Friday, March 31, 2006

Music Dim Sum

Two Quartets in Two Nights

Part 1 Music Dim Sum From Ying Quartet

Ying Quartet’s performance was titled “A Musical Dim Sum”, a referral not only to the dim sum food provided after the performance but also to the music pieces of the night.

The event was not originally listed on Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society season schedule and didn’t attract too many gray-haired subscribers. In fact, had not the real dim sum been provided, the musical dim sum may not have found audience to serve. Once the performance was over, the food line took over the whole lobby and everyone seemed to be talking about gourmet immediately. Because of the poor publicity, most of the tickets were given away to the students, especially Chinese students, who eventually enjoyed both forms of dim sum in the end.

Ying Quartet is formed by four siblings in a family. The three brothers and a sister were born and raised in Chicago and now teaching at Eastman (University of Rochester). David Ying, the cellist, is the eldest. When talking in the stage, he constantly waved his body as if he were performing. But once playing the cello he is motionless with his eyes half shut and his eyebrows frowning intensely. Phillip, the violist, is easy-going and took over the job of explaining music program to the audience. He talked softly, with disarming smiles, “Most of the quartets will only feature two or three works for one night, like Mozart or Beethoven since each of the work is about half an hour. But tonight we’re going to give a music dim sum, which in Chinese, means ‘Zao Cha’. Instead of listening to only a few big works, we are going to taste a little bit of everything and enjoy the treat of a diverse sampling of music from our own culture heritage. If you look at your program, I am sorry, I should say MENU here (LAUGH)…” His first introduction eased the audience and more importantly set the tone of the night: It was a night of small bite, a night of something new or even bizarre. When people try new food, they tend to focus on food itself: color, smell, taste or even the recipe, and who cook it becomes unimportant. Their goal of the night was to cross the boundaries of the traditional classics and lead the audience into new forms of music without showing off themselves.

The only female member, Janet didn’t talk at all during the event. Her calm white complexion stood out among men in black but belied her ardor in music and the fact that she is fascinated by martial art. Tim, the first violin is passionate when playing. His big dark scar under his left chin shows his years’ training. Even though all three brothers wore traditional Chinese jackets in black, Tim, with his jacket open and semi-long hair, looked more rebellious than the others.

The Ying siblings began their career as an ensemble in 1992 in the farm town of Jesup, Iowa, a town of population of 2000. When I asked Phillip why they chose such a small town to begin their career, he said that was their first job, sponsored by Chamber Music America Rural Residency Program. Through years, they have given performance for audience of six to 600. In 2005, their collaboration with Turtle Island won Grammy Award of Best Classical Crossover Album. I haven’t had the chance to listen to that album, but Phillip told me that it was a combination of Classical and Jazz and they like to try them both

It was surprising that the event was not held in conventional Carnegie Music Hall, but instead in KAPA, a local art school. Such a small space increased the intimacy and communication between the players and the audience. Every one sat close enough to see how the members felt the music in a state of perceiving and engaging other than mere listening. The program featured works by Chinese composers who reside in US in the first half and ended with Debussy’s quartet in the second half. Except Tan Dun, I am not familiar with any other Chinese composers. But the introduction of each piece by the members before playing made listening experience much easier.

The first piece, Chen Yi’s “Shuo” brought Chinese folk music into quartet format. “Shuo” in Chinese means initiate and represents the first day of every month in the lunar calendar. Chinese music features a lot of percussion and non-harmonic elements, which is unique and innovative in terms of string quartet format. There are two elements in the piece. One mimics mountain songs by three instruments weaving into different layers while the other (mostly the first violin or the viola) singing above like a song penetrating the sky above layers of delicate mountains. Another depicts the fierce dancing in southwest China. Suddenly all members patted on the instrument. The primitive sound was short and restrained, with a sense of ardent dance rhythm, followed by boisterous theme with continuous downbeat. My friend almost burst out laughing when he heard the playful slapping sound, but in the end it was the mountain song with pentatonic melody lines that connected the audience (mostly Chinese) with the music.

It was sad that people remember Tan Dun only by the film score of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. His “Eight Colors for String Quartets” was written in 1987 when he went to New York. The so-called colors are abstract in title but rich in form and tonality. In fact, each short piece is not named after a color but by different titles. Ying Quartets chose three of them: “Drum and Gong”, “Cloudiness” and “Red Sona”. Tan Dun’s innovation shows its greatness with respect to dynamic timbres. I heard that he even invented his own instrument to make some special sound for the music. In this piece, the audience can feel the combination of Chinese Culture and western atonality with dramatic forms and structures. “Drum and Gong” shows the elements of Peking Opera which is one of the key music elements in many of Tan Dun’s works. In fact, had not a local Peking opera troupe been drowned in Cultural Revolution period, Tan Dun, as one of the few string players in the whole Hunan Province, could not have had the chance to be liberated from his agricultural life. The unique melody in Peking Opera, which can be easily identified by most of the Chinese, expresses a touch of western atonality. Like traditional Peking Opera, the quartet is loud and “noisy”, like a rough painting by the fighting instruments. The second piece “Cloudiness” which is hinted by varied intensity of notes from time to time goes to another extremity with the long whisper and sudden plummeted melody lines. David said that’s his favorite piece, which also became mine too. The cello first felt weightless, floating in the air, and then suddenly dropped to the bottom with a sharp brake. It was a piece full of space, indicating the essential “emptiness” principle of Buddhism.

Zhou Long’s “Song of Ch’in” is a piece constructed with immense Chinese cultural backbone. It is based on Li Zong-yuan’s poem “Old Fisherman”.

The Old fisherman moors at sun, and the man is gone;
Only the song reverberates in the green of the hills and waters.
Look back, the horizon seems to fall into the stream;
And clouds float aimlessly over the cliffs.


