New York Philharmonic: Composer and Pianist, Water and Fire

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic: Composer and Pianist, Water and Fire
In composing his Piano Concerto - to be performed April 9 through 12 - for Lang Lang, Tan Dun was creating for a talent he knows well.

Because the word "eight" in Chinese sounds a lot like "prosperity," Chinese communities treasure that number on everything from street addresses to license plates. In matters of the calendar, the number eight is especially auspicious.

So it is likely that a little Sino-numerology is at work in the composer Tan Dun's upbeat mood as he discusses the new Piano Concerto he wrote for Lang Lang, whom he first met eight years ago at a New Year's Eve party, a couple of hours before the dawning of the year 2000. "We all had a drink as the New Year's ball fell," Mr. Tan recalls, "and when I suggested that our first experience together in the New Year should be music, someone invited this young pianist to play."

The first sound struck a chord of recognition. A moment later the shock set in: the music was Floating Clouds, a short piece that the composer had written in 1978 when he was still a student at China's Central Conservatory, four years before the pianist was born. "I was stunned," the composer admits, "because the piece had never been recorded, or even formally performed. But Lang Lang played it as if I'd written it for him, as if the piece was just waiting for the right pianist to be born."

A year later, Mr. Tan's now-heavily-revised Opus 1, Eight Memories in Watercolor, appeared on Lang Lang's 2001 Carnegie Hall debut recital, as well as on the subsequent live recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Since that time, the composer and pianist have spent as much time together as possible‹whenever Lang Lang's touring schedule has overlapped with Tan Dun's conducting engagements.

"Ever since that first experience, when I heard myself remade by Lang Lang, I thought, I've got to write something especially for him," says Mr. Tan. "He has the kind of genius that has not appeared for a long time in history. And now, after eight years of good fortune‹cooking together, playing piano together‹we finally have the chance to work together again."

Enter the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned Tan Dun's Piano Concerto and will give the world premiere of the piece this month with Lang Lang under the baton of guest conductor Leonard Slatkin. "This is precisely the kind of special combination that we always look for," says Philharmonic Artistic Administrator MatÐas Tarnopolsky. "We value composers of great evocative quality and soloists who resonate musically and culturally with what that composer has to say. We want music that makes a statement, and it particularly helps when the composers not only understand the broad expressive canvas the Philharmonic offers, but actually know the individual players they're writing for."

Tan Dun has already composed for the Philharmonic; his Concerto for Water Percussion was written in 1999 for Philharmonic Principal Percussion Christopher S. Lamb. He's also worked professionally with Lang Lang before, on the sound track recording for Feng Xiangang's 2006 film The Banquet, which is currently scheduled for a U.S. commercial release in 2009.

The Piano Concerto, though, is the first piece that Mr. Tan created specifically with Lang Lang in mind. Although he's quick to add that there's no literal narrative in the piece, the composer admits that the entire conception is a reflection of their friendship recounted in strictly musical terms.

"Physically and spiritually, this is a piece for Lang Lang, both for the fingers and the heart," he says. "Some parts are very physical, very percussive and rhythmic, like fire. But Lang Lang is also capable of the kind of pianississimos that you can't even hear anymore, you only feel. And so I also try to capture that spirit, which is water."

In more concrete terms, Tan describes the first movement as a dreamy state that breaks into highly rhythmic interaction between the soloist and five percussionists in the Orchestra. The second movement, more sensual and romantic, features extensive interplay between piano and gongs, while the third movement heavily involves the vibraphone, xylophone, and marimba.

"You know, I wrote that first piano piece at the same time I started learning the instrument," the composer observes. "It was the piano that opened my ears to Western music; before that, my imagination was shaped by the guqin [the traditional Chinese zither]. So 30 years later, I play the piano much better, and I've learned that the piano can do almost anything, except glissando."

Although he managed to bypass that particular limitation in his 1995 Concerto for Pizzicato Piano and 10 Instruments and the gamelan-inspired Dew-Fall-Drops for the Carnegie Hall Millennium Program Book, both of which involve plucking and strumming the strings underneath the piano lid, this time Mr. Tan has focused his attention entirely on the piano's doubly auspicious 88 keys. "Rather than just creating physical changes of timbre, I've paid more attention to different registers, and in making more contrast in dynamics," he says, although he does admit to using a rapid alternation of fingers on a single piano key reminiscent of guqin performance technique.

"Tan Dun is difficult to categorize as a composer, which in this case is a good thing," reflects Mr. Tarnopolsky. "Coming back to him after several years, the Philharmonic will hear him at a different stage of development, with a different approach to music-making. The piano concerto has been one of the oldest and most dramatic forms in classical music, and it will be very exciting to see how Tan engages that form and makes it his own."

Ken Smith divides his time between New York, where he's a writer and critic for Gramophone magazine, and Hong Kong, where he's the performing arts critic for the Financial Times.

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