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Young pianist enraptures Symphony audience

| Saturday, June 3, 2006

Young Chinese pianist Lang Lang stoked to frenzied enthusiasm the audience at Heinz Hall Friday night at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's final subscription concert of the season.

Lang, 23, has already become one of classical music's most popular figures, one who plays the audience as well as he does his instrument. And Lang's technique on the piano would be mesmerizing even with one's eyes shut.

After artistic adviser Sir Andrew Davis led a sensitive account of the orchestral introduction, Lang took over. With the audience hanging on his every nuance, Lang offered a highly individual journey through the three movements of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor by Frederic Chopin.

He was free in tempo and also spiced his playing with agogic accents - such as unexpected pause between notes.

Lang is a master of short-term musical rhetoric, highlighting poignant phrases in a way akin to Andrew Lloyd Webber's formula for success in writing musicals. Some passages did flow by uneventfully, but then this young pianist is admirably aware of his need for further artistic growth.

Nearly the entire audience gave Lang a standing ovation and wouldn't let him go. His encore was part of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in a performance that was astounding and appalling at the same time. It showcased his famously stupendous technique, but was so grotesque as to be a parody.

The concert opened with Davis leading Composer of the Year Jennifer Higdon's "Loco," which puns on the abbreviation for locomotive and the Spanish word for crazy. While Higdon's piece doesn't challenge Arthur Honegger's "Pacific 231" as the most evocative music portrait of a train engine, it was an effective curtain raiser.

"Loco" is highly energetic and amply virtuosic. It's not so crazy as to leave the tracks and builds to a climax that delighted the audience.

Davis conducted a good performance of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 4 to conclude the concert and season of Mellon Grand Classics. The music achieves this composer's characteristic blend of romantic intensity with classical formal mastery at the highest level.

It draws upon earlier music including, surprisingly, Hector Berlioz - whose love music for "Romeo and Juliet" is evoked when Brahms' flutes descend over the slow movement's main theme when played by divided violas.

The conductor's tempi were spacious enough to allow welcome inflections from the musicians, yet never lost the sense of forward movement. It was a moderately intense performance that was shapely in many ways.

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