渔 翁 夜 傍 西 岩 宿,
晓 汲 清 湘 燃 楚 竹。
烟 销 日 出 不 见 人,
欸 乃 一 声 山 水 绿。
回 看 天 际 下 中 流,
岩 上 无 心 云 相 逐。

In Chinese aesthetic concepts, less is more. The main theme of “Song of Ch’in” is quiet and sparse. Ch’in, although with seven long string, is a plucked instrument. Actually none of the traditional Chinese instruments use the same mechanism as string instruments in western music. The timbre changes because of the lack of constant vibration on the string. Ch’in, in particular, makes every note a decrescendo. Ying Quartet tackled this issue by control of contrast and vibrato. Seldom can you hear some gigantic chord by four members here, but each individual played harmonically in terms of pastoral atmosphere.

Chen Yi’s “The Talking Fiddle” was the last piece in the first half. Although it is a commissioned work for Ying Quartet, Chen Yi actually started the composing from a dumpling party. In one of Kansas City Chinese New Year party, Chen Yi heard people playing Erhu to imitate human’s voice. In particular, “Happy New Year” (Xin Nian Hao) was so vividly performed that the greeting won lots of laugh. Inspired by Erhu’s expressiveness, Chen Yi decided to write a string quartet with “Happy New Year” as the music germinal idea.

In the quartet, viola declares the greeting of “Xin Nian Hao”. When the first time the theme appeared, almost all Chinese smiled for the funny pronunciation from Phillip’s western instrument, and immediately the audience took the task of recognizing it in any metamorphic form.

It was such a great experience to be able to perceive the transformation of the theme because of my ethnic identity. Since the music cell is extremely short, the theme doesn’t possess any definite form and is transformed bravely into different emotional feelings. It is sensed as greeting at first; later on as different instruments takes a success of the theme, it becomes poignant or even ferocious sometimes. The incompleteness of the three-word-theme makes the variations as wild as possible; but the essential nature is well kept and each recapitalization grabs the attention and gratitude of being apprehended.

The key to the theme phrase is actually the last expressive word “Hao” or “Happy” in English. Hao takes the third tone in Chinese pronunciation and down beat in music. It is a drawling tone falling then rising represented by the shape of “v”. The turn-around point resembles a halfway stop sign followed by a humorous elongated rising note.

As the title indicated, the music is a talking fiddle with respect to rhythm and color, only occasionally hinted by the theme. Polyrhythm is used to confuse the communication between instruments so that at times the music sounds like four persons chatting in their own paces without listening to each other. The traditional Chinese instrument techniques such as bowing, plucking, blowing and percussion are all used to add rich color. The result is quite an intriguing piece that even the members expressed a sense of satisfaction in the performance.

Debussy’s Quartet in G minor was written in the same period as his “L’Apres-midi d’un faune”. Phillip told me that he felt that there is a strong connection between Debussy and Chinese music. “They are both so colorful, so rich.” What amazed me is that Debussy’s fond of pentatonic music creates something totally different from Chinese music in the atmosphere. It is languid and free of form, clustered as for notes but remains a sense of flow as if it is irresistibly going to develop in the way it is written no matter how refreshing, how sparkling some fragment could be.

Ying Quartet didn’t give a much different interpretation, although they tended to augment climax while subdue leisure material. It could be an effect of an aftermath from the intense Chinese music in the first half.

In most quartets, the first violin is the soul. Although the tempo may be decided by four members, the first violin has the most chances to express himself or sometimes show off. However, in Ying Quartet, it was the viola that popped out and made the most impression. Possibly it was because of the quality of the instrument; possibly it was the effect of the selected program (or menu). The viola, with its unique sound, mostly lead the program in the first half, in particularly in Chen Yi’s “The Talking Fiddle”, but the quartet was finally balanced in the second half for Debussy.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Star Power

Richter said: “People either make music, or they don’t.” It is true that when listening to the great Russian pianist, I have always being lead to his inner world. However in my mind, music exists in a condition of being, not becoming.

And the night with Sibelius’ Violin Concerto is a night of music of being.

The concert was titled “Star Power” which was justified by attracting so many Koreans in the town who, even though never show up in Heinz Hall before, just came to see Sarah Chang, the brilliant American born violinist. Heinz Hall was so packed that some even sat in the cramped last row.

Every prodigy has such an embarrassing period when he tries to keep his publicity and get rid of his identity as a talented child at the same time. With her first performance at the age of 8 with Zubin Mehta (How many times this conductor has been in the position of collaborating with a promising star?), Sarah, now at age of 26, has still been remembered by her marvelous playing a violin of ¼ of real size.

I always have a mix feeling of those prodigy musicians. Techniques may come fast but musicality develops slowly. For Sarah Chang, who knew how to play Sibelius at the age of 6 and may have played it so many times, how can she still appreciate and explore it after numerous repetitions? Sarah once said “when other kids played outside, I was practicing”. That’s about the real life of most of prodigies. While those talented like Midori come across some melodramatic public crisis when entering their young adulthood, Sarah Chang is almost immune and lives a glamorous life as she matures.

Sarah, wearing a skirt of delicate green with pink strips, showed her maturity of womanhood. She nevertheless possesses powerful muscle in her arms. She has a round flat face. Her eyes are high and widely separated. When she bowed to the audience, all Koreans were looking at her aghast.

Sarah is famous for her boldness and passion. Unlike Midori, another prodigy who plays with deliberation and calculation, she doesn’t micro-manage the piece and instills her playing with spontaneity and inspiration. She said she hates analyzing stuff, that explained enough that she plays music in a more intuitive way. For her, music is more about being than becoming. It is true that most of the musicians may excel in some type of repertoire, however her statement means it is more important for her to find the right piece to sparkle her talent. I love her interpretation of Cesar Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. When the cyclic theme reappears in the third movement, its pianissimo sounds a recall from past, miraculous and touching.

However, there was definitely a character discrepancy between Sibelius and Sarah Chang. Sibelius composes with his instinct of darkness and depth, his fondness of mystery of forests and water. He is one of the very few composers whose music can be emotional stirring but calm and weighty at the same time. Sarah Chang was dauntless in this fiddler-dominating-all piece: She thrilled the bow hard enough to speed the tempo, chose different tones to color sections and competed the whole orchestra in loudness. For a while in the passionate first movement, I was worried that Sarah was going to destroy her beloved 300-year-old violin. There were some calm and noble sections too in this movement, but Sarah couldn’t refrain her bursting emotion and passed them in a harsh timbre.

