Lang Lang Returns to the San Diego Symphony for a Pair of Saint-Saëns Offerings

At the Rady Shell on Friday, the celebrated Chinese pianist Lang Lang returned to the San Diego Symphony under the baton of guest conductor Otto Tausk to play Camille Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto in G Minor as well as Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals. During the tenure of former San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling, Lang Lang formed a serious relationship with the orchestra. He appeared annually with the orchestra from 2011 through 2013 and performed as soloist at the orchestra’s first Carnegie Hall appearance in the fall of 2013.

Pianists Lang Lang & Gina Alice Redlinger [photo (c.) Sam Zauscher]

Of course, 13 years ago Lang Lang arrived in San Diego sporting his trademark youthful, rock star image, and the glow of his earlier Wunderkind triumphs still lingered. At 41, he is now just another middle-aged concert pianist, and his Saint-Saëns G Minor Piano Concerto proved disappointing.

Although he subdued the Saint-Saëns Concerto’s formidable technical challenges, these feats seemed dispassionate, even calculated, and the consistently strident attacks of his fortes sounded brittle. I cannot recall a Symphony guest pianist making the orchestra’s Steinway sound so unpleasant. Fortunately, after a second concert grand was moved onto the Rady Shell stage for the evening’s second guest soloist, pianist Gina Alice Redlinger, the mood of the concert and Lang Lang’s demeanor changed for the better.

Granted, The Carnival of the Animals is musically a completely different animal from the serious Second Piano Concerto. A suite of 14 movements for two pianos and an instrumental ensemble of strings and two winds, Saint Saëns’ Carnival imitates or caricatures many members of animal kingdom—including music critics and beginning piano students—and quotes or alludes to a host of composers, including Rameau, Offenbach, Berlioz and Rossini. Saint-Saëns even throws in a quote from his own Danse macabre.

Although the composer performed this work privately with friends and colleagues on several occasions, he prevented his publisher from issuing the work until after his death (in 1921), fearing the lighter nature of the work would diminish his stature as a serious composer. He could not have been more mistaken. Since its public premiere in 1922, it has remained among his most frequently programmed and admired works, along with his opera Samson et Dalila and his “Organ” Symphony.

Redlinger’s deft touch and stylish phrasing illuminated Saint Saëns’ clever depictions, and the warmth of her tone invited the audience to enjoy his humor at every turn. Miraculously, Lang Lang found an approach that came closer to her ingratiating interpretation, but for this listener, it did not make up for austerity of his account of the G Minor Concerto.

Perhaps the best known theme from The Carnival of the Animals is the cello solo in the penultimate movement, “The Swan.” Principal Cello Yao Zhao gave the most eloquent, almost poignant, account of this theme I have ever experienced, a compelling, intensely understated interpretation. Although the suite abounds in captivating solos and duets from nearly all of sections of the orchestra,  Zhao’s solo soared above them all.

As Otto Tausk introduced himself to the Rady Shell audience, he explained that he had decided to bring some music by a fellow Dutch countryman, so he opened his San Diego program with Joey Roukens’ 2006 work 365. In the composer’s printed program note, he likens the 365 measures of his piece to a year’s experience of contrasting adventures that eventually returns to the same calendar date. So his 365 opens and closes with a series of feathery ostinatos on celesta embellished with a touch of percussion (and unscored overhead helicopter on Friday!). 365 is most aptly described as a compact, single-movement concerto for orchestra. A haunting main theme announced by the first-chair flute and cello is expanded by low strings and then suddenly bursts forth from the full orchestra. New motifs—some jubilant, some mysterious—cycle though the orchestra until the opening ostinatos return capped by a shimmering vocalise sung on Friday by a trio of persuasive sopranos:  Katina Mitchell, Amanda Olea, and Rachel Fields.

In lieu of a symphony, Tausk focused the opening half of his program on Tchaikovsky’s Suite from  Swan Lake, Op. 20a. Tausk presided over a spirited yet copiously well-defined account of these scenes and national dances that make up the suite. Although the composer intended to make an orchestral suite of his highly successful ballet, he never got around to accomplishing that task. Fortunately, various skilled hands took up arranging upon the composer’s demise, and because Tchaikovsky’s music is so evocative, even for symphony audiences who have but a slight notion of the ballet’s story, the suite’s engaging drama is handily communicated. Principal Oboe Sarah Skuster’s suave opening theme solo proved only the first of many compelling solos from the orchestra’s wind players, especially in the third movement, “The Dance of the Swans.” In the following scene, the “Pas d’action,” Concertmaster Jeff  Thayer’s gorgeous solo was complemented with equal allure by Principal Harp Jule Smith Phillips and Principal Cello Yao Shao. The clarinet section gave the “Czardas” its requisite exuberance and vivid color, while Principal Trumpet Christopher Smith charmed with his buoyant flugelhorn solo in the “Neapolitan Dance.”

Lang Lang’s encore was “Ritual Fire dance” by Manuel de Falla.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony on Friday, April 12, 2024, at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park on San Diego Bay. 


  1. Glenn Bourque on April 17, 2024 at 12:18 pm

    I enjoyed Lang Lang’s performance of Saint Saens concerto tremendously. Every note had meaning, nuance and as a whole exhibited an exuberance I never previously associated with this work.

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