When jazz and classical piano worlds collide—with surprising success

Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 11:41 am

By Bryant Manning

Lang Lang and Ramsey Lewis teamed up at Ravinia Tuesday night. Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival

At first glance, the second of Lang Lang’s two Ravinia concerts appeared as the dessert to Sunday’s main course, which had featured Prokofiev’s Third and a reunion with the pianist’s long-time mentor Christoph Eschenbach—a partnership famously born ten years ago this summer on the same pavilion stage. 

Tuesday’s concert, after all, was just another cross-genre pairing of two iconic pianists working in different worlds looking to meet halfway. Yet there must have been many who were happily surprised to hear the Chinese pianist and jazz legend Herbie Hancock yield results that far exceeded a couple hours of breezy easy listening.

The alliance works because the two share more qualities than is initially apparent. First, both artists don’t discount the elements of fashion and style, and Hancock’s shades and striking indigo suit seemed a nice companion to Lang Lang’s glamtastic waxed hair and dapper black two-piece. Secondly, Hancock’s career launched after he played the opening movement of Mozart Concerto No. 5 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when he was only 11. Lang Lang similarly found stardom when he performed the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the CSO in 1999. It was clear Chicago-native Hancock was speaking for the two of them when he said, “It’s good to be home.”

Conductor John Axelrod and the Chicago Symphony were solid partners in front of a well-attended crowd in the lawn and pavilion.  The two instrumentalists gave a persuasive reading of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ neglected Concerto for Two Pianos (1931), a CSO and Ravinia premiere. A messy pastiche in many ways, the work is unmistakably English until it turns Ravelian in the gorgeous Romance and then morphs into a Soviet march in the last. Thanks to the two pianists bringing this one out from the cellar, the work’s resplendent incoherency  may well find favor with keyboardists in the years ahead.

There were several improvisational liberties taken in their souped-up take on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Axelrod and the CSO members were brilliant throughout, though orchestra and conductor were here at the mercy of the pianists’ whims—at one point, Hancock jokingly turned a musical phrase into Jingle Bells. This playfulness was mirrored in an extended improvisation the two shared on Chinese themes.

Written as five musical stories for two young children, Ravel’s Ma mere l’Oye (“Mother Goose”) suite is heard more often in its orchestral guise, rather than the original four-hand duet version, which simply splits the treble and bass parts. Lang Lang and Hancock created an extraordinary sense of intimacy as the two virtuosos revealed all the lyrical calm that lies inside a child’s nursery. Their playing, liquid and nimble, never rose above a mother’s whisper.

After intermission, the two went solo with Lang Lang opting for a transparent account of Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 and Hancock providing an extended jazz solo of about 20 minutes. Fans heard elegant quotations of Hancock’s Dolphin Dance and Canteloupe Island though the classical contingent may have thought the solo rambled on for too long. Yet given the dominating classical focus of the night, this lone jazz segment was an agreeable addition. The CSO found their swagger in Gershwin’s rhythmically curvy Cuban Overture, adding yet another welcome rarity to an already loaded program of curiosities.

The concert was to conclude with a duo version of Liszt’s ever-playful Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, but the work was left off the program.  The show had gone on well past 2 ½ hours and CDs were yet to be signed. If time were the issue here, then the ho-hum curtain raiser, Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, might have been scratched to make room for a little late-night Lisztomania.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “When jazz and classical piano worlds collide—with surprising success”

  1. Posted Aug 01, 2009 at 2:34 pm by Cath

    Wish I were there…what a great idea to bring jazz and classical musicians of this caliber together.

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