It was the third movement that showed Sarah’s breathtaking skills. It was called “polonaise for polar bears. Under Sarah’s bow, the dance of polar bears was elegance and energetic. When she finished the last sentence, she held her violin in the air and smiled immediately.

After re-listening to performance by Oistrakh and Heifetz, I realized that how difficult it was to play the concerto in the concert. Heifetz’ EMI recording in 1935 is still my favorite with fire burst under control. And his unique silky cold metallic tonality fits the mix of ice and steel feeling of Silelius perfectly. But Sarah, on the night called “Star Power”, preferred overwhelm sensation to controlled emotion, and left the audience satisfied and shocked, but unmoved.

Maybe Richter was right.

Friday, March 17, 2006

New Reading of Cesar Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano

When Cesar Franck finally obtained his French citizenship in 1886, the year when he wrote his sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano, which was one of my favorite, he was 64, only four years before his death. Some critics say the sonata by the French composer has the spirit directly descendent from great German-Austrian tradition with its standard structure, composer’s favorite cyclic form and the canon in the last movement. However, the music, like other French masterpieces (for both music and painting), is crafted, chiseled and polished in such an exquisite level that any attempt to conjecture or deliver philosophical thoughts is doomed to fail.

I haven’t listened to Franck’s work that much besides his Symphony in D Minor and his sonata. The composer, in my mind, never grips or bursts his emotion. His music with undulating melody lines is relaxed, sometimes serious sometimes humorous. And that is exactly how the pair of Kyung-Wha Chung and Radu Lupu makes their performance a classical legend. Kyung-Wha Chung opts for smoothness at the cost of dynamics, echoed by poetic playing from Lupu. Decca’s recording, as usual with its unique extraordinarily deep sound, adds mystery and obscurity to the performance. The final movement by the duo is spectacular, competent and playful at the same time. It feels like Chung is running away excitingly, but is always caught up by Lupu with equal ardor.

I had never thought I would seek another interpretation until I listened to Perlman & Argerich’s live performance from radio. In the 3rd movement, Perlman plays in such a rich and oily tone that it totally overturned my opinion about the serenity of the piece. If Chung is restrained but refined and somewhat detached, Perlman’s violin is sweet and sensual, therefore more expressive.

That experience pushed me to reexamine my CD. This time I was a little disappointed. I am not a big fan of Radu Lupu. He plays everything too soft. It is true as a “pianist poet” one should not shout, but mostly his light sound is closer to stale and sloppy than the acclaimed dreamy and sensitive and in particular his performance here is tamed and bland, even worse is muddled by Decca’s famous spacious sound stage.

I ended my shopping adventure with my final unexpected prey: A duo by Sarah Chang and Lars Vogt. I want to know the interpretation from musicians at my age. Lars Vogt was going to give Mozart’s piano concerto No. 23 on Mar 17 and Sarah Chang will bring the fierce powerful Sibelius the week after: I have the great odd of getting both musicians’ names signed on the single CD.

After listening to it several times, I have to appreciate the young musicians’ courage to give such a fresh perspective view to the over-played piece. After all, they will be compared with so many pairs of masters: Besides Chung and Lupu, there are Oistrakh &Richter, Grumiaux & Sebok, and formidable Heifetz. But to my surprise, Chang and Vogt excell in their breathable phrasing, vigorous emotion and wide dynamics. It is amazing to know that even for a piece that has been played for so many times, there is still room for a new reading.

First, just for sound quality sake, there is no reason not to support young artists. EMI’s recording captures every subtlety and make the sound warm and broad. This, on the other hand, provides some challenge to the audio system and the listeners. Sarah Chang’s volume ranges from faintly detectable to loud, it is easy to get tired if attention has not been fully paid or the audio system cannot span the range.

Famous for her boldness, Sarah may not compete with Perlman’s richness or Chung’s refinement. Instead, she calibrates her phrasing with great flexibility (almost to a micro level) and interweaves hushed beauty and transcendent ecstasy together. At first it is hard for me to accept the dynamic range after being used to Chung’s serenity. However, the dynamics (the change of tonality, tempo and volume), although surprising (or more precisely unusual) in itself, never really surprises me when the time of such change comes: Sarah’s dynamics justifies its own validity in the whole context level.

It is actually Lars Vogt that make the performance unique and awe-inspiring. I hadn’t heard of Lars before I looked at the schedule of the music season. Lars began his career after winning second place in Leed’s Piano Competition. (Interestingly, Lupu once was the top winner of the Competition) He was appointed as “Pianist In Residence” by BPO to revise piano chamber program and collaborate with Simon Rattle. In his just released Mozart piano sonatas CD, he shows vigorous rhythms through an emphasized left hand– though not as much as what Glenn Gould did. On the concert night, he played Mozart’s No. 23 piano concert with nuance, passion and energy. He swayed his body following the orchestra’s singing in the first movement and burst in the last Allegretto, but sat still when playing the darker, melancholy Adagio. Most importantly he listened to the orchestra carefully and communicated with the conductor with eagerness. Lars, although a German, has a very high cheek and a big nose on a Childish face. Sometimes his face looks lumpy from side. But when he looks straight, it’s hard not to notice his disarming smile. There are only two pictures of him in CD pamphlet but Sarah has four. As for cover design, it is Sarah Chang’s show. But in the performance, he shines when the piano is supposed to take the charge and contributes his warmth and depth.

There is magic intimacy between the pair. They are so well communicated that each compliments the other and neither steals the show when the other sings the melody. In the beautiful third movement, Lars plays the opening with intensity, followed by Sarah’s first theme. When Sarah Chang suddenly lowers her volume, she reduces the vibrato at the same time. The violin whispered in a fizzling voice floating in the air with gossamer texture that was flimsy but uneven. When the second theme appears, Lars Vogt gives his best accompany with lyricism and warmth (at 4 Minutes). He sings smoothly with elegance and clarity, but never overshadows the violin part. Afterwards Sarah makes even thinner tonality that can almost break in breeze . It feels like the dim reflection of moon shattering in the water. From 4:40, Lars gives a restrained crescendo that mimic the opening of the movement before Sarah repeats the first theme with implacable synchronization. What a great recapitulation at around 5 minutes! When the main theme of the first movement comes back, Sarah resumes her lush tone like a mellowing echo from the past, a little bit sweet but sorrow.

