Gregory Kirschling
April 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

One Friday evening last November, a beefy 21-year-old Chinese kid named Lang Lang sat down at a piano on stage at Carnegie Hall and exploded the roof off the place. His unbelievable finale was a finger-popping Liszt showstopper, and it was epic — a 16-minute Return of the King-size solo powerhouse played by a guy who was the concert-hall equivalent of Superman leaping over buildings in single bounds. Check it out on Lang Lang Live at Carnegie Hall, an awesome new two-disc recording of the most spectacular recital I’ve ever seen.

His ovation was thunderous. So why don’t some critics like him? One nose holder didn’t even stay for all five encores, griping in The New York Times that Lang’s Liszt ”was a percussive and stupefying din.” Others bag on Lang for the theatrical way he oohs and aahs and bobs his head at the keyboard. It’s a bona fide backlash against a top-selling classical star who has — sacrilege! — deigned to appear on Leno and in TEEN PEOPLE, and to record music for last week’s Joan of Arcadia.

With guardians like these babbling on about ”chromatic harmony” and ”inner voices,” no wonder classical music is dying. Maybe Lang’s a little hammy, but he’s an irrepressible showman, and what’s great about him is exactly that he can morph into an over-the-top, ivory-pounding animal. God forbid there be a concert-hall artist who’s exciting, or who positions himself as a concert pianist for people who don’t even realize they like concert pianists. Carnegie Hall hosts no shortage of tasteful, gray-haired interpreters beloved by critics. I know, because I’ve dozed through plenty of their recitals. — Gregory Kirschling

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