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Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Love him or hate him -- there's just no "in between." Is he the best (or worst) pianist who has ever lived or who is alive today?

Some in the latter category are convinced that Lang Lang has unfortunately set himself on a course to become the next "Mr. Bombastic," Liberace. (For a danceable laugh, check out one of my all-time favorite short commercials with "Mr. Bombastic") To some friends, surprisingly, I reside in the former category of love, and possibly, "best."

I can't say if Lang Lang is worst or best, unless you define the words because that's quite a vague question. "Best" or "worst" is entirely personal -- aside from the technical competence every single modern pianist "must" show to receive applause from today's musical hoi poloi, philistine, or cognoscente.

I had to reassure one musical friend that I had not gone round the bend to wax poetic about two nights ago seeing and hearing Lang Lang at the SF Symphony play Grieg's sole concerto, the piano one in A minor.

Not to mention that as a most curious, and to me atypical, encore, he played "Feed the Birds" from the Disney movie, "Mary Poppins." Even if you are a died-in-the-wool classical music lover, and if you've never seen Lang Lang perform, I think it's worth four minutes of your time to listen to and watch that encore.

Another view of "style"

Below are four responses to my friend and those who take umbrage at Lang Lang's personal playing style.

It's a style many see as flamboyant and using gestures that are at best, irrelevant, but sometimes the objection is also to technique. Regarding "Feed the Birds," my friend thought the phrasing was "so stretched, bombastic, and deformed" that he could not tell "where he’s going or what he’s trying to do." My friend wanted (1) more direction, (2) more message, and (3) clear intention, all good things in musical expression and musicality, to be sure.

But I heard those three things, plus clear and appropriate phrasing. I was so concerned by my friend's viewpoint that I initially wondered if I had been deaf and blind? So I watched and listened many times over to the Youtube video, and twice listened as well to Julie Andrew's charming 1964 "Mary Poppins" movie version. What was her direction, message, and intention, and how did she breathe and phrase the melody and lyrics? Did Lang Lang have that or something similar? I concluded that he did, and for four reasons include him in my "most loved" group of living pianists.

(By way of background, the version Lang Lang plays was written with him in mind by multiple Gramophone Award-winner and recently-knighted pianist Sir Stephen Hough. It was co-composed by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, and was Walt Disney's favorite melody of all time; I guess my friend would call the piece and its interpretation by Lang Lang, a "Royal Miss"?)

My first point is one that my friend and I share:

1. Musical preferences are mostly personal and may have to do with the depth and breath of one's imagination.

Personally, even before I reviewed Julie Andrew's original interpretation, I heard a clear story line: tiny, delicate sparrows chirping in the trees (or cathedral top in the movie), stopping by for a morning repast from Mary Poppins (or the bird lady), while larks were flying by making whirlies in the sky, the sun breaking into full splendor and puffy white clouds being gleefully chased to the sidelines by their vapor trails. I thought about Mary taking a slow morning walk with her young charges dancing around her. I heard amazing silences and breaths between clear phrases as Lang Lang played. I found peace and calm inside Lang Lang's presentation; for a moment or two, I set a toe or two into a deep well of gratitude for just being alive in that melody.

I heard a mystical ending and was simply lost in the final few chords of the coda approaching the center from both extremes of the piano, and then in the final moment, a normal tension-resolving chord occurred, but unexpectedly in the very center of the piano. As it seems to me, usually ending chords or notes are at the bottom or top of the piano and pieces end with a bang, a whimper, or sometimes a whisper. This softest of chords lasted an eternity, and the audience sat stock still for a notable number of seconds before a groundswell of applause broke out.

By that final chord I had so entered the music and floating feeling that

Lang Lang had created, that I did not even hear the cell phone go off,

as noted one commenter to the Youtube presentation.

As for direction, I felt that Lang Lang was pointing us to a sense of great peace and calm, and to an important part of the natural world that we should appreciate and learn from: birds who share our human love of song. He reminded me that we have a special empathetic and student/teacher relationship with birds, as much as with opera and other singers who mistress and master breath control, the critical pause, inflection, contour, color, and phrasing. I heard all those things in Lang Lang's playing. At one point Lang Lang comes to a full stop and I hung on every silent syllable to see where next he would point -- and I did follow.

Which leads me to my second point about style:

2. Gestures at the piano become relevant if and when they are closely connected in time to the story/message, direction, intention, and phrasing.