"Oh. I did spend a lot of time.” Lars Vogt answered in very fluent English when I asked him the secret of intimacy in the duo during the intermission. That seemed to remind him his rehearsal and recording; he didn’t sign the CD immediately but looked at the cover instead. When I told him that Sarah Chang was actually going to give a concert in a week, he smiled and said “Please say hello to Sarah for me”.

That made my day.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

End Of Time

Quartet for the End of Time,这部20世纪精致、深刻而优美的作品诞生在德国Gorlitz的Stalad VIIIA战俘集中营,1941年1月那个寒风凛冽的夜晚。1940年德军入侵法国时,Messiaen也投身于战争之中,虽然不能再全身心的投入创作,却还是在当年完成了作品的大部分。而今,他身为阶下之囚,却迎来了作品的首演,参透人生苦味。27号兵营没有任何的取暖设备,德军的军官与囚犯一起,在瑟瑟发抖中欣赏了这部作品。

曲谱中有一段题献,来自于启示录中关于大灾难的描写: In homage to the Angel of the Apocalypse, who lifts his hand toward heaven, saying, ‘There shall be time no longer.’ 然而,这也许是世间最温柔的关于灾难的描写。在Mahler的Resurrection(第二)或者Berlioz的安魂曲中,七只小号冲天嗥叫,如同末日的哀鸣。这里,只有幽雅的舞曲,韵律层层折皱,自如转换,却不遵从任何常规的节拍。在“耶酥重现最后审判”的即兴段落之间, 是恒定的平静---或者更具体说的---两首颂歌。每一首都是大幅段落的弦乐,钢琴的和声掩映其中;每一首都是逐步堆砌出辉煌的高潮,却又随即隐遁于无声之中。第一首被标名为“无限的缓慢”,后一首则是“轻柔的,极乐的”。除此之外,文字的阐释苍白无力,惟有音乐自在。

在 “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messaien Quartet” 一书中,单簧管演奏家Rebecca Rischin的研究生动地揭示了关于1941年首演的许多疑团。Messiaen自己曾经自己叙述到,当时,他和他的三个朋友在最为困难的环境下,在几乎散架的乐器上---包括一把只有三根弦的大提琴---赢得了5000个早已人情淡漠的士兵的心。而事实上,书中写到,那些乐器虽然低劣,却足以应付演奏;同时,拥挤的听众也只有区区300人。在Rischi看来,这部四重奏的成功不该只被看做个人的胜利或者归功于音乐的天赋使然;事实上,没有Stalag VIIIA战俘和守卫的合作,就不会有作品的诞生。

首演中的其他几个音乐家的命运同样精彩。喜爱讥讽和幽默的大提琴家Pasquier 本可以拥有一个辉煌的独奏生涯。演奏单簧管的Aooka,活泼的往往不可琢磨,一如作品中的那段单簧管独奏“众鸟的深渊”。他是爱尔及利亚出生的犹太人,最终凭借他近乎疯狂的勇气—还有必不可少的运气成分---成功地在战争中生存了下来。在几次试图逃亡之后,1941年的4月,在他被从一个集中营转移到另一个的路途中,他在高速飞驰的列车上从装满牛群的车厢中跳了下去,而他的单簧管被他紧紧抱在掖下。身为小提琴家的Le Boulaire阴郁消沉,最终放弃了演奏生涯。在新浪潮的电影运动中,他更名为Jean Lanier,并出现在诸如”The Soft Skin”,”去年在马里昂巴德”的影片之中。当Rebecca Rischin为了写书而采访他的时候,她觉察到老人尽管尖刻、苦闷,但一旦提及四重奏,他立即神采飞扬。按照他自己的话说:那是我生命中的珍珠,而且,我深知,她永远不会属于别人。

比起这些演奏家,Karl-Albert Bruill,也许并不为人所知。这个集中营的军官,热爱音乐,在作品的创作其间,如同天使一般守卫着Messiaen。在他看来,能有机会近如此距离的接触这位伟大的作曲家是人生中的幸事。他不但提供了铅笔、橡皮和稿纸,甚至安排Messiaen在一间空敞的兵营之中以免他人打扰,而一名守卫就站在门口挡住任何不速之客。



回到作品本身。1941年的Messiaen对End of Time的意义有着切身的体会。斗寸囚室之中,他不再愿意听到时间的流驶,因为在硝烟战火中,他所听到已经足够的了。作品中,他将节奏拉长、缩短、停顿,然后又按照对称的方式折回反复。另一方面,End of Time意味着逃脱于历史之外,纵身遁入隐匿的天堂。

也许将这部四重奏与红磨坊式的表演相联系并不恰当。但就Messiaen本人,他的快乐流连于世俗和神圣之间:他热爱上帝是因为上帝授与众生的感官愉悦,甚至肉欲的快乐。熟读圣经的信徒也同样知道:世俗的爱和神圣的爱并不对立,他们只是区分于处在不同的层面。作品中,最后的一首颂歌被称做“Avec Amour”。 于是,在作品的最后,Messiaen的天启和历史或者灾难毫无关系,她只是记载了爆发在不同寻常的激情中,一个寻常人灵魂的重生。这也许可以解释为什么时至今日,作品仍然慑人心魄,一如在1941年那个冰冷的夜晚般。

Eugene Onegin Vs. Tchaikovsky, in the whirl of love affair

1831年,普希金写下了Eugene Onegin, 长篇的诗体小说,叙述年轻女子无可救药的爱上了世故的年长者的故事。 Tchaikovsky深深喜爱这个故事,却一直犹豫着是否可以把它搬上舞台:毕竟,那些优美的文字有着它自己的韵律,音乐在不同的层面构建张力、矛盾与高潮;而将二者严谨周密的联系绝非易事。

1877年春,Tchaikovsky决定接受这个挑战。在他写给朋友的信中,他提到:伟大的Onegin。。。。 最终也许会舞台效果差强人意,但诗句的丰富,故事中的人性和主题的纯朴足以弥补其他一切的不足!



