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TRANSCENDING BOUNDARIES ON HANDS AND MUSIC

Concert Review of Lang Lang & Herbie Hancock
Conducted by John Axelrod and Special Guest Josh Groban

 

TWO PHENOMENAL ARTISTS who love to broaden and reinvent the spectrums of their current music vocabulary displayed their passion, along with their obvious chemistry and camaraderie to one another at the Hollywood Bowl. Lang Lang, the 27 years old Chinese classical sensation of the piano, is seeking to enter the world of jazz improvisation with the master of instantaneous bursts of creativity – Herbert Jeffrey "Herbie" Hancock. The innovative jazz icon, who will be overseeing jazz programming for the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl between 2010 and 2012, is fulfilling his goals in the cross-pollination of music of various cultures via various forms of global collaboration and mentoring artists. (Editor's Note: One hopes that Mr. Hancock will add his creative input with the programming and promotion of the "Global Pop" at Hollywood Bowl's sister venue - Disney Hall. Imagine the magical musical moments and attention the "Global Pop" series would have received with the past artists that included Lea Salonga, Fly to the Sky, Coco Lee, Lena Park and Wheesung!) With the guidance of conductor John Axelrod - Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock have truly sought to transcend boundaries (hence rescuing jazz and classical music from increasing marginalization in the pop culture marketplace and media outlets) via their magical hands of dexterity and merging their respective creative disciplines. By the end of the night, one can accurately conclude that the two masters of the black and white ivory keys were just playing great music that goes beyond description that adheres to Hancock’s vision that “the fact of the matter is that boundaries in descriptions of musical genres really create limitations . . . . Music itself has no boundaries.”

LANG LANG AND HERBIE HANCOCK are two great and talented musical ambassadors who are seeking to unite, ignite and excite audiences for their passion to create music without “outside forces” (as Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock have described the factors that limit creativity) placing restrictions on their collective creative vision. Under the expert baton of John Axelrod, the performance showed the fruits of each pianist embracing their respective steep creative learning curves - Hancock trying to master intricate classical scores (or "remaster" since he was a child prodigy within classical music world) and Lang Lang plunging into an art form where few classical pianists dare to go — jazz improvisation. With a very talented and affable pianist, Hancock faced the excitement of embracing this "new experience" in music of incorporating creative magic (providing meaning and feelings within a prescribed arrangement of notes) and improvisational freedom within a set structure. Meanwhile, Lang Lang was venturing into a musical landscape that is devoid of the security of the notes and timing within classical music to spontaneously improvise the meaning and feeling within his soul. Together, their mixture of composed music and improvisations sought to expand their respective musical idioms of expertise that have been traveled by past creative musical partnerships such as the acclaimed Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations (among others) that featured illuminating creative dialogues between two magnificently talented forces of creativity at their very best. Though it would be unrealistic to expect such musical excellence and/or creative fireworks at their early stage of collaborating, Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock's joint performance – that is an outgrowth of their strong friendship and respect for each other - provided them the ability and assurance to one another the freedom to explore the ability to push each other to various musical “cliffs” and/or “cliffhangers” (as described by the artists) that they might not have ventured without the other in their quest to experience a new creative nirvana. Their respective and well-deserved reputations provided them the ability to share these moments of discovery to the appreciative audience at the Hollywood Bowl and worldwide.

Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock Plays Rhaposidy in Blue
LANG LANG'S REPUTATION as the “hottest artist on the classical music planet” (New York Times), 2009 Time 100 – Time magazine's annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, Recording Academy’s Cultural Ambassador to China, official worldwide ambassador to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Carnegie Hall’s Artistic Advisory Board member, United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEFF) International Goodwill Ambassador, first Ambassador of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra and Sony Electronics’ global brand ambassador has provided him this opportunity. Herbie Hancock’s is recognized and widely respected as one of the most influential genre-defying jazz musicians of the 20th century. He has integrated rock, soul, jazz, funk, blues and modern classical music with Claire Fischer/Bill Evans/Claude Debussy/Gil Evans/Maurice Ravel-like harmonic concepts with his restless experimentalism into a “post-bop” sound whose reputation was founded on being part of ground-breaking Miles Davis’ various music ensembles. As a result of his past track record and success, audiences throughout the world has always looked forward to seeing what new musical worlds he will conquor.

