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?

Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra hasn’t performed Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” or Song of the Earth (SOE) for almost 30 years. Sir Andrew Davis said that was actually William Steinberg’s favorite piece. If fact, Mr. Steinberg chose SOE in his last farewell concert and the music ended at the melancholy singing from mezzo-soprano of “forever… forever.”

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra must remember such a moving moment (at least some of the members have gone through Steinberg, Previn, Maazel and Jansons regimes), and the night of Song of the Earth reminded me the livelong dream of contemplation about death and life.

When Mahler speaks in a soft voice, the music is celestial and otherworldly. The motive from the sighing harp echoed by the demurring brass and haunting percussion in the last movement “Parting” consummates all the feelings expressed in the previous movements. Sir Andrew Davis brought out such nuance and delicacy from PSO that the audience stayed silent long after the last music note.

The tenor Jason Collins faced some difficult jobs in singing against roaring orchestra. Mostly I couldn’t hear him clearly due to my seat position. The third movement “Of Youth” showed his vigorous voice and nimble tonality, but Mahler’s SOE is a symphony highlighting mezzo-soprano (or baritone in Bernstein’s case). Jane Irwin won 1991 Decca Kathleen Ferrier Prize and any mezzo-soprano has to face with the legend historical performance by Ferrier. Luckily Jane has a better sound stage and her voice is soft and smooth, with a sense of stillness lingering around, just perfect for decaying stark atmosphere in “The Lonely One in Autumn”. Her singing of the “Parting” was unforgettable. It was not deep sorrow feeling in the end. She instilled the sweet sorrow, as if it resulted from a combination of resignation of inevitable death and a willingness of accepting death as part of life cycle. In the end, she sang the last “Ewig” with tender smiles, and I did wish at that moment it would mean “forever… forever”.

The concert proves what I have believed about Mahler. Mahler can hardly be experienced in canned music format. The dynamic, the scale, the orchestration can only be fully enjoyed live. PSO’s Mahler No. 5 almost blew me out of the seat two years ago. Then Barenboim’s last conducting of Mahler in Chicago showed restrains and balance for the same piece. Ferrier’s parting under Bruno Walter’s baton missed the misty echoing from orchestra in DECCA’s CD, it was PSO and Jane Irwin (mezzo soprano) that brought me back to realize the greatness of the masterwork.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Lenny's Mahler

It always amazes me to realize the importance of interpreters, something unique for music appreciation only. Mahler composed his works in great detail and instructions so that there is almost no middle land between keeping strictly to music notes and straying far away. Stravinsky prefers the former and hates unwanted personalization from interpreters, but unfortunately the greatness of the music lies in the infinite ways of exploration, understanding and recreation. For me, Boulez and Bernstein show two extremes with regard to Mahler’s world. It is the latter composer who approached Mahler with more Mahlerian sensitivity and thereby conquered me.

I don’t have his last complete Mahler cycle, but own a few. The Symphony No. 6 is acquired yesterday, which I haven’t had the chance to listen that much. It is already a wonder for Lenny Bernstein to conduct Mahler at his age when these live recordings were made, not to mention this cycle is the most dynamic, most vigorous and most emotional one. In my mind, although he may have distorted more notes than other conductors, no one, in terms of music character, is closer than he to Mahler.

I take extreme freedom to use Mahlerian which is hard to explain in a few sentences. It can be fragile and brittle, boisterous and rough, heroic and lofty. No matter what feeling it is, it bursts out without restraint. From my point of view, music from Mozart is so wholesome and chaste that it cannot be the final resort for peace and serenity. It just sounds too beautiful to be real. Mahler murmurs, shouts, contends, retreats and cries. His music embodies a heroic statue with all human weakness, thus listening experience becomes mutual consoles, with equality.

Mahlerian concept is the key to accept Bernstein’s boldness. There is no such too much emotion involved to perform extremely emotional music; and there is no overloading conducting for overloading music. It is a final outlet and a retreat so that no strong feelings should be inhibited. Lenny makes the Allegro of the first movement of Resurrection into a heroic trudge, he opts a much faster tempo for funeral march in Titan which sounds humorous and idiosyncratic. He chooses a boy to substitute a soprano in the finale of 4th symphony, and No. 6 Symphony, he blows down the audience by strokes of “hammer” with no mercy.

Also, an old article written three years ago.

