The low-down on Lang Lang and how China will change music

The most frequently quoted number for piano students in China is 50 million. The implications are huge

When I went to hear Lang Lang in Birmingham earlier this month, the person seated next to me was a Chinese girl, who struck up a conversation after the interval. She wanted to know what I had thought of her compatriot's playing of three Mozart sonatas. I deflected politely at first, and asked her what she thought. She got the usual encomiums out of the way, and then ventured the suggestion that his Mozart was, well, lacking in purity.

We chatted briefly again after the concert. She is a music student, studying piano in Birmingham, and it turned out we didn’t have much to disagree on when it came to Lang Lang’s music-making. But, if I understood her correctly, she was far less impressed with his technical facility than I was. She had mastered one of the Chopin Ballades from the second half of the evening when she was 13.

The most frequently quoted number for piano students in China is 50 million. Lang Lang mentioned it when I interviewed him after the concert. The implications are mind-boggling: there are as many piano students in one Asian country as the entire population of Spain.

There are lots of prejudices about Chinese performers of classical music, just as there were years ago about Koreans, Japanese and American musicians. And attitudes to composers seem to be more intransigent again. But, just as the US slowly established its musical independence and began to feed new ideas and new standards back across the Atlantic, Asian countries will surely do the same. In the case of China, the effect of the scale is the big unknown.


I could have gone to hear Lang Lang a second time in Dublin. But I didn’t. There are musical experiences that you just don’t want to repeat, sometimes to preserve a special memory intact, at other times for the opposite reason. In the case of Lang Lang, I simply didn’t want to hear him play those particular pieces again so soon. And that started me thinking about what I would most like to hear him play. The answer surprised me.

I would like to hear him in the most challenging music that’s being written by the major composers of today. His salient musical characteristic is the extent to which he gives the impression of playing everything just the way he wants, as if tradition and style have little bearing on him. And there may be nothing better for a man with such startling facility and strong ideas than music so new that its performing traditions have yet to be established.

Some of the most Lang-like, individualistic performances of standard repertoire I have heard have come from players steeped in new music – Roger Woodward and Paul Jacobs in Beethoven come immediately to mind. But I'm not holding my breath, even if, 40 years ago, Maurizio Pollini showed the way in programmes that combined Beethoven and Boulez.

An all-Irish programme
Instead of Lang Lang's Mozart on Chopin, what I heard on Saturday instead was Isabelle O'Connell playing an all-Irish programme for the Association of Irish Composers at the NCH's Kevin Barry Room. The compositional diversity was striking: Siobhán Cleary's Chaconne revisits baroque practice; Peter Moran's The Dublin Miniatures records compressed impressions of the city; Andrew Hamilton's OAIR obsesses over a repeated cadence like a looping video that's not actually looping, because little details keep on changing; Jane O'Leary's Five Baga telles takes a straightforwardly modernist stance; and Donnacha Dennehy's Stainless Staining for piano and soundtrack, a pulsating quarter of an hour enriched with a spectrum of overtones that create an ever-morphing microtonal haze.

O'Connell sounded most at home in the angular sonorities of O'Leary's Bagatelles , and least comfortable in Hamilton's OAIR , where she needed some more of Lang Lang's savoir faire in precision leaps.

Keep on composing in the Free State
Crash Ensemble's latest Free State concert (Project Arts Centre, Thursday), with Raymond Deane as co-curator, presented six submitted works from a field of about 50, and ended with Deane's own Passage Work (not included by him, he was careful to point out). As with the music in O'Connell's recital, the six works (Barry O'Halpin's Lethargarian , Bebhinn Nic Dhomhnaill's Dimensions, Elis Czerniak's Rotate , Chris McCormack's Question for Piano Trio , Dermot McDermott's Chivaree and Seán Clancy's Fourteen Minutes of Music on the subject of Greeting Cards ) all followed their clear and diverse compositional strategies clearly.

The most striking pieces were saved for the end. Clancy's work for flute, violin and piano is an "artistic intervention" on video artist David Theobald's Deepest Sympathy and "offers a biography of an unnamed protagonist from the cradle to the grave, with all of their trials and tribulations neatly summarised in a collection of pithy phrases on greeting cards". It is spare, hypnotic, annoying. Deane's Passage Work for soprano (the ever-agile Sylvia O'Brien) is an example of kitchen sink and all, cluttered, virtuosic high modernism, the composer's one work to use electronics, and a piece that leaves you wanting to wipe your brow.

Bach for Holy Week

The RTÉ NSO has discovered that a one-time musical desert, Holy Week, can be fruitfully mined for its musical connections. This year, with Roy Goodman on the podium, they teamed up with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir for an all-Bach programme on Friday afternoon that included the rarely

heard Easter Oratorio , and preceded their concert with a lunchtime offering, the Irish Chamber Choir's current Tudor Church Music programme under Paul Hillier.

As an Englishman, Hillier has lived with this repertoire all his life, and he recorded much of it in his singing days with the Hilliard Ensemble. He performs it from the inside. And with Byrd's great Mass for four voices, and part of Tallis's Lamentations of Jeremiah on the programme, the concert turned out to be everything you could have expected it to be: wonderful music sung with poise, precision and insight.

It may not have been the best of ideas for the NSO to precede its own celebration of Bach with music-making of such finesse. Even with period-performance specialist Roy Goodman in charge, the NSO's playing seemed a little generalised, even blurry by comparison. The standout contributions came from two soloists, mezzo soprano Paula Murrihy and tenor Joshua Ellicott, who seemed more musically stylish and more involved than their colleagues.