John Axelrod






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6 Aug 2009
Two Pianos, Four Hands
Torontoist.com

Classical and jazz music are often viewed with suspicion, largely due to the elitism that's associated with their listeners. Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock are perhaps the biggest superstars in these genres, respectively, and reactions to their current tour only reinforce the sense that classical and jazz aficionados can be too uptight for their own good. A quick Google News scan for mentions of the tour, which came to Toronto's Massey Hall Wednesday night, reveals review after review peppered with judgements like "excruciating," "banal," and "nose-dive" words that inadvertently reveal their authors as holding on for dear life to staid expectations of what the music should sound like.

Perhaps displays of individual expression, such as Hancock's daring use of space (no doubt learned from the great master, and Hancock's old boss, Miles Davis) during Ralph Vaughan Williams' double concerto, or prodigy Lang Lang's eccentric flailing of his arms during heated moments, don't sit right with many of these critics: like many in the classical and jazz communities at large, they are listeners with baggage, sagging under the weight of familiarity taken too much to heart. Thankfully, the thunderous applause and consistent standing ovations from the near-capacity crowd revealed listeners that were eager to be wowed by whatever it was familiar or not these musical giants had to offer. Of course, it didn't hurt that they were backed up by conductor extraordinaire John Axelrod, as well as Toronto's most treasured orchestral musicians, most of whom can be found year-round performing as members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The program explored every configuration possible for two pianists. The trance-inducing quiet of Maurice Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite" was for "four hands" (one piano, two pianists). Chinese composer Yiquang Sun's piece "Spring Dance," by contrast, was for two pianos. Over the course of the performance each pianist also took a turn displaying his solo chops: one of the show's highlights came when Herbie Hancock took his time improvising, vaguely alluding to his own well known compositions "Cantaloupe Island," "Dolphin Dance," and "Maiden Voyage." (Note: the fact that Hancock has never recorded an improvised solo piano album is a crime.)

It was clear the local orchestra musicians were enthusiastic this gig surely being a highlight of any musician's career as during the solo and duo parts of the show many of them could be spotted, in most unconventional fashion, sitting on steps in the aisles throughout the balcony. Even Axelrod suspended classical concert etiquette and relaxed in one of the violinist's chairs during some of these interludes, finding himself an irresistible front-and-centre seat from which he could appreciate the two stars. Such obvious displays of passion help break down the barrier between audience and performer and thereby assist in overturning the perceived rigidity that surely keeps classical and jazz audiences from growing.

The show's finale brought the orchestra back to the stage for a two-piano-and-orchestra arrangement of George Gershwin's majestic "Rhapsody In Blue" the composition that first brought the duo together at last year's Grammy Awards. This was the piece that really displayed the joy these musicians feel while playing, and the sense of adventure they exuded brought about a complete reworking of the familiar piece, which as a result unraveled so surprisingly that even the page turner was at a loss. (Luckily, Axelrod was so on the ball that he was able to subtly motion for her to turn the page.) The keen ears in the audience were able to calculate just how far out Hancock and Lang Lang were taking their solos, and it quickly became clear that the size of Axelrod's grin, as he watched his pianists, was in direct proportion to how outrageous they were being. A lesser conductor would have faltered under the pressure of so much improvisation in an otherwise non-improvisational form. Despite the daring liberties, the musicians nailed this piece, and in doing so, they brought to Massey Hall the spirit of George Gershwin, the legacy of black America, the impeccable standards of classical music, and if we may be so idealistic a universal quest for beauty in this world. Those who were there to bear witness will remember it gratefully, and the welcome number of young people in attendance will one day tell their grandchildren that they heard Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock play "Rhapsody In Blue" at Massey Hall, and it was beautiful.


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