You’ll have to go through reams of old Hollywood Bowl programs to find an odder couple than on this bill — Herbie Hancock, the protean American jazz-funk acoustic-electric keyboardist and new L.A. Philharmonic creative chair for jazz, and Lang Lang, the flamboyant, bestselling Chinese classical pianist. Even given Hancock’s long track record of being willing to try just about anything, and Lang’s fiercely burning desire to expand his audience, this looked like a stretch. What materialized, though, was a mutual love-in before the bemused Los Angeles Philharmonic Friday night –mostly on classical ground, with moments of illumination and jive.
Hancock has kept his classical beginnings pretty much under wraps since his teens, although he did play a bit of Bartok with Chick Corea in 1978. But it emerged somewhat when he teamed with Lang in a shortened rendition of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the 2008 Grammys, when he won his improbable best album award for “River: The Joni Letters.” That casual encounter sparked something, and it led to a United Airlines ad and a world tour this summer that concluded with the Bowl gig.
Forget the sheer tale of the numbers — Hancock being 69, Lang only 27. Lang brings out Hancock’s curiosity and youthful spirit; they looked like a couple of extremely gifted kids on a lark. In turn, Hancock seemed to act as an enabler for Lang’s full repertoire of idiosyncrasies — the thundering virtuoso technique, the preening physical gestures, the melting touch, the kitschy lapses in taste.
They’re crowdpleasers, but they didn’t make it that easy for their audience at first. As their opening selection, they chose Vaughan Williams’ marvelous but rarely played Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, which evokes VW’s teacher Ravel while also looking forward to the advanced rhetoric of Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5. Hancock left no doubt about his classical chops, serving as an anchor while Lang flaunted the extremes.
Each pianist got a solo showcase on home turf; Lang grandly played Liszt’s “Liebestraum,” and Hancock offered a long erudite improv on “Cantaloupe Island” and “Maiden Voyage.” Uncut and stretched out, “Rhapsody in Blue” was intended as an experiment in improvisation on a classic, but it threatened to turn into a slapstick act as the two traded licks, trying to out-cute each other. Lang can be really funny — check out his YouTube clips — but this music doesn’t lend itself to shtick; it’s an irreverent declaration of independence as is.
The real revelations of the night were the short mutual improvs on a Chinese tune, “The Spring Dance,” and, as an encore, on Gershwin’s Prelude No. 1. We didn’t know Lang could improvise — he probably didn’t know it himself before meeting Hancock — and they took these pieces on some wild rides, with Hancock leading Lang into the outside. If they ever tour again, they should develop this side more.