LENOX, Mass. — If superstar pianist Lang Lang has ever been subdued about anything, it's his return to concertizing after a year's recovery from a left-arm injury. His U.S. comeback opened the Tanglewood festival season here with the Boston Symphony Orchestra — far from the Philadelphia public that has known him since his Curtis Institute years, and with decreased pressure at this Berkshire Mountain retreat that's now so preoccupied with the Leonard Bernstein centennial.
Lang Lang's name appeared discreetly as soloist on the July 6 program, not playing one of his great crowd pleasers but Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 conducted by music director Andris Nelsons, who has ushered the Boston orchestra into a new golden age.
Though Lang Lang gave no interviews, and his Facebook page seemed downright nonchalant, the young female fan base that habitually rushes the stage at his concerts was in evidence. The sophisticated but mainstream Tanglewood audience largely seemed to know what was at stake when he made his entrance. Pre-performance applause was extra warm.
Even at age 36, Lang Lang projects a boyish charisma that employs your protective instincts — all the more so if you saw him grow up before your eyes, emerging from his cramped Spruce Street apartment, speaking broken English, and yet becoming something as close to a rock star as any classical pianist can be. What's the deal with his injured arm? How is he coping? Can we expect to see him in Philly again at some point?
He's still not commenting publicly, so I phoned up his mentor. "Every time I spoke to him over the past month … he seemed more positive about being able to play," said Gary Graffman, now 89, the former Curtis Institute president whose own significant concert career was curtailed by arm problems. "He's been playing a little bit here and there … doing public master classes …"
The post-Tanglewood verdict? Critical opinion seems to be that Lang Lang is, indeed, back. And from what I heard myself at Tanglewood I'd agree, to a point. His pianist equipment is in good shape. His musical personality is more engaging than ever.
He brought to the Mozart concerto a strong sense of narrative: Every phrase was coloristically varied with a depth that explored the kind of soft, subtle playing that's always been a part of his sound world but was often overshadowed by the kind of flamboyance that once earned Lang Lang the derogatory nickname "Bang Bang."
But the performance also felt like only the first step on his road back to the concert stage.
The left-hand rhythmic spring that can propel the most introspective Mozart performance forward wasn't quite there. Though never tentative, the performance was calculated. The first movement tempo was oddly sluggish. And in the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 that followed, the Boston Symphony Orchestra showed that it was in anything but sluggish form that night.
Pianistic injuries can be confoundingly elusive. Pianist Murray Perahia had a mere paper cut that turned into years of off-and-on cancellations. In Lang Lang's case, he practiced too hard while preparing Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and ended up with tendonitis.
"Every student gets it," said Graffman. "So you don't practice for a while, and it gets better. But it didn't get better [for Lang Lang]." It didn't get worse, either, but it persisted. "Lang Lang was the first of any of my students where it developed into something that lasted a long time."
In January, he changed his Tanglewood program from the finger-busting Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (one of his early calling cards) to the less physically demanding Mozart, reminding you that another of his early calling cards was the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 (whose good Biedermeier manners are close to Mozart's).
"All the concerts scheduled now will be Mozart or Beethoven 2nd (Piano Concerto No. 2)," said Graffman. "And no recitals for a few months."
Though no Philadelphia concerts have been announced, his likely return is only a matter of time.
Lang Lang has pursued his career with singular exuberance. As a preteen talent from a lower-middle-class background, he began winning competitions in China before he and his father packed their bags for America in 1997, determined not to come back until he had the finishing of a major U.S. conservatory. Curtis invited him in; Graffman, a sinophile who has traveled widely in China, took him as a student.
Then at age 17, in 1999, Lang Lang was flipping through a music magazine at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble store, eyeing a concert listing for a gala at Chicago's Ravinia Festival, and dreaming about playing there. When star pianist Andre Watts canceled his appearance, Lang Lang sensationally replaced him.
Even that concert wasn't necessary. It only accelerated what was happening anyway, says Graffman.
Since then, Lang Lang has achieved global popularity and, back home in China, has been credited with inspiring millions of kids to take up Western classical piano — aided by the formation of the Lang Lang International Music Foundation.
However, many have worried that Lang Lang plays too often and too hard. During his 2016 Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, some musicians remarked they'd never heard any pianist play so loud.
One question is how the public will take to a less-flamboyant Lang Lang. The Tanglewood reception wasn't extravagant, even though his encore, the Chopin Nocturne in C-sharp minor, showed Lang Lang's filigree legato at its very best.
Overall, his image in the classical music world has long been polarized, and never more than at an appearance last October 2017 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. In his injured state, he played Rhapsody in Blue enlisting one of his proteges to act as his left hand.
The harder Lang Lang pushed the performance, the more labored it became.
The majority of the crowd stood and cheered. But I saw jaws literally dropping at the vulgarity of it all. Reviews were among the most dismissive of Lang Lang's career.