WITH JOHN AXELROD, “considered to be one of the most talented, creative and unconventional conductors of his generation" by Eckehard Pistrick of the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, he was personally invited by Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock to guide their magical mystery tour of merging classical and jazz idioms. Through his magical baton, the night’s musical selections maintain a central focus and flow throughout the evening. The conductor, who is “representative of the new generation of conductors: young, vigorous, full of elan and feeling" (so declared Gabriela Szczegulski of the Bietigheimer Zeitung), has the musical diversity, versatility and expertise to guide the pianists through the night’s various musical selections that included working with prominent orchestras throughout the world. In addition, his background includes working with Leonard Bernstein (as a 16 years old student), studying jazz at the Berklee College of Music, handling Marc Cohen/Toris Amos while being Atlantic Records’ A&R Director, working with Bruce Hornsby/Smashing Pumpkins while being BMG’s Director of A&R, managing contemporary jazz saxophonist Warren Hill, trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Ilya Musin and founding Houston's groundbreaking OrchestraX made him uniquely qualified to be a star of the program behind Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock. Given his background, one wonders what music magic he would have brought to historic landmark concerts that required versatility such as when Barbara Streisand opened up for Miles Davis in 1961 at New York's famed jazz club - The Village Vanguard, if they had performed together.

THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA warmed up the crowd with the Overture from Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" within a sound mix that handicapped John Axelrod efforts when the strings weren’t projected with the warmth and resonance that is normally accorded to the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, though the brass and reed section had the needed brilliance that provided the ability for their respective sections of the musical selections to stand out. Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story suffered a similar fate, being the opening number of the second half of the evening.

Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock Play Gershwin Melodies

BEFORE THE FEATURED PART of the evening was to start, Herbie had forgotten his reading glasses! Could this be one indication, albeit comically, that the focus will be something that will be different and required (given his first number with Lang Lang was a challenging selection within the classical realm) channeling his creative magic within a set musical structure of notes, something he hasn’t done for almost five decades? It also provided unrehearsed moments and banter that placed on full display the strong bonds between the three principals that will be more evident as the evening progressed while seemingly sharing with the audience their personal invitations of entering their worlds of music with them.

THE REPERTOIRE, outside of the obligatory “Mirage of Figaro” and “Mambo,” provided a stylistic breadth and musical depth that was seemingly designed to challenge and entertain the listeners (new and old) – as well as the artists. Selecting to performing Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto No. 2 - a refreshing change from the normal classical selections that are normally played given its great complexity and moodiness - was indicative of the vision of Axelrod, Hancock and Lang to continue the composer’s oft-repeated call “for all persons to make their own music, however simple, as long as it is truly their own” – along with noting that in Vaughan Williams' style "one is never quite sure whether one is listening to something very old or very new." Each pianist brought their own individual sound colors that ranged from Lang Lang’s resonating warm tones that he solicited from his Steinway piano that highlighted the first movement of the slow Romanza to Herbie Hancock’s brighter sounds from his Fazioli Pianoforte instrument that featured the intricate inner melody lines within the piece while incorporating an innovative use of space at certain moments for tension and dramatic effect that highlighted the Finale. Lang Lang’s playing exhibit his great assurance of knowing where and how to funnel his individuality (via with his amazing technique and touch) that allowed him to more freely express himself through the various selections of the piece. Hancock’s playing didn’t display the resonance or liquidity within the various selections while displaying a slight edge, probably due to his unfamiliarity to this piece – in comparison to Lang Lang. However - his attack, tonality, fire and usage of dynamics on various selections of the piece provided a needed counterpoint to Lang Lang’s playing. Within the piece, there weren’t many opportunities for individuality – but as the result of each artist bringing their unique character and perspective, it was a satisfying performance.

PARTICIPATING ARTISTS' PAST RECORDINGS
The Best of Herbie Hancock (The Blue Note Years)
 River: The Joni Letters (with Bonus Tracks) - Herbie Hancock
 Possibilities by Herbie Hancock, John Mayer, & Christina Aguilera
 Mr. Hands (Herbie Hancock)
 Crossings (Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove)
1 + 1 (Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter)
Secrets (Herbie Hancock) 
Gershwin World (Herbie Hancock)
Awake (Josh Groban w/Herbie Hancock)
We Are the Future (Josh Groban, Norah Jones, Andrea Bocelli, Juanes)
Closer (Josh Groban)
Chess In Concert (Josh Groban, et. al)
You Raise Me Up (Josh Groban)
Up Close with Josh Groban
Noel (Josh Groban)
Kadish (John Axelrod, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg)
Rolf Wallin: Act (John Axelrod, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra)
Fazil Say: 1001 Night in the Harem (John Axelrod)
Franz Schreker und Seine Schüler
Chopin: The Piano Concertos (Lang Lang, Zubin Mehta, Vienna Philharmonic)
The Magic of Lang Lang (Haydn, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart)
Dreams of China
The Painted Veil by Alexandre Desplat and Lang Lang
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2; Paganini Rhapsody (Gergiev, Mariinsky (Kirov Orchestra)
Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Balakirev / Lang Lang
Lang Lang Live at Carnegie Hall (Chopin, Haydn, Schubert, and Schumann
Dragon Songs by Lang Lang and Benedict Mirow
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4 by Pascal Moragues and Paris Orchestra
AFTER INTERMISSION and the obligatory-like performance of Leonard Bernstein's “Mambo” (from West Side Story) – each of the pianists took an unaccompanied solo spot. Lang Lang’s interpretation of Liszt's "Liebesträum" was pleasant while being filled with flair and tenderness that audiences have come to expect and love. Hancock’s improvisations integrated various themes from his catalog of melodies from Cantaloupe Island, Dolphin Dance, Maiden Voyage and other tunes seemingly from composers such as Gershwin into a free-flowing free-form concoction of musical delights that only an artist supremely confident within his creative imagination can provide and appreciative listening ears will embrace.

