Give the hands a hand
Santa Fe’s fall concert season got under way this past week with a celebration of the piano, thanks to a pair of well-attended concerts that spotlighted the instrument on consecutive days. One introduced a pianist who is poised at the beginning of his career, the other a celebrity who is flying higher than any other classical musician of his generation.
First up was Haochen Zhang, the co-gold medalist of the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, who appeared as soloist with the Santa Fe Symphony (Steven Smith conducting) at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sept. 19. The following evening, the Santa Fe Concert Association presented Lang Lang in a solo recital at Santa Fe Opera.
Zhang must have felt a bit of pressure, under the circumstances, but pressure is no stranger to anyone who has climbed to the top of the ladder at the Cliburn competition or, for that matter, at the China International Piano Competition of 2007, which he also did. His Cliburn triumph at the age of 19 was perhaps tempered because it was the first time in the competition’s history that the gold medal was shared by two competitors. Pianophiles were dependably atwitter disputing the competition’s results, but I don’t see how many music lovers could be less than impressed by the snippets of his prize-winning performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto that are included in the recently released film Surprise in Texas, the latest installment of director Peter Rosen’s documentaries about the Cliburn competition.
When this slender youngster walked onstage at the Lensic, one wondered how he could possibly do combat with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Pianists cite it as a benchmark for technical whiz-bang; less frequently mentioned is the sheer stamina required by this piece, in which the soloist is active for practically the entirety of its 40 minutes’ duration. This turned out to be a nonissue. Zhang had the piece firmly in hand and even decided to employ the “big” first-movement cadenza, an alternative to the shorter and more elegant cadenza Rachmaninoff originally wrote and which he himself always employed in performance and recording. The big cadenza didn’t become popular until Van Cliburn championed it in the wake of his triumph at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1959; his powerful, bronze tone seemed custom-made for the stentorian chords of this afterthought of the composer’s. Still, some pianists play the version Rachmaninoff clearly preferred, and I do wish Zhang had, since I suspect his strength lies in the direction of lyricism, while the big cadenza imposes a more athletic feel on the whole concerto. Indeed, he seemed not to produce a particularly large tone, and the piano was occasionally subsumed within the thickness of the orchestral texture. By way of contrast, he played as an encore an arrangement of a Chinese folk song in which rustling figuration rippled with eggshell delicacy.
At this point, Zhang is working from a well-cultivated base of technical finesse. He is 20 years old, and as he moves forward he will no doubt continue to explore the coloristic possibilities available in the voicing of chords, the expansion of his dynamic range (which, on the piano, is largely the art of illusion), and the minute shadings that will make his passage work sparkle even more brightly than it already does. His career is off to a terrific start, and after a strong performance like this, music lovers will be eager to watch as his musical personality crystallizes through the crucible of experience.
The concert began with a monochromatic rendition of Paul Dukas’s fleeting Fanfare for the ballet La Péri (for brass choir), but after intermission the orchestra provided much delight through its spirited performance of Dvorák’sˇ Eighth Symphony. Smith imbued this seminal symphony with lusty enthusiasm that underscored its pastoral implications, particularly in the lovable rusticities of the third movement and in the rambunctious finale.
Now all of 28 years old, Sony global “Brand Ambassador” Lang Lang stands at the summit of professional success, though he’s really only a decade into his career. From an aesthetic standpoint, it has been a rocky decade, and his intemperate appetite for commercialism has drawn much hostility from critics and concertgoers who are accustomed to a less ostentatious way of doing business in the classical-music industry. I am among those who have deplored his vulgarity in the past, and I was therefore delighted to see — and, more important, to hear — how graciously he comported himself during the Sept. 20 recital. His programming was distinguished: Bach’s Partita No. 1, Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major (D. 960), and Chopin’s 12 Études (Op. 25).
He painted the Bach mostly in wispy watercolors, doling out the Prelude and Allemande with hyper-romantic rubato and extracting a dreamy, super-sweet tone from his Steinway. In the Allemande, one marveled at his left-hand phrasing, which was not merely staccato but instead detailed countless gradations of staccato, with every attack and release conveying absolute clarity. Following a genially loping Corrente and a whispered Sarabande, he achieved his most astonishing effects in the Minuets, in which he displayed a sense of finger independence that was drawn straight from Horowitz’s playbook. This is not an approach that seems intent on revealing anything much about Bach, to be sure, but it is hugely impressive in what it reveals about piano playing, and that is an achievement.
Schubert’s B-flat Major Sonata was the composer’s last, and it stands as a monument to that which is most private and personal in music. It is