Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Who should step on the podium of PSO after $29.5 million donation?

2006 marks the second year of the Trio-conducting system for PSO. No other industry is better at covering facts (probably except G. W. Bush) than music business: Here was the deep-ailing PSO two years ago, with growing deficit and no where to find a conductor suitable for the orchestra. However, the marketing dept. described the trio system not as an interim, but as a brave new step and experiment for future US orchestras.

It may be unfair to call the trio-system a failure but it is definitely unfair not to call for an end of it. PSO has become coarser and more overflowing. Its agility only makes its sound feel lack of integration. Different conductors bring different ideas and sound tonality, but overall an orchestra needs its own characteristic caliber which can only be acquired through years of systematic training under the same baton which oversees the procedure in the long term. I would defend for any accusation that puts PSO as a second grade orchestra, but it has been a while that I leave Heinz Hall on some Friday nights, untouched.

With $29.5 million donation from Richard Simmons, the fifth largest private gift ever to American orchestras, it is time for orchestra back to negotiation table with world class conductors. The list of music directors of PSO in the past is full of glories and legends: from Reiner, Steinberg to Previn and Jansons, the podium of PSO has been stamped by the footprint of the elites among the elites. It is just a pure white lie that PSO said it was exciting and brave to experiment trio-conducting system. The truth is that Jansons stepped down in such a bad time that no suitable, affordable conductor could take over the baton. But now the question is simple when funding is available: who is next?

No doubt I have no authority of answering such a question; it would be equally hard for me to answer the question of “who could be” since the list of candidates is discretely made up by a few. Therefore, I would only speak for myself and instead talk who I would like to see on the podium of Heinz Hall.

Andrew Davis
It is sad to know that Andrew Davis has decided not to lead PSO in future; therefore mostly likely he will leave his position in 2008. But I can never forget the night with Mahler’s Song of the Earth: The best concert of the year. At the end of the last movement, sounds became faded away. That is the moment that I knew something happened, something that would last one’s whole life. It was extremely beautiful but extremely sad so that words failed.

Andrew Davis knows more than others about the orchestra and his collaboration with PSO is the most successful among the three. It is true that he will leave at the end of the contract, but wouldn’t he reconsider it in future if PSO is in a solid financial situation?

Leonard Slatkin
Slatkin belongs to those rare species among conductors. Contrary to most of the conductors moving around to find a better orchestra or a bigger salary, He has been nurturing National Symphony Orchestra like father to son for more than a decade. At one time, he even asked to lower his salary to help overcome financial problems.

Slatkin brought a splendid Holst’s “The Planet” last year. Even though he was called for to replace Hickox in a rush, he filled the stage with timeless space. (At one time, he re-lowered his baton at the start just to make sure everyone had been seated and ready for the music) He has the magic power to explore the sound possibility of PSO with depth and insight, and what’s more, PSO is crying for a conductor who is willing to take Heinz Hall as a home and see the growth of the orchestra.

Manfred Honeck
Only been to steel city twice, Mr. Honeck has already mesmerized Heinz Hall and conquered music critics here. When the trio-system ends, he will be 50, which is regarded as the start of the golden-time for conducting career. Only through his baton, PSO became more homogeneous, cohesive and transparent, with its string section singing like angel and horn principle gave the best solo for Tchaikovsky I’ve ever heard. What else does PSO look for other than a talented, refreshing conductor?

Saturday, December 23, 2006


我注意到小说中的语言类似于无名的民歌,拙朴坦诚,叙述的力量象跳动的音符,强弱的转换于无形中积聚着力量,等待下一次对读者心灵的激烈撞击。如果承认音乐是诗的升华,那么更广意义的文学和音乐内在的联系性就不可否认。这种联系不仅仅表现在许多文学作品对音乐的深层次涉及(挪威的森林,被背叛的遗嘱),还体现在文学作品的结构和韵律感,如米兰昆德拉的《The Unbearable Lightness of Being》或是余华提到的霍桑的《红字》。余华的小说极少说教与煽情,也没有去旁征博引;主人公在时间长河的洗礼中精纯而顽强地活着,平静的叙述中戏剧张力如水中印月般拉长又挤扁,读毕升华的情感如同聆听了贝多芬的OP132 中的感恩圣歌。
就个人而言,我最喜欢其中“高潮”、“色彩”和“音乐的叙述”三篇文章。 在“高潮”中,Shostakovic的列宁格勒交响曲和霍桑的《红字》被用来探讨叙述中的高潮。当高潮不断堆积、皱褶、培育、发展之后,高潮之上的结束是“叙述作品的关键”。正如丁梅斯代尔临死前的安详化解了绞刑架前所有的感情狂飙;在音乐高潮的顶峰时拯救和释放所有激昂力量的往往是轻柔的抒情段落,无以担负的沉重倏然消失于无形之中,只留下耳边残余的绝响。这种临响体验在浪漫时期的作品中屡见不鲜,被作者称为“对整个叙述的酬谢”。
《音乐的叙述》缓缓流淌的是BRAHMS的音乐。巧的很,最近D版刚到Rostropovich和Serkin演奏的Brahms的Cello Sonatas。Dupre 和Baromboim的版本曾给我很深的印象,苍凉和孤独如冬日草原上的风,而这里只是“沉而不亮”,叹息和感伤在安详和内省中流动。让我们读读这一段:


There is some mystery in Ysaye’s solo violin sonatas: How come a set of violin works that is impelled by mechanism and exercises filled with space, time and wildness? Maybe the answer lies in Menuhin’s autobiography "Unfinished Journey": Violin has a soul while piano is mechanical. If that is true, then Ysaye’s solo violin works is written not only for virtuosity-proving but also soul-searching.

Ysaye’s violin sonatas show his homage to both Bach and Paganini. But Ysaye’s work is more emotional stirring than Bach’s and broader and darker than that of Paganini, thus it is a work of virtuosity written not for the sake of virtuosity. Moreover, the whole works is laid out in such a way as if it is meant only for violinists obsessed in their solitude: Without doubt, it is technically difficult, but at the same time it gives performers a sense of achievement so special that can only be enjoyed when fiddlers’ body and soul alone fill a barely furnished room with endless practice. Heifetz was reputed for his insistence of practicing scales for at least three hours a day. If that is true, then at least at some moment, those scales may sing his heart. Listeners, even if they are laymen, almost immediately can sense they are eavesdropping on some secrets, therefore also obtain a sense of accomplishment for their acute observation.

Interestingly, Ysaye’s work was inspired by Szigeti’s performance of Bach. (In the end, Ysaye dedicated No. 1 to Szigeti, No. 2 to Thibaud, No. 3 to Enescu and No. 4 to Kreisler.) Szigetti’s characteristic oscillatory vibrato is pronounced during his 1950’s recording, but back to 1920’s he was at the top. However, the violin sonatas seem to be better fit for a more aggressive approach, which can hardly be found from Szigeti. In his later years, Szigeti sounds terse, restrained, sometimes even struggling. If ever there is one requirement for the caliber of the suitable fiddlers, that has to be the superior skills which can disentangle lyricism from thrilling technique as if the latter never poses any challenge.

After listening to Leonidas Kavakos playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto last year, I think hardly anyone else are better equipped with what Ysaye demands in the works: the mind-blowing technique, overwhelming passion and an intellectual, almost pedantic attitude toward work analysis. Unfortunately Kavakos’ BIS recording is hard to find. But what Thomas Zehetmair does in his ECM recording is extraordinary. (Zehetmair has ventured not only in his repertoire but also in his roles as a soloist, member of string quartet and conductor). The detail and the dynamics are vividly recorded, but overall it is the mood that spellbinds and intoxicates listeners. In the performance, Ysaye instills his soul into the string and bow while Zehetmair glitters him with power and beauty. Listeners, while close-focused in the mind and resonating in the ear, fall half-mesmerizing half-frenetic, speechless.

