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Concert Review

Lang Lang With the DSO

* Lang Lang, piano
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Detroit, Orchestra Hall, 28 September 2013

I would like to thank Ms. Gabrielle Poshadlo and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for allowing me to cover the 2013-2014 season at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, and for all their assistance and kindness over the past year.

Half pops concert, half superstar showcase, this sold old one-night concert at Orchestra Hall proved to be a knockout. I must admit that I grumbled a bit at the light and fluffy treats that were announced, but the program proved to be more than the sum of its parts. Clearly excited to be back, the Detroit Symphony and Music Director Leonard Slatkin provided plenty of thrills to finish September.

First, a note on the orchestra. Veteran CD and LP collectors may know this orchestra through famous releases on Decca or Mercury Living Presence. More recently, a series of discs on both Chandos and Naxos, as well as live – and free – webcasts, have reintroduced Orchestra Hall to the world. Since the tenure of Paul Paray in the 1950's, the players have possessed a rich string tone and superlative winds. Only recently has the brass intonation been suspect, and a major weak point during recent projects. So I'm thrilled to report that the brass is much improved, while all the famed departments elsewhere retain their luster.

I need comment little on the Russian chestnuts on display here. The Glinka and Shostakovich are basically fluff, and they were here. Urgent and exciting readings aside, they are mostly for show. Slatkin didn't do anything unexpected here, and that's good. The Tchaikovsky hadn't been played since Paray's aforementioned tenure in 1954, a big surprise considering that previous music directors like Doráti and Järvi were such Russian specialists. No matter, it's lovely all the same. Slatkin got to show off his lovely string section, led by the capable bow of concertmistress Yoonshin Song, who has worked magic in a matter of months. The Liadov is just a novelty; the very sparse scoring means a full orchestra almost never plays it, but it was good for a laugh and was played as well as it can be.

The Rimsky-Korsakov was played this summer at a free concert in the Hall under former Detroit Symphony associate Thomas Wilkins. This was better, although it needs to be stressed that Thomas is a fine musician who has done wonderful things in Omaha and Boston, and who I expect will also let me get away with using his first name. Where Slatkin had a clear edge was both in his ability to use first desk players – Wilkins had very few – and a slightly more incisive framework that allowed for the composer's unique colors to shine. I've already singled out Song, but everyone was revved up and ready to go, with the improvements in the brass section especially noticeable in a work such as this. Slakin himself noted that he had not conducted the piece in well over a decade, so even he seemed determined to bring as much energy and excitement as he could. This ended the first half, to storms of applause.

After the fluffy and fun Festive Overture, Slatkin brought Lang Lang with him. A bona-fide super-pianist, Lang has just released the Prokofiev 3rd on Sony, with Sir Simon Rattle in Berlin. If I had to pick, I find Slatkin the most consistent conductor, and Orchestra Hall is far better than any venue in Berlin, so it was great to hear the pianists' thoughts on the concerto in such ideal conditions. The first movement was thrilling, with Lang on freewheeling and fiery form. Credit Slatkin for keeping up, both here and in the finale. The slow movement was exceptionally fine, as it showed the more delicate side of a great artist. Yes, some passages bordered on mannerism, but by now the world knows what they are getting from this very gifted young man. Throughout, the Detroit Symphony played with panache and a clear sense of urgency. Furthermore, Slatkin's love of Russian music served him well. A very personal, somewhat questionable Chopin encore sent everyone home on their feet, in awe of great art.

All in all, a magical evening. Routine on paper? Maybe. Excellent all around? Absolutely.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman