Friday, July 27, 2007

PSO signs Slatkin as guest conductor

At the time when PSO was in dire looking for music director, lining up with other top orchestras such as NYPO, CSO and Philadephia Orchestra, I posted my preference - Who should step on the podium of PSO after $29.5 million donation?

Not only Mr. Honeck was chosen as the next music director, but also Leonard Slatkin were selected as the guest conductor. Both of them were in my three-person list.
Here is the excerpt from the postgazette

Leonard Slatkin twice stepped in for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2006,
including filling in last-minute for artistic adviser Andrew Davis in last
summer's European tour. Now, he will be an official part of the orchestra.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Now What?

For the first time, one can walk into the Garden Theatre without fear of sticking to something or direct erotic excitement. That is what I did on a recent afternoon when I peeked into the door which used to be lit by ever-blinking yellow light bulbs. The carpet still stank yet the condition of the lobby was far from being dangerous. After 34 years of constant moaning from the screen, the theatre finally enjoyed a short period of silence.

As a relatively new Northsider, I didn’t witness the rise of pornography business behind the door. When I moved into a townhouse on North Ave, it puzzled me to know that just about 1.5 miles away from downtown, surrounded by Andy Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory, Aviary and CHILDREN’S MUSEUM there was a movie theatre where you can watch X-rated movies, live shows and perhaps some real actions right beside you.

You can call him blunt or stupid. But former owner George Androtsakis has every right to defend his ownership. In particular, if one of his special movie theatres crumbles in the court, the rest of his theatres could be that much easier to seize. In fact, he may have saved the theatre in some way. After I have seen so many architecture gems in North Side were abandoned to such a degree that restoration is impossible, I kind of appreciate that for such a long period, at least someone had used and not done irreparable damage to the theatre.

On the other hand, Androtsakis’ defeat is inevitable in that virtually no one is on his side (except maybe some exceptional libertarians). In fact, the whole block of the start of West North Ave. could have been saved sooner if the Garden were not there (at least as far as the inept planning process was executed). On both sides of the Garden Theatre, buildings have been emptied for a long time. On the very morning when the fire of the houses next to it was put off, I walked by and wondered whether it was the Garden’s owner who did that: after all, you don’t expect to see porn video in an exciting booming business district. The more forlorn it looks, the more suitable for an adult theatre. Nevertheless, the scene of out-fashioned blinking bulbs in the day light with two soot-covered windowless buildings was disheartening.

Now What?

From the brief conversation with the people who were doing renovation jobs, I’ve heard that a play is scheduled for the theatre’s reopening in the middle of June. I doubt that everything would be in the right order by then, but it was a wonderful idea to let people IN before the flames of happiness of final acquisition cease. In fact, URA should take advantage of this special group of people, who are probably more interested in seeing the theatre than the show and may come even if it is “Deep Throat” on the screen, because they ARE the people who care about the neighborhood and the future of the theatre. A well-planed survey can be distributed to know what people think of the current renovation, what can be done for better and what, in the long term, can benefit the neighborhood and the city better.

Obviously, “Now What” is not a question with easy answers. It is exciting to know something can be developed and changed, but developed into what has yet to be determined. Everyone may have his own answer, however it is a theatre which ultimately functions as a theatre most effectively, therefore not many choices are left in the basket.

First, it is not wise to convert the Garden into a regular movie theatre. The city has already been surrounded by state-of-art complex-cinemas and the Garden does not have big parking space and huge screens. For small cinemas which focus on art and independent movies, Manor, Regent Square and Harris serve the purpose very well plus Harris is close enough to draw the same geographical audience as the potential Garden.

As for performing art, cultural district has the best revues. But that does not necessarily mean that the Garden cannot develop its own niche. After all, not many musicians, actors or dancers could afford to book Heinz Hall, Carnegie Music Hall, Benedum Center or O’Relly. Some chamber music or piano recital works better in a smaller hall which provides a sense of intimacy. Same is true for some play with small troupe which can benefit from the catalyst derived from audience close by.

The Garden may never attract world-class artists such as Emerson String Quartet or pianist Lang Lang. But looking hard within the city, you will never run out of performers. In particular, a lot of young amateur musicians cry for a space to gain invaluable live performance experience. Within the city, thousands of young kids are learning music instruments. Some may be privately tutored; some might be involved in a school band. They could form the base of the audience and performers at the same time. It is true that schools may have auditoriums, but to perform in a public theatre with your full-size pictured poster on the front-window and face a group of audience who are friends, colleagues, mentors or unknown music lovers is totally different experience. It is important to know that the sound may differ when you have a full house of audience seated in a hall bigger than the rehearsal room, to know that fingers may slip or intonation may go wild. Most of all, to play for SOMEONE, to interest, then involve and finally move the live, receptive listeners sitting expectantly is ultimately the joy of music making.

Maybe it will all come true one day. I imagine that after an intense concentration on a splendid performance by some promising young musicians, audience walk out of Garden theatre. And they read a plate which says:

Here lies a theatre, the same of which used to be an adult theatre for more than three decades and through which shows people’s power to transform vagueness and obscurity into enlightenment and edification.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The unspeakable

It sounds odd, but I can focus more in Billy Budd than Mozart’s Magic Flute. Partly, I guess, is that I got a better seat this time, libretto in English also helped. But in essence, it was the story that made the difference. Although some scholars may have spent years studying in the social context in Magic Flute, its naivety and idealism are too stale from my point of view. But Billy Budd is profound and thought-provoking even though the framework of the story could be just as simple as Magic Flute.

Benjamin Britten and Foster brought Melville’s story into a metaphor of tragedy of suppressed homosexuality. Through other’s description, Billy is lauded as a phenomenon, beauty or mystery. His physical charming is definitely obvious: Hermann Melville described his body like a Greek statue while in the opera Claggart labeled him as one out of a thousand. (However Billy, in fact, is not perfect as Captain Vere pointed out. His speech impediment works both as the leading factor to swerve the story direction and as the symbolic social meaning that beauty is fragile and undefendable under hostile circumstances. )

Foster’s libretto draws heavy attention to both Claggart and Captain Vere: their internal struggles and their consequences. The essence of the story lies in the questions why they should deliberate the death of an innocent person toward whom both have showed their affections. In the long solo aria, Claggart fluctuates between anger and envy, and finally outburst his desire of control and destroy. On the surface, the target is Billy; but if one examines his behavior throughout the story, the unspoken homosexuality is branded in detail: His envy roots not in Billy, but in Billy’s unanimous popularity in the crew or in other words Billy's attachment to the public which he does not has the luxury to share with; his anger stems from his appreciation of the youth and charming, which strongly endangers his self image as a ship policeman. He dare not let his weakness out, and his iron character does not allow it. Vere is another matter. He looks at Billy with a fatherly affection, yet he too wants to keep the balance between sternness and amicability in his management style. He feels obliged to resort to the marine court to state authority and fairness. But when the court rules against Billy, he knows his own trial comes afterwards: He finally favors the court decision instead of his consciousness because his egoism has conquered his sentimentality; he too has to suppress the germ of his admiration of male perfection.

Britten’s music does not give many imminently recognizable arias as in Mozart’s operas, (partly due to the only availability of male voices) but the orchestra accompanies the storyline with fluctuating waves: turning dark in treachery and mind struggling, but light up when the youth shines on the stage. Overall, the music is provocative and impelling, a reminiscent of Richard Wagner, and projecting a sense of uncontrollability of fate and sea and the inevitability of tragic ending. The chorus from all male singers is magnificent, as towering as some in Verdi’s.

Grimsley’s Claggart is not a simply evil person. His voice, metallic and penetrating in low register, matched the character’s cruelty and darkness. Although the opera does not give him much room to fully develop the changes in his attitude toward Billy, he managed to make it convincing from the aria filled with internal-searching, self-doubt, fired anger and a slight sense of resignation.

Leggate’a acting as Vere is solid too. He ventured further to reach the edge of the stage and opened his arms toward the audience in the last scene, with his voice instilled with regret, humane and nobility.

David Adam Moore replaced Nathan Gunn in the last minute to rescue the show. It was extremely lucky that the opera could find a baritone qualifying for the role: young, physically fit, gorgeous looking and great voice. (David has taken the same role in the same production before.) At the only beautiful aria (“Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray”), he sang with heart-melting warmth and softness.

Francesca Zambello’s production excelled in every perspective. Even though the limited space only allowed a corner of the deck shown on the stage, she created such ambiance that the audience could feel vividly the motion of the ship. The lighting, mostly blue, occasionally warm yellow for ordinary crew members and the final image of Billy, brought psychological effects into the characters. In the last, the veil shadowed everything of the ship except the dangling body of Billy in a romance light, it was so striking and moving that I felt exhausted and uplifted at the same times.

