It’s not every day you hear crickets providing an organic accompaniment to a classical piece. But the crickets in Franschhoek sounded like a natural percussion highlight as Tian Jiang’s fingertips fluttered through the world of his Shanghai Dream Suite. “Each piece,” the performer had told us in his introduction, “is a memory of my childhood from Shanghai.” Sitting inside the quaint little church in Franschhoek, we all got a waft of these memories from across the world.
The evening began just before sundown on the steps of the beautiful old church. There was a muted murmur as attendees gathered in twos and threes, each holding a glass of sparkling rosé courtesy of La Residence, our sponsor for the night. La Residence’s chef Len and his team had also crafted a colourful selection of canapés, creating a mood of jollity and gracious care before we even took our seats.
It was a cosy venue. The informal but charming introduction informed us that Tian Jiang had flown into the country just two days before for a series of five concerts. Not only is Jiang a widely acclaimed pianist with a Carnegie Hall Concert, several international awards, and numerous well-received recordings under his belt, but he is also a distinguished composer. The evening’s programme promised to showcase an array of traditional and original work.
Tian Jiang came out to the stage beaming brightly through his stylish glasses, a green bow tie posing a splash of color against his tuxedo. The opening notes of ‘Dancing Waves and Lament’ – an original composition – made me think the piece hardly needed a title. The ebb and flow of the melodic line, with the broad undercurrents of the supporting notes, evoked moving water right away. Parts of the piece, especially in the turbulent and sorrowful second movement, did strike me as rhythmically unstable, but Jiang was just getting warmed up. By the time he was wrapping up the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Appasionata’ he was finding those “shining, crisp, energetic” notes for which the New York Times had heaped praise upon him.
Jiang then unraveled the dramatic narrative of his keynote piece, Shanghai Dream Suite. The guiding melody of his right hand and the far-reaching arpeggios of his left carried us through a selection of pieces, each with titles like ‘Old Spirit’ and ‘Secret Desires’. It’s no surprise that with its vivid lyricism, the Suite has been used as a soundtrack for the PBS documentary First Person Singular. Jiang described his musical objective as “Western harmony grounded in Eastern spirit”, an aspiration that was well-received by an audience that rose to its feet to applaud.
At this point the pianist showed a flair for spontaneity by veering slightly off-programme. He mentioned that he had friends from London in the audience, and in honour of them he wanted to play an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley. The piece was by far the biggest crowd-pleaser, as it had old couples whispering to each other with the recognition of each title: ‘Memory’, ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’, ‘All I Ask of You’. Another medley followed – this time of Italian favorites such as ‘Nessun Dorma’ and ‘O Sole Mio’ – much to the delight of his listeners. The Italian medley was made all the more poignant when Tian dedicated it to his father whose singing he had accompanied during his early years.
He closed the evening with Chopin’s Scherzo No.2. Executed with superb precision and vibrancy, it was the perfect ending to showcase his technique. The piece also shed some light on Jiang’s original works, which in retrospect proved Chopin-esque in their melody-centered arrangement. After yet another standing ovation, he came back one last time with a charming encore – what he humorously called “my own version of ‘My Way’”. Through it all there was an unpretentious air about him, from his broad grins to the humbly-posed tributes to his past. It’s not a quality one expects to see in a world-class artist who will be performing with the Nagasaki Opera House next week. But perhaps that’s why the crickets agreed.
Tian Jiang gave his recital on 29 March 2013 at the Franschhoek NG Kerk.