Are critics really allowed to do this...attack the soloist? Don't they know that it's their job to heap excessive amounts of hyperbolic praise upon every soloist who ever plays with an orchestra? Guess not. Anyways, good, it's nice see critics turn that scornful ear towards something other than new music. figure 2: Lang Lang auditioning for remake of Thriller video.
So I was a bit curious when I came across this article in the New York Times, by Michael Kimmelman, that seemed to be a pretty scathing review of renowned pianist Lang Lang after a performance in Lucerne, Switzerland.
However, hell if I know what Lang Lang did wrong.
figure 2: Lang Lang auditioning for remake of Thriller video.
The other night Lang Lang twittered his way through Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto.
Twittered? Tweeted? Anyways, Lang Lang posted 140 character messages online throughout his performance of Chopin? Really? That's pretty amazing.
How better to describe it?
Good question. Well, you chose the verb "twitter" which basically means (as our good friends at dictionary.com can attest): to utter a succession of small, tremulous sounds, as a bird; to talk lightly and rapidly.
You were there, does that sound about right to you? And if so, what kind of first line of a review is that?
The other night Lang Lang lightly and rapidly played his way through Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto.
That may be true, but it's hardly a compelling first line. Are we preparing for a negative review...of a soloist?!? Wait, is "rapidly played" even an insult?
I'm not sure what to make of it. Although, my high school creative writing teacher would not have approved of that bland "the other night" introduction. That doesn't set much of a stage now does it -- I mean, you're in Lucerne, Switzerland. Not exactly just another night to most of us. Set the mood, use a little pizazz. May I suggest:
"The night was dry, yet it was raining", or
"The night was sultry"...no, too parochial...how about...
The sultry moonlight beamed stealthily down between the sprawling peaks of Mount Pilatus and Rigi upon the intertwined corpses of twin artisan dairymaids from Olten-Zofingen, and Lang Lang lightly and rapidly played his way through Chopin's F minor Piano Concerto.
Nailed it. Moving on...
He played with the Dresden Staatskapelle under Fabio Luisi at the KKL concert hall here. I can’t recall a more galling soloist. [italics mine]
Another interesting word choice, but I think we can forget any uncertainty over the meaning of "twittered" -- galling doesn't leave much room for interpretation. Offending, vexing, irritating, and grievous are all synonyms.
So, Lang Lang gave an offensive, irritating performance through his rapid, perhaps even frivolous playing. Nice introduction, how to you plan to support this thesis...
Lang Lang, the 27-year-old Chinese virtuoso, is by various measures the most popular pianist around, a kinetic superstar thanks to his outsize charm and gymnastic technique that earns him the nickname Bang Bang. He can play with grace too. He didn’t here.
He splits opinion.
Others have criticized his playing as well. Got it. But do continue...
He splits opinion. Contemporary culture in general is polarized, but the poles keep shifting in ways that can help tell us where we are.
Huh? The poles of polarized contemporary culture (or is that opinions) move in ways that help us tell where we are?
I've read that sentence probably a dozen times now, and I'm still not sure what it says. How about an illustration...
By way of illustration, the night before Mr. Lang made mincemeat of the Chopin concerto, a sizeable, rapt crowd listened in the same hall to Pierre Boulez conducting works by Janacek, Varèse and Berg.
There have been Lang Langs for as long as there have been keyboard players. Showmen in different eras touch different chords for different generations.
So true. Many a wonderful showman have graced the stage with a piano, like this guy...
This is the age of instant messaging, sound bites, of atomized culture, with information packaged for our convenience in morsels, and Mr. Lang is embraced for more than his winning smile and playing very, very fast.
O-kay...? This is the age of instant messaging.... Um, good point?
Instant messaging = liking people for their smiles?
The way he took apart Chopin’s score made it into a jumble of hyped-up anecdotes.
