It is difficult to enter the world of concert hall music performance without encountering Lang Lang. Searching the title of most popular romantic music on YouTube brings up a Lang Lang performance viewed millions of times. And yet, he is met with understatedly harsh criticism from many of these viewers, who proceed to trash-talk the pianist’s expressive style, motions, and facial gestures both within the internet and outside of it. But why is Lang Lang so controversial? Named the “hottest artist on the classical music planet” by the New York Times, Lang Lang’s record is anything but unimpressive ­– Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” member; performer at the Beijing Olympiad’s opening ceremonies before an audience of four billion; Honorary Doctorate of Music from Wales’ Royal College of Music; Winner of the Tchaikovsky International Young musicians Competition for his performance of Chopin’s twenty four etudes … at age thirteen. I thought the last one the most impressive. I admit to making fun of “Lang Lang style” enough times in the past, and so the fact that my friend had had an extra ticket to see Lang Lang perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last night presented an opportunity that I would have probably never otherwise taken.

           Led by director-conductor Peter Oundjian, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra began the performance with Ice Path – an orchestral suite by Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho; they followed up with a lively rendition of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian”. During the intermission, the stage crew began to test the moving spotlight, and I thought I was in for some horrifying Lang Lang theatrics. To the enormous applause of a sold-out Roy Thomson Hall, a man in a fully black suit followed Oundjian onto the stage, shook hands with him and the concert master, and sat down at the Steinway. They never did use the moving spotlight.

           If I say that Lang Lang played with machine-like precision, we’re quick to picture a dull, lifeless classical performance. If I say that he was incredibly expressive, we’re quick to start mockingly flail our arms to convey a bloated, overly theatrical dilettante. Instead, I’ll say that Lang Lang’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 was immaculate, yet intelligent and beautiful. He played with expected technical virtuosity and with expected overt expression, but also with a surprising grasp of the historical and personal context of Beethoven’s work. Lang Lang is neither a tired machine nor a flashy showman. He is the embodiment of dedication to and love for music in a world that writes him off based on five-second snippets on YouTube. Put together with his incredible success, Lang Lang is both the champion and the victim of the “technology” era in musical history.   He is virtuosity, and he is brilliance.

Lang Lang continues his residency at the TSO until November 19th.