Friday, December 22, 2006


没有什么比运命不可逃脱的烙印更折磨人的了。Robert Schumann定是很早就意识到了这一点:他的姐姐死于精神失常,妄想的症状也许就缘自家族内部,与音乐和外界无关。




Schumann的激情是内敛的,越是狂热,越是深切。在许多作品中,往往他的乐思流现淌露,而其感情却不断凝结内陷,这在他的钢琴协奏曲和大提琴协奏曲中表现的异常分明。与Grieg作品同名的A小调钢琴协奏曲隽永清致,如一篇细腻的内心独白 (Grieg的音乐则一派造化神秀、浓妆淡抹,妖娆妩丽)你可以把这些大型的协奏作品看作小型化的室内乐,一样无言而内省,一些纷乱奔放的片段带有幻想的性格特征。正如许多后来的学者所承认的,Schumann的音乐中旋律短小精悍,字字珠玑,玉美润良,隽句井然;而批评者则直言他的作品中缺乏戏剧性。这些观点都是以所谓的古典标准而言;但在艺术的领域内,标准没有任何的意义:正如王尔德所说,艺术家什么都可以表达。Schumann的音乐语言在其内建的语义空间非但完满而且富于变化。他的节奏有着青年人特有的活力,但思维却是细密绵延。在Schumann的幻想世界中,景致无需错落,内容未必详实,重要的是带有鲜明性格特征的情感。他的音乐不是美妙的童话世界,而是成人世界的噫语,被紧紧包裹起来,自传性的情感特质被注入其中。音乐的起伏随着感情的脉络平行伸展,隐遁消弥忽尔乍现绽放都那般自然真挚。那种感情毋宁说是Schumann的,不如说是Schumann内心拟化出的艺术形象,有些时候你可以直接说那是他自己,有些时候却大抵是杜撰的,顽皮、激动、嘲弄、自责,象一个自恋的诗人缺乏审视自己的勇气,便映射出一个不具肉身的幻想,无所承重而轻盈地开着玩笑。




在激情现象中,在双重因果关系----从激情本身出发既向肉体扩散又向灵魂扩散----的展开过程中,疯巅找到了自己的首要条件。Schumann一生崇拜Beethoven, 也有着Beethoven一般坚强的心性。但不同于Beethoven-----乐圣在现实中奋斗,直到晚年完全遁入无声的空灵境界-----Schumann对音乐的激情从一开始就消磨着他年轻而坦诚的生命。他于音乐中营造的诗意梦境在沉迷自我的同时规避现实,与宣告理性缺范的疯巅具有毗邻的心象特征。1854年寒冷的2月,Schumann跳进了莱茵河,被渔民救起。但救起的也仅仅是肉身,作为音乐家的Schumann早在10年前就开始如残烛般融化,融化进他的梦幻世界,其中的一部分,我相信也只是一部份被以音乐和文字的方式保留了下来,剩下的只有Schumann自己体验了。






月升了,斗亮,却淹没在中关村车海与灯火的晖映中。我从一大片废墟中走过,外面的围墙上写着“Peking University Science Park” ,装饰灯打在苍白的墙面上,醒目的很。走不多远,回头看去,发觉墙的后面立着一棵树。那本也无甚奇特,可灯光越过围墙照在树冠上,如同琼枝一般。空气有些黏稠,树冠上方好象漂浮着粒状的霜流,漫无声息。一边是中关村大街不息的车流沸沸嚷染,一边是苍穹下白色的树冠,恒久的寂静。



开始喜欢Debussy不是因为他的牧神午后(喜欢的他的交响作品是在听了Celibidache的大海之后),那纯粹是对其钢琴作品中标题文字的偏爱:Delphi的舞女、暮色中的声音和芳香、沉没的教堂、水仙子、月照楼台、雪泥踪迹,以至于对他的钢琴作品也爱屋及乌了。有段日子曾喜欢过Gieseking, 他在帆船中掀起的夺目亮光定会让赛纳的河水也阵阵涟漪波光,但Debussy的钢琴微妙精盈的特质,朦胧错落的境界绝不是干涩的MONO录音所呈现的那种;而对于Debussy作品中要求最为精细的踏板,他几乎一概以pedal for bass来处理,尚缺婉约和灵动的髓骨。

欧阳江河曾写过一篇对Michelangeli的评论,最为精略的评价是他的钢琴使演奏者和聆听者同时消失。Michelangeli开发了钢琴作为器乐的最大表现可能,在Ravel的钢协中他使钢琴拥有了具有形状和重量的质地感,而在Images中的叶丛钟声和古刹月落里,他的演奏确实使听者产生出幻觉,以为那稀疏朦胧的浮动只来自钢琴本身的自我弹奏,而与演绎者无关。有些钢琴家可以使钢琴完全溶入成他的一部份,浑然一体,使其成为内心敏感的外延;他们的音乐往往带有和听者交流的强烈渴望;Michelangeli属于另一类,他的演奏即使在现场也是不需要听众的。作为窃取他的钢琴奥秘的听众,他们的存在甚至欢呼鼓掌只会凭添他对前者的厌恶。Michelangeli的演奏同样不能用客观或主观来限定。他的Chopin冷静而绝妙,左手的和声有如大理石的厚重,右手的触键描绘出清晰的连贯线条,许多评论认为那过于刻意讲究,似乎每一个乐句都被事先精心的雕凿过而失去了Chopin的自然天成,他们也许更喜欢Rubinstein带着个性的Mazuka(EMI版) ;但在Debussy这里,一切都变得那么自然,Michelangeli的“冰冷” 被提炼成Debussy神秘的细微特质,全音阶的旋律和东方式的情调被升华成光与影交错的玄妙境地。Debussy的音乐中无论是标题还是内容最常涉及的是水,是光影变幻下的流动,它们的不可捉摸和玄虚莫测只有经过精心的设计才有可能被淋漓尽致的表达。而毫无疑问,Michelangeli对完美音质的偏求和他独一无二的踏板技术(我现在仍认为他的踏板技术是最好的) 证明他是Debussy钢琴音乐的代言人。 Claude Debussy说过,他对声音和画面一样的热爱,色彩是手段也是目的。但作为Monet和Mallarme好友的Debussy从来不是复制自然,而是在描绘自然。那些对外在的直观表述正以其与忠实程度成正比的方式在破坏着Debussy的音乐。恰恰是在这个北京的夜晚,色彩被黑夜遮盖,声音为车流淹没,外界的视听因素都被压缩至最小的可能性时,Debussy的音乐飘然而至,清绝入髓。

Written on 01/26-01/27,2002

Thursday, December 21, 2006

What I am listening

It is surprising to see that the tempo marking in Faure’s Requiem is so fast that the written requirement is ignored by most of the performances nowadays. Giulini, being at the slower side for most repertoires, makes the music in the status of between flowing and hovering. The gradation in dynamics is so subtle that some sections such as “In paradisum”, diaphanous and dainty, have a magic mesmerizing effect, echoing its fame as lullaby of death by Faure’s contemporaries. Yet I was not sleeping, far from it. Unlike Victoria de Los Angeles, Kathleen Battle’s “Pie Jesu” is voluptuous, full of human tender. Schmidt, on the contrary, is broader and farther as if his piety has traversed the long journey from heaven to the earth.

There is no climax or raucous pieces like those in either Verdi or Mozart, that’s what Faure wants: a happy death delivery. And that’s what Giulini does: a 35 minutes hush filled with reverence.

Monday, December 18, 2006



听郎朗的次数不多:现场2次,CD也只有3张。原因很简单:Enough is enough!



朋友说:郎朗在走Horowitz的路子,毕竟他也算人家的嫡传子弟。我说老头子晚年的音色炉火纯青,哪里是这个Bang Bang比得了的。何况,你要说Horowitz是伟大的艺术家,立马一群人要站出来起哄。

朋友说:再 show off也比不过Liberacie,人家不照样成功的很?我说:Liberacie没有把自己标榜成classical pianist,您啥时候见到郎朗穿着斗篷从舞台上飞下来?

朋友说:听听他的弹得Liszt,都不敢相信这是10个指头弹出来的。我说找个player piano,20个指头的作品都能弹出来。


朋友说:连圈内人都说郎朗有着无与伦比的和听众交流的 能力。我说交流是交流了,就是没通过音乐。



Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Music I am Being Drawn To

I have been listening to String Quintet by Schubert for days. It is the most delicate, miraculous music experience I've ever had: Often, I found that I was smiling with tears.

For such a music piece, words fail. However, I found a forum and Hoshang Dastoor's comment makes others redundant.

