Two worlds, in tune: Lang, Hancock play four-hand at the Mann
By TOM DI NARDO
Philadelphia Daily News
For the Daily News
PIANISTS Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock hail from vastly different musical worlds, their respective classical and jazz identities as wildly disparate as their origins in China and Chicago.
Yet combining their artistry for an international tour was a brilliant idea, attracting two audiences and emphasizing the universality of music. After warming up in five European cities, the pair will visit the Mann Center to wrap up the Philadelphia Orchestra's summer season next Thursday.
"Herbie and I became good friends after the  Grammys," Lang, 27, recalled recently in a phone interview from Copenhagen, Denmark. During the awards show, the pair did a six-minute adaptation of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" for two pianos. Their mutual agent, Columbia Artists Management, noticed the electricity and arranged this summer's 13-show tour.
"Some people thought we had great chemistry and should work together," Lang said. "I don't play jazz, but I have a lot of his CDs and had listened to them on my iPod when traveling. I'm really impressed by his technique and his harmonic imagination in improvisation, and always wonder how he does it. Playing with him is really a dream come true."
Hancock shares Lang's enthusiasm for their seemingly unorthodox pairing.
"I had heard him at Disney Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic a year before the Grammys," said Hancock, 69, by phone before their third concert, in Essen, Germany. "I thought he was amazing, and I was dying to meet him. We talked for a while, and he seemed like a great, warm, playful person."
Nonetheless, Hancock confessed, "before the tour I was both delighted and frightened to death, considering that he's the consummate classical pianist. I haven't been playing classical music since I was 18, and I spent the last two months practicing three or four hours a day - that's amazing for me - to keep up with this demon. . . . I will love the challenge of putting myself in unfamiliar situations, feeling through it and learning, until the day I die."
The Mann concert, conducted by John Axelrod, will begin with Dvorak's "Carnival" Overture, then feature Lang and Hancock in John Mauceri's arrangement of "Rhapsody In Blue" and the thorny two-piano Concerto by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
"John Axelrod is the perfect counterpart to Lang and myself," said Hancock. "We call ourselves the dynamic trio, because he feels our energy and provides the support."
Without orchestra, Lang and Hancock will play the five sublime movements of Ravel's "Mother Goose" Suite and some improvisations, probably Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. (A hilarious video rehearsing the Liszt can be found on YouTube.)
The tour began July 5 at Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival, then traveled to Lyon, France; Albert Hall, in London; Essen; Rotterdam, Holland; and Verona and Ravenna, in Italy.
Next week, before the Mann concert, they'll head to Chicago's Ravinia Festival. Future stops include Newark, N.J., and Toronto, ending with two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.
Lang's a local
Philadelphians have been aware of Lang Lang since his early days at Curtis Institute as a supremely gifted student of Gary Graffman. His rapid elevation to stardom began with his breakthrough performance of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations at the Ravinia.
Lang's exuberant personality, combined with his incredible virtuosity, have earned him wide fame comparable to classical music's other star, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Lang's warm persona is even more amazing when you consider his early days, when he left his mother behind in a small Chinese town and traveled with his father to Beijing. He details his difficult road to success in his remarkable book, "Journey of a Thousand Miles," written with David Ritz (Random House, $24.95).
Philadelphia appearances are something of a homecoming for Lang, who maintains an apartment here as well as one in New York. He shared some favorite local restaurants - Parc, Prime Rib and Buddakan - and his views on the local orchestra.
"I believe the Philadelphia is the top orchestra in the world, totally tops, and I respect them above all others," he declared.
He's currently working on "a complete Beethoven concerto cycle, both Brahms concertos, Albeniz's 'Iberia' and Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata. And I want to finally feel comfortable with the 'Goldberg' Variations, a difficult, controlled, intellectual piece, because I haven't yet figured out all the ways of interpreting the many repeats."
Herbie's classical gas
Herbie Hancock's first musical steps were of a classical nature, too.
At age 11, he performed the first movement of Mozart's Fifth Piano Concerto at a Chicago Symphony young people's concert, but he went on to develop his love of jazz without a teacher.
Hancock first leaped into public awareness as a member of Miles Davis' second great quartet with tenor sax Wayne Shorter, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. Davis fired Hancock after he returned late from his Brazilian honeymoon - which helped spur him to form his own sextet in 1968.
An architect of the post-bop sound, Hancock has expanded his scope through electro-funk, fusion, soul, free-improv bop, R&B, hip-hop and other, undefinable excursions. Prompted to move away from acoustic piano by Davis, he's adjusted to every imaginable kind of electronic keyboard. Periods that were heralded by albums such as "Mwandishi," "Head Hunters" and "V.S.O.P." have demonstrated a probing musical mind, never satisfied with what he had played before.
Hancock has also composed music for films, including Antonioni's "Blow-Up" and 1986's " 'Round Midnight," which netted him an Oscar. His hits have included "Watermelon Man," "Chameleon," "Cantaloupe Island" and "Maiden Voyage." He's led at least 50 albums, and has appeared on many more.
His 2008 Grammy win, only the second time a jazz recording has netted a Best Album award, was his tribute to Joni Mitchell tunes, "River: The Joni Letters."
A shared agenda
Musical collaboration doesn't always work, demonstrated by bins of hokey "crossover" CD projects. Participants must have enormous respect for each other's genre - plus a touch of fear about stepping outside their own comfort zones.
These key components are much in evidence between Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock.
"He really plays classical music brilliantly, like the Vaughan Williams, which requires a great deal of confidence and technique," Lang said of Hancock. "I've never done much improvising, but maybe I will learn a little bit from Herbie."
So how's Lang doing, Herbie?
"At the first concert in Montreux," said Hancock, "Lang played a Chinese folk melody. Then I improvised on top of his playing the Liszt, which we hadn't rehearsed much because we wanted to go with the flow and not prepare it too tightly. I wanted to just use my ears and embrace each other musically.
"But at the second concert, in Lyon, he sang me a melody fragment offstage that was unfamiliar and started improvising on it. And after jumping in and improvising, I realized he was actually playing fragments from Gershwin's 'Rhapsody In Blue.'
"He blew me away, playing a few chords and adding some motifs on the fly. That really shocked me, and because of his smile I knew he had made that huge leap. He simply picks up anything - who knows what we'll do on the rest of the tour?" *
E-mail Tom Di Nardo at dinardt@ phillynews.com.
Mann Center for the Performing Arts, 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue, 8 p.m. July 30, $10-$30, 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org.