience. And he certainly delivers no trace of Polish origin in these dauntingly difficult miniatures. But it’s hard to think of anyone else who makes their complexities seem so flowing and inevitable. While the screen projection could have been more logically focused and with fewer zooms in and out, it actually served to broadcast this fluidity and surely helped those sitting in the three tiers of balconies at the back of the house.

A gentle encore of the third etude from Chopin’s earlier Op. 10 and a beyond virtuosic — even operatic? — rendition of Liszt’s “La Campanella” from his own Paganini Etudes were the alpha and omega encores on the American Steinway “D.” Lang Lang and Freud had a plan. And they pulled it off. Good for them.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).

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