Friday, October 3, 2008

Hearing Lang Lang before a funeral

This morning I had the opportunity to hear the Chinese pianist Lang Lang play in rehearsal with the Oregon Symphony (staff were invited to this rehearsal in thanks for our hard work promoting and selling the show, and even though I'm not technically staff they generously allowed me to attend as well, which I appreciated). Tonight Lang Lang will be performing to a sold-out crowd in a special OS concert. 

For those of you who don't know who Lang Lang is, he's the pianist who was featured in the opening ceremonies at the Beijing games. The New York Times has called him, "The hottest classical musician on the planet." He's the current Big Deal in piano soloists. At 26, he's outgrown his prodigy status (he made his professional debut at 17 with the Chicago Symphony, to rave reviews), but he's flamboyant and dramatic and has sparked much debate within classical circles about whether he's the real deal or merely a talented musical drama queen. 

I've never had the opportunity to hear a musician of his reputation before. The Oregon Symphony doesn't usually have the budget to be able to afford the fees of the most famous artists on the classical performance circuit; we book excellent second-rank (not second-rate, note the difference) performers who in some instances are just as good, if not better, than the folks with the outsized reputations and performance fees. Still, I was curious to hear him play, to see what he was like close up and to find out if he was, to borrow a phrase from hip hop, All That.

I came to the rehearsal with a sober heart. My friend A's mother died two days ago, and after the rehearsal I would go sing at her funeral. I didn't expect to hear anything at the rehearsal that would touch on all the emotions I've been experiencing in the past few days, as I helped clean A's house, ran an errand for her and her wife M, and just generally kept her close in my heart.

Lang Lang was playing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, not music associated with death or heavy thoughts. It's very romantic, lush and emotional, not really my style, and not something I'd go out of my way to hear (We attended an excellent performance a year ago and I certainly didn't need to hear it again so soon, but I was there for Lang Lang, not Rach). Would he be distractingly showy and employ the gesticulations and facial expressions for which he's been both praised and criticized? 

Surprisingly (and refreshingly) not. I'm sure he was saving a lot of his energy for tonight, but Lang Lang nonetheless gave us an emotionally honest interpretation, largely devoid of all that flourishy theatrical stuff that I find detracts from, rather than adds to, a performance. I could sense that he sincerely felt what he was playing during the run-through portions of the rehearsal, and the way he connected with the music made me connect with it in a way I never have before.

But what really surprised me was what happened at the end of the second movement. This is perhaps the most famous of the three, with a theme you'd have to be made of stone not to appreciate (I'll give Rachmaninoff his due; nobody wrote romantic melodies like he did, and if you're in the mood for something lush and schmaltzy you can't beat his music). At the end of the second movement, just before the orchestra comes in, there's a moment where the soloist plays a few ascending notes, filling out a chord, very slowly, and then comes to a quiet cadence. If it's done right, it's a lovely and graceful transition from the solo cadenza to the return of the full orchestra. When Lang Lang got to that place, he played with something more than technique and grace. He played those notes in a way that conveyed acceptance and something deeper: with those notes, and the completion of the chord, I had a powerful sense of a universal rightness. 

There's no good way to explain what I mean, but I'll try. The writer Madeleine L'Engle, who died not long ago at the age of 89, talks in one of her journals, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, about the death of her own mother, who lived with L'Engle and her family the last summer of her life. At the end of the book, after L'Engle's mother has died, L'Engle describes a moment between herself and her own four-year-old granddaughter Charlotte. Charlotte asks, "Is it all right, Gran? Is it?" L'Engle muses on what it means when we tell someone, especially a child, that things will be all right. She says we aren't promising that bad things won't happen, but that, in the end, in a universal, cosmic sense, things will be All Right.

Death is a part of that rightness. From what A told me, her mother had an excellent death. She died at home, surrounded by family, and she retained both her mental capacity and her spirit until the very end. My paternal grandmother died of cancer when I was 17, but the radiation used to treat her cancer caused her brain to shrink, and for the last seven months of her life she was like a person with advanced Alzheimer's disease. Her short-term memory was wiped out, and she often didn't recognize her own family members. She didn't remember our visits, which were frequent (in the case of my father, daily), and she would often berate him for neglecting her. She had always been proud of her appearance, and to see this tiny bald woman with a hostile suspicious expression glaring at me from her bed was heartbreaking. Everything that made my grandmother who she was was erased by her illness and subsequent treatment. 

A's mother was a Roman candle who illuminated the lives around her with her vibrant energy, and she continued to make her wishes known right up until the day she died. In the words of Wallace Stegner, "...and she is not going to be shushed, not even by cancer. She will burn bright until she goes out; she will go on standing on tiptoe till she falls." I am glad, for A's sake and for that of her family, that they got to keep her mother with them until the very last moment.

My heart aches for A. She was so close to her mother, and in many ways is very much like her. I cannot help reflecting on my own relationship with my mother (we're also extremely close), and I am so grateful that she is well and, G-d willing, will remain so for many years to come. But underneath my sorrow, I know that A will be all right, in time, as she learns to live (as my sweetie puts it so eloquently) with the mom-sized hole in her heart. That was what I got from Lang Lang today, and, as I listened to him tear into the exuberant third movement, I felt unexpectedly comforted.

1 comment:

Barry in Portland said...

Thanks - very moving. Tuning into KBOO for the Yiddish Hour now...