Schubert String Quintet is one of the noblest and most elevated examples of pure and direct communication with the Divine through the medium of instrumental music. One of the great tragedies of music was Schubert's most untimely passing at the age of 31. And yet an intimate experince of the Quintet tends to draw us inexorably to the conclusion that, having created this masterpiece, he realised the greatest heights, and we wonder whether he could ever have surpassed himself had he lived a normal life span.

Through the tragedy, then, we rejoice because here is a soul who has travelled very far indeed on his chosen spiritual path. One of the distinguishing features of Schubert's greatest music is the tremendous power of its expression. This is seen in his String Quartet No. 15 in G Major and also in the "Great" C Major Symphony. But it is in the Quintet that this power is at its most all-embracing and versatile. Here, Schubert takes you into regions of intense concentration, where there is a still centre that nothing can ever disturb or agitate.

The first such oasis is the second subject of the first movement, where you are carried in a gently meandering stream. There is a deep pulse here, subtle and ever-present, and a sense of quietly determined movement. And you wonder, as always with the quintessential late Schubert, how beautiful his tunes are and how difficult it is at the same time to grasp their true inner meaning.

One is soon immersed in that incomparable miracle of inspiration, the second movement, where you are suspended in an intense, dimensionless region, at once bottomlessly profound and unsurpassably lofty, and are utterly quieted in that trance-like meditation. This music cannot be described in ordinary terms - it suffuses the human organism wholly, and cleanses the spirit with infinite wisdom and gentlenes and love. Having said that, we find ourselves plunged into that stormy middle section - only to find to our vastest surprise that the agitation is but another side, a complementary aspect, as it were, to the initial, quietly meditative impulse of this movement. This section is introspective throughout the gamut of its hard struggles; its laboured breathing is worship, and we are climbing up a jagged mountain, returning to peace only after falling many times. And what a return it is! How is Schubert going to make it, we ask ourselves. And yet, the reprise of the opening is a pure miracle - the sense of moving from darkness to light. And even when out of that dim and troublous tunnel, we cannot forget our agitation easily. Schubert lets us come out of it gradually, on our own terms, as if he knows that any more abrupt transition would be shattering to our psyches. Nearing the end of the second movement is that celebrated timeless point where there is an attempt to re-enter that grim tunnel (we wonder why, in the first place), and we hover at the brink in a state of almost unbearable suspense, before we are finally led towards wonderflly calm resolution as the all-pervading tranquility of the final bars descends upon us.

We sonder whether Schubert will ever be able to recapture this state of being, especially after the tumultous and strident opening of the third movement. However, the trio does have a surprise in store - it is deeply mysterious and still, and we are led into yet another brief journey of the spirit. The greatest musical works are those that incorporate many diverse levels of intellectual and spiritual experience, and balance all of these so as to envelope and enrich our whole being. Such creations are indeed rare and the C Major Quintet is a supreme example.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Being of Love

May 12, 2006 Friday

Wolfgan Amadeus Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G. minor
Reza Vali The Being of Love
Ms. DeYoung Mezzo-Soprano


Peter Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor

Conducted by Manfred Honeck

the night of world premier of Iranian composer Reza Vali’s “The Being of Love”, Heinz Hall was only half filled. It’s a fact that most subscribers are cautious about modern pieces, not to mention that work is originated from Iran’s folk songs. Aaron Copland once said that composing is not a happy art. “The composer depends on someone else to perform. If he can’t get anyone to play his work, he might just as well have not written it. The country is filled with sad and lonely figures walking around with unperformed music in their pockets.” In this sense, Vali is lucky.

In China, music critics used to say “越是民族的,越是世界的”, which can be translated into English as “the more true the music is to its cultural root, the greater potential for universal acceptance”. I partially agree with it with discretion. If so, Peking Opera, which is facing fast dwindling domestic audience, should have acclaimed Vienna golden Music Hall already. In fact, a composer is a universe of his own. He has to speak of his own language based on his cultural environment and educational background. Tan Dun traces back his special experience of working for an opera troupe during Cultural Revolution and clashes it with modern music. Vali explores his cultural heritage in the frame of more traditional western system. But to modulate oriental style into western diatonic scale without losing its authenticity is a paramount job. Tan Dun succeeded with exploring the infinity of quasi-percussion style of Chinese music in the context of modern atonality and sound texture. The premiere of The Being of Love showed that Vali cleverly avoided Persian system by adapting more flexible folk songs as his musical elements.

Born in Ghazvin, Iran, Reza Vali, who began collecting folk songs as well as Beetle’s at the age of 14, began his formal musical studies at Conservatory of Music in Teheran. He moved to the capital of classical music – Vienna later, where he traversed music journey from a huge time span. “I was in a concert of Bruckner by Karajan. It was great.” However, Mahler, he confessed, is his favorite composer. Vali moved to Pittsburgh for Ph.D. study when steel mills were still dominating scenes in the city. Now he is a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University and lives with his big family.

In 1999, Vali made his first visit back to Iran over more than 20 years. It was a fruitful trip in that he brought back a whole suitcase of audiotapes and booklets, all of which were related to folk songs. The premiered work, commissioned by PSO two years ago, was one of his many exploration of those songs obtained from his trip.

I always appreciate the tutorial offered by PSO one hour before the concert. But for such a unique world-premier work, a tutorial featuring composer himself was essential. Modern music is difficult not only because it has recondite melodies and free form devoid of repetition, but also because it comes from a lack of comprehension of the way in which the music is put together. During the pre-concert tutorial, several original Persian folk songs were played. It reminded me immediately of the movie “Prisoner of the Mountains”. (In fact geographically there is some similarity between Chechnya and Iran.) The melodies are picturesquely expansive with prime simplicity, climbing up and down freely. However, the elongated syllables of words keep trembling repeatedly between adjacent notes (with surprising modulation), therefore propel the free-paced songs with energy and dynamics. It sounds remote and close at the same time, as if contradictorily it originates from mountains faraway but lingers just ten feet above. Vali borrowed the idesa from Bartok and divided his song-cycle into two categories, “imaginary” and “authentic”. However, no matter whether or not the melodies were created by composer himself, he completely changed the format, composition and color of those folk songs. It possesses more forms from western orchestra works with only folk song elements and poem stanza remained.

In fact, one can sense the influence of western music on the work without much difficulty. Similar to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, the work also has five movements and is centered on the last one. The last movement, which gives the set the title, is the musical and philosophical culmination of theme. In Mahler’s “Fareware”, every time the return of the theme sang by woodwind section builds up the dark and mysterious atmosphere followed by the parting from soprano. Here, in the last movement of “The Being of Love”, Vali takes full advantage of percussion instruments so that greater and greater momentums are stacked to the final climax. Then with such great energy suddenly to release, the mezzo-soprano sings the ecstasy of love by surmounting the whole orchestra.

The serene fourth movement has delicate small chamber ensemble-styled sections, which are not uncommon in Bruckner’s symphonies. The movement is highlighted by a wind chime in E Minor which was specially made for this work from a company in Montana. The quiet atmosphere comes from space of silence between notes, a feature common in oriental music. But Vali also quoted from Wagner and Messiaen to accompany Persian stanza in order to reflect the sensual aspect of love. One of the audiences asked how Wagner’s work, like “Tristan Und Isolde” influenced on his work. He answered that in Wagner the ultimate destination or outlet of love is extinction, rooted from Schopenhauer; while Rumi, the great Persian Sufi poet whose poem he used for the last movement, states love has the power to move the mountain, therefore provides an opposite explanation of love in his new work.

It was amazing for Michelle DeYoung to sing the love song cycle in Persian. DeYoung’s voice has penetrating power that could surmount the orchestra. She is a Wagnerian singer, which based on Vali’s intention can reflect how westerners see love. Although I doubt that no more than 5% of the audience could understand the lyrics, Ms. DeYoung expressed what she felt from the poems in her voice. She smiled most of the time as if she were blessed and falling in love with the work.


