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Classical 101

Lang Lang and Claudio Abbado at Lucerne

Back in August I wrote about the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland and how it attracts some of the greatest musical artists each year. This year's festival has come and gone and the reviews are in. Two items caught my attention.  At least according to the New York Times critics, one of the biggest superstars in the business right now can give a disappointing performance, albeit with a lot of flash, and one of the festival's regular participants can provide a musically sublime experience.

Lang Lang Overshadows the Music?

Michael Kimmelman, who reviewed the performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 by Lang Lang, the 27-year-old Chinese international sensation, found it wanting in some important ways. What I gleaned from his review was, in essence, that the soloist  was upstaging the music so that, for Mr. Kimmelman, the performance was more about Lang Lang than about Chopin. He felt the speeding up, slowing down, now loud, now soft of Lang Lang's playing was not organic or integral with the score and that the emotion and virtuosity were exaggerated.

Claudio Abbado Knows His Mahler

On the other hand, George Loomis observed that Claudio Abbado, leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, gave a very moving performance of Mahler's 4th Symphony that "left the audience in rapt silence for more than 30 seconds before it went wild with applause." Mr. Loomis noted that Abbado hand-picked all the members of the festival's orchestra and that the conductor's attention to detail ensured that everything was in the service of the music. Abbado, who is in fragile health at 76, conducts with "astonishing precision and nuance" and is one of the greatest musical artists with us today. He's been music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, La Scala, the Vienna Staatsoper, and guest conducted and recorded with many other great orchestras. (One of my first and favorite Mahler discs was Abbado's 1978 recording with the Chicago Symphony of the "Resurrection" Symphony from Deutsche Grammophon).

Apples and Oranges

I know this is a kind of "apples and oranges" comparison because a Romantic concerto is a different sort of musical animal from a late Romantic symphony such as Mahler's 4th. A kind of give-and-take is expected between the soloist and orchestra in a concerto, whereas a symphony is a more unified whole. But even in a pianist's showpiece like the Chopin, there is a point at which the performance can become scattered and dis-unified. That surely cannot be a good thing. Physical antics aside, Lang Lang certainly has virtuosic ability and a lot of heart. It's certainly a shot in the arm for classical music to have an international "superstar" such as him to raise its profile. I'm not so bothered by that and I think its fun. But he is still young and maturing as an artist. He may be the  flashiest player around, but how great of an artist remains to be seen. Claudio Abbado is one of our greatest musical treasures who is now passing on his mature artistic vision with great sensitivity, insight and knowledge to those lucky enough to work with him. The youth orchestras he works with, especially, will ensure that his vast experience and insights will blossom on fertile ground. We can all listen to his recordings, but it is the living tradition being passed on that will be very significant for a vital future of classical music, perhaps more than just publicity and flash. Give Lang Lang another ten or twenty years and see what happens. The music will long outlast us.