It wasn’t an ordinary garden-variety concert on Wednesday at Lincoln Center. This, after all, was Lang Lang night. The young wonder-pianist from China returned to conquer the masses, and he wasn’t even riding a war-horse. His vehicle turned out to be something new, a slam-bam-and-dream concerto by his countryman Tan Dun.
The proceedings began with a music-appreciation class. Steven Stucky, official contemporary-adventure guide, introduced the commissioned novelty. It was great, he assured us. The orchestra was great, too, as were the soloist and guest-conductor, Leonard Slatkin. Everything was great, great, great. So much for hard sell.
Stucky declared that all New York was abuzz with excitement. The concerto would be both a “crowd pleaser and a head scratcher”. He introduced a video in which the composer essentially repeated the annotation printed in the programme – something about wanting to translate the theatrics of martial arts. Then the talking stopped and the music started, not a hemi-demi-semiquaver too soon.
Lang Lang, barely 26 and already an idol, received tumultuous applause even before he touched the keyboard. He holds the world, the gushing PR machines assure us, at his fiery fingertips.
His odyssey began aged two, when he watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon that featured the cat playing a little Liszt. From that moment on there was only one thing he wanted: to play the piano.
He is so talented he can switch hands in a game of ping-pong and – wow – sign autographs with both hands simultaneously. In February, he entertained 17.5m viewers by confronting Herbie Hancock for a crossover piano-duel on the Grammy telecast.
Puffery notwithstanding, he is an undoubted virtuoso, and picturesque too. On some past occasions he has exhibited more flash than sensitivity. On this occasion he confronted a thorny new challenge and seemed businesslike, almost subdued. Everything of course, is relative.
Tan Dun may be the perfect modern composer for people who hate modern music. His 30-minute concerto vacillates between violent rumbles and rambling reveries, between vulgar bombast and pious poetry. With the big band splashing and crashing here, whimpering and whispering there, the pianist responds in expressive kind, no manoeuvre too daring, no assault too complex. Driven by stubborn motor-rhythms and punctuated with massive crescendi, the composition emerges ultra-clangorous one moment, pretty-precious the next. References to the primitivism of Stravinsky (good) and Orff (not so good) mingle with movie-music mush and folksy chinoiserie. The connective tissue is flimsy.
With Slatkin and the Philharmonic providing a brilliant frame, Lang Lang untied the technical knots with characteristic nonchalance. Sustaining bravado under pressure, he executed some beguiling trance-choreography and conducted with the left hand while making music with the right. So much for mannerism. When the ultimate climax finally approached, he banged the ivories with both elbows. The standing ovation came on cue.
Slatkin, professional to the core, soothed savage breasts after the interval with a deftly coloured, neatly executed performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird. In this context, it seemed particularly mild and marvellous.
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