我知道,正像您在前一封信中规劝的, 我应该开始控制自己的情感了. 尽管我现在不能看见你,可毕竟你我就在一座城市:唯有想到这里,我的心灵才稍稍宽慰. 我知道,也许一个月之后,甚至更短,你可能离开这里. 只有上天才知道我是否有缘还能得以见到你----因为我没有打算留在Moscow. 但, 无论我在哪里,我深知,我不会忘记你,也不会失去对你的爱恋:永远不会.

就在当天,Antonina又写了一封信, 警告她的偶像:
不要试图摆脱我对你的迷恋,那只会是纯粹浪费你的时间. 我不能没有你而存活,也许,过不了多久, 我会选择自杀.





Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Today's treat

To be honest, I didn't really enjoy Cheesecake Factory. Food? Ok. Price? Not that great. And most importantly I have to spend 7 dollars for a piece of their "famous" cheesecake which is packed with calories and sugar. (I think I should be paid to eat that even though it is delicious.)

I follow my 90-10 rule for food: 90% of time I eat for health, 10% of time I eat for taste. Even in that 10% of time I am still cautious. Some people think enjoying food is important and should not be sacrificed while I think pampering your stomach too much will cause other parts of your body rebel and moreover I am no gourmet.

But I did get my treat. In the bookstore at South Side, I found this attractive CD. Any piece played by Sviatoslav Richter casts magic spell and this time I was conquered before I even had the chance to listen to it.

The orchestra’s part is edgy and rough, sometimes lame and sloppy, but what a brilliant performance by Richter! I need more time to fully digest it.

Revisit Wilhelm Kempff

Wilhelm Kempff plays the piano light-touched as for style but deep-filled as for thoughts. It was after years that I began to appreciate his clear and crispy performance.

Now when I come back to his recording again and again, I am totally sold by his music and have to ask myself why on earth I ignored such a great pianist in the past! I used to hate that he plays everything too loud and too clear. But ironically, now I think the piano works become quieter and quieter under his fingers.

In my mind, no one plays Brahms’ late piano pieces (Fantasy and Intermezzi ) better than Kempff. He left two recordings for the same repertoire, one in DG and one in DECCA; however they sounds consistent except DECCA’s version bears a bit more a touch of effacing intimacy. He instilled the music with such spiritual calmness that music is more beautiful poems of self-revelation than piano sound. Compared with Gilels’s performance which is filled with contrast, tension and emotion, Kempff’s playing is light and plain, however deep in thoughts and understanding. At some points, after some incredible space of silence, the music goes so light but deep simultaneously that piano sound disappears and dissolve in his immense musicality.

His grace climaxed at the slow movement of Hammerklavier of Beethoven in which he played extremely soft but never as sentimental as Gilels. He didn’t slow down like what a lot of nowadays pianists do and make the whole movement breathable. The pulse, almost flexible has its own Beethovenian backbone. He also turned away all those lousy “condiment” and whispered the “nocturnal sigh” in a heavenly voice. He himself described that the recapitulation of the second theme shining through like a distant star piercing luminous clouds and that is the way he did.

Some of my favorite Kempff’s recording:

Beethoven Complete Piano Concertos with Kempen, BPO, DG 435 744-2
Brahms Fantasien, Intermezzi and Klaverstucke, DG 437 249-2
Beethoven Late Piano Sonatas, DG 453 010-2

And here is an old article in Chinese.






第二首A小调间奏曲的静谧祥和也许会让老柴汗颜。三连音的音型里透着徐纡委婉的气质,细微而入情。中段的甜美曾被Clara Schumann比作夜莺的歌唱。E大调间奏曲具有叙事曲的幻想性质,腼腆的忧郁娓娓到来,"寄至味于淡泊"。它常将我带到一种空虚的状态,大音若隐,恍惚中忘却钢琴的存在。






晚年的Brahms早已功成名就,虽然始终没有象Wagner那样显赫一时,却在爱乐的维也纳被奉为大师。他的口袋里装满了散步时款待涌簇而来的孩子们的糖果,而同时仍然倾心于研究源自Bach开始的古典大师的作品:对位、变奏和奏鸣曲式。 没有必要从对音乐的发展角度来考虑一个智者晚年的这些独白。



想起一段文字:种种热闹的吹嘘和喝彩后,终是虚声浮名。在万象喧嚣的背后,在一切语言消失之处,隐藏着世界的秘密。世界无边无际,有声的世界只是其中很小的一部分。 Brahms的随想曲属于那无声的世界。许多个夜晚,一个年轻的生命在感动和敬意的沉默中颤栗了。

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Story Behind the Plum Painting

I am not a serious antique shopper. For me, most of the so-called antique in the antique stores here are so much like trash that I would probably pay someone if he could move them away!

But Eric is and he really enjoys it. It is interesting to see that something someone values so much may be discarded by another. In most of our antique shopping trip, what I am spotting is mainly something I have never seen before or mainly books which are not bad as for the price.

The antique shopping trip to Canonsburg was on a warm winter Sunday afternoon. We’ve stopped at almost every antique store there and decided to finish the last one which was in the same block with the other two we’d just visited. The scale of antique stores in Canonsburg outweighs the size of the town because “it is cheaper to open a store here.”

The store looked tasteless with a special bargain room open on Sunday. The owner, a typical suburban American woman in her middle age greeted us from her chair surrounded by all different stuff.

It almost turned out to be another futile excursion (we hadn’t got anything except tired legs) before I spotted a Chinese paining of plum.