It was also Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck’s debut in Pittsburgh. He conducted both Mozart and Tchaikovsky without score. Under his baton, Mozart’s G Minor symphony was balanced but dramatic although the tempo he chose tended to be on the brighter (lighter) side. His Tchaikovsky was under deep consideration. There was magic chemistry with the orchestra. Michael Rusinek explored the gloomy murky psychological effect with lower register of his clarinet; while playing in high register, he played such a sheer beauty with a sense of uneasiness. William Caballero sang the tender melody in the second movement like submissive sighs. I was probably not the only person who was touched by his solo with tears. The transition from reticent croon to sudden hysteria burst-out from the orchestra was harsh and crude with no mercy. It was these seemed-to-be repellent and exaggerated sections that made Tchaikovsky’s music unique. I, standing there to gave long ovation to Mr. Honeck’s debut, began to wonder what the orchestra would sound when legendary Dohnányi come to conduct Tchaikovsky’s No. 6 symphony next week. (Unfortunately, I will never know, since I have to leave out of town for a conference.)

The Being of Love


The Being of Love,
Is separate from any existence,
Love is the mystery
of God’s creation.

Through love,
The soul of the earth
reached the depth of the universe.
Mountains arose,
moving to an ecstatic, celestial dance.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Thoughts after United 93

Even with British director Greengrass’ effort to deliver an objective documentary-style movie, United 93, with its issuing date so close to 911 event, is destined to be a patriot movie.

Objectivity of movies lies on space and time when a history event will be narrated or reevaluated. When Titanic was on the big screen years ago, a love story had to be added to complicate the straight-line plot. In Spielberg's Saving Pirate Ryan, audience was shocked by the battle in Normandy, but the bloodiest scene can hardly bring any memory to anyone. However, with Ben Laden probably still hides somewhere in the mountains of Afghan and the big geographic scars from falls of WTC remained unhealed in lower Manhattan, 911’s replay, no matter how objective it is, only bring back the darkest moment to American. When the menacing music echoes the engine’s humming from airplane in the movie, the word came immediately to my mind was “TERRIBLE”.

After having talked with a few international students, especially a few Turkish, I was surprised to find that, from their point of view, the movie only tells the world that United States is still in its narcissistic stage. Even though I tried to defend the quality of the movie, I was finally persuaded that at least United 93 is a good movie in a bad time.

What Americans call “Freedom of Iraq” is, in words of other non-alliance countries, “invasion and occupation”, period.

Bush, with his rashness to please warlords and his eagerness to get out of mire from domestic issues, initiated the war without thinking the consequences. For him (and probably with Rumsfeld), to eradicate Saddam’s government can undoubtedly lead to democracy and peace in Iraq. Now with the second gulf war goes well into its fourth year accompanied with more than 2,400 death penalty of American solders, US still sees little light in shedding the possibility of getting out of the mud.

It turns out that there is not that much difference between Bush and Ben Laden in terms of their strategy against each other. When Ben Laden sent his villains to the airplane of United 93, what he cared was only to destroy the Capitol: their lives thus would “sacrifice” in a loft way. When Bush sent his troops to Iraq (let’s forget how ridiculous he related Iraq with 911), what he cared was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. How to make his troops safe home was less important. And both failed. Although WTC disappeared forever, Americans, undeterred and knowing who is the enemy they are facing with, stand stronger. Although Bush applauded the removal of Saddam’s Statue, the new order, the promised peace is far from being established.

Bush Administration once stated, at this stage, decisions of troop withdrawal should be made with speculation and discretion. Otherwise all achievement accomplished in Iraq could be futile. Bush’s statement is based on that only US can build up new orders for Iraq or there is no peace unless US troop IS in Iraq. However, the fact is the world would be better off without one-side international police. There is more than one ideology in the world, more than one religion in the world, more than one possible democracy in the world. What fits America best may fail in other countries.

Americans have somehow lost in their mind in defining whom the war is against. Year ago, Americans called the war as “war against terror”. As an article in New Yorker said, terror is just another word of war. War against terror is like war against war, leading to nowhere to end. Then word “terrorists” was changed to “Islamic extremists”. By this definition, Iraqi civilians are not extremists while it is they who are under control and monitor of US troops. Among them, some may praise the help from US, some may stand closer to some radical groups. But most stay in between. Between yes and no, to do and not to do, there is a gray area where peace and unison survives better under the tolerance of no-definite categorization. That’s what Bush should learn.

Among passengers in United 93 on 911, they are fathers, daughters, employees, as ordinary as you can find in any airplane. Those terrorists are human flesh too, not tall, not strong, not unafraid. It is the hatred which has oppressed Muslim so long from western countries that finally sent some extremists to take the one-way plane. It is also the hope of survival that launched the heroic fight-back from passengers. In United 93, there was no gray area.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Heavy Dancing

May 5, 2006 Friday

Yakov Kreizberg/Conductor
Johann Strauss, Jr. Emperor Waltz
Felix Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra
Janine Jansen/Violin


Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra
Johann Strauss On the Beautiful Blue Danube

When I got the program note, I immediately noticed that PSO had changed the title of the concert from “Shall we dance” to “Epic Masterpieces” at the last moment. It is odd to link Johann Strauss and Richard Strauss on one night. It seemed that previously PSO’s marketing strategy is to emphasize on those Waltzes. Its posters featured violinist Janine posing with her graceful slender body slightly curved. However, for some serious classical music lovers (especially those subscribers) the once minority-taste Bruckner and Mahler are giantified and for the same reason, Richard Strauss is more appreciated by connoisseurs than caricatured dance music composers. Thus, it seemed that changing the title to “Epic Masterpieces” added much weight to the perspective view of the concert.

Nevertheless, Strauss’ waltzes were the first few pieces I became familiar with when classical music in China was confused with Richard Clayderman’s piano. For years China’s Central TV station has been broadcasting the annual Vienna New Year’s Concert live. No sooner had my family finally got a colored-TV than I began to get bored of the concert even though it happens only once a year. The freshness fades away after the first few waltzes and even in each waltz the music is filled with several melodies which seem to never grow. Moreover, it has been institutionalized to a social event with special etiquettes. Everything is predictable: music, audience and even who would host the event from TV station.

During the pre-concert tutorial, WQED Classical program producer Jim Cunningham talked about those waltzes with a retiring violist in the orchestra. Although mostly people think them light, a lot of conductors take music seriously including former music director of PSO Mariss Jansons. If it is true that only those Viennese knows the essence of Waltz, then Yakov Kreizberg definitely has some advantages since he holds the post of Principal Guest Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Before the concert, he talked a joke of Leonard Bernstein’s conducting VPO. Every member of VPO claimed to master the technique to play those waltzes and unfortunately they differ from each other. Then Mr. Bernstein took up the rein of the orchestra and declared that it had to be performed only in HIS way. “Although it looks easy,” Mr. Kreizberg said,” they are only easy in that it is easy to play them BAD.”

It turned out that his statement was quite right. The Russian-born conductor seemed to be bothered by the concert’s grand title and treated Emperor Waltz like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. There was something that was going to explode from him but couldn’t find its way to leak out. His torso was tight and his arm movements ungainly. Correspondingly, the orchestra lost its luster in string and exaggerated its brass and percussion. (Actually PSO’s sound has become less and less refined after Mariss Jansons’ leaving and only a few conductors like Peter Oundjian, Charles Dutoit and Andrew Davis have succeeded in meliorating its sound balance.) Yakov Kreizberg succeeded in making dynamics in some sections but failed to attain easy-going rhythms.

Janine Jansen came onto the stage with the overheated atmosphere in the air. Her 1727 Stradivari “Barrere” has exceptional beautiful muscular sound, especially in lower register its sound is abundant and extensive while still keeps sweet tone. The Stradivari Society which funded the extended loan for Janine sets the goal to help artists find the most suitable instruments for them. The Dutch violist is taller than conductor and has beautiful long arms to match the great instrument. Unfortunately, they two didn’t match Mendelssohn’s Violin Concert.

Hanslick once said: “there are four violin concertos in German repertoire (Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch and Mendelssohn). The sweet and most inward belongs to Mendelssohn.” I attended a concert last year in Chicago and listened to Znaider’s performance of the same piece. It was sweet, limpid, meditative, and unmannered with sheer beauty. Yehudi Menuhin’s elegant and vivacious performance with Furtwangler is my favorite. It is as mind-freshening as walking in late spring breeze. However, if the virtuoso in violin is eliminated by Mendelssohn in favor of purity and beauty in the piece, Janine tried to rebuild virtuoso and glamour through her rapacious interpretation. My friend said he liked her performance in that she played precisely and didn’t miss notes even though she played it loud and rush. I can’t agree with it more. However, for me, the unwieldy outward performance, precise and passionate as it was, secretly betrayed Mendelssohn and left me untouched.

