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Entertaining Salon

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
11/25/2008 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin and Oboe Concerto in D minor, BWV 1060
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

Gu Chen (Violin), Huang Zheng (Oboe), Lang Lang (Piano)
Macao Orchestra, Lu Jia (Conductor, Music Director)

Lang Lang (© Kasskara/DG)

To celebrate the 55th anniversary of Shun Hing Groups – Lang Lang’s major sponsor – the chairman of the Shun Hing Group, Mr. William Mong, invited the Macao Orchestra and the well-known Chinese pianist Lang Lang for today’s concert. Lu Jia, an extraordinary young Chinese conductor made his Hong Kong debut as the Music Director of Macao Orchestra tonight. It was delightful to observe this orchestra’s tremendous improvement under Lu Jia’s leadership; however, Lang Lang’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto was a complete disappointment.

The concert opened with J.S. Bach’s Double Concerto, with Gu Chen and Huang Zheng as soloists. Lu Jia chose a chamber-scale ensemble for this Baroque work, with 12 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses, and a harpsichord. It was an authentic and collaborative account. The two soloists were communicating intimately, under the hand-in-glove accompaniment provided by the conductor and the orchestra. Every musical detail was calibrated with careful reading of the score. However, what was at question here was the balance of the orchestra and the soloists. The piece sounded like a harpsichord concerto rather than a concerto for violin and oboe. The harpsichord, especially at some soft passages, overshadowed the voices of two solo instruments. While Huang was delivering his tone with warmth, richness and ebullience, Gu’s intonation was thin and introversive. This discouraged the sense of dialogue between the two soloists, but, at the same time, established a dashing and exotic contrast of characters among them.

Mozart’s ever popular 40th Symphony was again a rendition with exploratory details and refined articulations. The vivid dynamic contrast and bewitching range of subtle articulations gave this cliché extra delicacy and potency. On the other hand, the elegance and simplicity usually found in Mozart was buried by the relatively huge-size orchestra. Was it necessary to use 21 violins and 4 double basses for this unsophisticated work? The grand and majestic tone colour at boisterous tutti somehow exterminated the naïve and simple side of Mozart. This was tellingly exemplified by the heavy-footed Minuet in the third movement. Nonetheless, the intonation of the orchestra, especially the string section, was astonishingly unified and consolidated.

Before Lang Lang’s concerto, there was an interlude at the beginning of the second half, with Shun Hing Chairman William Mong’s daughter playing two romantic miniatures. This teenager was obviously a very amateur piano player. After she walked onto the stage with two books in her hands and bowed to the audience, she just discovered there was no music stand on the Steinway piano. She struggled a while and was forced to walk backstage, leading to much laughter and side talking. With the music in front of her, she played Chopin’s famous E-flat major Nocturne and Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op.23 No.5. It was an exhibition of mistakes and mishaps, even for Chopin’s effortless Nocturne. This perfunctory interlude made the whole evening an entertaining salon instead of a serious classical concert.

Lang Lang should be very versed in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. It was his first concerto recording under DG, in 2003, with the Chicago Symphony and its Music Director Daniel Barenboim. Since then, it has become one of his central repertoires – he performed this piece twice in Hong Kong, at least, the first time with the New York Philharmonic and the second time with a Chinese orchestra. Technically, he proved his familiarity to this demanding showpiece by playing extremely blistering and harm-blurring octave outbursts, the lightest and most vaporous running arpeggios pianissimo, and the most sparklingly and burningly pounding chords. Musically, in contrast, it was a shallow, empty, and superficial interpretation. Master pianist Leon Fleisher once said that a pianist’s obligation is to bring to life the composer’s every musical thought, rather than put his own thinking into the performance. But Lang Lang’s playing was a full display of his own weird and aberrant ideas, making this beloved concerto a digressing work. Though he possessed the utmost dexterity and nimble fingers, none of these was at service of music itself; rather, his impeccable virtuosity was merely a showy trick in order to impress the audience. Those unnecessarily dramatic tempo changes and dynamic contrasts cruelly sacrificed the overall coherence and architecture of this lengthy artwork. A most trivial transitional scale was put in much exaggerating rubato. These rare qualities gave many challenges to the orchestral accompaniment. Although there was a risky entrance of the orchestra when the main theme returned in the first movement, Lu Jia, for most of the time, was able to closely follow this roundabout and rambling soloist.

What was really superfluous was his pretentious gesture and extraneous body language – stepping foot heavily during loud passages, holding up fists after a glorious ending, his left hand conducting while the right hand was playing, and doing some athletic warm-ups before entering a virtuosic solo passage. That is why Maestro Andre Previn commented Lang Lang in an interview, “I even can’t watch him for one minute… These are circus acts… people will get tired of all these shenanigans.” There is one Chinese old saying “everything will go backwards when it reaches the extreme”. We are looking forward to a musically authentic and artistically honest Lang Lang.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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