It was damaged: The right corner of the scroll was broken and that was the first thing I noticed. Being an impatient non-serious antique shopper, I usually only show my interest in those “intact”. But after Eric joined me, I was attracted by the poem:

寒依疏影萧萧竹, 春掩残香漠漠苔。

I didn’t know who wrote the poem and I was not sure whether I read it correctly from the handwriting. Actually even worse, I haven’t read any poem or book in Chinese since I came to US. But the subtlety and delicacy of the Chinese words brought out my memory of the happy time spent in reading poems of Tang Dynasty. Those words by being seen and being pronounced, suddenly became magic and I even thought I could smell the subdued fragrance from plum.

“It was a 1950’s work and that’s all I know about it.” The owner told me. Then I volunteered to translate the poem into English, which I definitely don’t have the skill but luckily am better than anyone else in the room.

“Winter accompanies your lonely shadow echoing the shuddering bamboos, spring tries in vain to hide the remains of your light fragrant.”

After carefully examining the scroll, I noticed that there was some note written on the back of the bottom scroll. It read “To Du Mei at the 1960’s QingBei Medical School’s class reunion party on April 7, 1975”. Well, it was not a 1950’s work, but definitely older than I!

The painting features plum in the top half part and a rooster at the bottom. Eric pointed out there was such a discrepancy between the two parts that he felt it was like painted by two different people. I was still fascinated by the fact that my aweful translation skill had been appreciated by an unknown antique store owner, but tried to agree with him to make the conservation going.

“It was dedicated to a girl called Du Mei. And in Chinese, Mei has the same pronunciation of plum. Maybe there is something here.” I told Eric.

Eric was curious too about the painter’s dedication note and decided to give an offer. The owner, who appreciated my effort of translation and my correction on the date, accepted the low offer (only half of the original price) immediately and that made our day!

When we got home, Eric immediately fixed the broken scroll at the bottom and hung it on the wall where no cat can touch.

Later, I found out that Qing Bei Medical School is not in China, but in South Korea. No wonder that the scroll material has Korean words on it.

How did a painting by a Chinese medical school student in South Korea finally find its home in Pittsburgh? No one could explain. And is Du Mei a Korean girl or Chinese? Is there any love story behind it? Is there a happy ending? I sent an email to that medical school and didn’t get any reply. I guess it is weird for the school staff to read an email from someone who wants to know the love story of an International student 40 years ago. Probably I can never answer those questions. But the painting hangs there with its decency and respect, enjoying my crutiny and scorning my effort to discover its own story.

Meet the Artist in the lobby的闲话 (1)


1.Sarah Chang

美国出生的Sarah Chang的演出引来了好多韩国人(平时很少见到),他们像过节一样排着队等着签名,偏偏多数拿的是免费的Program Booklet。女大十八变,Sarah Chang早就不是那个神童丫头了,她比唱片的照片看去要粗壮很多。我没有她的唱片,也没好意思拿着Program Booklet找她签名,就在旁边耐心的看着。说实话,那个网上我挺失望的,Sarah Chang琴声的动态非常大,Boldness应该说是她的特色吧。不过也许是我坐在楼上的缘故,许多细节都被淹没在乐队之中了。

Sarah下个月会再来,我正好听了她和Lars Vogt合作的Franck Violin Sonata.Lars太出彩了,几个重要的钢琴段落弹得温而不火,热情而细腻,Sarah的演奏感觉确实是钻研过的,但在个别段落上(尤其是些出彩的旋律上)她的琴声稍稍过了一些。也许就像CD的设计那样(4张照片有两张是Sarah的portrait),这是Sarah的唱片。

即使我不喜欢朗朗,他的Tchaikovsky带来的轰动(或者说骚动)是空前的。排队的时候,我对排在我后面的人说:”exciting, right?”他说“He can play anything!”本来我想跟一句”but not respect to the note”,但终究还是没有说。


“Can you sign you name in Chinese AND English?”
“I ONLY SIGN IN CHINESE.”朗朗说的这么自信,不由得让人钦佩。

Sunday, March 12, 2006


咏梅 高启

琼枝只合在瑶台, 谁向江南处处栽。

雪满山中高士卧, 月明林下美人来。

寒依疏影萧萧竹, 春掩残香漠漠苔。

自去何郎无好咏, 东风愁绝几回开。

An Ode to Plum

Plum, your jade-like branches should only belong to the sacred temple on the moon, who moved you here in the south as mundane as others everywhere?

In snow-covered mountains, you lie there as elegantly as a wise man. On full moon night come from forest you like a fair lady.

Winter accompanies your lonely shadow echoing the shuddering bamboos, spring tries in vain to hide the remains of your light fragrant.

After Poet He has gone, no qualified ode has been written for you, you still stand there years after years, withering in the melancholy early spring wind.


春江花月夜 张若虚      



















Friday, March 10, 2006

Defamiliarization of Mozart and Greatest French symphony "La Mer"

For me, most of Mozart’s orchestra works sound too boring, too naïve, too predictable.

However, Nikolaj Znaider seemed not to be contended with the sweet tonality and tonight he defamiliarlized Mozart by adding temper, wit and free spirit. He dominated the tempo so that conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier pampered fiddler’s great ambition of inserting Beethoven’s bones into Mozart.

Znaider’s inspirational rubato, at some point, went so unexpectedly that music couldn’t flow because of overloaded passion and expression. His 1704’s Stradivarius also seemed to cry for a more expressive and dynamic piece to show off his magnificent grand sound. Nevertheless, Mozart has never sounded so exciting like tonight. Under Znaider’s bow, the candy coated boyish prodigy is filled with abundant character yet profound soul.

Even though it is regarded as a pictorial piece with Debussy himself requesting Hokusai’sThe hollow of the wave off Kanagawa” as the cover design, La Mer is indeed French in the sense of extreme delicacy and fantastic chromaticism.

I have never failed to enjoy Debussy’s La Mer Mer and have always been sparked with his beloved pentatonic scales symbolizing oriental elegancy. However, anyone who has been used to Celibidache’s conducting of Debussy will find every conductor else is playing the music like hip-hop. In Celibidache’s EMI recording, “From Dawn to Noon on the sea” becomes a philosophical essay. The silence before the principle key D flat major is established, almost 10 seconds long, arises such agitation and eagerness that the first sunray breaking the sky from the cellos feels like rich liquor pouring onto one’s head.

