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Music review: Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock at the Hollywood Bowl

August 8, 2009 | 12:19 pm

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A year ago, Lang Lang fit right in as one of the stars of the historically gaudy opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games in Beijing. Estimates of television viewers worldwide have ranged from 1 billion to 4 billion, obviously some kind of record.

Friday, in the first of a two-night stint, Lang Lang appeared at the 17,376-seat Hollywood Bowl, which was about half-filled. Still, the stellar Chinese pianist has moved up in the world.

Lang’s fans were no doubt in boxes and bleachers. But the yells were all, “We love you, Herbie.” A 27-year-old piano peacock and 69-year-old Herbie Hancock, a revered jazz pianist and composer, were the evening’s odd couple. Joined by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by John Axelrod, the soloists played Vaughn Williams Concerto for Two Pianos, a bit of jazz and a two-piano “Rhapsody in Blue” blowout. Hancock was the master; Lang Lang, the cute, overeager undergraduate. There remains hope for a young musician with extraordinary gifts -- and concern.

The collaboration, begun as a Grammy invention on the 2008 show, grew into an international tour this summer concluding at the Hollywood Bowl. The concert also marked the beginning of Hancock’s L.A. Philharmonic appointment as creative chair for jazz.

First things first, Hancock, who is classically trained but who has avoided that repertory for nearly five decades in public, proved an eloquent pianist by any standard. His technique is sure. He exhibits a revelatory of color. He phrases with grace. He plays from what appears a deep center, and in that regard, he is Lang Lang’s opposite. I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t, in private, still practice to keep up his classical chops.
 
Vaughn Williams Concerto for Two Pianos was a strange choice to begin the program -- actually it opened with Axelrod leading a perfunctory performance of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” Overture. The 1946 score was the British composer’s attempt to salvage a savagely difficult 1930 piano concerto that was thought all but unplayable. Instead Vaughn Williams produced an even more impractical concerto that still didn’t catch on, now requiring not one but two exceptional soloists apparently in the theory that, as Orrin Howard surmised in the Bowl program note, “two virtuosos are better than one.”

In fact, the concerto is a find. Hancock and Lang tore into it Friday, making much of the swirling first movement, capturing the shimmering British countryside quiet of the slow Romanza and knocking out the fugal Finale with tremendous élan. There was not, here, a lot of room for individuality, but in the Romanza, Hancock’s collected cool and Lang’s gorgeous sparkle made for a stunning combination.

After intermission, following another perfunctory Philharmonic opener (Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from “West Side Story”), Lang overacted a performance of Liszt’s Third Liebestraum. The two pianists attempted a brief, awkward duo improvisation on Chinese folk themes. On his own, Hancock owned the stage stringing together “Cantaloupe Island,”  “Dolphin Dance,” “Maiden Voyage” and other of his tunes into a flowing, Impressionist improvisation.

Then “Rhapsody in Blue.” Some critics have taken exception to Lang and Hancock's  two-piano arrangement of the solo line. They take license, adding long improvisations in the middle. But they have fun. Hancock, especially, breathes new life into the score with a little counterpoint here, a great unexpected flourish there, moments of pure inspiration. Michele Zukovsky got a whooping appreciation from the crowd for her juicy clarinet glissando at the start.

Lang, of course, can go too far. In his tight white suit and flowing scarf, he appeared, at his worst, like Liberace, Horowitz and Danny Kaye rolled into one unholy mess. But when his Lisztian/Liberacian repeated notes in the “Rhapsody” got out of hand, Hancock musically slapped him down like a loving musical Zen master.

Many of us are troubled by how excessive fame has hampered Lang’s artistic growth. But I, at any rate, take hope from the fact that he seeks out mentors of the likes of Herbie Hancock. A jazz great’s magisterial appearance on this Bowl outing also bodes extremely well for his new Los Angeles Philharmonic association and his collaborations with Gustavo Dudamel.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Pianists Lang Lang, left, and Herbie Hancock taking a bow together during their concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday night. Credit: Anne Cusack/ Los Angeles Times

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