Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lang Lang: New York Rhapsody (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was another episode in the PBS “Fall Arts Festival,” a Great Performances show of pianist Lang Lang (whose name is posted in big letters at the back of the stage which I presume could be lit up at a climactic point in the performance, though that wasn’t done last night) in a concert from May 3, 2016 called New York Rhapsody. I was attracted to this program by the promos for it, which showed Lang Lang playing George Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue.” On the 2015 “Capitol Fourth” concert on the Washington National Mall Lang Lang had been featured playing what I called at the time “a wretchedly truncated version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that seemed to have been chopped up in a meat grinder. It’s true, as Leonard Bernstein once said, that Rhapsody in Blue is so sloppily structured a composition that you can take out just about any piece of it and not affect it much except to make it shorter, but the edits were infuriating — especially since the performance was compelling enough (with [conductor Jack] Everly playing the original jazz-band orchestration instead of the later symphonic one, but at the same time playing it more slowly and lyrically than Paul Whiteman did) I’d have wanted to hear it complete.” So I had my hopes up that this concert would present Lang Lang with a top-flight orchestra doing a complete Rhapsody in Blue — only my hopes were dashed early on; though longer than the 2015 Capitol Fourth version (about nine minutes instead of four), it is still not the complete Gershwin score.

What made this program even more infuriating was that for the first time in the history of Great Performances it was presented in pledge-break style, with long intermissions that took almost as much time as the actual program in which local announcers declaimed about the incredible need of PBS for money, money, money, and made the insulting comment to the effect that what we were watching on the air was merely a loss leader for an incredibly expensive ($170) DVD that would contain the entire concert — essentially the same marketing strategy as Trump University, where if you showed up for their “free” seminar on real estate you’d get a pitch to sign up for a $100 seminar, where you would get a pitch for a $1,000 seminar, where you’d get a pitch for a $3,500 one. Now that Donald Trump is going to be President and the entire government in Washington, D.C. is being run by Republicans — and the GOP in general has not exactly made it a secret that they’d like to see the federal funding for public broadcasting ended — we’ll probably be subjected to even more of these insane pledge breaks as well as out-and-out commercials (which run on PBS between the programs now, though in PBS Newspeak they’re called “enhanced underwriting opportunities”). The New York Rhapsody, with a pick-up orchestra conducted by one Jason Michael Webb (who seems to have got the job because he’s young, cute and “urban” — i.e., Black), was organized from the get-go as a “crossover” event, the sort of thing that symphony orchestras are turning to more and more because they’ve noticed that their audience is aging and they figure they can stay in business by giving the younger public what they seem to want — which is celebrities they’ve actually heard of, whether what they’re doing has much to do with classical music at all. I’m not against all crossovers — I remember not long ago hearing a download from a BBC “Proms” concert at which the Pet Shop Boys presented Chrissie Hynde singing four of their songs and also offered an original cantata, A Man from the Future, about the Gay British computer inventor Alan Turing, which at least aspired to some of the same ambitions as genuine classical music — but this one was a bit too crossed over for me.

Of the nine selections we got to see on TV (as opposed to whatever the live audience got and we’d have to buy the $170 DVD to obtain), only four — the Rhapsody in Blue, a “New York Medley” performed by Lang against a backdrop of outdoor movie footage of the city, a version of “Tonight” from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score for West Side Story, and Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man theme (with Lindsey Stirling delivering some absolutely scorching electric-violin playing — it didn’t have much to do with classical music but it was still fun) — were instrumentals. The others were a wide variety of songs, and the concert’s organizers at least deserve credit for picking an assemblage of pieces about New York City and including ones with a relatively negative view of the place (notably Don Henley’s “New York Minute” and especially Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard”) as well as the upbeat ones that generally crop up in a tribute like this. After the woefully truncated Gershwin Rhapsody — which Lang Lang played rather well, though he couldn’t resist adding a few octave doublings and other touches not in the score, or slowing down for one passage only to speed up for the next — the next song was Don Henley’s “New York Minute,” performed in a voice that was neither fish nor fowl — neither Broadway nor rock, but a bastard mix of the two from someone named Kurt Elling. By chance Charles and I had just been playing through a couple of compilations he made for Thanksgiving, including Scott Walker’s song “Thanks for Chicago, Mr. James” (Charles had looked around my iTunes files for songs with the word “Thanks” in their titles), so I had in the back of my head the sort of voice Elling would have needed to pull off what he was trying to do, and from which he fell far short. It made me want to bring out my copy of Henley’s original just to remind myself what a good song this really was!

After that came an interminable pledge break and then Rufus Wainwright doing an original of his called “Who Are You, New York?,” and doing it well enough except that he was too much the jumping-bean on stage (for someone who’s so often professed his admiration for Judy Garland it’s odd, to say the least, that he hasn’t adopted her stock-still stance on stage) and a richer voice like the 1970’s Scott Walker could have done more justice to Wainwright’s song than he did himself. Then came an intriguing medley of Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard” with the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (whose own work as a composer should have been represented and wasn’t — Sondheim’s song “The Ladies Who Lunch” had been the high point of a previous PBS arts show, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs), with the Reed sung by Suzanne Vega (quite movingly even though she has too good a voice to be quite comfortable in a song by Reed, who wrote his stuff for his own monotone) and the Bernstein/Sondheim by heavy-set Black soul singer Lisa Fischer. I can see why the producers of this concert did these as a medley — after several stanzas describing urban degradation Reed ends “Dirty Boulevard” with a peroration from a boy named Pedro who wants to “fly, fly away from this dirty boulevard,” while “Somewhere” is the lament of a racially mixed couple torn apart by their families and gang members who wish that “there’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us.” And though the concert took place on May 3, six months before the Presidential election, the verse in “Dirty Boulevard” about immigration — “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I'll piss on ’em/That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/Your poor huddled masses/Let's club ’em to death/And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard” — seemed all too appropriate in the age of TrumpAmerica. But the two songs didn’t really fit that well together musically, even though both were superbly sung and Vega’s “take” on Reed makes the song seem richer even if also less heartbreaking than the original.

