Friday, March 21, 2008

Classical Dissonance

I grew up on classical music. My parents say I heard it in utero and I’m sure I did. Or at least I absorbed the vibrations. I’m not sure at what point our embryonic ears recognize sound. I used to fall asleep listening to Delibes’ Coppelia and was well into my 30s before I heard the last three movements fully conscious. With my parents, I attended a lot of classical concerts, and have been a faithful Schubert Club subscriber for 30 years.

But today I’m less enamored of classical music, at least live performances. For a while I have assumed that my near-obsession with jazz has pushed me to expect, to demand improvisation at some level. I don’t want to hear every note as written when there might be another note, or sequence of notes, that gives the music more interest, gives the performance more individuality. Why should a live performance merely duplicate a recording? Why should that allegro go off in the same direction every time, return to the same starting point night after night?

But even Beethoven had themes and variations, and the great performers of the last century managed to infuse their own interpretive powers into the dynamics, the emotions of their repertoire. Hardly the same as the deconstructions of Ellington, Monk, and Parker that inform much of contemporary jazz or the extended exploratory solos of the great horn players of the Big Bands, or the vocal experiments of great scat artists from Ella to Elling. But I think one reason I preferred classical music in my 20s and 30s was that classical music used to have more soul.

Case in point, the recent, rather unsettling performance of young Lang Lang, a Chinese pianist of incomparable technical facility and the capacity to bring a staid Minnesota audience to its feet one minute while leaving us stone cold the next. Or vice versa, as was the case last week. I enjoyed his performance in 2004—he was barely in his 20s and oozed enthusiasm as well as prodigious talent. He was grinning ear to ear when his elderly father joined him on the traditional Chinese erhu for an encore. The whole concert was a big grin, played with childlike abandon (but with much greater accuracy). I looked forward to hearing him again, even though on the same night Maria Schneider conducted the Macalester jazz band and Jazz Is Now! was returning to the stage after a two-year hiatus. I picked Lang Lang.

I almost left at intermission, bored by masterworks from Mozart and Schumann that were played with stony precision by a 25-year-old wunderkind on auto pilot. Neither Mozart nor Schumann are so etched in stone that they can’t be brought to life, even for ears grown accustomed to bop and beyond. But the second half of the program suggested a seachange, including six pieces from Lang's album of mostly modern Chinese music (Dragon Songs), Granados, and Liszt. Surely one can not be impassionate playing Liszt. And the familiar connection to Chinese themes promised to stir something from this young man’s soul.

Some have criticized Lang Lang for a sometimes bombastic approach to great romantic scores, but I’ll take bombast over complacency any day as long as it doesn’t defeat the music. The suite of Chinese pieces—now sounding more like a sweeping stylistic overview from Baroque to Tango and ultimately like variations on Aaron Copeland─was purely delightful and Lang’s enthusiasm was unsheathed from the git go. I’d take a recording filled with what can only be described as formalized improvisation. Perhaps to purists of Asian music, this was blasphemy. On the other hand, it was the most creative work of the evening, and the music that seemed to give Lang Lang, not just the audience, the most pleasure. The audience actually was most pleased, it seemed, with Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 6, certainly a show stopper and Lang Lang pulled out all the stops and flourishes. He was well within his comfort zone—a piece requiring technical wizardry, physical power and arrogant confidence. Lang has plenty of the above. Surprisingly, his encore slipped back into the more detached mild-mannered romanticism of the first segment, as if his “on” button had disengaged.

My friend John snapped a photo from the side tier as Lang Lang took a final bow, and it captured the unease of the night—not a grin but an expression of dark intensity, a stiff gesture. (See the photo on Pamela’s blog at

World-wide acclaim, recording contracts, international touring—all heady stuff for a 25-year-old expected to maintain his technical facility across a broad classical repertoire. But something tells me he might be a lot happier if, for even a few hours, he could trade Carnegie Hall for Birdland.

It’s a scene I hear – or now recognize—more often, classical artists of high technical prowess communicating very little beyond an austere sequence of defined notes that would leave their composers cold and weary. All the more frustrating when one catches flashes of artistic as well as technical brilliance from the likes of a Lang Lang. If I had his address, I would send him some Oscar Peterson.

PR Photo of Lang Lang by Felix Broede.