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Rhapsody in Rainbows

New York
Great Lawn, Central Park
07/13/2010 -  
Richard Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser
Giaocchino Rossini: Largo al factotum della città from The Barber of Seville
Charles Gounod: The Waltz Song from Roméo and Juliette
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Là ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni
Guang Zhao: Ode to the Expo
George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Lang Lang (Piano), Ying Huang (Soprano), Chanyong Liao (Baritone)
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Long Yu (Conductor)

Lang Lang with friend after concert (© Harry Rolnick)

The whirl of New York Philharmonic summer concerts has the velocity of a prestissimo Csárdás. A bewildering succession of Mostly Mozart, Lincoln Centre Festival, Summer Festival, Free Central Park, Free Prospect Park Brooklyn etc etc etc. Previously, the livin’ was easy in summertime. A drive to Karamoor. Woodstock or Tanglewood, then back to Manhattan and (whew), the air-conditioning.

Not these days! New York Phil conductor Alan Gilbert may be in Europe this week, but he flies back in a few days for an all-Varèse concert in Avery Fisher Hall, a new Sciarrino opera on a Kafka story premieres the next night, and the summer spins on twenty-four/seven to the fall.

Last night, the Great Lawn in Central Park was host to a pair of orchestras. The ominous clouds precluded the original New York Philharmonic start with its crowd-pleasers like Eugene Onegin waltz and West Side Storydances. Instead, we showed Noo Yawk politesse, allowing the 130-year-old Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, having flown 7,387 miles, to begin before the rain. Their goal, as the gracious Shanghai representative said in a short speech, was to unite “humanity and nature.” Nature acquiesced, and humanity (except for a few planes) did the same.

Now the Great Lawn of Central Park is a lovely place to loll in and stroll in, but hardly has the acoustics of Tanglewood’s Shed or the Karamoor Concert Hall. In fact, the sounds were tinny at best (we were about 25 rows back, in front of the lollers and strollers), the sounds sometimes indistinct, never subtle and gave off the quality of being miked, though I doubt this was true.

It was not the place to hear the New York Philharmonic, but all were curious about the 80-piece Shanghai Phil. I had heard them several times in Shanghai itself, so it was no surprise that, within the confines of the faraway al fresco stage, they gave oomph and good brass fanfares for the Wagner overture. The opening horns were on pitch, the great trombone descants blared convincingly, and if the strings were muted, one blamed that on the faraway al fresco stage, not Mr. Yu.

Acoustics were no detriment to Changyong Liao, who has a stirring, broad baritone, bringing the audience to its feet with the Rossini patter song. The voice was strong, the diction was more clear than some Met show-off singers, and he was quite a presence. His partner, Ying Huang, seemed well-practiced in the Gounod waltz, was dressed for pirouettes, and sung with great charm.

A new work had been written for the opening of Shanghai Expo by Guang Zhao, and was suitably melodic. Happily, it lacked the military auras of Chinese ceremonial fanfares of the last generation, and was sung with great warmth. If one sometimes pictured Mr. Liao and Ms Huang as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, that was a compliment, since they complemented each other.

Weather still obliging, Lang Lang made his appearance for the Gershwin, obviously a salute to New York from Shanghai. My only previous hearing of Lang Lang on this was a YouTube performance in London, with Herbie Hancock on “second piano”. It was absolutely gorgeous, the meticulous Mr. Hancock containing Lang Lang’s flamboyance.

Nothing, though, stopped Lang Lang here. On the negative side, he took Liberace-style rubati with all the solo tempos (though adhering to Mr. Yu’s conducting). He played triple 32nd-notes where Gershwin asked for one eighth note, he made the work his own.

On the positive side–easily outweighing his liberties–Lang Lang gave the perfect Gershwin for a New York audience out for a good time. Just as the orchestra blared out the jazzy music (with a fine clarinetist), Lang Lang let himself go loose. If Lang Lang’s hands bounced off the piano to the sky, he could have been warning those clouds not to break loose while he was on stage. To paraphrase that other Gershwin, poet Ira, we couldn’t stop lovin’ that Lang Lang!

After this, it was time for the Shanghai Phil to go back to their hotel (in Secaucus, New Jersey!), and, feeling that the New York Phil would sound much better next week in Avery Fisher Hall, I started to repair back to my own home.

Then, surprise!. Standing right by the exit, who should show up for photographs, autographs, smiles and happiness, was Lang Lang himself! My own picture, above, does no justice to his enthusiasm after the concert, which reflected the electrifying enthusiasm he showed in his personal rainbow-colored Rhapsody.

Harry Rolnick



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