In Billy Budd, between Claggart and Vere, the taboo is mutiny; yet Britten and librettist Foster, as well as the novelist Herman Melville saw the real unspeakable is inhibited sexuality.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Garrick Ohlsson Return

During the pre-concert talk, Jim Cunningham, WQED FM89.3 host interviewed with the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. Tortelier speaks near-perfect English, but in a French manner: soft, passionate and somewhat floating around as if he could forget the topic just after a few words. Occasionally, his pronunciation would betray his identity such as precision which sounded broken at every syllable and thus elongated. But when he talked about Ravel, his face shone like shimmering and his smiles were self-absorbed yet enticing at the same time. “Debussy and Ravel are the climax of French music”, he declared, “Although between mysterious Debussy and magic Ravel there is other great music”. Jim used Bolelo as an example to describe the sense of forwardness that characterizes Ravel’s music, and borrowed the beginning flute melody of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune to demonstrate the deep understanding of chromaticism and orchestration in French Music.

It was the first time that I could listen to Mother Goose Suite live. And I was so glad that such a unique experience was enhanced by Tortelier’s masterful conducting art. Under his baton, PSO’s sound was supple, responsive and sensitive. To address the fairy tales of each movement, Tortelier brought the nuanced phrasing for each sentence, as if every melody line is endowed a life with a beginning, an end and a beautiful harmonic “arch” in between. Except “Petit Purcet”, all other moments are less narrative, more or less describing a mood. As Jim indicated, the progressiveness seems to be inborn with the melody so that even when the tempo was unperturbed, the music flew at ease like a perpetual motion machine.

With visual aid, I was immediately captured by Ravel’s orchestration: In Empress of Pagodas a celesta brought mysterious oriental atmosphere; while a trio with violin, oboe and flute sang gracefully in Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty. In most of the time, the string section kept a very soft and warm sound, ranging from pianissimo to mezzo piano while the wind section lit up the ever-changing color. To some extent, I agree with Jim’s statement about French coloration. Yet Debussy’s orchestration is more profound to me because chromaticism, harmony and dynamics can hardly be separated from orchestration in Debussy’s music. A lot of Ravel’s piano music has been magically transcripted into orchestra works but such success seldom happens to Debussy.

Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra followed the affable Ravel. During the interview, Tortelier said although Lutoslawski was not as well-known as Bartok, but his Concerto for Orchestra was equally good as that from Bartok. (Interestingly, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is scheduled next week for comparison.) The beginning of the first movement was spectacular. The stirring motives moved quickly from lower register upward, swept the whole orchestra with strong statement. The second movement was played in a hushed texture, yet the melody lines were not at all nocturnal. Instead those murmuring projected a sense of anxiety and uncertainty, thus light in sonority but heavy in music thoughts. The third movement started with a Passacaglia which progressed in repetition from different orchestra sections. But the coda sounded extremely long and tiring, as if to show off the quality of each instrument, the climax had to be sustained for more than the actual length of the rest of the movement. Even at fast-tempo and fortissimo, PSO members made the sound clear with definite driving forces. But the overall effect failed to impress me and approached closer to violence and discordance in my ears. In comparison, I felt in love with Bartok’s work almost instantaneously. The raw, rigorous rhythm, the undefined or lost consciousness and prime yet explosive vitality epitomize (maybe except his string quartets) Bartok’s musicianship. But most of all, the solo instruments are highlighted within the symphonic integration. Here in Lutoslawski, efforts sounded too contrived and less persuasive.

Returning to Heinz Hall, Garrick Ohlsson kept his exploration in Rachmaninoff and brought the concert to its climax. A late student of Arrau, Ohlsson possessed formidable skills, even one of the most demanding repertoire piano concerto No.3 sounded effortless through his naturally gifted hands: thick, big yet flexible. Ohlsson started the beginning in an unobtruding manner: fluent with an almost unnoticeable hairpin, (I still like the beginning of Ashkenazy’s early performance better: a sense of sorrow was sung in lighter volume) but soon the melody progressed into a solo climax. Where Ohlsson played seemingly too clear soon paid off in those cascading technique-challenging parts, where Ohlsson's performance was coherent linearly with a deep understanding of overall structure. In recapitulation, Ohlsson painted the same tune in a half-dull gray color as if the memory slowly came out of the veil. Suddenly the underline Russian melody became sentimental and yearning. For that moment I was lost in the residual of the melody.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Museums talk

It seems nowadays that most of the second-tier museums have relied on special exhibition which are of great success in bring intense examination of interesting topics, but overall the museums will be remembered by their permanent collections.

