Lang Lang performs with PSO

World-renowned pianist Lang Lang — who is known for his dramatic performance style — played with the PSO last Saturday. (credit: Courtesy of Vergil Yu Photography via Flickr) World-renowned pianist Lang Lang — who is known for his dramatic performance style — played with the PSO last Saturday. (credit: Courtesy of Vergil Yu Photography via Flickr)

Last Saturday was an extravagant night for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO). A scarlet dragon-clad banner and other Chinese-themed decorations adorned the usually bare stage at Heinz Hall. Guests in ball gowns and tuxedos arrived in large numbers. Even Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett and state senator Dominic Pileggi were in attendance.

Seven months after the Chinese New Year, the PSO opened its 2012-13 season with a celebration of the Year of the Dragon. With an excellent sampling of works and a special appearance by Chinese pianist Lang Lang, the PSO reminded Pittsburgh of its ability to perform impeccably while bringing in high-profile guest soloists.

Despite the décor, the first half of the program served less as a celebration of the Year of the Dragon and more as a celebration of the PSO. Giuseppe Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino was a strong and virtually flawless opener, and the famous “Wedding March” from Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream elicited “ahs” of recognition and excitement from the audience. The PSO clearly wanted to launch its new season with a bang, and it succeeded.

Just when the audience had likely forgotten about the theme — as it was too enraptured by the orchestra’s performance — PSO music director Manfred Honeck playfully announced that the orchestra would “summon the dragon to Heinz Hall” with a fierce performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird. As Honeck promised, the dragon arrived: Dancers carried a long, undulating paper dragon into the hall, amid loud gongs and clangs of traditional Chinese percussion.

After this entertaining departure from the program, Lang took the stage amidst wild cheers of excitement. Lang was a performer in every sense of the word: He was a delight to both watch and hear.

Although Lang was clearly a skilled musician without the extra flair, he still added drama to everything he played, almost to the point of dance. During violent passages, Lang bent close to the keys and trembled with energy; during calmer moments, he leaned back and stroked the keys. From his extravagant performing style, it was easy to see how this young superstar had charmed his way to the top. But while his style was charming, it sometimes made his performance seem less musically genuine.

After his performance, Lang received a full standing ovation and enthusiastic applause. Once the wildest cheers had died down, Lang even gave a brief thank-you speech — a rare move for a guest soloist. But to the audience’s disappointment, Lang declined to play an encore.

With the Year of the Dragon theme as its backdrop, the PSO made a stunning and lasting impression on its first night of the season. Though Lang briefly stole the show, the message of the evening was clear: This is why you come to the orchestra. We can only hope to expect this level of performance from the PSO throughout the year.

The PSO’s fall schedule continues next week with the New World Symphony, featuring renowned American-baritone Thomas Hampson. Carnegie Mellon Night at the PSO is this Saturday; discounted tickets are available for students.