The Toronto Symphony’s 92nd season’s gala featured three works connected to operas, and who better to bring out the singing quality and dramatic storytelling of a piano score than pianist Lang Lang. Visibly inspired by Mozart, he teased unexpected excellences from the orchestra led by their resident conductor, his longtime friend Peter Oundjian, to whom Lang Lang dedicated the Chopin waltz he played for an encore.

Lang Lang and Peter Oundjian with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra © Dale Wilcox
Lang Lang and Peter Oundjian with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
© Dale Wilcox

Following a skylarking march that introduces two themes by orchestral strings and woodwinds, conducted firmly with delicate modulations by Oundjian, Lang Lang lifted from his keyboard the soloist’s first notes of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. These notes brought to my mind the ecstatic self-satisfaction of Papageno’s music in the Magic Flute. Lang Lang’s pianistic abilities feature the unexpected: his ornamentations are bouncier than expected, his trills and arpeggios are lighter than expected, and his call and response interplay with the strings and winds has the idiosyncratic timing of the greatest jazz improv players. His cadenza fell from a strong current of winds as softly as rain.

The Andante is a weave of orchestral winds and strings that throbs solemnly. Lang Lang melted into that, but surprised with dramatic pauses, and unusually bold or nakedly tender interactions with the orchestra. The dynamics of his closing cadenza generated a feeling of otherworldly intimacy. The lively final Allegretto had the fun of comic opera. You could feel Lang Lang, Oundjian, and the orchestra letting themselves go into it.

The evening proceeded without intermission towards Lang Lang’s second offering of the evening, Mozart’s crowing piano concerto: no. 24. However, the pianist had a break while a much-expanded orchestra played Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. In its fifteen minutes, this piece is a tone poem that encapsulates in miniature all three themes that Wagner built into Tannhäuser. Wagner’s musical drama of sexual decadence and redemption managed to interest both Queen Victoria, who declared it to be “quite overpowering... and wild”, and Charles Baudelaire, who was “ravished and flooded” by “the drama of love [that] has to lead, by a satanic logic, to the delights of crime”. The overture opens with a grandiose statement of the “Pilgrim’s March”. This gives way to music depicting Tannhäuser’s “Entry into the Mount of Venus” and the Bacchanalian fury that ensues. The return of pilgrims marching and singing signals the celebration of young Tannhäuser’s escape from Venus’ trap and his ostensible redemption. The TSO played the music so well I could feel vibrations in my pelvis. However, after Mozart, and in anticipation of more Mozart, Wagner seemed lurid, uninteresting, and kind of bunk.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor is very special. It is unusually stormy and dark, in the way of Così fan tutte, and in a way that impressed Beethoven. The orchestration of the opening passage is singularly dense and multi-voiced, with dire brass, querulous oboes, bassoons, and an isolated clarinet striving to make themselves heard out of the swirl of strings. Into this discord the piano enters dartingly, as if with questions of its own. Lang Lang seemed visibly to be listening to the orchestra in the pauses between piano phrases as its mood deepened toward the elegiac: the piano responded with oddly paced rhythms that suggest estrangement in the soft arpeggios that carry the movement towards its enigmatic conclusion.

The Larghetto that follows is sunnier and more serene. Lang Lang’s fingers seem to express a life of their own. His solos continue to surprise with a delicate and unique voice that he communicated to the orchestra, particularly to the winds, as well as to the audience. He entered the variations of the Finale running briskly but lightly, and despite the weight of gruff buffetting by the orchestra, the concluding mood is one of enjoyment.

The encore, Chopin’s Waltz no. 1 in E flat, Op. 18 was outrageously fun, and the audience had the good grace to let Lang Lang go without insisting on another encore.