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Tan Dun’s Keyboard Entertainment

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
04/09/2008 -  and April 10*, 11, 12
Tan Dun: Piano Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: Firebird

Lang Lang (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (Conductor)

The sour-faced gentleman in the row behind me had a hint of a smile at the end of Tan Dun’s Piano Concerto. With words usually associated with eating one’s first plate of oysters, he declared to his wife, “Hmm. I actually enjoyed that.”

Which leaves one with the question: What was not to enjoy? Lang Lang, the virtuoso pianist for whom the work was obviously composed, stretched his digits to the limit. A quintet of New York Philharmonic percussion players gonged and banged and tapped and drummed enthusiastically. The string section throbbed, the brass growled, a solo flute gave out a tune in the last movement which would have made a dark Sichuan forest radiant with sunshine. And Leonard Slatkin obviously enjoyed the entire work. As did we all.

The piece —which should rightly be called Concerto for Piano and Orchestra—was highly likeable on the surface, for Tan Dun, with knowledge both technical and arcane from two hemispheres, knows exactly what he is doing.

Having been impressed with much of Tan Dun’s earlier music while living in Hong Kong, I find myself not terribly moved by his works since he became a “name.” His operas and film music do the good work of combining Western instruments and techniques with Chinese, Indonesian and Mongolian colors, but a serious composer needs more than an exotic overlay, and I am certain he will achieve it some day.

But this 30-minute Concerto is never boring and always surprising, since Tan Dun achieves a nice entertainment. Which could well be sufficient. He has given Lang Lang some fierce playing from the beginning, much of it in what could be labeled “one-note trilling”, playing a note repeatedly so quickly that it possesses the vibrato of a Chinese zither. At times the themes had the romantic sentimentality of Rachmaninoff, though the addition of a minor –second on the key made it sound more modern. At other times, the tunes, while not pentatonic, were distinctly Chinese. In the big cadenza, Lang Lang did what he does best: playing as quickly as possible, embracing the whole keyboard and (at one time), banging down the lowest notes with his fist to make an extra large sound.

Give the orchestra under Leonard Slatkin its due as well. Tan Dun is a string player, and he gives that section plenty of quivering sounds against the soloist. But the percussion players showed Tan Dun’s originality. The kettles, slapsticks, tam-tams etc. played duets with Lang Lang, they opposed and harmonized his playing, they imitated his tunes, gave off gong fanfares and turned what could have been a minor work into something more circus-like.

Not that this was purely for show. The first movement labeled Lento was actually alternating tempos of slow and fast, the contrasts obviously part of the “fire and water” description which the composer gives the work. The second movement, Adagio melancholia, was actually the least “melancholy” section. Plainly influenced by the Bartók “night music”, it featured a beautiful trumpet solo, those zither-like figurations and a final cadenza leading to the finale.

That third movement gave Lang Lang the chance to play hard and fast. But my favorite section came in the last five minutes. There were about six different “final climaxes” which led to further music and then more false endings. It was a delicious little joke for a very pretty piece.

P.S. After a week including the complete Ravel Daphnis and Chloé ballet, one opera and tomorrow night’s Philip Glass opera, I did not stay for Slatkin’s full Firebird, but I trust that it was given the conductor’s usual brilliance, and that the almost-full house was delighted.

Harry Rolnick



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