Montreux Jazz 2009 Festival Journal

Phillip Woolever By

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43rd Montreux Jazz Festival
Montreux, Switzerland
July 5-6, 2009
Summer months of music on the European festival circuit are indeed a multi-cultural garden of both earthly delights and otherworldly musical experiences. For performers and fans alike, these planes seem to unite for unique harmonic convergences. Among many storied festivals through vast geographical territories, the name Montreux may conjure the strongest images. Looking out across Lake Geneva at a rising moon and an awesome sunset, it was obvious why Montreux is considered one of music's legendary locales. There are intimate surroundings throughout the Montreux-Vevey area—flower-lined pathways crammed with politely boisterous revelers that keep the two-week party going almost until dawn every evening.
The lengthy list of artists who have called it home, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Ernest Hemingway to Freddie Mercury, is testimony to Montreux's widespread appeal, and this year, the broad musical offerings mirrored this diversity. The natural beauty of the Swiss Riviera is just as vital as the local inhabitants who nurture such an environment.
The city's main celebration is a musical one. Once again, organizer and figurehead Claude Nobs established a deep mix of modern day music. The lineup ranged from the world premiere of the piano duo featuring Chinese sensation Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock to the Black Eyed Peas, who currently rule popular music charts worldwide.

July 5: Scoot Over Elton and Mr. Joel

The much anticipated, heavily hyped piano showcase from new collaborators Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang was the premiere offering on a stormy Sunday evening. While there was definitely a pop star element involved in their pairing, there were also elevated exchanges to savor.

"This is not about perfecting the classical tradition," conductor John Axelrod told a media gathering. "It's about the music they share. We don't want to get stuck in a museum. We don't do this for people with preconceptions."

"We try to eliminate categories," added senior statesman Hancock. "We're all brothers in music. I think we need to open up a bigger world for classical and jazz music. Through our collaboration, we may do even more for piano."

No less enthusiastic, Lang Lang gushed about his fellow collaborator. "Herbie is absolutely my favorite musician," said Lang Lang. "It was a great privilege to meet him."

This was the kickoff to a landmark series of engagements in which the dynamic duo and Axelrod performed with local orchestras. At the impressive Montreux show, the performers sounded as if they had been connected for years. At times, the 27-year-old Lang Lang was gracefully holding back, though at a vibrant looking 69 years of age, Hancock proved that he could continue to surprise people.

The chemistry between the pair was in strong evidence, and with Axelrod at the lead, the collaboration felt like a band, rather than an orchestra. Axelrod had plenty to work with in the superb Orchestre National de Lyon, and together, they captured the audience's immediate devotion.

Following the orchestra's introductory passages from Dvorak, the ensemble settled in as Lang Lang and Hancock, both dressed in formal black, initiated the "Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Much of the playing was note-for-note indistinguishable, a remarkable quality in this setting, and the sound was superb. Lang Lang segued into a pair of short solo spots with his personal take on tango, followed by a flawless piece by Franz Liszt.

Leonard Bernstein's "Candide Overture" shimmered like the surface of Lake Geneva. The key performers showed such a delicate touch that if a pin had dropped, it would surely have echoed in the ears of the audience. When the two stars sat side by side on Lang Lang's seat for a crystal clear "Mother Goose Suite" by Maurice Ravel, it was clear that the pairing, promoted by Nobs after he heard an improvised jam at the 2008 Grammy Awards, was inspired.

The duo delivered an incredible performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," in which familiar territory was revamped into a visit to an uncharted planet. The finale of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 2" inspired looks of silent awe from the rapt audience. The concert may not have turned form on its ear, but it did bring new clarity to well-tread ground.

Minor misalignments between polished ivories and orchestral soloists aside, the concert was thoroughly enjoyable and presented in an optimal acoustic environment. As opposed to often obligatory crowd responses, the standing ovation seemed sincerely rendered.

"This is the highlight of highs, as good as it gets," proclaimed Quincy Jones to the adoring audience. "Except for 'We Are the World,' this is the most important global event I can think of being involved with."

Strong praise from a strong source indeed. In terms of classical music, that was exactly what Lang Lang and Hancock offered in rare form.

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