Tortelier made music flow with undulating emotions, but the texture had never been tainted. Each layer, each shade was so vividly carried out by palpable sound waves that at the climax the chromatic shrieks made me breathless. It is only about 23 minutes long, but it is vast and broad, just as the title indicated.

BTW, in the intermission, Znaider told me that his Stradivarius "ex-Liebig" violin is about 2.5 to 3 million dollars. It is said it is the ice age or the weather that makes the Strdivarius so special. The trees grew much slower because of the low temperature and less sunlight 300 hundreds years ago, thus violin was made of better wood. What I believe is that each Stradivarius has a soul. (Piano doesn't have a soul, it is too industrail, too mechanic, too machine.) And through generations each owner has poured more humanity into it each time it is played.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

俄狄浦斯情结 (old)



Brahms暮年阅读了索福克勒斯的俄狄浦斯,并写下了第四交响曲。我从不怀疑这部恢弘壮大的交响曲中庄严的悲剧色彩。尤其是末乐章,这个拥有32个变奏的恰空舞曲由拙朴虬劲的 8个小节的THOROUGHBASS开始,衍生幻灭至尾,惟有浩浩汤汤的管弦乐的洪流如同无边落木般萧萧而下,仿佛涤荡去所有个人的偏执、狭隘、私欲和杂念后纯净的肃穆和庄严。

Oidipous并非是十全十美的圣人,他暴躁而偏狭,却永远保持着高贵的精神。在弑父淫母的神喻最终揭晓时,他选择的是自剜双目后的自我放逐,流亡于旷野和荒山之间,忍受着肉体和精神的双重折磨,这远胜于后世戏剧中看似高大而凄凉的死亡。 “他这样悲叹的时候,屡次举起金别针朝着眼睛狠狠刺去;每刺一下,那血红的眼珠里流出的血便打湿了他的胡子,那血不是一滴滴的滴,而是许多黑的血点,雹子般一齐下降。”这样的惩罚是怎样的残酷啊。


第一是几乎遍布所有希腊悲剧的“分裂忠诚”。在希腊哲学中,苏格拉底如同索福克勒斯笔下的俄狄浦斯,遵循和执行着神的旨意。当苏格拉底被审判时,他称自己是一只令国家讨厌的牛虻,他内心中的声音一直在指引他,它禁止,但从不命令他去做什么。苏格拉底拒绝越狱逃跑,告诉他的朋友们死亡不是恐惧和罪恶,死亡或像无梦的睡眠,或像另一世界的生活,在那里 他可以不受打扰地与欧尔非或是荷马交谈,而他们肯定是不会杀死一个提问者的。在临死前的最后几个小时,他还在和朋友及信徒讨论永生不朽的问题。










The Mystery of Mozart (For 250th Anniversity of Mozart Birthday)

Mozart是一个谜,他的天才确实只能用其名字中间的Amedeus(上帝的宠儿)来表达。即使是那些早期的作品中(比如他的第一、二小提琴协奏曲和钢琴奏鸣曲)也仍然可以感受那种本真的灵动和美妙。但如果翻开他的书信集(虽然我们可以从中获益,我仍然认为这是一种侵犯人权的行为),可以清楚地知道Mozart是Bi Sexual Orientation。前一段时间《音乐爱好者》曾刊登了些他的书信,但有关这些可能有争议或引起轰动的信笺还是被遴除了。






Weixian Danwei and the dangers that lurk in Pittsburgh’s Neighborhoods

For most Chinese who live in Pittsburgh, the concept of “neighborhood” is the first thing they have to learn about cultural gaps. Believe me or not, people from countries behind the “red iron curtain” know more about western life than Americans know about their culture. So when I strolled in Oakland on the early morning of Aug 8, 2002, the first day I came to Pittsburgh, I was not surprised to see homeless and white-collar walking along the street with ugly graffiti. However, before the jet lag hit me, my Chinese friend warned me not to walk too far in South Oakland because it was not a safe neighborhood. “Weixian”, the word he used in describing the neighborhood, means “dangerous”. He spoke the word with his eyebrows furrowing, indicating there were potential taped-off, blood-soaked crime scenes around.

Cities in China do not have neighborhoods as they are known in the United States. I grew up from a mid-size industrial city with a population of about one million. (Yeah, it is still mid-sized.) The geology of my hometown is categorized into three groups: within walking distance, within bicycling distance (not applicable if you are bicycling fan) or accessible by bus. Anywhere further is a suburban area.

More importantly, traditional Chinese are bound by where they work. Even though job changing becomes more frequent in big cities, most of Chinese in middle or small cities still rely on their companies. “Danwei”, the Chinese word for company, has the verbatim meaning of “unit”, psychologically indicating confining people inside it. Danwei not only pays your salary, pension, and health insurance but also pays for your apartment. Usually Danwei builds apartment buildings for its employees, which are located nearby. Therefore, Danwei is Chinese “neighborhood”, like the hospital where both of my parents work for the past thirty years. Not accidentally, their workmates are their neighbors, and community board is usually controlled by Danwei. Through the years, the apartment buildings are occupied by the same people-- who work for the same Danwei. Even though these days Chinese tend not to contact with their neighbors often, the familiarity makes them feel safe.

After the conversation with my Chinese friend, I was soon surprised by the fact that so many houses in south Oakland were for rent. The fear and uneasiness stemmed abruptly from the unknown street where I stood, with a row of “For Rent” signs. I comforted myself that all these houses had been transformed ubiquitously into a big dormitory building by the dominating Danwei here: the University of Pittsburgh. And I soon came to familiarize myself by the crowdedness of Forbes Ave. The scene of swarms of people walking around, similar to that in China, made me relax and alleviated my temporary nostalgia. With no trouble at all, I found my first apartment in south Oakland in a cute townhouse, facing a Kara-Okay bar.

Nothing frightening happened to me during my staying at my first apartment, except every Wednesday night I had to use earplugs to ward off the crying competition from the bar. Occasionally, when I was asked where I lived by my Chinese friends, I had to speak out “South Oakland” mumbling under my breath -- as if it was something honorable.