At the Symphony, I found Lang Lang's arm, head, and body gestures were in accord with the above principle. His gestures seemed the same as what one sees in a great athlete or great ballet or modern dance dancer: as follow thru from a former, initiating action or piano stroke just taken. They proceeded to a natural and expected visual end. Nothing seemed extraneous. But let's look a little closer.

The gesture away from the piano must be in the same direction as the former causational action. If they go beyond the piano's keys and keyboard, they must be on a natural present trajectory, not a different one, and end in a position that does not contort the pianist's arm, hand, or posture and balance on the piano bench and thus, waste energy. The viewer should not see the gesture as extraneous to the initiating action or stroke -- and I did not.

Also, the violence, energy or power, or softness or romance of the gesture, should be intimately related to the tone, musical message, and dynamic range of the preceding piano chord or passage. A pianist should not precipitously fling their arm sky high above the keyboard when coming off a very soft pianissimo note in the high treble clef. But the hand playing a multi-note chord in the low bass at fortissimo dynamic, would seem natural flying in the same direction downward to the left and off the keyboard, or perhaps up in a responsive counter-bounce of energy, as I've seen a number of concert pianists do, including Lang Lang and Yuju Wang (and Anna Shelest in the below-referenced video).

3. Gestures may be fairly viewed as "dancing" at the piano.

Not long ago I lamented to my bff Raven, that it was a shame I could not practice and more easily learn rhythm, and at the same time be standing and dancing around! She responded: "And why not?" My piano teacher at the time pointed me to the Dalcroze method (learning rhythm through body and dance movements) but sadly, it is not taught in the Bay Area. I decided then and there "why not?' Let my body sway a bit with my lilting sweet little Amy Beach waltz, and so I am trying that.

But I DO see pianists dance at the piano; Lang Lang does! Yuja Wang on the bench literally does the jive. I've seen Lang Lang lean back when executing a frenzied passage and roll his eyeballs upward until you see the whites of his eyes at minute 4.29 (go right to it and check it out!) Seems like a more-than appropriate gesture to me, even if somewhat comical at the same time because it is so appropriate and we cannot imagine duplicating his crazed virtuosity! This occurs in an amazing outdoor performance in Italy of Listz's insane Hungarian Rhapsody No.2.

These types of pianists seem to be unable to constrain themselves from feeling the music they play, then naturally swaying, moving, and otherwise gesturing in response to the pulse. Consider the Jussen brothers playing Arensky's Waltz, and how they "dance" with their upper bodies and heads as they play. Or watch Anna Shelest's expressive face and her arm fly off the keyboard and up into the air at the magnificent ending chord, seen here. What would you have her do instead? Sit silently like a zombie, hands remaining on depressed keys, head bowed as if in church. I don't think she was in church....

And why not play like Schelest? What is better in Horowitz hunching over intently, staring at the keys and proceeding deep into his characteristic hypnotic trance? Some might see that as a zombie-like posture and be critical. To be clear, I do not see him that way; he is my favorite pianist of all time and not because of his gesturing or lack thereof, but from his focused and extreme expressiveness and musicality.

4. A less-than-perfect pianist, performance, or instrument can provide an inroad into music that otherwise might not exist.

When my friend knew 3/4 of a year ago that I had settled on my Duchess and was truly in love with her and playing her daily, he asked if I was now going to sell or give away Ms. Bellamy, my high school spinet. Spinets are often dismissed as not-serious pianos because of them limited range of dynamics or tone and expressive potential.

I explained that my spinet held real and symbolic value to me and was much loved not only for her sweet tone and easy touch, but because it was by deciding to take lessons again on her, that once more I fell in love with music! I had no other piano at that time or other method by which to play a piano (until I thought of borrowing a neighbor's grand piano--but that is a story for another place and time). It was near the start of lockdown from Covid, and there was no way I was going to attend piano classes at City College or elsewhere, even if masked. But I wanted to play NOW, not later!

Had I not had Ms. Bellamy, I would not have re-discovered and intensified my former love for music, engaged in this brain-enhancing and sometime crazed and frustrating venture to re-learn how to play, and ultimately found The Duches, not to mention found the delightful musical relationship with my friend and a few more in my "Music Tribe" So, no, I'm not ready to let Ms. Bellamy go, and occasionally I sit down and play her for old time's sake.

Likewise, is it not possible that some people might enter into a great love affair with music by many other pianists, by discovering Lang Lang with his unique gesturing and physical expressions?

I am certain of it!

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Perhaps after all it is exactly that: tone, expressiveness, and musicality of the pianist which should compel our attention and not their gestures. Perhaps for those disturbed by the flying hands of the "dancin' piano fools," they might try closing their eyes and just listen?

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