The concert was saved in the second half by Richard Strauss “Also sprach Zarathustra” because that’s totally new experience to me. I am not a fan of Richard Strauss and seldom listen to this piece even though I enjoy so much of the first movement thanks to Stanley Kubrick and Karajan’s famous DGG recording. The title borrowed from Nietzsche doesn’t instill philosophical depth into the music; instead Strauss cleverly chose some headings to describe the mood in music. The Dance song reminded me Straussian waltzes in the first half but the orchestration more Wagnerian. Mr. Kreizberg finally found his way to explode and shine and the whole orchestra responded promptly.

A Dinner With Brahms

Besides music itself, there is no better way than food to celebrate Brahms’ 173rd birthday. David Torrey, who decorated his dinning room with Brahms theme, hosted the party for Pittsburgh Frontrunner.

Actually, it was also the birthday (May 7th) of Tchaikovsky. Unfortunately, there are no members who know Russian Cuisine in the running group. On the other hand, Brahms and Tchaikovsky cannot reconcile in music. To Brahms, Tchaikovsky is too sentimental and shallow while to Tchaikovsky, Brahms is too derivative. For Pittsburgh Frontrunners, who to celebrate seems less important than what to eat. Considering Pennsylvania has the largest German descendants in the states, what food to choose or who to honor can be answered easily.

Based on portraits of him, Brahms should be no runner. Luckily, more than 150 years ago, food industry was not plagued by calorie-bombed fry-prone fast food trend. It turned out the food he enjoyed mostly is quite simple and delicious.

A son of a poor family in the poor neighborhood from North Germany, Brahms was humble and never extravagant on food. However, His love of food was well recorded in many biographies and anecdotes. Once he was gravely disappointed when he contracted an illness for which his doctor prescribed a strict diet. "But this evening I am dining with Strauss and we shall have chicken paprika," the composer protested. "Out of the question," the doctor ruled. "Very well, then," Brahms replied. "Please imagine that I did not come to consult you until tomorrow.”

According to Jan Swaffod’s book “Johannes Brahms: A Biography”, after he moved to Vienna after 1862 where he spent the rest of his life, He lived simply in modest lodgings and enjoyed his food by mostly dinning out. One of his favorite restaurants in Vienna is The Red Hedgehod. The menu, which also served me in the party, includes:

Hungarian goulash

Pumpernickel bread


Bavarian Tort

(And of course) German Beer

Other runners also brought some dishes like dissert, salad and sauerkraut. Although the latter food sauerkraut is served in most German restaurants, it is said that sauerkraut actually dates back to c200 B.C. China where the workers building the Great Wall of China ate it as a supplement to their normal diet which consisted mainly of rice. Admittedly, it was made with wine at that time, but nevertheless, it was the origin of today's recipe. Whether Brahms liked it or not is unknown, but one thing for sure, I cannot enjoy it no matter whatever healthy recipe it has. (My dad once frowned his face and commented when eating sauerkraut:” In Germany, vinegar must be free!”)

Dave, who read through Jan’s 700-page biography book of Brahms, found the menu information above and made the main course goulash. The paprika he chose does not have chili in it therefore the taste of goulash is as mild as Brahms. With Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in the air, I promptly finished two dishes of goulash and left no space for any dissert.

To me, Jan’s book is definitely for very serious readers, same as Solomon’s biography of Beethoven. Recently, I begin to read a Beethoven biography written by Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize winner for his book “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt”. Although his book of Teddy Roosevelt is lengthy and detailed so that I haven’t gone through the first few chapters, his book of Beethoven is enticing even for laymen like me. (There are less than 250 pages.) Edmund is non-analytical in music but pedantic for events. His writing style forces him to take a stance from the very beginning even though he keeps an objective tone in narrating Beethoven’s life. He has the capability to weave all those facts together to support his subjective statements so that all the judgments sound natural and unobtrusive unless you are hostile to Beethoven or to the author.

Here is an excerpt that I enjoy. It is about how Beethoven reacted to his deafness.

A distinguishing characteristic of the creative mind is that it can accept reversals of fortune without emotional damage—indeed, process them at once into something rich and strange. Ordinary psyches often react to bad news with a momentary thrill, seeing the world, for once, in jagged clarity, as if lightning has just struck. But then darkness and dysfunction rush in. A mind such as Beethoven’s remains illumined, or sees in the darkness shapes it never saw before, which inspire rather than terrify. This “altered state” (raptus, he would say) makes art of the shapes, while holding in counterpoise “such dualities as intellect and intuition, the conscious and the unconscious, mental health and mental disorder, the conventional and the unconventional, complexity and simplicity.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Emanuel Ax Speaks His Own Beethoven

April 28, 2006 Friday

Sir Andrew Davis Conductor

Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending
Andres Cardenes/Violin
Dmitri Shostakovich Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major


Ludwig Van Beethoven Concerto No. 3 in C Minor for Piano and Orchestra
Emanuel Ax/Piano
Richard Wagner Overture to Tannhauser


the pre-concert tutorial, Emanuel Ax and Sir Andrew Davis played Faure’s “Dolly Suite” together. Both dressed in casual. Sir Davis had a black V-neck knit sweater which loosely covered his big belly. Mr. Ax was wearing a light blue sweater, a pair of old black shoe contrasted with white socks.

Emanuel Ax speaks very softly as if every syllable is rounded like a refined note (He studied French in Columbia University). When he speaks, he is as charming and humorous as modest and even humble at the same time. Faure’s four-hand lovely pieces served more like a warm-up for the coming Beethoven Piano Concerto and definitely there was little rehearsal beforehand. To address that, he said: “Faure’s work is beautiful. But sometimes there are some unusual harmonies. I just want to let you know that, hmm, not all that sounds strange is the mistakes we’ve made.”

Faure’s Dolly Suite is very family oriented with an amicable feeling. The second piece is even titled “Mi-a-ou” as Sir Andrew Davis pointed out, but it was the first piece “Barbeque” that soothed audience and performers. The fact that the work is relatively easy in technique freed both from delving hard into the notes. They skimmed through the program and chose the first take of each movement straightforward. The cordial tempo touches a sense of improvisation, therefore the four-hand work, to some degree doubled the pleasure of both audience and pianists.

Emanuel Ax plays the piano in an unusual expressive way. He can communicate what he feels though his fingers (not from his facial and gesture performance) and as an ardent chamber music player, he “talks” with orchestra instead of “speaks” by himself. He is a pianist of least percussion style in that he strings those long sentences naturally and makes each cantabile.

I am not a fan of his tone color however. In Beethoven’s piano concerto, mostly the sound was well-rounded and polished, smooth but lack of nuance. But in the slow movement, he skimmed the keyboard and sustained the damper pedal half way to make hazy sound. The gossamer texture from this tranquil section was surprisingly sensual.

This echoed to how Mr. Ax and Mr. Davis treated the whole Beethoven’s work. Actually Beethoven gave up concerto style at fairly early stage. He must have sensed that the symphonic style intrinsic to concertos would finally force the form to merge with symphonies. His successors didn’t solve the problem either. Brahms’ two piano concertos are more like symphonies with piano accompany while Chopin put orchestra as mere background support. The third piano concerto was a work of Classicism vs. Romanticism. Although bound in a classical form, Beethoven’s emotional expression is in essence romantic, full of enriched color, surprising harmonies and astonishing energy. Mr. Ax inclined to a more romantic interpretation. His recapitulation was more forceful than expected and his second movement was slower. The balance in Classicism was broken by Sir Davis’ less pushing manner. Mr. Davis let the groove come onto the orchestra and didn’t push it to a vivacious status. As a result, the orchestra, although full of colors, was light-weighted and simply made piano sound more eminent.

