Chinese pianist Lang Lang is no stranger to Canada. Over the years he's played with orchestras in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa. And this month he's back, with all five Beethoven piano concertos in his suitcase. They're the perfect vehicle for a young pianist with something to prove – or disprove, as the case may be.
Throughout Lang's career, the 29-year-old pianist has been dogged by charges of sensationalism. While his stylish clothes and hair and his flashy piano technique have won him millions of adoring fans, these things haven't won over all classical-music aficionados.
His concerts are policed by critics waiting to pounce on any sign of superficiality: "Lang Lang's extreme virtuosity keeps removing the music's soul," a Times of London critic wrote of Lang's recent CD, Liszt: My Piano Hero. "Down in the bass, he's all thump; up at the top he's glaring sparkle."
After his first stop on the West Coast last week – where he played Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra – Lang comes to Toronto, where, beginning Nov. 9, he will play all five Beethoven piano concertos with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra over 12 days under maestro Peter Oundjian.
It's a daunting challenge. But Lang seems to be taking it very much in stride – even though he's never done a Beethoven concerto cycle before.
"I proposed this because Peter Oundjian and the orchestra are very dear friends of mine," Lang says. "I've had a long-term relationship with the Toronto Symphony for many years. I said let's try a Beethoven concerto cycle, plus some school concerts. That's the project we set up."
And how is he preparing to undertake this imposing task?
"I've been playing the concertos separately, and in Toronto I'll put everything together."
All well and good – but this isn't a story that begins and ends in Toronto. On the contrary, Lang's engagement with the TSO says more about where his career is going than might first meet the eye.
Lang is also scheduled to perform a complete Beethoven cycle in London, in March, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. One would hope this doesn't make Lang's visit to Toronto a mere dress rehearsal – but the classical-music world being what it is, much will be riding on Lang's performances in London. Having the chance to play the cycle somewhere else first is certainly in his interest.
As well, Lang acknowledges that he's made definite plans to complete a cycle of Beethoven concertos on CD, recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Christoph Eschenbach. (In fact, he's already recorded Beethoven's First and Fourth concertos with Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris.)
So why this emphasis on Beethoven? For Lang, it's about the diversity that the five concertos offer.
"Each of the concertos are very different – and they go from the classic period into the romantic. The concertos are at the same high artistic level as his symphonies."
Indeed they are – and that's why classical music fans expect to hear the Beethoven piano concertos played at the very highest musical standards. If Lang were to successfully present a cycle up to the standards of, say, Alfred Brendel, Murray Perahia or Pierre-Laurent Aimard, it would silence all charges that his playing is superficial.
First Toronto – and then London.
Lang Lang plays Beethoven's Concerto No. 1 on Nov. 9, Concerto No. 3 on Nov. 10, Concerto No. 4 on Nov. 12, Concerto No. 2 on Nov. 17 and Concerto No. 5 on Nov. 19. All performances are at Roy Thomson Hall, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Special to The Globe and Mail