Lang Lang 

At Ravinia's 1999 gala opening 18-year-old Lang Lang made his stunning Chicago debut as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Andre Watts--playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the CSO--and became an instant star. Audiences and critics around the world were mesmerized by his phenomenal skills and musicality, thrilled by his exuberance and obvious love of playing. He's now 22, and some of the same critics who were once dazzled by him find his flamboyant mannerisms increasingly affected and his expressiveness increasingly schmaltzy, verging on Liberacean. I haven't seen him perform, but eyes gazing at the ceiling and hands flying up and grasping the heart aren't my thing. Still, if the playing's good, well, I can avert my eyes. On his CDs it's sensitive and technically remarkable. The most recent release is of his 2003 Carnegie Hall debut recital, and some of the choices suggest he doesn't mind comparisons to great pianists--Evgeny Kissin played both Schumann's Abegg Variations and Liszt's Liebestraume at his Carnegie debut, and it's impossible to play Schumann's "Traumerei" for an encore without evoking Horowitz. He also took on the Wanderer Fantasy--Schubert's most physically challenging work, one that's also difficult to hold together musically; he's impressive in the first two movements, though the fugue in the third needs a more driven and authoritative sound. His Orchestra Hall program will include the Abegg Variations and the Wanderer, as well as Haydn's Sonata in C Hob. XVI/50, Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, Scriabin's stirring Etude op. 2, no. 1, and Tan Dun's impressionistic Eight Memories in Watercolor. (If you're not sure you can take the antics, consider hearing another 22-year-old, Benjamin Hochman, who's playing an excellent program at Ravinia, Friday, April 2, at 8 PM: Haydn's Variations in F Minor, Beethoven's Sonata op. 109, Chopin's B Minor Sonata, Schoenberg's Six Pieces, op. 19, and Takemitsu's Rain Tree Sketch II; the Chopin, the only piece I've heard him play, was exciting.) Sunday, April 4, 3 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. Lang Lang also gives a free in-store performance Monday, April 5, at 12:30 PM at Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan; 312-573-0564.

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