I moved to Squirrel Hill, an upright neighborhood which sprawls southeast several miles from Oakland in the second year. However, I had been missing the convenience of South Oakland until one day I read the news about three consecutive robberies in one night-- blocks away from where I lived before. It was a bomb to South Oakland real estate business: It became a lack-lustrous neighborhood to all foreign students from then on. Tenants moved out, private owners sold houses, and more “For Rent” signs hang these days.

Foreigners care more about safety than the native residents. Being unfamiliar with the cities, they take more precaution (sometimes more than necessary) to protect themselves in selecting where to live, who to make friends with, and what to say. The daily TV news also contributes to their discretion since it seems to favor arsons, gunshots, robberies and car accidents to other peaceful but maybe trivial reports. None of my Chinese friends live in South Oakland now. Most of them live in Shadyside, a yuppie expensive place or Squirrel Hill where I lived before.

It was not until I moved to Northside that I began to think how people evaluate the safeness of the neighborhoods. From my point of view, Northside is a unique neighborhood packed with attractions such as stadiums, and museums, beautiful historical houses (Mexican War Streets area) and ugly junk buildings which have been deserted for years. Even in Mexican War Streets area, if you walk several blocks away from those half-million-dollar houses or Mattress Factory Museum, you may encounter a row of totally deserted houses that could be categorized as an unsafe sub-neighborhood.

People are never rational when they have to consider odds of encountering gunshots or robberies. You won’t like Newton, MA at all if you were robbed there even if it is listed as the safest city in US by “City Crime Rankings” (11th Edition, ISBN 0-7401-0935-9). Based on 2002 Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Reports, Pittsburgh has 19737 crimes in 2002, with 47 murders, 1616 robberies, 1983 aggravated assaults, 3298 burglaries and 10108 thefts. All the data shows that the city crime level is worse than the average, but within a reasonable range. After all, Pittsburgh has been established with the reputation of a safe and affordable city for years.

However, people go into panic when they hear about the crimes in their neighborhood no matter what the average crime level the city has. Few care to use statistical data when evaluating safety level of one’s neighborhood. If asked when is the last crime happened in your neighborhood and how many thefts happened there last year, people tend to remember the most recent crime well and only one recent crime may totally change the impression of a neighborhood. Particularly concerns of safety can be intensified by a report of crime if memory of last crime has faded away for a while, hence distort one’s feeling about his or her neighborhood.

My neighborhood, Northside, compared to other neighborhoods is relative bigger and therefore are reported more frequently with crime scenes. (It used to be another city called Allegheny before it was merged with city of Pittsburgh.) According to Sperling’s Best Places (, it has a violent crime risk index (zip code 15212) of 7 and a property crime risk index of 7, both of which are higher than the national average level. (The national averages are 3 and 3.2 respectively.) South Oakland has the risk indices of 7 and 6 respectively. However, the yuppie Shadyside has the same level as Northiside, and Squirrel Hill is actually even worse with a violent crime risk of 8. In short, the reality is my Chinese friends are not living in a more secure place than I am even though they pay much more for their apartments.

Actually most neighborhoods within Pittsburgh have the same safety level. Often feared neighborhoods like the Hill District actually have lower crime rates than the places suburban mom’s in Plymouth Caravan’s wouldn’t think twice before visiting. Crimes can easily plague the inner city and its precincts thanks to the convenience of modern transportation. In my view, the Pittsburgh or American concept of “neighborhood” makes people provincial and easily trapped in a naïve way of evaluating their neighborhood safety.

I walk around Northside often, taking pictures and enjoying the grand view of city skyline. Having lived three different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, I do enjoy the unique variety Northside provides. Being Chinese, it’s much easier to accept the fact that no neighborhood citywide is substantially safer. For me, Pittsburgh, the city I live, is the “Danwei” to which I am currently tightly bounded.





自我看来,组织者首先进行了遴选,把相当知名的乐团罗列了出来。但这些乐团的名气来自于过去,今天的乐团早已不是唱片中的那个。柏林爱乐的乐手平均年龄比Rolling Stone小了整整一个年代。除非观众真的有机会可以去现场听到这么多候选的乐队的演奏,否则这样的评选完全就是一场被组织者操纵的数字游戏。大家所选的不是所谓十大,而是被旁人提及的次数。



Wednesday, March 08, 2006


It is always freshing to encounter a friend who you haven't seen for a long time, even the friend is acutally just online and what you've seen is just his blog.

I found Ellos & Ted and Youlun's blog and tried to keep reading it. Looking at their photos reminds me the trip to NYC and Princeton long time ago. Suddenly, every detail: the sound of train, the flyer of B&H in the gust, the ever-glowing broadway and the sweet warm conversation in Phily.

Youlun said that people treated squirill like mices in Princeton when I told him I was visited by a cutie on the first morning I woke up in the campus. It was quiet, not a bit like Oakland, Pittsburgh where tons of students party all the time. He was not in the good mood then, and was wrapping up for his move to Illinois.

It was cold around New Year's day and the first feeling when I stepped out of Penn Station was the relentless wind in Manhattan. I rushed into B&H to buy a digital camera which I am still using now. Youlun said he'd never spend that amount of money except in the car, but I had no buyer's remorse and took full advantage of the new camera which I didn't know how to use and ventured in the grid-shaped Mahattan streets.

There was one day I came back from Mahattan and tried to call Youlun's cell. Unfortunately his cell didn't work well in his dorm building. Everyone left the station and it was 10PM already. Then the next train came, and the next next. There was a taxi but I didn't know the destination. Suddenly all the fanfare, the glamour of New York City retreated in the dark sky and only wind whistled in the rural Princeton. Everything I enjoyed during the day disappeared. I realized that I was not a rural person, and I would rather take a train back to Mahattan if I were destined to stay up all night.

Fortunately Youlun got my message. Later, when he drove his car westward, he'd planned to stop at Pittsburgh for rest. But he changed his mind and I didn't get the chance of hosting him.

Now Youlun is in California, with no more corn field. Maybe as a person from Shanghai, he is not unlike me.