Walking in Met’s permanent collection is like walking in a maze with endless findings and excitement: sometimes too many good things can be a bad thing. My legs are still heavy two days after a tour in Met, or more precisely a five-hour walk in American Wing at Met.

Just in American Decorative Art section alone, there are 25 period rooms and more than 600 pieces of furniture. When I saw those chairs, side tables were piled inside rows of rows of glass display, I kind of felt sorry for them. Only Met has the luxury to pack them together, although the beauty of the furniture should really be appreciated in a proper setting like those period rooms or like what Chicago Art Institute does: group them together based on function and style such that each set provides meaningful context.

I would definitely go back to revisit Met in future, although the same attachment may not apply to Carnegie Museum of Art even though it is only four or five blocks away from where I work.

Although it is true that most of art museums are suffering from the redirection of donation and charity, museums themselves should also be blamed as places of bureaucracy. From another perspective, second-tier museums should re-think what to present and what to purchase in future. There are only 35 paintings by Vermeer and a little bit more than 300 by Rembrandt, and most Impressionism art followers would go to Chicago for its huge collection. A walk through Carnegie Museum of Art brings you some interests yet also makes you lost and wondering what is the strength of the museum. Often, you will see art works crammed in juxtaposition with no direct linkage. Or within ten meters walk, you immediately crossed three century as for artistic style.

Just one hour away, Westmorland Museum of American Art hosts a full room for Scalp Level painters which immediately brings the visitors to the past of Western Pennsylvania rural scenes. Other paintings also make a strong statement of the museum’s dedication to the western PA. Aaron Gorson’s powering and gripping descriptions of steel mills along Monongahela River recall Pittsburgh at his climax, Christian Walter’s works shows his profound love of his hometown in Depression era. I have always enjoyed visiting there, even when I had to walk on crutch and sit on a wheel chair last year for “Born of Fire” exhibition.

Pittsburghers should puff out his chest with pride about the city, its past, its present and its future. If the native’s own view is often subconsciously largely negative and deprecate the city, how can visitors be persuaded to find the beauty without prejudice? Maybe the museums can start doing something first.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Classical Music Stores in Burgh

It is reported that Amazon classical section has been making profit, but local stores everywhere are having a tough time. Pittsburgh, blessed with no impact from the closure of Tower Records, is no treasure-land for collectors.

Borders are predictable, with "Hit", "Best" and Pavarotti dotted around Joshua Bell or Lang Lang. There are some differences between each store, partly due to the knowledge scope of the store staff. The one at Pittsburgh Mills is totally messed, and the one near Wholefood is tiny and incomplete. The only decent one is at Northway Mall in North Hills, however, the whole section has shrinked to two thirds of its size one year ago.

If the staff has some control or preference in classical selection, Joseph-Bett probably benefits from the young generation who can appreciate as much Beethoven as Bartok. It really surprised me last time when I found a huge collection of 20th composers including from Bartok, Shostakovich to Legeti and Boulez.

In a recent article by Alex Ross in New Yorker, L.A. Philharmonic orchestra's music director Salonen was described to bring the orchestra to the frontier of modernity in the US industry. The give and take relationship between the orchestra and audience can be misleading and frustrating to modern composers, who may be satisfied if one of the work can at least become live on stage ONCE.
It is true that it is the audience that buy the tickets and patron the orchestra, but their taste should not regarded as dominating or main-stream, because the group of the audience who has the loudest voice do not represent the true profile of classical consumers.

I agree that Bartok and Stravinsky may not bring young people into the stage, but that at least may change the sterile perception that classical music equals to some works written at least 200 years ago! Modern music, with its special complexity in structure and texture, needs more introduction and repetition than those by Bach or Mozart. The unpopularity of modern music, in my opinion, is partially caused by the close-minded decision makers, who do not think in long term for the prosperity of the industry, but rather secure the funding from gray-haired board members.

In his new book "The Curtain", Milan Kundera says everything that takes on the quality of a history, seems a more or less logical sequence of events. Once you are familiar with Pollock or Warhol, Munch's expressionism is within reach, not to mention affable Cézanne. Music, like any language, never shrinks. It only expands, evolves and assimilates, while the only way to adjust the shift is to get involved. But even with the keening ears for modern music, audience here is deprived of the right to listen to it from alive. The small market is more a problem that not many ears have been trained than that not many ears are willing to be trained!