So, inspired by modern culture, he jumbled up the score? Or "atomized" the music into "morsels"? Did he leave something out? Play only the major themes and the rest is just treacle?I must say, Mr. Kimmelman, you have me very confused. Moving poles, twittered playing, atomized culture...I'm beginning to think that you didn't like his performance.
So what exactly didn't you like about it?
Here he played super quietly, there super slowly, there like Wile E. Coyote in his Acme rocket shoes.
Occasionally he came to a near standstill, forcing the orchestra to crawl with him, so he could ravish a rubato. He swooned and swayed as if possessed by the music (feeling the music “at you,” to borrow the New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross’s phrase), as if the audience needed little parcels of exaggerated emotion and virtuosity to stay interested.
To recap, you don't like too much gerrymandering with the tempo. Yes, that can be distracting.
So, what about those moving polarized poles, and the reference to an atomized culture?
It brought to mind what Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist, wrote about interpreting history these days.
Wait, what? You were listening to Lang Lang play Chopin, and Anne Applebaum and her comments about interpreting history came to mind?
Yes, non sequiturs are fun.
Writing for The New Republic, she reviewed a book by Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke,” about the lead-up to World War II, which stitched together, without comment, hundreds of nuggets culled from newspapers, memoirs and other (often secondary) sources to suggest a case for pacifism.
Interesting. Okay, the connection is slowly becoming less incoherent. "Hundreds of nuggets" = "atomized culture...packaged for our convenience in morsels"? Am I close?
“A series of pretentious, Gawker-like vignettes,” Ms. Applebaum called these orchestrated tidbits. “Ripped from their respective contexts each item has the same weight as the next. There is no hierarchy, no sense that one enigmatic anecdote might be more important than the next equally enigmatic anecdote.” That’s not a bad description of what Mr. Lang did with the Chopin concerto.
No wonder Lang ruined Chopin, his out-of-context arguments gave false pretext to World War II. Wait a minute, is that true? You're going to have to bring this one all together for me, Mr. Kimmelman.
What Ms. Applebaum added is also true about music: “There are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, nonlinear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates.” But history persuasively told, like music interpreted, comes down to cogent arguments.
Is "history persuasively told" really the same thing as "music interpreted"? Okay, I think we made need an example.
The pianist Glenn Gould was an eccentric interpreter, but his interpretations, whether you liked them or not, had their own internal, neurotic logic. They made an elaborate case for themselves. The same could be said about playing by Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter.
How is one interpretation cogent, and another not? I suppose you're suggesting that Lang Lang's interpretation is not logical?
Flashy passages strung together don’t make an argument.
Right, an argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
They make an assortment of fetishes.
figure 6: Figure 6 has been removed due to "legal advice".
Flashy passages are not an argument, but they are an interpretation? So, a performer should not interpret, but argue? Or is it that they should first interpret and then argue using their interpretation?
“Perhaps,” Ms. Applebaum wondered at one point about “Human Smoke,” “the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke.” I wondered the same thing during the concerto.
Perhaps you should have started this review off with, "You had to be there," because I don't get it.
You thought that this performance may have been a joke? Because it made a bad argument? Actually a non-argument because he interpreted the music in small Twitter-sized capsules?
I decided it was a stunt. But it wasn’t a joke. Whatever else he may be, Mr. Lang is sincere. He has peddled his sincerity all the way to the bank.
That doesn't sound sincere at all. In fact, that sounds like you're suggesting he's faking sincerity for financial gain.
That and his virtuosity, so his fans say, have made him classical music’s latest matinee idol.
The question is what does his playing say about us.
So many questions unanswered. I am loathe to try and summarize this mess, but here's the short short version:
Lang Lang plays too fast. And he writes bad history because he plays music in random, unconnected, yet enigmatic tidbits with no hierarchical structure.
Seriously? I love a good evisceration, and I don't necessarily doubt the validity of the critique I think that Kimmelman is trying to make, but wow, could he have found a more convoluted analogy to make?