By Don Heckman
There were two very good reasons why the names Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock were prominently displayed on the marquee at the entrance to the Hollywood Bowl Saturday night. The first, obviously, was because they are marquee names, and that’s what it takes to fill the 18,000 plus seats in the vast, hillside venue. The second, somewhat more esoterically, is because, as a pair of artists at the pinnacles of their different musical disciplines — classical music and jazz — their on stage encounter promised an evening of potentially intriguing creative delights.
Count the first reason a success. The duo’s two night booking (they had opened on Friday) came close to a capacity turn out. But the effectiveness of the second reason was less easy to pin down. The crowd reaction to some of the more spontaneous pieces suggested that a substantial portion of the audience was indeed delighted by much of what they heard. But grumbling doesn’t resonate very easily in the open air of the Bowl. And, from this critical listener’s perspective, the programming for the common ground encounter between Lang Lang and Hancock actually raised a few more questions than it answered.
For example, what could have been the motivation for choosing the Ralph Vaughn-Williams Piano Concerto No.2 as a vehicle for the pair to display their classical chops? The obvious answer, of course, is that it’s a concerto for two pianos and orchestra. It’s also a concerto filled with a lot of busy, virtuosic technical demands that can’t seem to generate any mildly appealing melodic content. Originally written as a very difficult solo concerto, it was modified in the mid-’40s by Vaughn-Williams and composer Joseph Cooper, resulting in something with the distinct qualities of a patched together work. Give Lang Lang and Hancock credit for negotiating its roiling musical waters with accuracy — if not a great deal of inspiration — but it’s still hard to understand why it was picked for the tricky task of bringing together two very different pianists.
It’s not as though there weren’t some better alternatives. A few possibilities? The elegant Mozart Concerto No. 10 in Eb (it’s been performed, interestingly, by Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea); a pair of worthy concertos by Mendelssohn; and, assuming the quest was for a 20th century work, why not Poulenc’s dynamic 1932 Concerto for Two Pianos? Any of these would have provided a more appealing two-piano showcase.
The evening’s other major orchestral work, George Gershwn’s Rhapsody in Blue, has been performed in a far-ranging array of formats, from the original Ferde Grofé orchestration for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra to contemporary jazz based versions and a really off-beat recording for five pianos. The Lang Lang/Hancock performance employed a fairly standard orchestration in which the piano line was traded back and forth between the two pianists, occasionally leaving open spaces for improvisational-like passages. Once again, the duo brought life and spirit to a work which contained elements appropriately expressive for the unique talents of both players.
A pair of solo segments showcased Lang Lang’s gorgeously romantic rendering of Liszt’s Liebestraum and a characteristically exploratory Hancock medley of his own “Cantaloupe Island,” “Maiden Voyage” and “Dolphin Dance.” A spontaneous improvisational duo examination of a Chinese theme, however, somehow emerged with tango rhythms and Middle Eastern scales — interesting from a boundary-less world music point of view, but not exactly an example of the best of either player’s skills. Inexplicably, Josh Groban arrived at the very end of the concert to offer a lyrical, crowd-pleasing reading of “Love Walked In.” And conductor John Axelrod led the Los Angeles Philharmonic through mercilessly rushed versions of Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro and Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story.
Call it a program that made the effort to aim high, without always hitting its mark. But it was an intermittently entertaining evening, nonetheless, primarily because Lang Lang and Hancock are more than marquee names. Always worthy of one’s attention, they are fascinating to see and hear — even when the musical settings leave something to be desired.