Mahler说,我的时代终会到来。上个世纪末全世界的乐团都在拥簇Mahler,连上交也请来了Kaplan首演了Resurrection。一时间, Mahler的音乐中的深刻在现代社会中找到了最好的注解,他对于音乐中的心理因素的洞悉以及他对严肃哲学命题的思索使得他的交响曲成为许多知识分子的心灵慰藉。


前天晚上,朋友到我家里拿去几张昆曲的VCD,他即将毕业,已经找到一份在DC的工作。我们聆听着Mozart的小提琴奏鸣曲,Grumiaux的琴下Mozart简单纯朴。他听着听着,竟似失了魂一般,然后喃喃的诉说起来自己过去两年的艰难:连续两次被lay off,2001年就搬了5次家,从加州一路到康州,尽是焦急地等待。为了保持留美的身份,他终于决定自费在名校读一个好一些的专业,卖了车,贷了款,借了债,高昂的学费迫使他必须尽可能的争取在一年修完,于是一个学期要上六门课;即使这样,低迷的经济依然让他担心未来的工作。而今,似乎两年的郁闷阴霾都会化去,心中宽慰舒坦了许多,却仍因为过去的沉重而感到些许的谨慎和忧虑。“你听,Mozart好像不食人间烟火一样,从来没有过忧愁,可是。。。“





Sunday, April 02, 2006

My Max

My favorite Max picture is this:

I think personality is individual. Some people claim Siamese are very social, but my MiniMax is one-man-cat. But he does share the virtue of Siamese cats: his voice. He is never shamed of expressing himself loud and clear. No matter it sounds grudging, begging or happy, it has the power of demanding all your attentions.

Only one occasion does he not speak out: At night, when he wants to get into the quilt, he knocks on my face, siliently.

I should have recorded his pooh noise, that's the most funny voice I've ever heard from a cat.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Takacs Quartet

Two Quartets in Two Nights
Part 2 Takacs Quartet

I entered Carnegie Music Hall with awe and eagerness because I knew that it would be a night to be remembered. Now in their fourth decades, Takacs Quartet (pronounced like ta-ka-sh) has become a legend, whose name itself can sell out without doubt. From the first note of Mozart to the last sound of Brahms, the performance was, as one music review in the local paper said, edge-of-seat. That’s probably the best I can give as compliment.

The original Takacs Quartet was formed more than 40 years ago by four students in Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. All initial members are Hungarian who shared the common passion about soccer. Actually the quartet was officially formed in the soccer field. The Quartet was still named after the first violinist Gabor Takács-Nagy who left the Quartet for his solo career in 1993 and was substituted by British Edward Dusinberre. The original violist Gábor Ormai died in 1995 then another British musician Roger Tapping took over the job. From then on, the British-Hungarian quartet has formed its own voice and style and made some award-winning recordings, the most famous of which is their Beethoven Complete Quartet Cycle that was finished last year. Their Bartok interpretation is regarded as the best, their playing of Dvorak and Borodin swept over Gramophone and their Beethoven cycle has been lauded ever since it’s released. Actually the only complete Beethoven Quartet cycle I own now is by Takacs.

In 2005, Takacs Quartet made another important personnel change. The violist Tapping left the position and Geralding Walther, the principle of San Francisco Orchestra since 1976 joined the group. She was assistant principle in Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before she went to SFO and still keeps the leave-of-absence of her position in SFO. The reason why Tapping left and how long Geralding is going to stay is unknown so far (I didn’t think it is appropriate to ask such a question since the change of personnel is not long ago). They also signed a contract with Hyperion Records which means probably their Beethoven Cycle is their last set from DECCA.

From the first movement of Mozart, I immediately knew what was missing in the performance by Ying Quartet the day before. If Ying Quartet provided different sampling of treats, Takacs Quartet’s performance is like a gorgeous entrée. More importantly, they have created radiant warmth and luster in a whole while managed to keep individuality at the same time.

Edward, the first violinist, is straightforward and candid. He has the capability to communicate directly from his heart both in music and in conversation. When I asked him why they put Op. 95, which was written much earlier, into Beethoven Late Quartet Set, he answered that they studied Beethoven from a backward perspective and there was more connection, in his point of view, between Op. 95 and the other late quartets. In particular the transition part, the change of mood shared more similarity with the later quartets, he said. If fact part of the booklet in the CDs was written by Edward. His violin has a spectacular expressive voice, pure and noble. In Mozart, he was jubilant and sweet, at Beethoven, he seemed to be in state of ecstasy between explosiveness and soulful calmness. Although I would say luminosity is some kind of word too philosophical to be used for music, the sound he made was close enough to human nature while shed deep thoughts at the same time.

Karoly Schranz, one of the two original members, is gray-haired and serious. He hair style reminds me of Conductor Ozawa. When I asked him after the concert whether they had another big project, he shook his head and said, “No, one Beethoven cycle is enough.” He told me the whole project took about four years from 2001 to 2005. Although seemed to be tired in conversation, he was energetic in the concert. He listened attentively to other members and instilled his overwhelming passion into the fierce tempo of Beethoven. He dominated pizzicato section and thrilled all the audience.

