Lang time coming

After a three-year search for a new director, the San Antonio Symphony introduced German-born director Sebastian Lang-Lessing with a sold-out gala on October 2, 2010. But the Symphony’s new era really begins on January 12, when the new maestro directs Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang at the Majestic.

“`Lang Lang is` the full package,” Lang-Lessing told the Current on the phone from Palermo, Italy, where he was directing the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana. “The fact that he, one of the `classical music` superstars, will be here in San Antonio, shows that the city itself is also a very valuable part of the concert world.”

The pianist, who will be 29 in June, is widely regarded as one of those rarely appearing talents. His performance at the Beijing Olympics turned him into China’s first classical crossover star. His CD sales are astronomical (by classical music standards) and Time magazine named him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2009.

But some dismiss Lang Lang as a talented, yes, but overrated marketing product.

“Lang Lang is a superb, evolving musician, but he does not earn the money he does because he is better than, say, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, or, in truth, a dozen others,” wrote The New Yorker in an otherwise positive piece in 2008. “He earns it because of his shiny novelty and flair, and, perhaps especially, because he is an avatar of the Chinese ascendance.”

Others are not as subtle.

“He’s the J.Lo of the piano,” the late American pianist Earl Wild once said, referring to Lang Lang’s promotional machine. Others were simply turned off by the forceful way in which he hit the keyboard. When he was 23, the title of a profile by Esquire was “Bang Bang.” But Lang-Lessing will have none of that.

“It’s something that happens often when superstars like Lang Lang explode, and people begin to invent things,” Lang-Lessing said. “Lang Lang is definitely not ‘Bang Bang,’ far from it, because the way he plays is very refined. He is a very physical player, unlike other pianists who are very concentrated and focused on the keyboard. Lang expresses himself with his full body, and you don’t see that often. On the other hand, `his playing` attracted a whole new audience because people felt engaged. So what’s wrong with it?”

In any case, that criticism could have been directed at Lang-Lessing himself. At his presentation in October, he proved that, when it comes to physicality, he could go toe-to-toe with Lang Lang.

“I don’t know what people say about me, but I also move more than other conductors,” he said. “People might say I’m jumping around too much. But if it comes naturally and it’s not fabricated, then it is genuine and fine. And that’s the case with Lang Lang.” (We were told by SA Symphony officials that Lang Lang was “busy” and not giving interviews prior to the show.)

Besides the concert, the SA Symphony is organizing a $500-per-person Lang Lang pre-show meet-and-greet followed by a private dinner with the pianist (visit for more details).

The January 12 concert opens with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s dreamy “Vocalise,” followed by Beethoven’s joyful Fourth Symphony. But when we talk about the closing number, my conversation with Lang-Lessing takes a detour into more clinical issues.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto was written in 1900-01, while the Russian composer was fighting depression.

“`Rachmaninoff` was like in a hamster’s wheel, unable to find his way out, until `the piece` breaks loose with the orchestra and it finally reaches light,” said Lang-Lessing. Rachmaninoff dedicated the piece to his psychologist. “The end of that journey was joyful, but it was a long journey.”

Then, Lang-Lessing stops and emits short, nervous laughter.

“Please, don’t use the word ‘depression’ too much, because it’s not a big selling point,” he laughs. “Please stress the fact that that the ‘Concerto’ ends up in a joyous note.”

A good point to make, especially now — one of Lang-Lessing’s main goals for the orchestra is to turn San Antonio into a city known for its orchestra on par with other major cities in the States. And for that to happen, he knows he needs to attract new faces.

“I think we’re already one of the top five orchestras in Texas, but I’d love to turn it into one of the 10 best in the United States,” he said. “And I feel people will be more and more aware of the orchestra. `In October 2010` I saw so many first-time concertgoers come to me after the concert, and I think that’s the clientele we need to reach.”

Lang Lang & Lang-Lessing


7:30pm Wed, Jan 12

Majestic Theatre

224 E Houston Street

(210) 226-3333


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