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Lang Lang in Chicago

November 19, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments
Lang Lang

Lang Lang

In my previous post, I described our morning and afternoon in Chicago this past Saturday, featuring a photography exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, a visit to the outdoor sculptures on or near Dearborn, the demonstration against California’s Proposition 8 in the Federal Plaza, lunch at Berghoff’s, and a walk through Millennium Park. Here I will describe our evening activities.

Because of our late lunch at Berghoff’s, we decided that for dinner we would take advantage of being on a gold floor at the Fairmont Chicago by partaking of their evening hors d’oeuvres in the gold lounge on the 15th floor before walking down to Symphony Center. The Friday hors d’ouevres suited my taste perfectly, but unfortunately the Saturday hors d’ouevres really weren’t up my alley: chicken lollipops — tiny chicken legs in some red sauce — and some shrimp on cracker thing. I made do with an apple and a few other scraps. Not much of a dinner, but it was sufficient. And the gold lounge was most relaxing.

We headed out at 7:00, down a block to Randolph, over two blocks to Michigan, then south on Michigan for 5 blocks to Symphony Center. I don’t know why its name was changed. I always thought Orchestra Hall was a perfect name for it. I guess the hall is still Orchestra Hall, but it’s now part of a larger complex. In any case, we arrived around 7:15, got our tickets from will call, and just then the doors were opened from the ticket booth vestibule into the lobby, so we went right in. We decided to check our coats, which cost us $1 apiece, proceeds going to support the symphony, and the coat check woman couldn’t make change for our $20, so we ended up buying snacks and drinks at the bar, paying her for the coats, and hanging out in the lobby for a while. We then took our seats, in the fifth row, center section, along the aisle. There’s one wide center section, with narrower sections on the two sides, and our seats were at the right side of the center section (right when facing the stage). Orchestra Hall, as you may know, is not very deep. I estimated about 23 rows on the main level. But it is tall, with a tier of boxes just above the floor, then a steep first balcony, and then, up in the clouds somewhere, a second balcony. I can hardly imagine attending a chamber concert and sitting in the back of the second balcony. It’s akin to watching a Cubs game on one of the rooftops across Waveland Avenue from Wrigley Field, but without the beer. In addition to being tall, the hall is beautiful, a splendid place to attend a concert.

Symphony Center, Chicago

Symphony Center, Chicago

With plenty of time to kill, we could both read our programs and check out the audience. The most notable feature of the audience was the high percentage of Chinese or Chinese-American members. Thirty percent at least. Maybe thirty-five. And a good number of them were young and female. It reminded me of going into Pittsfield, Massachusetts from camp in the summer of 1965 to see the Beatles movie Help.

Oh, but I haven’t yet said what we were there for, have I? I did in the two previous Chicago posts, and maybe the title gives it away. Lang Lang was in town. Friday night he gave a traditional chamber concert with the concertmaster and the principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony. Saturday afternoon and evening, he was playing a mixed program of traditional European and Chinese music, accompanied by assorted friends on European and Chinese instruments. As explained in the program, he would choose from a list of songs and announce them from the stage.

In due course, the lights went down and Lang Lang came onto the stage, smiling broadly. The audience cheered, but not with the same wildness I remembered from the Help audience of my youth. He grabbed a wireless mic and explained the first piece. The orchestra had held an audition to select a local young pianist who would attend a master class with Lang Lang and then play with him at the two Saturday concerts. Fourteen year old Kate Liu had won, and she would join him in playing Schubert’s Fantasy in F-minor for Piano Four-Hands. Kate then came out, bowed with him, and they headed to the piano, with him playing the lower octaves while she managed the high end. She was of course wonderful, and he seemed happy to stay in the background, but really the piece was a mere aperatif.

Next Lang Lang described the five solo pieces he would be playing in the subsequent portion of the program. For each piece, he gave the English translation of its Chinese name, hesitated as if trying to decide if the translation was adequate, then gave the Chinese title, both because he seemed to like the sound of it better and so the Chinese speakers would know what he was really talking about. The five titles, as listed in the program (but not as translated by him) were: Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake, Dance of Spring, Happy Times, The Cowherd’s Flute, and Moon Chased by the Clouds. One, I can’t remember which, he previewed as being a Chinese tango, and indeed it did have that kind of feel. They were all different in tempo, color, mood, and were a delight taken together.

Lang Lang then introduced the first of his three featured friends, Guo Gan, who came out with his erhu. As Lang Lang explained, Guo Gan’s father was his own father’s teacher, on the erhu, so they have a long history together.

Erhu

Erhu

Guo Gan was a striking figure, with his bald and shaved head and the long, narrow, velvety blue gown that covered him from neck to ankles (with long slits, starting at mid-thigh on both sides, so he could walk, and with pants underneath, so we didn’t have to look at his legs). And he produced a most stunning sound from the erhu, playing with lots of vibrato. They played two songs together. The second seemed to pass over into the realm of jazz at times, which is consistent with Guo Gan’s own background. According to the program, he formed one of the first Asian jazz bands in Paris, where he has lived since 2001. He plays in many genres, including performing on the soundtracks of two recent French movies. The program notes on him conclude: “Everywhere he goes, his mix of Western and Asian musical styles plays to a public that is becoming ever more widespread.” I’m not sure the last part of that sentence makes much sense, but I’m glad to be a part of that ever widening public.

Intermission. Another opportunity to study the crowd and admire the elegance of Orchestra Hall.

To start the second half, Lang Lang came out to tell us about his other two friends, the pipa player Yang Wei and the double bassist DaXun Zhang. They came onstage in the middle of his introductions, causing some minor confusion, and as they passed, he asked what they planned to play. They played two songs, as a duet, with LL sitting on the edge of an orchestra riser near the door, stage left. Reviewing the program, I see that the first one must have been Rainbow Dance for Pipa and Bass, a traditional Chinese song arranged by Yang Wei. The second was Halvorsen’s Passacaglia for Pipa and Bass (after Handel’s Suite No. 7 in G minor for Harpsichord). Yang Wei pretty much stole the show with his pipa playing and his immense smile, though there were many opportunities for DaXun Zhang to shine as well. I should add that LL described Zhang as the Yo-Yo Ma of the double bass.

Pipa

Pipa

Lang Lang then joined Yang Wei and DaXun Zhang for two trios. One was another Chinese song arranged by Yang Wei, Three Six for Pipa, Bass, and Piano. The other was an arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 6 for Pipa, Bass, and Piano. Both were spirited.

At this point Guo Gan returned as the program closed with three pieces for quartet. Guo Gan is not just one of the great erhu players. He is also a jazz percussionist, and in the first piece he eschewed the erhu for a wooden block and stick. He then switched back to the erhu for the last two pieces, which reached a suitable climax, bringing down the house. They were brought back on stage several times, but an encore wasn’t to be. It was already 10:30. They had played enough. The lights came on and we filed out.

I can judge merely as an amateur, having no familiarity with the repertoire or the tradition of erhu and pipa playing. But as an amateur, I’ll say that the concert was both beautiful and great fun. I can’t imagine better erhu playing than th;at of Guo Gan. All the musicians seemed to enjoy themselves so much, and so did we.

It was just above freezing as we walked up Michigan Avenue to Randolph and then back to the hotel. Snow flurries fell for a few minutes, but the air was fresh and the night lovely. We were so glad we decided to get tickets for the concert.

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