Andras Fejer, the cellist, is amicable and humorous. He has a round face and big forehead. His hair is curved but explosive. The black rimmed pair of glass which he wore in playing gives him a touch of authority, but he possesses a sweet countenance so that even he looked at me calmly I still felt he was smiling. When one of the audience complimented that he was the most amazing cellist he’d ever heard, he smiled and said in a fast pace, “Oh, great, great, great. Keep listening.” Although the quartet has moved to University of Colorado since 1983, his accent still bears his originality highlighted by some unusual punctuation. His signature looks more like some notes than English letters with several extremely long horizontal lines dotted by some symbols. Like his personality, he played the cello with wit and promptness. In the second half which featured Brahm’s only Piano Quintet he sparkled some great intimacy between pianist and cellist. The piano passage was cordially echoed by his restrained downbeat companionship, each time of which won smiles from both.

Geraldine, as a new member, seemed to be less ardent. In some intense fire-burst section when all other male members crouched, bowed, and leaned bodies toward the center, she was sitting straight and made only eye-contact with them. She toured with Tokyo Quartet before and now plays regularly with Takacs. While three male members played in an urgent, lively manner, she looked disengaged sometimes in style. For anyone who has served in an orchestra for more than 20 years, the manner unfortunately has been restrained since individual style is not encouraged among string sections. However with four members in total for a quartet who sit close enough to feel any nuance change in mood transition, body language and facial expression, plainness indicates more or less a sense of lack of eagerness in communication. There is actually a bigger challenge ahead: With two original members into their 60’s, how the quartet will finally settle down is a mystery and only time will tell.

Mozart’s “Dissonance” in “Haydn Quartets” series has a unique slow introduction rich in color. The atmosphere was gradually transitioned from dark to light. A good concert considers the whole program in a big view and tries to unite different works through their own interpretation. That’s how Takacs did in the concert. Although they played the first three movements in a light-hearted and humorous way, they gave a muscular and robust finale for Mozart. It is a healthy and Hayden-style Mozart, even closer to Beethoven’s early quartets as for distinctive rhythmic motives.

Their Beethoven Op. 127, was even beyond my expectation from many times listening of their CDs. After Mozart’s quartet was played which is light not only for volume but also for the harmonious structure, suddenly, instead of four instruments (actually mostly only first violin in Mozart’s case) there seemed to have a whole orchestra in Beethoven. The gigantic chord, played by Takacs at the very beginning was flawless and captivating with marvelous coordination.

Among all the late quartets of Beethoven, Ops 127 is conventional in structure and encompasses lyricism in melodies. In the pre-concert tutorial, when Edward was asked how Beethoven was different from Mozart, he said that Beethoven’s work was about contrast. (I remember Enescu once said Mozart is about gesture and syllabus) He said during their rehearsals of Beethoven they’d learned a lot, but he refused to specify what they had learned in words. I believe that is because of the tremendous scale and depth of Beethoven’s late works. Ops 127 was written in the same period as his last symphony when Beethoven achieved a higher level of freedom to speak for himself. The utterance from his inner world is so complicated that it is quite difficult to finger out what he is saying exactly. Thus my experience of listening and exploration becomes never tiring since every time I hear it I can sense something slightly new. Nevertheless, through his late works, Beethoven expresses his great power which is inherent in music itself. It has nothing to do with full orchestration, transcending motives and quickening tempo, instead it is a feeling of strength, a forceful statement coherent from his personality even in those slow and quiet sections, in particular his late quartets.

Takacs’ uniqueness lied in their live zealous treatment. I’ve heard Emerson’s performance before and didn’t like their interpretation. Their technique is polished and perfect but they give a feeling of cool and detachment, an achievement which can only be lauded to the interpreters but not the composer. In contrast, Takacs played it with blood-burning ardor: they painted Beethoven with different colors from mischievous humor to intense speculation.

Garrick Ohlsson joined the quartet in the second half. In the pre-concert talk, he wore a baggy sweater and a pair of New Balance sneaker, which made strong contrast with other musicians. Garrick gave a splendid performance of Rachmaninoff No.2 piano concerto just one month ago and he is scheduled to come back again for the formidable 3rd piano concerto of Rachmaninoff next season. He told the audience that he got sick and didn’t have too much time to practice. But he said technically Brahms’ Quintet was not demanding and if the pianist had had some collaboration with quartet before it should not be a problem. Unfortunately he missed one important issue as for piano performance. Carnegie Music Hall (tall but short) doesn’t have a good sound stage for piano and more importantly he hadn’t had the chance to practice on it. The piano sounded muddled most of the time although another review called it warm.

After I got my complete Beethoven Quartet cycle CDs signed by three male members, I looked at the photos inside the booklet. There could be no way to find Mr. Tapping to sign for the CDs probably. Even if I could, I may not hear the same voice again. Takacs is beginning to rebuild itself at its climax. The sound maybe reserved well enough for the next generations, but only those who have heard them in person know how exciting it could be in a live concert.