A ‘Rhapsody’ for the Ages as Carnegie Hall Opens Season with Philadelphia
By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, October 5, 2017
The publicity for Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night Gala featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra under music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin was slightly confusing: we were told that jazz-fusion icon Chick Corea and classical superstar Lang Lang would jointly perform a rarely heard two-piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue—certainly a tantalizing prospect—and that Lang would be “assisted by his dynamic protégé, 14-year-old Maxim Lando.” Why was it going to take three pianists to play a two-piano version?
It turns out that Lang had been over-practicing Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, which he was slated to perform with several orchestras, and he injured himself. Rather than back out of the Carnegie concert, which had already been announced, Lang enlisted the aid of Lando, a graduate of the Lang Lang International Music Foundation’s Young Scholars Program. Thus, for the Rhapsody performance on October 4, Lang and Lando sat side by side at one piano, with Lando serving as Lang’s left-hand man.
This worked shockingly well. In fact, the three pianists—Lang, Corea, and young Mr. Lando—gave a performance of the Rhapsody for the ages. Going in, I had imagined this would be something of a classical versus jazz standoff between Lang and Corea. It’s true, Corea improvised large sections of his part, launching into spontaneous mini-cadenzas at the drop of a hat. (You could tell when he did something brand new; a few times Nézet-Séguin turned from the podium and smiled, as if to say, “Wow, that’s not how you played it at the dress rehearsal.”)
For style and approach, the whole thing (not just Corea’s solos) seemed spontaneous and improvisatory, with phrases sometimes tantalizingly stretched nearly to the breaking point, and the give-and-take among all three pianists so palpable that it seemed they were creating the piece from scratch before your eyes. At one point, when Lang and Corea traded a particular riff, Lang played it with a swing rhythm, and Corea responded by playing it straight—a terrific inside joke.
As for Lando, he was obviously having the time of his life. Lang guided him almost as if he were giving his former student a private lesson in front of the audience, leading him, coaxing him, and at times actually conducting him with his free left hand. At times he slid over and let the kid take over completely.
Lando, rather than constricted by the guidance, thrived mightily. He nearly exploded with propulsive energy, particularly as he played a staccato rhumba-like accompaniment to one of Corea’s more extended flights of fancy. Overall, the three highly individual artists achieved an astounding musical synergy. Principal clarinetist Ricardo Morales’ opening clarinet solo was spectacularly gritty and smeary.
Gershwin aside, this program was the first entry in what will be the orchestra’s year-long celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial anniversary year. The concert opened with the Symphonic Suite from Bernstein’s only film score, On The Waterfront, the 1955 classic that netted Marlon Brando his first Oscar. Principal horn player Jennifer Montone played the opening solo with great evocative style, perfectly setting the tone for this wondrously enveloping suite.
The opulently charismatic Nézet-Séguin was brilliantly clear with the shifting meters of the percussion-driven second section, in which the score sounds like a cinematic cousin to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (a frequent showpiece of Bernstein the conductor).
The orchestra, lean and gleaming with sharp energy, reflected their conductor’s precision. As a complement to his firm control, Nézet-Séguin also knew when to let the orchestra and its soloists breathe, providing appropriate romantic sweep that stopped short of indulgent sentimentality. The velvety string sound that has always been a hallmark of this orchestra was radiantly on display, perfectly integrated both internally and with the rest of the orchestra. The piece came off as a far-ranging exploration of the human spirit, nostalgic and magnificent.
The concert ended with Bernstein’s much beloved Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The opening section wasn’t entirely promising—the music from “Cool” didn’t quite swing the way it should, sounding more classical than jazz. However, the fast dance music that followed immediately definitely sizzled, and when the “Cool” theme returned fortissimo in its full, thrashing symphonic glory, it rang out splendidly.
The successive “Somewhere” variations, beginning sparely and then flowering into lushness, were ravishing. As unleashed by Nézet-Séguin and his ferocious percussion section, the “Mambo” music was full-throttle and riotous. Tony and Maria’s cha-cha, in which the lovers see each other for the first time, was heartbreakingly delicate and sublime. For the last three iterations of the “Somewhere” motif at the very end, Nézet-Séguin barely moved, and the audience could barely breathe.
Cover photo: Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night of 2017-18 season, 10/04/17. Photo by Chris Lee