Part 11: Unsound investment

Pianist Lang Lang and the Staatskapelle Dresden gave a disappointing performance at their Prom, writes Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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Pity the poor young woman who was behind me in the queue last night. She had accidentally left her season ticket at home, which was problematic because, by the time she got to the hall, the queue for buy-on-the-day Arena tickets was about three-and-a-half miles long. When she got to the front of the queue she was quite literally in tears, distraught at the prospect of missing the concert.


This is the effect a star soloist can have on the normally sensible Proms-going public. The star in this case was none other than the Chinese pianist Lang Lang, possibly the most famous classical musician in the world after his performance at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, which was witnessed by a reported one billion people around the world. And to look at the day queue, one might have been forgiven for thinking they had all come along to hear his Proms performance.


Not me though. I’d come for Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, one of my very favourite pieces of music, which I’d somehow never managed to hear live. In fact, I was so determined to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden play this most richly evocative of all Strauss’s tone poems, I was willing to stand through a first half that I would normally avoid like an oncoming bus.


It’s not that I have anything against Lang Lang per se. He is possessed of astonishing technique and he is wildly charismatic, neither of which should be dismissed lightly. But he does tend to skim the surfaces of the pieces he plays, rather than ploughing their depths for pearls of insight.

This was very much the case with his performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which had an impressive subtlety and variety of touch, but which failed to cohere into anything meaningful, or even particularly musical. Given the piece is not exactly a firm favourite in the Jakob-Hoff household in the first place, it was quite a struggle to stand through. I had to keep reminding myself that the first half was an investment, to be repaid in full by the second half.

Unfortunately, as they say in the investments business, past performance is no guarantee of future success. I’m sorry to report that my beloved Alpine Symphony did not inspire the Dresdners’ to their greatest heights. It was a scrappy performance, helmed by a tentative-looking Fabio Luisi, and beset by little problems throughout –missed entries, sloppy ensemble, decidedly onstage 'offstage brass' – which all added up to a thoroughly earthbound experience.

At least the woman who had been crying at the entrance managed to get in. One of the ticket checkers took pity on her and let her through – a moment of kindness from the usually Draconian Proms gatekeepers. I only hope she enjoyed the concert more than I did – it sounds as if she had even more invested in it than me.

 
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...