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Proms 2009: Prom 56 – Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 \ Lang Lang Staatskapelle Dresden

August 28, 2009

He doesn’t realise it, but pianist Lang Lang faced his toughest gig at the Proms when he set foot on the platform and thundered through Chopin’s second piano concerto.

I didn’t go. I didn’t want to. The Royal Albert Hall feels like a hostile location at the moment. I wanted to keep it at a discreet distance. South East London, in fact, from where I could watch the live BBC Four broadcast.

One of the main points of interest for me was the interval piece. I’m a media junky after all. The only way to learn about TV production and presentation is to see how other people do it.

I watched like a hawk for tips, observed an impressive and highly informative two-way between presenter @zebsoanes (who consistently demonstrates his commitment to sporting a stylishly smart yet casual look) and Radio 3 In Tune chappy Petroc Trelawney.

Joining the broadcast part-way through I only caught the last part of the piano concerto. True to form I brought issues to what little of the performance I heard and found myself making typically superficial judgements about what I saw.

I’m not a big fan of over-expressive facial expressions, I have to confess. Such overt musicality jarred on the 42” screen I was watching on. So too, Lang Lang’s choice of jacket. I can just tell when something doesn’t work and it didn’t. White is never a good look. Never.

The performance of the Chopin wasn’t the greatest I’d ever heard, it has to be said. This is in part due to the nature of the concerto. The work – pleasant enough in it’s complete inoffensiveness – doesn’t really do anything. It’s the kind of work which might be offered up as a last-minute-I-don’t-know-what-to-get-you-but-you-say-you’d-like-more-classical-music-cds present. Maybe it’s because of its inoffensiveness and resulting familiarity that the moments of rocky ensemble playing saw my backside momentarily leave the sofa and with my head in my hands.

Such a reaction is perfectly understandable given the potential pitfalls of a live performance. It’s also acceptable because I did it at home (even if I am blogging about it publically now).

What seemed extremely discourteous in comparison however, was the heckling Lang Lang found himself subjected to moments before he began his encore. According to my scouts who were there, the voice emanated from somewhere reasonably close to the front of the arena as the pianist prepared himself to play the Chopin etude. “Oh no.” said the voice. And then again .. “Oh no.”

Lang Lang’s obvious ease and charm dealing with such behaviour is a lesson to all of us who stick our heads above the parapet in pursuit of creative satisfaction. His skill was also evident on screen (in that it was televised). That doesn’t make the heckling OK however.

Given the opinion often trotted out that classical music needs to combat the supposedly stuffy image it has, the most predictable outcry to what follows might be “Loosen up.” Still, I feel it necessary to spell out the bottom line.

There is a basic etiquette adhered to in the concert hall manifested in a basic level of respect. This is not because of the perceived conservatism of the classical music world, but merely the result of being polite.

Such a core aspiration (which should not restricted to the domain of the concert hall) should be especially borne in mind depending on proximity to the stage. A decision to voice one’s opinions in such a crass way should be made only if you consider yourself skilled enough (and with an opportunity to prove it) to pull off a better performance than the one you’ve just heard. If you fail to meet this criteria I would humbly suggest you set up a Twitter account or – if you’re as verbose as I am – consider writing a blog.

To do otherwise just seems rude, ungrateful and ultimately objectionable not only to the performer, but to those around you who demonstrate a considerably more firm grasp of the basics of human nature.

The result of all this is, inevitably an appreciation of Lang Lang as a performer which transcends the superficial judgements about his platform etiquette and the criticisms of the live performance of the Chopin. Based on that and the exquisite encore, I’m inclined to expand my collection of piano music as a result starting with Lang Lang’s list of recordings.

Oh .. and whilst I’m on the courtesy bus, pushing in is another thing I’d add to the etiquette help file I’m compiling, so too a heartfelt but equally unequivocal growl that flash photography isn’t on inside the auditorium either. It’s a concert, not a trip to the zoo.

  1. Merlin Sibley permalink

    I think Lang Lang’s good natured response to the heckling did win him much admiration – even from those who are slightly sceptical about his mega-stardom and expressive performance technique. I suspect a lot of diva pianists would have taken umbrage if they’d received similar treatment.

    Did I imagine it or was there also some heckling at the first concert that the West Eastern Divan Orchestra did?

  2. I think that might have been the prommers calling for the fountain to be switched off before Daniel Barenboim walked on to the platform. It’s quite a distracting sound. Perfectly understandable. I wasn’t there for the second half of that concert however.

  3. Merlin Sibley permalink

    That would explain it. On the TV you just heard a few people shouting and saw young Michael Barenboim looking rather perturbed as a consequence!

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