Lang Lang/Tilson Thomas, Carnegie Hall, New York
The catch-all title for the series seems both portentous and pretentious: Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: A Festival Celebrating Chinese Culture. But the concert at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday managed to stop short of gaudy grandeur.
It was a stellar event, to be sure, with the irrepressible Lang Lang tickling what could have been a thousand ivories, none less than Michael Tilson Thomas manning the podium with characteristic flair, and a seasoned pair of operatic masters, Anne Sofie von Otter and Gregory Kunde, adding vocal allure. Still, the orchestra comprised eager students from Juilliard, and the best seat in the big house cost only $59, the worst $22. Although the audience applauded in mood-shattering places – until properly shushed by the conductor – it mattered little. Youthful enthusiasm meant more in this context than rote sophistication.
The zigzagging programme began with Lou Harrison’s The Family of the Court (1963), a rip-snorting overture that bangs with brazen beauty for five exotic minutes. Next came a backward-glancing collection of dreamy-folksy miniatures by He Luting, Lü Wencheng and Sun Yiqiang – plus good old “traditional” – all played by Lang Lang with brilliantly mannered finesse. This led to a world premiere, Er Huang by Chen Qigang, which demanded much of Lang Lang and little of the orchestra. Although the composer, born in 1951, studied with Messiaen, his meandering rumble and surging schmaltz suggest the push-button pathos of movie music.