Lang Lang at Latitude: should music festivals embrace classical?

imageAs the superstar piantist Lang Lang is added to the Latitude Festival lineup, Ivan Hewett looks at the pitfalls of open-air classical music.

Can an outdoor festival like Latitude embrace classical music?

Previous experience makes one doubt it. It’s true there are odd corners of classical music which can cope with the great outdoors.

Berlioz’s immense Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale was meant to be heard by a vast outdoor crowd, like the propaganda music of the French Revolution which inspired it. Janacek imagined his Glagolitic Mass played under the stars.

But these exceptions prove the rule that classical music is a quintessentially indoors thing. You need peace and quiet, and preferably a chair, to be open to its subtleties. And a decent acoustic, so those subtleties actually reach your ears rather than vanishing on the breeze.

Amplification doesn’t help. Instead of making the sound clear, it tends to blow up odd details, so what you end up with is a cartoonist’s caricature. Added to which there’s the uncomfortable disconnect between the musicians’ small concentrated gestures, and the vast sound booming from the speakers.

If there’s one pianist who might just be able to overcome these hurdles, it’s Lang Lang. He has a stage presence that manages to express sincerity and a pleasing swagger. A few days ago he played Bartok’s 2nd Piano Concerto at the Barbican, and when he was presented with a bouquet at the end he plucked out the roses one by one and offered them to the female players in the orchestra.

He already had the crowd in the palm of his hand, but this drove them wild.

Swagger is a hallmark of Lang Lang’s pianism too. He projects the music on to the biggest canvas, not just through his sound – which is heroically large – but through his gestures.

He acts out the music’s narrative in a way which can sometimes feel hammy in the concert hall. But in a Suffolk field, with all the distractions of wind and passing helicopters, my guess is it will seem exactly right.

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