Emanuel As returned to the stage and played Chopin as an encore. The encore unfortunately was accompanied by the fireworks from PNC Park after the baseball game. Nevertheless it was so breathable and charming. That made me wondering what is the criterion that who should be included in the “Great Pianists of 20th Century” series. American pianists are well represented by Earl Wild, Byron Janis, Van Cliburn, William Kapell, Stephen Kovacevich, Julius Katchen and Andrew Watts. But Emanuel Ax, the winner of the first Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition is not in the list. It is true that Ax spent more time collaborating with other musicians like Yoyo Ma, Isaac Stern, Peter Serkin in chamber music so that his solo career hasn’t been really big, but some listed pianists haven’t convinced me their superiority either from CD or from their concerts.

To everyone’s surprise, Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams was actually the first PSO’s subscription performance. My friends said it sounded like new age music. (I personally once used it as background music for poem recital.) Shostakovich’s No. 9 Symphony is new to me. I read the program notes and understood the dark, sardonic meaning behind the magic number No. 9. However, I always have difficulty in connecting to Shostakovich’s work from heart. Always does it give me cold feeling under composer’s magnificent technique as if the political background has intrinsically weaved into music thus eliminates any deep personal confession. Interestingly, 2006 is 100th anniversary of Shostakovich’s birthday and his works are now performed throughout the world. There are more his works coming in the next music season and hopefully I can learn more in future.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

CSO Appointed Principle Conductor

Two internationally renowned conductors assume key leadership roles within CSO artistic team while music director search continuesThe CSO Association today announced that it has appointed two of the world’s greatest conductors to titled positions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Eminent Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink has been appointed as the Orchestra’s new Principal Conductor. Renowned French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez—the CSO’s current Helen Regenstein Principal Guest Conductor since 1995—has been named as Conductor Emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Both appointments will be effective at the start of the 2006-2007 season.

“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family is very excited to celebrate both its newly formed relationship with Bernard Haitink and the continuation of its long standing relationship with Pierre Boulez,” said Deborah R. Card, President of the CSO Association. “Our strong commitment to maintaining the high quality of music making for which the CSO is known is further strengthened by the appointment of these two distinguished masters. We are thrilled that these gentlemen have agreed to collaborate with us as key members of the CSO’s artistic team.”

“As our music director search moves into its next phase, we are extremely pleased that Mr. Boulez and Mr. Haitink have accepted these new titled positions with the CSO. It is an honor to have musicians of such an extraordinary caliber working in these capacities,” said William H. Strong, Chairman of the CSO’s Board of Trustees and Chair of the CSO Music Director Search Committee. “Our search committee continues to find great inspiration in the knowledge that the best artists from around the world are so enthusiastic about working with our Orchestra. We remain energized in our music director search to select the best musical leader who is the right match for the CSO. We intend to take the time necessary to make a decision that will best serve our Orchestra and our city in the long term.”

“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra members who serve on the Music Director Search Committee are incredibly pleased with this announcement,” said CSO Assistant Principal Oboe Michael Henoch, on behalf of the musicians of the committee. “We hold Pierre Boulez in great esteem. For many years, he has conducted the CSO with the highest distinction as our Principal Guest Conductor. We are most grateful to him for the loyalty and dedication he has shown the Orchestra in agreeing to fulfill many administrative duties in coming seasons as well. Our admiration for Bernard Haitink has grown since he first conducted the Orchestra in 1976. He has always been a most welcomed guest conductor in ensuing years. Mr. Haitink’s latest residency this past winter confirmed that a very special relationship has developed between him and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We look forward with great anticipation to our future music making with him.”

In his new role as Principal Conductor, Bernard Haitink will lead four to six weeks of CSO performances each season, starting in the 2007-2008 season, including subscription concerts at Symphony Center and tour performances. In addition to his Chicago appearances, Mr. Haitink will lead the Orchestra in future concerts at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, at the prestigious Lucerne Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, and at London’s BBC Proms. His next scheduled dates with the CSO are in October 2006 when he will conduct the CSO, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, and the women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. He will also now return to Chicago in May 2007, leading the Orchestra in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Lutoslawski’s Chain 2 with CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen as soloist, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. Mr. Haitink replaces Manfred Honeck for these performances.

Beginning in 2006-2007, as Conductor Emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez will conduct three to four weeks of CSO performances each season, including touring activities. As previously announced, the CSO will perform three concerts under his direction at Carnegie Hall this December 2006. These will be complemented by future Carnegie dates. Mr. Boulez next returns to the CSO podium in late November/December 2006 for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto with soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a truly great orchestra, with an extraordinary legacy and tradition. I am very proud to be a small part of that tradition, and I’m really looking forward to making music with these wonderful musicians,” said Bernard Haitink. Mr. Haitink made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in March 1976. He returned to Chicago over 20 years later to conduct subscription performances in January 1997. Most recently, Mr. Haitink led the CSO in a highly-successful two-week Chicago residency in March 2006.

“I am not only pleased, but deeply touched about being named Conductor Emeritus of the CSO,” said Mr. Boulez. “My gratitude and joy go far beyond the title itself because it means a lot to me to continue a fruitful collaboration with these wonderful musicians, and a team and organization of the first magnitude.” The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s close relationship with Pierre Boulez began with his CSO conducting debut in 1969. Mr. Boulez returned to the Orchestra Hall podium in 1987, and began annual residencies with the CSO in 1991. He was named Principal Guest Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1995. Since that time, his annual Chicago residencies have been much-anticipated events, exploring landmark works of the 20th century, providing fresh perspectives on established symphonic repertoire, and offering notable premieres of new works. The CSO/Boulez partnership has yielded dozens of commercial recordings, eight of which have been awarded Grammy® Awards.

Mr. Haitink and Mr. Boulez will provide input as to the overall artistic growth of the CSO. Mr. Haitink will lend his expertise and ideas on artistic matters. Beginning in 2006-2007, Mr. Boulez will assume additional behind-the-scenes responsibilities, working with the musicians of the Orchestra and management team, participating in auditions for open positions, and assisting with personnel issues as they arise.

Looking ahead, music making with Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez will serve as the foundation for exciting future CSO seasons. Further reflecting efforts to build strong, continuing relationships with great artists, an outstanding roster of internationally acclaimed guest conductors will join the CSO in 2007-2008, including but not limited to (in alphabetical order): Semyon Bychkov, Myung-Whun Chung, Christoph von Dohnányi, Charles Dutoit, Mark Elder, John Elliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev, Alan Gilbert, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Riccardo Muti, Kent Nagano, Antonio Pappano, David Robertson, Mstislav Rostropovich, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Michael Tilson Thomas. In addition to tours with Mr. Boulez and Mr. Haitink, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will embark on a two-week European tour under the direction of Riccardo Muti in fall 2007. Full details for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2007-2008 season, including artists, concert programs, and tour itineraries will be announced in February 2007.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Yundi in Jordan Hall

I went to Bean town for 110th Boston marathon, but luckily caught Yundi’s annual US tour in Jordan Hall. In a super hot (all sold-out) concert and a super hot music hall (no air-conditioning), Yundi gave a super hot performance of Mozart, Schumann, Liszt and Chopin.

Yundi is called a pianist in progress. After winning first award in Chopin International Piano Competition in 2000, he studied with Arie Vardi at the Hannover Conservatory of Music. Since he only tours US once a year, American audience can hardly listen to him in person.

Yundi’s recitals haven’t been an exploration to broaden his repertoire. Instead, he only plays what has been recorded before. So far, his recital program is limited to only a few composers, but his latest released CD shows a great leap into maturity. And as usual, the concert night features almost the same program as the CD.

Mozart, Schumann, Liszt and Chopin, to put works from different composers together at one night provides a great challenge to the recitalist. Pletnev’s Carnegie Hall debut in November of 2000 gave an even more dazzling performance ranging from Bach, Beethoven to Chopin, Rachmaninov and Scriabin. But Pletnev is never labeled as specialist in some composer or some period. He is universal in that his Liszt is dramatic, his Chopin refined and thoughtful and his Tchaikovsky virtuoso and creative. But as the youngest winner of Chopin Competition, Yundi is nevertheless regarded as a Chopin master in the next generation. He has been somehow restrained by this fame and for the first few years, his DGG recording had only been limited to Chopin and Liszt before his Vienna recital was released. And the Jordan Hall night showed his potential to Bostonians.

