By Gregory Kirschling
Updated June 11, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT

Let’s talk for a minute about classical music. I know, I know — even you entertainment junkies would probably rather talk about polka, or butterflies, or the big hurt that the Spurs are currently putting on the Cavs. Hardly anybody I know wants to talk about classical music either. I’ve been listening to Chopin etudes and Beethoven symphonies and Rachmaninoff preludes and Schubert sonatas and Prokofiev piano concertos since my junior-high days, and I love the stuff, but sometimes it sure feels like a lonely trail I chose for myself.

For that reason, I get reasonably excited — verging perhaps on overexcited — when I see something in a concert hall that leads me to believe the centuries-old ritual of public classical-music performance might actually outlive me. Last Thursday I went to hear the 24-year-old Chinese piano prodigy Lang Lang play Beethoven’s breathtaking Piano Concerto No. 5, also known as the “Emperor” Concerto, with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.

Have you heard of Lang Lang yet? He’s as close to a popular crossover star as serious classical music is likely to get going forward. I was blessed enough to attend his 2003 debut solo recital at Carnegie Hall, where he closed with a not-quite-human 16-minute performance of Liszt’s finger-breaking “Reminiscences of Don Juan de Mozart.” Catch the second half of the thing here, and be sure to stick around till at least the six-minute mark, when the then-21-year-old goes global-thermonuclear as he blasts toward the finish.

addCredit(“Lang Lang: Steven Haberland/Deutsche Grammophon”)

Critics have occasionally been unfairly grumpy about the guy, essentially dismissing him as a showman instead of an artist, but they’ve let up a bit in recent years, and on Thursday I could see why. The Emperor is an august, beautiful powerhouse of the concerto repertoire — I used to listen to Claudio Arrau play it on my Walkman while I mowed the lawn back in 10th grade — and under Lang Lang’s fingers and conductor Riccardo Muti’s baton it came out surprisingly restrained on Thursday. You could tell the Lang was holding back on his old bluster at times, going perhaps for something more “mature.” The guardians of classical music at the New York Times ragged on him anyway, calling the performance “dull.” Whatever you say, New York Times. To me it was an often-fascinating take on the concerto, one that felt fresh and different from the many interpretations of the work that have passed through these ears over several years and many mowed lawns.

But that’s not really what gave me hope on Thursday for the future of the music. What felt exciting was the way that everybody who wasn’t insanely old and feeble got to their feet and gave Lang a standing ovation when he was done, even though he performed before the intermission, when that kind of excessive acknowledgment is rarely doled out. I also loved it that after his bows, Lang sat back down, still surrounded by the orchestra, and played an encore off his newish album of Chinese music, Dragon Songs. You definitely don’t hear encores after concertos — except, apparently, when Lang Lang is at the piano. (I talked to his publicist; she says he ends up performing encores after concertos all the time.) Purists — like, presumably, the folks at the New York Times — might dismiss as crass the crowd-pleasing impulse at play at a Lang Lang concert. They would be wrong. Classical music desperately needs the fire that this virtuoso is bringing to it.

Any Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms fans out there? (It’s okay: you get to be anonymous.) Any anybody else approve of Lang Lang? Have you heard his newest disc of Beethoven’s second- and third-best concertos, Nos. 1 and 4? Or what about the achingly lovely “River Waltz” from soundtrack to The Painted Veil, which features Lang on piano? Check both of those out. Lang’s the king!