LANG LANG STARTED an unaccompanied duet section by integrating various traditional Chinese folk song themes while Hancock responded by ad-libbing around the simple but elegant melodies. As Hancock proceeded to developed the lines within a progressive number of counterpart interludes, Lang Lang responded within his music vernacular by providing impressive arpeggio-like runs that solicited oohs and ahs from the audience, but not the collective creative “gasps” when accomplished musicians of the jazz idioms create magical moments. In time, one can imagine Lang Lang incorporating Hancock’s musicality within his own and transforming into an artist with an unique musical voice that incorporates his classical background with the influence/technique/creative vision of artists such as Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, Milt Jackson, Gary Burton, Keiko Matsui and/or Oscar Petersen.

GEORGE GERSHWIN'S "RHAPSODY IN BLUE" was the obvious highlight of the evening because of the music composition's goal of merging classical and jazz with its ambitious scope and scintillating rhythms that provided a viable platform for all of Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock’s artistry and vision to be illuminated. The L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra (LAPO) was provided the proper mix that allowed it to be John Axelrod’s expressive instrument in providing a solid musical foundation for Lang and Hancock to take flight in whatever directions they decided. Michele Zukovsky’s opening saucy clarinet glissando fabulously set the appropriate tone for the excitment that was to come afterwards. During the section where they were trading licks with one another, the differences between the two men were more clearly defined. While using the warm resonance tones that he was drawing out of his Steinway, Lang Lang utilized tempo and dynamic changes within his amazing technique to express his musicality with startling clean and buoyant attack of the notes. Hancock, as the result of his jazz pedigree and vision, eloquently uncovered various musical variations when he reharmonized sections via oblique voicings that unearthed different variations of the original melodic themes. Hancock’s technique and creative artistry provided a great creative counterpart to Lang Lang’s explorations that were musically “closer to home.”

THE SURPRISE GUEST of the evening was Josh Groban singing George Gershwin’s “Love Walked In." (This George/Ira Gershwin song was composed for The Goldwyn Follies in February 20, 1938 - the first Technicolor film produced by Samuel Goldwyn - though the music was composed in 1930. Sammy Kaye in 1938, The Hilltoppers in 1953, Ella Fitzgerald in 1959 and Dinah Washington in 1960 previously had success with the song. The music composed by George Gerwshwin for this film was the last before his death on July 11, 1937. An interesting side note is that George Balachine did the choreography for The Goldwyn Follies.) The heartfelt performance was well-received by the audience, though one had a feeling that if these four magnifiently talented musicians had more time to work together - a wider range of dynamics would have been used more effectively. This selection, along with Rhapsody in Blue, was a probably logical extension of the fact that Hancock achieved great success 1998 with his album Gershwin’s World that featured George & Ira Gershwin standards performed by Hancock (with numerous guests such Kathleen Battle, Eddie Henderson, Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder, James Carter, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Joni Mitchell) and working on Josh Groban’s CD “Awake.”

Josh Groban Singing "When Loved Walked In"

GIVEN THAT THE L.A. PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA (LAPO) played an important to the presentation of the music, it should be recognized that the principal musicians that night included Alexander Treger (concertmaster), Mark Kashper (principal second violin), Dale Hikawa Silverman (principal viola), Peter Strumpf (principal cello), Dennis Trembly (principal bass), Sarah Jackson (principal flute), Marion Arthur Kuszyk (principal oboe), Michele Zukovsky (principal clarinet), Judith Farmer (principal bassoon), Eric Overholt (principal horn), Jim Wilt (principal trumpet), James Miller (principal trombone), Norman Pearson (principal tuba), Joseph Pereira (timpani), Raynor Carroll (percussion), Lou Anne Neill (harp), Joanne Pearce Martin (keyboard), Douglas Masek (saxophone) and Stephen Schaeffer (drumset).

AT THE END OF THE EVENING, Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang can be satisfied with their collaboration because they have successfully started their journey of transcending boundaries between their respective musical genres and disciplines while expanding the landscapes of their creativity. In addition, it has fulfilled Hancock's purpose of “meeting what people and humanity need.” He has stated that his approach to making music had changed over the years and that he did not want to "lock myself into a box, a comfort zone." Lang Lang can be satisfied with teaming with Herbie Hancock because he was the best choice for a mentor to successfully incorporate jazz improvisations within his creative palette. The unabashed joy these two masters of the piano expressed for one another made whatever music they made with each other a joy for any audience (now and in the future) – not matter what their tastes might be since (as Herbie Hancock has stated) "music itself has no boundaries.".

- end -

 

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