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Lang Lang and symphony create a night to remember

Jahja Ling
San Diego Union Tribune

By James Chute

Famed pianist’s dedication to the music makes this concert special

Here’s the short answer: Yes. Lang Lang was spectacular at Copley Symphony Hall Friday. So was the San Diego Symphony and conductor Jahja Ling in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The first of three sold-out programs with Lang Lang playing a different concerto by a different composer in each concert, this was a night to remember. Lang Lang, of course, is more than a pianist. He represents everything from the new China to the new Sony. He has more corporate endorsements than many professional athletes. But on this night, in a program that also included Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” and John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” one thing was evident: Lang Lang was there for the music.

The “Rach 2” has a colorful history. Kind of like Los Angeles Lakers star Ron Artest dedicating his inspired play in last year’s finals to his therapist, Sergei Rachmaninoff dedicated his Piano No. 2 to his therapist. He overcame drinking, depression and goodness knows what else to write a concerto considered (along with the “Rach 3”) if not the gold standard, the Mount Everest of piano concertos. Countless pianists have played it because it’s there and measured their technique against its punishing physical demands.

But Lang Lang was able to go far beyond technique, precisely because his is so remarkable. He literally is able to do anything, from rapid, octave hammerstrokes to the most delicate, softest trill. And he does it with such fluency, such complete ease, it’s all but invisible.

His technique is such that he’s not only able to play the piano, he’s able to play with the piano. But there was none of that Friday night.

Starting with the work’s celebrated opening section for piano alone, with its shattering, chime-like chords, his focus was completely on the piece. Not a single note seemed extraneous, not a single passage seemed to sound for its own sake, or to draw attention to him. Instead, with Ling’s sympathetic assistance, he concentrated on communicating the work’s essence to the audience.

When required, he played the role of protagonist; other times, he stepped back into a secondary role. The beautiful duet he played with principal flutist Demarre McGill and then principal clarinetist Sheryl Renk to start the second movement was no less riveting than the most extroverted solo piano passage. He has an ability to seemingly suspend a note in midair, where just before it floats away, he brings it back, resolving the phase — a trait he also showed at the very end of his encore, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D Major.

He played Liszt Saturday and is due for Tchaikovsky today. Expect fireworks. And fireflies.