Last evening’s concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was special in so many ways. Simulcast live on YouTube, it marked the return to the podium of popular former Assistant Conductor Mei-Ann Chen, and featured an appearance by superstar pianist Lang Lang. One other thing made the evening special for me: I was able to sit on stage right, a bit above and behind the orchestra – a great opportunity to listen to orchestra and soloist up close and personal.

The program was a kind of “Mozart’s Greatest Hits”. Eine kleine Nachtmusik was given a sparkling performance. Sometimes being a guest conductor can ignite a fire in an orchestra and there was no doubt that Ms Chen lit one here; she infused a new energy into the orchestra’s performance. In the first movement Allegro, the violins were silky and performed with a refined lightness and outstanding ensemble. The basses, too, were energetic, powerful and precise. The languorous Andante was polished and sounded intimate, in spite of the large number of strings employed. Ms Chen chose a slightly brisk tempo for the Allegretto. By the Allegro finale, Chen had set expectations for tight dynamics and precise entrances, and she delivered.The ASO strings provided a winning execution of this familiar favourite; lean, smooth and with beautifully sculpted dynamics.   

In leading the Symphony no. 40 in G minor, Ms Chen showcased how she “plays” the orchestra as if it was one large instrument. She attended to every detail (entrances, dynamics, tempi) as if to remind all of the musicians that they have an equal stake in the performance. And it was apparent in this tightly controlled performance that such a strategy can pay off in creating an exacting and energetic performance. For example, in the second movement Andante, Chen was noticeably busy shaping the volume of each section, which made for free-spirited lyricism. The Menuetto was crisp and clean, exuding a formal charm. If there were an award for “Most Improved Orchestra Section”, it would surely go the horn section, which demonstrated new-found confidence and accuracy, especially in the closing Allegro assai.   

Few contemporary classical performers have been more scrutinized, criticized and written about than pianist Lang Lang. But make no mistake, his persona is larger than life and he fills concert halls wherever he performs. Atlanta was no exception. He glides onto and off the stage with elegance and grace, knowing that all eyes are on him and that everyone is expecting something special. He did not disappoint, performing the beloved Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, which seems to be his preferred concerto at present, and he has polished it to a fare-thee-well. Much has been made of his flamboyant style, but here he was focused and restrained. At times, when not playing, he would face the orchestra and mimic conducting, not in an attention-seeking manner, but rather as if he was in a reverie. He often made eye contact with orchestra and audience members alike.

Lang Lang's performance of the first movement cadenza was brilliantly crafted and colored, making for an exciting finale to the Allegro. The Larghetto demonstrated some extraordinarily delicate playing that was riveting in its subtlety and quietude. The Allegretto was bold; Chen and Lang were in lockstep in extracting the beauty, creativity and energy of the finale. Chen and the ASO provided sympathetic, near perfect accompaniment throughout, with wonderful balances between the orchestra and soloist.

The audience response was thunderous. Lang Lang returned to play an encore by Chopin, his Grand Valse brillante, full of energy, but a bit indulgent, with dynamics and rhythms sometimes exaggerated. This was the Lang Lang that takes full license to play a piece for dazzle rather than insight and dazzling it was.

No doubt about it, this was an exciting musical event that will likely be long remembered.