Jordan Hall was almost all wood inside with a high dome ceiling. It is said the music hall secretly lost its charming acoustic sound stage after the overhaul in 1995. But my concern was somewhere else on the night because Jordan Hall was packed with Asian faces, mostly Chinese, or more precisely, Chinese parents with their children. Unfortunately those kids are too young to sit quietly for two hours; they released their energy in applaud relentlessly during the break between each movement. That definitely affected Yundi’s Mozart.

Yundi played the first movement in a flexible breadth backboned with his understanding in structure. His tone was beautiful as usual and his clarity not scarified by the tempo. Unfortunately he somehow over-controlled the piece regarding to expression and volume. Unlike Horowitz, he seldom let notes pop out like fresh spring from no where and every transition was well sensed and expected in advance. It is true that at the age of 83, Horowitz played Mozart more youthful and fresh than Yundi of 24, but the comparison is a little bit unfair since it can be stated that Horowitz’s legendary performance is more youthful than that of anyone. Yundi’s “Andante Cantabile” was a little bit rush at first, but gradually breathed into gentleness and tranquility. He was poetic, refined and natural. It was some moment that I will not forget for years.

Schumann’s “Canaval” suddenly brought the audience into a more theatrical music world and that was necessary considering the packed audience in sweltering hall. Instead of creating a kaleidoscopic array of colors and characters, Yundi played it with little break as if there was strong evidence of internal connection between pieces. He built the power not through sections of notes, but through several pieces. Therefore when thrilling volume and tempo came to apex, it felt unobtrusive and unmannered.

Liszt’s sonata in B minor has been used as a yardstick to every pianist. There are numerous champions in history for the repertoire from Alfred Brendel to Vladimir Horowitz and it has been played in endless ways by those artists with strong personalities like Argerich or Arrau. It is really hard to speak something new for any next-generation pianist. Yundi, in his booklet of the CD, says he feels deep about the piece and sees a whole life happening in this one movement (Like most, he played the sonata without pause) piece. Yundi played those menacing, even violent motives with grand gesture. He tackled those cascades of double octaves in such a furious-speed, hammering way that one was forced to give in by his mighty power. Li made a few wrong notes near the end, but the technique was almost impeccable and no doubt the performance is almost in release-ready perfection. One may disagree with his performance of those middle sections with haunting beautiful melodies; maybe a little bit more coherence was needed to strengthen the architectural power, but again performance of such a demanding work under such an adverse condition (I suspected the temperature was well above 75 degree later) is marvelous and superb.

Chopin's ''Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante" was Yundi’s most favorable and classic performance ever. With elegance, poetry, dynamics and passion, he won the jury in Chopin piano Competition and also showed how his style would be as he matures. If in future that there is another series called “Greatest Pianists in 21st Century”, then Yundi’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante will no doubt be included in his first volume.

People always try to compare Yundi with Langlang. It is true that they share some similarity: both Chinese, both talented, both with spectacular techniques. But it is for sure that they will mature into different types of pianists. I disagree with Fou Ts’ong comments that Langlang is superior to Yundi because they almost play in different music horizon. Langlang is sensational even sensual, outward-expressive, Yundi controlled and refined, thought-inward. To some extent, Yundi is more like Zimmerman who is a romantic perfectionist with formidable precision, while Langlang enjoyed more in live communication under stage light. (That’s why although Langlang’ CDs have only mediocre reviews his concert tour is as hot as ever.) If I have to choose between Yundi with Langlang for one concert, I will choose Langlang because I know there will always be some surprising improvisational moment in Langlang’s concert while Yundi’s concert is as good as his CD. But Yundi’s CD is always worth waiting no matter how long it could be.

Luckily I don’t have to face the challenge of choosing one concert between two. Langlang is schedule to come back to Pittsburgh at season’s finale for Chopin’s No. 1 piano concerto.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A Night of British

Although Sir Edward Elgar dedicated his violin concerto to Kreisler, it is Yuhudi Menuhin who introduced the contemporary work to the public at the age of 16. In his biography, he describes Elgar’s music as “English” as the flexibility within restraint of a weather which knows no exaggerations except in changeableness. And the response to it of a people able to distinguish infinite degrees of gray in the sky and of green in the landscape never takes either to unseemly extreme.

Half a century ago, Menuhin played the violin concerto under the baton of William Steinberg in the Syria Mosque. At that time outside English only US would welcome Elgar’s music. Today British music still never dominates concert halls but Elgar’s works have been regarded as classic.

Leonard Slatkin stepped in when British conductor Richard Hickox couldn’t make his trip to Pittsburgh, accompanied by superstar Gil Shaham. It was a night of two American artists for two English composers. Surprisingly, it was a feast of sound: warm, spirited for Elgar and imaginative, spectacular for Holst.

I have never quite understood the structure of Elgar’s violin concerto. It is said that Elgar always used separate sheets of manuscript paper so that he could shuffle them at will to compare the piece’s various sections. By the time of recapitulation in the third movement, I’ve usually lost my attention. Mildness is the best way to describe how Slatkin treated the work. The orchestra sound was passionate but not aggressive or vocalic. It had a feeling of wet air from the coast carried from ever-rolling surges of waves. Gil Shaham possessed an attitude of independency and objectivity, just lingering over the orchestra. His tonality was mild and romantic, but never sentimental or too-restrained. The collaboration between the violin and the orchestra seemed seamless in that orchestra was never obtrusive even in assertive section while violinist listened to the conductor attentively for every nuance in volume, phrasing and mood.

Holst’s “The Planets” has definitely been overplayed. Most people enjoyed some famous sections (Part of Jupiter has been used for lots of sports events) in the way of listening to pop music so that it has become commercial music played by an enlarged orchestra. On the other hand, “The Planets” has been undervalued or under-appreciated since seldom do people listen to it in a whole. Slatkin explored the extremity in loudness in PSO for the first movement “Mars”. He made a super crescendo from loud to deafening and the power of the orchestra could blow off the roof of Heinz Hall. After wind section showed its delicacy in Venus, Slatkin made surprising Jupiter interpretation by unique phrasing. Under his baton, it did not has a march tempo but instead carried light unevenness like a weighty wheel spinning and springing on slightly rugged road. When the singing from Women of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh floated away in a mystery atmosphere, I suddenly realized what was missing in those dissembled music play: Although each movement is completely different in character, they all share a sense of timeless space, of boundless air. Only by listening to it as a whole can one fully enjoy the craftsmanship in Holst’s magic piece. That makes any attempt to use “The Planets” as Hi-Fi audition shallow and ridiculous.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Boston Marathon 2006

As a rookie for the oldest marathon in the world, I felt small and nervous so that in the Guess_a_thon game in Boston Frontrunner party, I wrote down my projected time: 5 hours. I knew that the injury, which prevented me from running more than 40 minutes pain free on Saturday, would play a wild card on the race day (Monday). Training for a marathon has never been easy, but training in winter is extremely hard. I’ve missed so many key workouts for the two months leading to taper period; only averaged about 20-30 miles a week but still ended in physical therapy.

Essentially, Boston Marathon is a race of egoism. Most people run it just because they’ve qualified. In the expo, there was a giant board which showed all bib numbers and left space for runners to fill in their reasons to run. Mostly, the reasons are: “Because it is Boston” or “Because I can”. It was not a good time to ask a less-motivated runner like me to think of reasons to run: there were many reasons I could come up with but none became important when finishing was as unsure as the weather of springtime in New England. I told Eric to think one for me, and he wrote down in a humble font size: Because Minimax cannot do it. (Note: Minimax is my Siamese cat of one and half years old.)

Race day weather couldn’t be better: 50-55 degree and cloudy. The drive to Hopkinton seemed endless (more than 45 minutes). Once I jumped off the shuttle, I saw a boy sitting in front of a table with a sign: Lemonade 50 cents. Hopkinton was as quiet as a battlefield before a war. The seriousness on faces of runners clouded the small town and made me chilling. I knew it was not appropriate even to speak candidly that to finish was my goal. Here everyone looked like a sub-three-hour runner except those sub-three-hour runners who looked like world record holders.

There was another three hours waiting in the runners’ village. One of the former champions from Africa spoke on stage: “Remember, your half point is not 13.1. It starts from mile 18.” I wish I could have remembered that or have read the article about the course of Boston from Runner’s World magazine one year ago. But what’s the point? I even didn’t have a plan unless you call “run until you cannot” a plan.

