Lang Lang’s extreme pianism

At his next San Francisco concert Tuesday, Lang Lang will perform in the 2,750-seat Davies Hall, rather than in his usual venue, the 900-seat Herbst Theater — clearly indicating his ever-rising popularity. It was in Herbst where I first heard Lang Lang, at his second San Francisco Performances appearance, but the memory is still alive, five years later, in minute detail.

Somewhere between the toughest Liszt etude played double time and the neighing of horses in his duet with his father’s erhu, my otherwise disciplined monkey-mind up and left the building. One moment, it was in Herbst Theater, the next, mind and I landed on the deck of the Kon-Tiki, a half a century ago, in Polynesian waters.

Look! There is Thor Heyerdahl, asleep. The sailors are yelling at him to wake up and see the incredible fish they just caught, a symphony of colors. Heyerdahl opens one eye, takes measure of the weird creature, says, “There is no such fish,” and goes back to sleep.

Back to Herbst again. Monkey-mind says: “There is no such pianist,” and I agree, but we don’t go to sleep. We are stunned, amazed, want more. We get more. This time, “real music.” The Liszt transcription of Schumann’s “Widmung,” sung from the heart, the piano disappearing. This too he can do.

“Lang” means either “blue” or “man” in Mandarin. This is Blue Man. He is an incredible pianist (you see and hear, but don’t believe), an occasionally great musician and a thoroughly intriguing phenomenon. If he went into another line of work, say, as an acrobat, he would be twirling a thousand plates simultaneously.

Years ago, I asked the great conductor Yuri Temirkanov who his favorite young musical protégé was, and he virtually stammered about “this young Chinese boy who will become the greatest pianist in the world.” Lang Lang went on to conquer concert halls, and started recording, but nothing can substitute for the live experience of this magical business.

I know pianists with fingers of steel and pianists whose hands have no bones. Lang Lang has “normal” hands. What he does with them cannot be described because there is no comparison — not the young Andre Watts, not the young Van Cliburn, not even the new crop of Russian wunderkind, perhaps not even Horowitz on a bad day or Liberace in his wildest dreams.

The fluency, the stainless-steel legato in the midst of the greatest storm of notes must be experienced to be believed, and then there are the showbiz touches. Lang Lang the entertainer is never more striking than in his frequent encores with his father, erhu virtuoso Guojen Lang. In their duet of the popular Chinese piece “Racing Horses,” the two instruments trot, compete, pass one another, at the end, the erhu (the winner?) neighing uproariously.

Then there’s a superb Schumann, and the weird, unplayable miniature Scriabin “Mosquito” (performed with the ease of “Chopsticks”) … and the mind-boggling puzzle of this still-young virtuoso.

Yes, there is no such fish.

Lang Lang, piano

Presented by: San Francisco Performances

Program: Works by Mozart, Schumann, Granados, Wagner, Liszt; Chinese traditional

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets: $19-$65

Contact: (415) 392-2545 or

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