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Originally published Friday, September 13, 2013 at 5:04 AM

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2013 SSO opener: Lang Lang, Morlot, Prokofiev are the stars

Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot will team up on Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 for the SSO’s season-opening concert on the afternoon of Sept. 15, 2013.

Seattle Times arts writer

Concert preview

Seattle Symphony Opening Night Concert and Gala, with Lang Lang

Ludovic Morlot, conducting, 4 p.m. Sunday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $76-$169 concert only; concert/gala packages start at $1,250 (206-215-4747 for concert only; 206-215-4756 for concert/gala package; both are available at www.seattlesymphony.org).

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When Lang Lang takes the stage at Benaroya Hall on Sunday to play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Seattle Symphony’s Opening Night Concert and Gala, he may have a slight sense of déjà vu.

That’s because it was the first piece the 31-year-old Chinese pianist ever played with the symphony, back in 2001, when he was still a teenager.

Of that performance, Times critic Melinda Bargreen wrote: “He threw himself into the music with complete abandon. But for all the intensity and drama of the performance, it was full of immaculate, careful, perfectly judged details. His playing was both broadly lyrical and explosively energetic.”

The Prokofiev concerto itself is an angular blend of passion and reverie, infused with a wit that ranges from jaunty to thorny. It has both its swaggering and its stately moments, and it definitely benefits from having a Big Personality at the keyboard.

Lang Lang, of course, fits the bill when it comes to big personalities. But he also brings a long familiarity with the piece to the table. And he has enjoyed a recent in-depth encounter with it, having recorded it for a CD to be released in October (paired with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2).

The pianist was performing in China last month, and from there he answered some questions about the upcoming concert and his new CD by email.

He learned the Prokofiev piece when he was very young, he says, and it “grew in my heart” over the years: “It is time to record it. ... It has sharp character, in terms of Russian soul. I like it very much.”

The sense of humor in the piece, he says, is as important as all its other aspects. He’s drawn as well to its “elegant, passionate, humorous, subtle elements. ... Pianists need to dig everything out.”

No advance of the recording was available at press time, but Lang Lang’s record label certainly seems happy with the results. Scroll through his Facebook page (www.facebook.com/LangLangPiano), and you’ll see a Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 birthday cake that Sony presented to him earlier this year, neatly decorated with the opening bars of the score.

Sunday’s performance will mark the pianist’s first collaboration with Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, who in a phone interview last week revealed he’s especially pleased to have the Prokofiev as the centerpiece of the Symphony’s Opening Night Concert and Gala.

The opening half of the program includes some “Slavonic Dances” (by Dvorák), “Rumanian Folk Dances” (Bartók), “Hungarian Dances” (Brahms) and “Polovtsian Dances” from Borodin’s “Prince Igor.”

Is Morlot trying to get a dance party going in the aisles of Benaroya Hall?

“Yeah,” he chuckles, “a little bit.”

He adds that while last year’s season-opening concert prominently featured American music, this year he wanted to explore the “Slavic feeling of European music, folk music.” The Prokofiev concerto, while it may have a modernist sheen to it, has a playful rhythmic vigor that taps into that Eastern European musical tradition.

When talking to Lang Lang about which concerto they’d perform on the second half of the program, Morlot made sure he was aware of what was going on in the first half. Prokofiev No. 3 turned out to be one of the first concertos the pianist offered.

“That’s always my approach to this,” Morlot explains. “I just ask him what he wants to play. ... That was actually at the top of his list, and it happened to be a very good match with the rest of the program. So it was as simple as that.”

Lang Lang will be off to California on Tuesday, followed by recital and orchestral appearances in Toronto, Paris, New York, London, Berlin, Spain and other destinations later this fall. Nominally, he’s based in Beijing and New York. But with a career like his, the idea of “home” is a little elusive to him.

“Actually,” he says, “I rarely stay at any city more than two weeks.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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