Boston course is notoriously tricky in that downhills cause damage so early that runners won’t feel it until killer chain (four uphills in a row) looms out after mile 16.5. I tried to hold my pace in the beginning when so many people dashed out like riding a rollercoaster. The first 10K was fairly easy and I could manage a 7:15 pace. Through half point, I began to feel the fatigue in my legs and gradually slowed down to 7:30 pace. Actually I wasn’t expecting that I could run so fast. It was a miracle that the troubled IT Band and right hip didn’t bother me through the course.

Just after mile 16 (Newton Fall), I encountered the first hill. It was steep enough for me to use it as an excuse for a short walk. I crossed the bridge which is the only one of the two places (the other one is an underpass in Back Bay) where there were no spectators since they were not allowed to stand there. Unfortunately, my walk became more and more frequent as the race went by. My pace slowed down to 8 minutes but I still felt quite strong. Then the course suddenly turns right and the third hill abruptly appeared in front of me. A black guy immediately started to walk and I unwillingly joined him. A woman passed me shouting: keep pounding, power walking, keep pounding, power walking! In fact the third hill was not that bad except quite long (almost one mile), I switched between walking and running several times and proudly managed to run it under 8:30 pace. Just before I could get enough rest from flat, another guy ran by with painful expression: “Go ahead, it IS heartbreak!” I knew the last hill was not long, even not very steep. But having conquered three consecutive uphills, my legs got really tired. It was the time to regroup the runners and unfortunately I was one of those that slowed down tremendously.

According to BAA website, Boston Marathon is the second largest single day sport event second to Superbowl in the world and the estimated 500,000 spectators treated runners like superbowl stars. Through the course, I must have seen all people living in New England. They shouted my name, handed me water, orange, banana, iced sponge. But if there is such a group of spectators that really helped me, it should be awarded to people on Heartbreak hill. I was deafened and touched. My legs didn’t stop at all for the last hill.

No sooner had I claimed Heartbreak than my quadriceps suddenly squeezed together like super-heavy melting iron. I knew immediately something must go wrong with them. I stopped and tried to rub them. People shouted at me: “Don’t stop. All downhills from now on!” Yeah, that’s the beginning of a nightmare when both of legs cramps.

I had to take any chance to stop and massage my legs while not disappointing the crowd. Whenever there was someone handed me water, I took it even though I didn’t drink it. From then on, I changed from run with walk to walk with run. At Boston College, some Chinese girls shouted my name together; I tried to run heroically to pass them but must look like a clown because of my distorted form. Along Beacon Ave, I knew 3 hour 30 minutes was not possible since I was still slowing down. As the bronze medal female winner from Japan later said: Where is the heartbreak? It seems every hill is very tough. The course map didn’t reflect the elevation change for the last four miles, but my leg muscle now could detect any nuance on the ground. I looked miserable and the idea of quitting appeared several times. I asked a guy for water and was told that all he had was beer. Nevertheless I grabbed the beer to pour onto legs. To win their laugh, I drank the rest of beer and saluted to him. All people around began to shout my name like welcoming a hero.

At mile 25, Eric spotted me when I was running like mud. Every step became a torture while the CITGO sign from finish line seemed to be always just one mile away. The last half mile was elevated but sad at the same time. It was overwhelming feeling to be able to muster the last strength from legs to run a few blocks. My final time (3:37) was not really bad, but finishing it in such an ugly way was something I had not expected. In short, I finished the first half in 1 hour 36 minutes while the second half took the toll of more than 2 hours. The last 4 miles costs almost one hour. I have never thought that I could run as slow as 13 minutes per mile before!

I struggled to get my medal and refused to get on a wheelchair even though I couldn’t walk straight afterwards. Most of the runners around me had the bib number around 8000 which means about 3500 people passed me in the race. Ironically, I didn’t really encounter the wall because I still had energy in tank, but my legs were totally dead due to lack of training.

Sitting here with soreness in legs and bittersweet memory in head, I remember at the start line, a guy carrying a digital camera took pictures of everything he could. He explained that this was his first Boston and would be last one. He had every reason to just enjoy it. Before heading to Boston, I told Eric that I probably would only try Boston once since its noon-start and course elevation change are not good for breaking personal record. But having finished my Boston debut in such a way, I am eager to train for another Boston. Because, I know from my heart, what Heartbreak hill really broke was only my legs, not my heart. I can and will conquer those hills in a victorious way. And I owe all those fantastic spectators who tried so hard to cheer me up when I was sadly walking head down.

As it says, there is no worse form of failure than failure to try. I did try Boston and claimed the medal. And failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. Next time, I will do it better. I have marked the date of next year’s Boston Marathon down in the calendar.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Song of the Earth (Stanza in both English and Chinese)

悲歌行 李白





Tale of Sorrowful Song --- Li Bai

Sorrow comes; sorrow comes
Host has wine; pour not yet
Listen to my singing a sorrowful song
Sorrow approaches, neither sob nor laugh
This world - nobody knows my heart
You have several measures of wine,
I have three-foot lute
Lute playing complements happy drinking
One drink equals thousand taels of gold

Sorrow comes; sorrow comes
Everlasting as the heaven and the earth
Yet roomful of gold and jade shall not last
Hundred years of wealth amounts to what?
Everyone lives and dies only once
Lonely ape sits, howls the moon over the grave
Must empty this cup of wine in one gulp.

效古秋夜长 钱起 

Imitation of Old Poem: Long Autumn Night ---Qian Qi

Autumn sky, jade-like frost drifting
Northerly wind carries lotus fragrance
With love, weaving till the lonely lamp fades
Wipe tears, fond memory, long cold night
Eaves edge, blue clouds pure like water
Rising moon, roosting birds caw; geese soar.
Whose young wife is weaving love birds on her loom?
Deeply concealed by silk curtain and inlaid screen
Listening to falling leaves by the white jade window
Pity the woman, chilled and alone without company

宴陶家亭子 李白

曲巷幽人宅 高门大士家
池开照胆镜 林吐破颜花
绿水藏春日 青轩秘晚霞
若闻弦管妙 金谷不能夸

Banquet at Tao’s Family --- Li Bai

PavilionWinding path; private residence in quietude
Tall gate; great scholar’s home
Open pond mirrors reflection
Protruding forest trees intersperse with colorful flowers
Turquoise water hides the Spring sun
Green room camouflages evening amber
If strings and woodwinds are delightful to hear,
Unmatched by “golden valley”

采莲曲 李白

Lotus-plucking Song --- Li Bai
By Ruo-Ye* Brook, lotus-picking girls
Laughter and chatters among lotus flowers,
Sun shines on the painted beauty – clear in the water
Breeze lifts fragrant sleeves in the air
At the bank, who are the wandering young men
Gathering in threes and fives by the willows
Purple horses neighing pass, flowers fallen
Witnessing this, troubled and lament in vain


春日醉起言志 李白

Feelings upon Awakening from Drunkenness on a Spring Day --- Li bai

Earthly life resembles big dream
Pointless slaving oneself
Hence drunken all day
Crouching, disheartened, at the front pillar
Stare before the courtyard upon awakening
A bird sings among the flowersAsk: what season is this?
The nightingale speaks of Spring breezes
Moved, one desires to sigh
Facing the wine, pour for oneself
Singing loudly, awaiting the moon
Song ends, feelings forgotten

Staying at Teacher’s Mountain Retreat, Awaiting a Friend in Vain ---Meng Haoran

Dusk sun passes the western peak
Valleys have suddenly darkened
moon above pine trees chills the night
wind, brook, filled with clear sound
woodcutters are almost all home
birds, in mist, are roosting
The man expected to stay the night has not yet come
lonely lute awaits at rattan trail

送别 王维

Farewell---Wang Wei

Dismount horse, drink your wine
Ask you: "Where to?"
You say: "At odds with the world
Return to rest by the South Hill."
Please go. Ask no more.
Endless, the white clouds.

山中送别 王维
山中相送罢, 日暮掩柴扉。
春草明年绿, 王孙归不归。

Farewell in the Mountain ---Wang Wei
Bid each other farewell in the mountain
Closing wooden gate at dusk
Spring grass green again next year
Will the honored friend return?