Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lang Lang @ The iTunes Festival

Last Monday, I won tickets to see the pianist Lang Lang perform at the iTunes Festival held at Roundhouse in Camden, courtesy of the London Symphony Orchestra.  For those of you who aren't familiar with this classical musician, I'm pretty sure he is currently the (or at least, one of the) hottest-young-talent-in-the-classical-music-scene-like-right-now.  You can catch up on his accolades here, as I won't use this space to list them but instead, focus on his performance that evening.

As my pianist mother was unavailable to take an overnight flight to London for the concert and John was busy being busy and important, I invited Ruth to come along.  We had an amazing pre-concert meal which far surpassed my expectations, at Made in Camden.  We ordered small but innovative tapas-style dishes which included delights such as miso chicken, pickled watermelon rind, fennel salad, seared tuna and roast pork belly.

Heading up to the main stage, we found that the opening act, 2Cellos, was already performing: comprised of two very attractive Croatian musicians, they first played separately as soloists, then together as a duet (and later with a drummer), on electric cellos.  The first part of their program consisted of classical pieces accompanied by piano but they quickly changed it up with more crowd-pleasing favorites such as covers of Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers and even a cringe-inducing U2 cover of "With Or Without You", to which the man behind me and Ruth sang with unbridled passion (and terrible intonation, might I add) whilst clasping his hands around his girlfriend's waist.  (Note: if that was my boyfriend, I would have dumped him right then and there).  There's a fine line between cool and cheese and I think that, unfortunately, 2Cellos crossed that cheese line when they stepped into classic rock territory.  Smooth Criminal was cool, Welcome To The Jungle was not.  They were entertaining, however, and most importantly, hot.  So, quite frankly, what they lacked in the aural pleasure department, they certainly made up for in terms of eye candy.  That's rather sexist, but so what?

Anyway, by the end of 2Cellos's rather ear-splitting and not-altogether-pleasant conclusion, the standing crowd (it was, after all, a festival) was officially primed and geared up for Lang Lang.  We waited.  Aannndd ... waited.  And waited.  At or shortly after 9 pm (read: about thirty or forty minutes later), dramatic fog swirled about the stage and a countdown was shown on the large screens above the audience, chronicling all the acts that have previously performed at the iTunes Festival.  When the countdown ended, there were an awkward few minutes when nothing happened and confusion ensued.  Where was he?  What was going on?  The Steinway was there, the fog completely covered it, but it was there.  Where was Lang Lang?

Finally, he emerged, in a black sequined jacket, nonetheless, and waved to the audience.  "HI!" he shouted into the microphone.  "How's everybody doing tonight?  Thanks so much for coming out!  Are you ready for some music?" he continued.  "YES!!!" the crowd, er, screamed.  "OKAY!" he said.  "Then let's enjoy Liszt together!" he exclaimed, before swirling over to the piano.  "Huh?  What?" said a girl in confusion behind me.  Oh dear.  Did someone not tell you, honey?  That this was going to be a classical concert?  Me neither.  It was too easy to be misled by the 2Cellos performance, the fog, the lights and the countdown.  Here I was thinking Lang Lang was about to launch into Radiohead's Karma Police, when he actually began playing an extremely, extremely fast version of Liszt's La Campanella.  Once I got over my initial shock that he wasn't about to play Radiohead or any other popular music, for that matter, I had to get over my shock of the speed he was playing Liszt at.  The piece opens with an arpeggiated sequence, which, when I play it (and as written in the score) requires both hands.  Lang Lang played it entirely with his left hand.  After I recovered from that revelation, I was then faced with the fact that for the duration of the concert, there would be a movie of time-lapsed clips of city streets and nature playing on five, floor-to-ceiling screens behind the artist.  I was confused.  Were we supposed to focus on the music?  Or the movie?  Was the music supposed to act as an accompaniment to the movie?  Or were the producers concerned that Lang Lang's classical performance would not sustain the festival-going audience and decided that visual stimulation was needed?

Then, a few people at the front began making their escape, after the third or fourth piece.  And a few more after that.  Lang Lang paid no notice and only paused to wipe his brow, smile and bow after each piece.  I rocked back and forth on my heels and looked at my watch.  I understood the desire to play a full program of Liszt, but there were several other romantic pieces he could have chosen that would have been much more appropriate for the venue - that is, crowd pleasing.  Yes, I said it.  Play the slow, tender pieces at the Barbican or Cadogan.  Play them at Carnegie Hall.  But I'm afraid that for a venue and crowd like the one at Monday night, something more bang-y would be required.  Rachmaninov.  Brahms.  Even some of the Chopin Marches or Impromptus - ANYTHING!!!  I was beginning to be bored out of my mind - and this is coming from someone who loves (and plays) classical and in particular, solo piano music.

But those who were left in the crowd (and it was still a good size) were, to my surprise, incredibly committed: no one heckled, no one even dared to breathe.  The cameras zoomed in on his fingers; his articulation was impeccable.  We marveled at the sheer speed at which he played some pieces, though I wondered if that tempo was actually necessary or in fact, detrimental to the interpretation.  However, you could hear a pin drop in the Roundhouse during the pianissimo sections and I was amazed at the audience's dedication.  I shamefully booked it as soon as he finished his first encore.  Don't get me wrong, I was very grateful for the tickets and the opportunity to see such a famous and sought-after musician perform.  It's clearly a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I enjoyed it for what it's worth.  But from a critical perspective, the performance as a whole just didn't work for that particular venue.  The layout and design of the concert seemed disconnected, confused and incongruous with the music that was actually being performed.

I don't want to say that Lang Lang resembled a fish out of water at The Roundhouse, because after all, he's practically a rock star - in some ways, it was the perfect place for him.  He has an energy and charisma about him that engages his audience, no matter the venue.  Yet, I know that should I see him again, I'd definitely rather be sitting in a concert hall.

In the meantime, entertain yourself with this video of 2Cellos performing Smooth Criminal - they're hot, no?:

Photo source


  1. Great post! Though,I thought you meant I was singing with unbridled passion with the man behind us. It was totally his solo.

  2. no good very bad. i don't like it.


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