In rousing BPO gala, Lang Lang delights crowd with virtuoso magic, Mary Kunz Goldman, Buffalo News

So far, so good.

If the rest of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Classics concerts this season are anywhere near as good as the opening concert was, we are in for some real excitement.

There was a lot to celebrate Wednesday at Kleinhans Music Hall as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra kicked off its season. We were welcoming superstar pianist Lang Lang. He was playing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. The hall was packed to the rafters with a huge, diverse crowd. The lobby was alive with foreign languages.

BPO fans were getting their first look at the renovated Kleinhans. The seats and carpets gave off a fresh aroma, like a new car. Happily, nothing looked very different. But it felt invigorating.

We also welcomed our new concertmaster, Dennis Kim. The audience cheered as he was introduced. He tuned up the orchestra with élan. Then, after the Canadian and American national anthems, the concert began with one of the great feel-good light classics of all time, Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to “Russlan and Ludmilla.”

Everyone was raring to go. The strings scampered up those octave runs and the music had a breathless feel. Music Director JoAnn Falletta took it at a breakneck pace, and it worked. The music was full of magic.

Tchaikovsky’s Suite from “Swan Lake” continued the enchantment. The tragedy and drama of the music resonated in the hall. Suzanne Thomas, on harp, had some marvelous moments, and so did Alex Jokipii, principal trumpet.

It was fun to watch Kim, leading the violins, juxtaposed with Roman Mekinulov, leading the cellos. Both played with eloquence, and over and above musicianship, both seem to know how to put on a good show.

Speaking of show, you can’t beat the “Rach 2,” which is one of Lang Lang’s signature showpieces. Heard in so many movies, it puts you right back in the silver screen era.

Really, he should have worn tails. Our guys were in tails, and it’s our opening gala, and come on, Rachmaninoff demands it. But otherwise, Lang Lang was every bit the virtuoso. He sauntered out with calm and confidence. He sat down at the piano with jaunty sureness.

The concerto’s famous opening chords were measured and suspenseful and then built in volume. Lang Lang’s arms churned gracefully, like gears.

People in the balcony watched him through opera glasses. The hall was completely silent. The performance demanded attention.

And it kept your attention. Lang Lang has a tendency to schmaltz things up. He thinks about every phrase, maybe too much at times. But if any composer permits this kind of thing, it’s Rachmaninoff. And beside it beats a pianist on autopilot. I got the sense that Lang Lang was thinking about the music, that he felt it genuinely. And that he felt he was playing to us.

The music has contrasts that could give you whiplash. Playing a soft passage, Lang Lang leans back, eyes half shut, face turned dreamily toward the audience. Then the tides change, and he snaps up straight in his seat and attacks. He has a great sense of rhythm and to see his hands flying and hammering, it’s a thrill. Bravo to the BPO and Falletta for matching his moods.

And there was no topping the end of the last movement, one of the great finales of all time. Again, high praise goes to all the musicians for finessing it just right. How do you follow that? With Mozart’s “Turkish March.” It was a fine, irresistible encore, and Lang Lang played it like lightning, with crisp, percussive rhythm.


Lang Lang with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Wednesday night in Kleinhans Music Hall