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MUSIC REVIEW

Taste of new China in a great big Bowl

July 19, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic
  • WITH A BANG: Lang Lang sets off keyboard fireworks in a Bowl program displaying Chinese technical ability and dazzle.
WITH A BANG: Lang Lang sets off keyboard fireworks in a Bowl program displaying… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

China, the sleeping giant of classical music, is slowly stirring. We don't yet know how or when, but a huge country's huge appetite for Western music will inevitably have a huge effect. The eyes, ears and corporate checkbooks of the West increasingly angle East. The Olympic Games next month will include a grandly scaled arts festival headed by a French-trained vanguard classical composer, Chen Qigang.

China's growing influence on music could certainly be felt at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday night. The country's first superstar pianist, Lang Lang, played Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and drew an audience of nearly 14,000, which is likely to be the largest for a weekday Los Angeles Philharmonic concert this summer.

Also on the program were excerpts from Tan Dun’s "Crouching Tiger Concerto," based on his Academy Award-winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Taiwan-born Ben Hong, the Philharmonic's assistant principal cellist, was the soloist. Conductor Long Yu, who founded the China Philharmonic in 2000 and who runs the Beijing Music Festival, made his local debut.

But amid this and other such cross-cultural exchanges, all is not peace and grace. One hears, again and again, the same complaints about Lang Lang and Tan -- that two supremely gifted musicians have succumbed big-time to celebrity. And both do manage to frustrate even those of us who admire them enormously.

A natural-born composer, Tan can be captivatingly all-embracing, absorbing styles from East and West and techniques from both ends of the avant-garde/schlock spectrum. Unfortunately, he can go too far. If "One World, One Dream," which he composed for pop tenor Andrea Bocelli, becomes the official song of the Beijing Olympics, Tan's reputation is sure to sink further.

Just as often, though, Tan gets the balance right, as he did in "Crouching Tiger."

The alluring score for Ang Lee's poetic martial arts film is the unseen force that lifts the aerial swordsmen and swordswomen to the clouds. A solo cello -- the part was written for Yo-Yo Ma -- dominates.

The concerto develops the film score's themes, and its six movements correspond to sections of the movie. Lee has edited outtakes as video accompaniment. Those weren't used at the Bowl, and only four of the six movements were included. Still, this was 26 minutes of really enchanting music played really well. The amplification was cranked up high yet without distortion, and the Bowl was magically bathed in Hong's bold, gorgeous tone.

The amplification was a blessing as well for the percussion, of which Tan is a master. Drums delightfully ricocheted all over the place.

Lang Lang, for his part, was in excellent form. Five years ago, he recorded Tchaikovsky's concerto with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony. Tempos were slow, which allowed a 20-year-old prodigy all manner of room for flamboyance. I was always fascinated by that disc, although I just lost my taste for it reading the pianist's frivolous new autobiography, "Journey of a Thousand Miles": Not long after that gloriously over-the-top performance in Chicago, Lang Lang took in a Britney Spears concert. "The special effects were brilliant," he writes, "the dancers gorgeous, and Britney super-sexy."

The Bowl performance was less lurid than the recording, but Lang Lang is still plenty ostentatious. He has also shaved more than four minutes off the timing. Long Yu is not a showy interpreter and capably beat time, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. Lang Lang pretty much let his fingers do the work.

Those fingers, of course, amaze. His technique is second to none in the speed-and-glitter department. His exuberance turns listeners on. Like Tan, he is a natural. He can still overdo lyrical passages, but the playing was lovely nonetheless. I would have liked a conductor who brought a tad more of a Russian feel to the orchestra, but Long Yu was more straight man for a keyboard star.

The concert began with a popular Chinese melody, "Moon Reflected on the Erquan Fountain," arranged for swooping strings.

The evening ended with an encore, Chopin's "Grand Polonaise Brillante" for piano and orchestra, accompanied by fireworks. Fireworks need something grander, and so did Lang Lang for an encore. But no matter. Pyrotechnics are old China. Flashy fingers and flashy feet (Adidas has just put on the market a black-and-gold Lang Lang Gazelle sneaker) dazzle more in the new China.

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mark.swed@latimes.com

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