After that came the Spider-Man theme, and then another interminable pledge break, and then Lang Lang sitting in front of a series of images of New York out of doors as he played his medley — which began and ended with the “Theme from New York, New York” by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and in between offered Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” (a great song but one that doesn’t sound especially “New Yorky”), Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and the Leonard Bernstein “New York, New York” from the musical On the Town he wrote in 1944 with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (This show definitely deserves points for representing artists who were Gay or Bisexual, including Bernstein, Sondheim, Strayhorn, Reed, and Wainwright.) Then there was a quirky rendition of “Moon River” from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which squeezed in yet another Gay artist at least by reference (the film was based on a story by Truman Capote) and which was sung by Regina Spektor, who said in an interview that out of all the versions of this song that have been performed — including the original hits by Jerry Butler and Andy Williams, both of whom had real voices — her favorite was the one Audrey Hepburn sings in the movie. This probably explains why she “dumbed down” her voice to sound as much like Hepburn as she could — anyone who sees Breakfast at Tiffany’s will wonder why anyone in Hollywood had the idea that Audrey Hepburn could handle the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, yet when she signed for the role she assumed she’d do her own singing and was quite upset when they pre-recorded two songs with her (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “Show Me”) but then brought in Marni Nixon as her voice double. I’m not familiar with Spektor as a singer but I’m pretty sure she’s generally better than she was last night, when she all too faithfully imitated Hepburn’s nasal tones and flat intonations. The song also included a dobro part by Jerry Douglas, who I believe is actually a descendant of the Douglas Brothers who invented this lap-held slide guitar with a metal resonator and named it after the first syllables of “Douglas” and “Brothers.”

After “Moon River” the show brought on Black trumpeter Sean Jones for “Tonight,” done as an instrumental — Jones isn’t that great a trumpet player, and the arrangement kept him all too close to the melody so it was hard to tell from the concert whether he could actually improvise — and then came the finale, a committee-written song identified as “Empire State of Mind” but really its follow-up, “Empire State of Mind (Part II): Broken Down.” It began as a song by rapper Jay-Z, written by Angela Hunte and Jane’t Sewell-Ulepic. Hunte was supposed to sing a vocal part to counterpoint Jay-Z’s raps, but at the last minute they decided they needed a stronger singer, considered Mary J. Blige, but finally hired Alicia Keys. Because the song “sampled” another piece called “Love on a Two-Way Street” by Sylvia Robinson (the “Sylvia” in Mickey and Sylvia, a 1950’s R&B duo two of whose songs, “Love Is Strange” and “Dearest,” were covered by Buddy Holly, who also ripped off Mickey’s guitar lick from “Love Is Strange” for a number of his originals, and later the producer and label owner for the first true rap record, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) and Burt Keyes, their names ended up on the songwriting credits, as did Alicia Keys, her writing partner Alexander Shuckburgh, and Shawn Carter. (Songwriting credits are getting as convoluted as screenwriting credits!) After the song — released as a duet but with Jay-Z getting billing over Keys — Alicia Keys decided to record her own version “because she wanted to express her own personal feelings about New York” (according to the Wikipedia page on the Jay-Z original), and so she created “Empire State of Mind (Part II): Broken Down,” which has the same set of seven songwriting credits as Jay-Z’s and was pretty obviously what guest star Audra Day was singing (quite powerfully) on the Lang Lang New York Rhapsody concert. But Day’s great singing couldn’t conceal that the song appeared to be pasted together from bits of scrap paper (which, knowing how rap productions sometimes go, could well be the truth) and didn’t really seem to go anywhere.

The basic problem with New York Rhapsody was that the music, except for the Rhapsody in Blue and the Spider-Man theme, didn’t really challenge Lang Lang: through all too much of the running time he seemed to be an extra in his own show, handling the piano parts of the arrangements well enough but looking uninvolved and bored. Though he didn’t put a candelabrum on top of his piano (the only thing that was there was a tablet computer with copies of the scores he was playing from so he could access his music instantaneously and not have to fumble through pieces of paper), dressed in a normal suit instead of sequins or feathers, and didn’t talk to the audience between songs (one tradition of classical concerts it was nice to see preserved here), his whole schtick here seemed uncomfortably close to Liberace’s, as he tried to dumb down his musicianship and skill to lower himself to the material he was playing. New York Rhapsody actually had some good moments, but for the most part the show was one of those not too digestible cultural mixes that wasn’t especially good as a showcase for Lang Lang and didn’t really explore the wealth of music that has been written on, about or for New Yorkers, either in the classical or pop vein. The main piece of music I’d have liked to see included is Gershwin’s Rhapsody No. 2 for Orchestra and Piano — that’s how he billed them — of which he wrote the first version for the 1931 Fox musical Delicious to accompany a scene of Janet Gaynor, an undocumented immigrant from Scotland, rambling through the New York streets and avoiding the immigration agent who’s after her to deport her. In this initial form it was actually called New York Rhapsody, and having Lang Lang and the orchestra perform it “live” while the film footage was shown would have been an interesting addition to this concert!