OC made a wish two summers ago in her recap of a scintillating, crossover concert in Newark, NJ with Lang², Herbie Hancock, and John Axelrod, writing, "OC just hopes she doesn't have to wait another 75 years for another tour." Wishes sometimes come true.
Earlier this week, artists Herbie Hancock, Lang², and John Axelrod (and the enthusiastic kids of Accademia Teatro Alla Scala) rawked La Scala's Caraceni black silk socks in a reprisal of the 2009 world tour of dueling pianos, butt-shaking works, and a chemistry between three artists that spans across generations and cultures.
There are lots of traditional things that La Scala just gets right, especially when tapping into their lush Italian roots with the darkest Verdi and the lightest bel canto masterpieces. But when La Scala hosts cool programming, it's like inviting Charles Bukowski to your Ivy League school to teach a creative writing course. It's nothing short of awesome.
Scala set the stage with a full-on orchestra, cheered by a packed house of a young, diverse audience who knew, like us, that when La Scala rawks out, it can't be missed. A set list of accessible works, all the ensemble pieces were orchestrated for four hands on the piano and orchestra for more dazzle of ebony/ivory smasher Lang² and American jazzmatazz Herbie Hancock.
(Photo: Brescia e Amisano - Teatro alla Scala)
First up was George Gershwin's Cuban Overture, and no one in the house was immune to the bright, butt-shaking rumba beats, not even conductor John Axelrod who swayed to the lush and sizzling rhythms evocative of Havana. During adagio downtime, Axelrod found swords of color from the eager kids of Accademia.
Legendary American pianist and composer Herbie Hancock came out in a 1940s inspired purple suit and a contrasting red dress shirt, looking like he stepped right out of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal. Lang² went for a classic look in a slick, black suit and white dress shirt.
The second and third pieces were for Lang² and Herbie Hancock -- Maurice Ravel's Ma mère l’oye gave way to Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, neither technically perfect or clean, but both spirited and bright.
After the intermission, the orchestra came back for Johannes Brahms Hungarian Dance punctuated by stunning brass in thrilling paces, the orchestra responsive to Axelrod’s touch.
Lang² and Herbie Hancock improvisations followed, both artists creating intimate interludes. Lang² mastered Liszt's Consolation #3 and one by Schumann with a deep introspection and sensitivity that is evocative of his evolution, hours of lessons from mentors (notably Barenboim) are paying-off, and the Chinese pianist is heading into greater territory. His Schumann soared with less affectation and lighter touches than we've heard in the past.
Herbie's improvisations were truly improvisational, saying that his game plan was to "play in the moment". Hancock's moment was an organic stream of consciousness found in rolling cadenze. He topped it off with an inspired epilogue that resonated with Joplin and Satie (and later, during the bis, treated us to his original composition, the very famous and often-sampled Cantaloupe Island).
The jam session was followed-up by the orchestra for George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. To be honest, the laVerdi kids won this one hands down under the direction of Francesco Maria Colombo, which we saw eons ago at Auditorium di Milano. But what Accademia lacked in finess was made up with a snappy, brassy, and crispness under Axelrod's direction (marked with endearing Lennyisms). Three final bis moved the crowed into classical riot territory.
In a speech given by Herbie Hancock that prefaced his improvisations, he addressed the audience (in English) with his hand over his heart and said: "Finally." -- marked by a pregnant pause -- "It's my first time at La Scala," and an emotional burst of claps and cheers.
And in the moment of silence that followed -- as everyone strained to hear more from the humble genius -- a young, male American voice yelled from the audience in English to Hancock, "Come back anytime". Quite simply, we couldn’t have said it better.