With their extra texture, rich background and new instruments, modern music cries for live-performance. Without sitting there, watching and feeling the fire, I could not pick up Janacek's Intimate Letters, not to mention Schnittke or Kirchner.

Joseph-Bett may not have sold as many of Legeti as Chopin, but the CDs are stacked there, waiting to be explored. The sound from the sampling machine may not sound as good as that from Heinz Hall, but it is there: visually declamatory and audibly freshening.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The End of Era of Russian Maestro

The death of Rostropovich ends the era of Great Russian musicians. Rostropovich represents what Russian blood represents for in music performance: brilliant technique, titanic power and stirring emotion. As quoted in a recent article: In Russia, people don't go to music for entertainment, they go to feel life.

Slava has brought his life, which is bigger than most of people into his music. The cello is a beautiful match for his personality: never tepid, thick and warm.

Several years ago, I was listening to a CD, with Rostropovich playing Britten's cello suites. The technique was, even from an outsider like me, challenging. But he sounded effortless, yet so profound and deep. Later on, I found out he and Ozawa were going to give a free concerto in the music conservatory. It would surprise those agent nowadays that such great artists did not want a commercial performance. All they want is to talk, perform with the young musicians in the conservatory. By the time I got the news, there was no seats left: A typical China thing. (Unfortunately, I missed him again in 2002 when he gave a concert in Heinz Hall. )
Yet from his recordings, he still feels big, grand yet humane.

Here are some of my favorite recordings by Rostropovich.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Kremer and his Kremarata Baltica

It has been difficult to see Gidon Kremer in grand symphony halls of big cities. His new recordings with his Kremarata Baltica Chamber Orchestra have been exploring new music and redefining what’s in or beyond classical music. Those titles such as “After Mozart” or “Eight Seasons” sometimes baffle me: They sound like a young artist’s new installation with conceptual-wrapped titles; attracting public attention but exposing uneasiness and lack of confidence at the same time.

But Kremer is no new face any more, although the trace of his music exploration is elevating and thought-provoking for the self-closeted classical industry: After conquering the standard repertoire, he went further to champion those modern pieces, especially those by composers still alive even before the works acquired an established position. Kremer is unpredictable in the way that his new violin sonatas and partitas by Bach can easily win the raves of music critics yet it was followed by a bizarre performance of decomposing Vivaldi with Piazaolla.

Gidon Kremer’s appearance in the Carnegie Music Hall has been long expected in steel town. Interestingly, the day before he arrived in Pittsburgh, he and his orchestra gave another performance in Carnegie Hall in NYC. In the last concert of the current season from Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, a lot of Russians showed up, with their binoculars, CDs and past memory. The concert programe was unfamiliar not only because it would bring works by Korngold and Piazzolla, but also because Gidon would play transcripted Schumann’s Cello Concerto on his Guarneri and Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue would be played by a chamber orchestra.

Kremarata Baltica Chamber Orchestra is extremely young and fresh. No conductor was presented throughout the concert. Orchestra members switched their seats regularly so that even the first Violin changed for different works. But I have mixed feeling of their Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. With two extra bass players and a middle-sized string band, the gigantic work sounded more symphonic and fervid. The polyphonic structure was naturally rounded into a cohesive voice, impassionate and keen. The orchestra also inherited some of Gidon’s own style: bold in technique yet restraint in volume. Yet the intimacy of the string quartet format cannot be traced in this expanded arrangement. The beauty of string quartet lies in that conversing happens at the same time of the performance, and the fine quality is reached by mixing personalities and styles of each individual members: In Takacs string quartet, Edwards’ refinery is boldened by Karoly’s ardent rhythm and balanced with Andras’ warm humor. Similarly, Pacifica Quartet was instantaneously marked by Simin’s fervent energy and smiles. Here, in Kremarata Baltica Beethoven felt titanic yet remote; the effect was persuasive, ye the music remains admirable but untouchable.

Schumann’s work brought Gidon Kremer from the back stage. After turbulent Beethoven, the orchestra sounded luke-warm for the concerto. The registered violin tonality by Gidon Kremer couldn’t distinguish him from the rest of the string orchestra. Schumann’s orchestration does not match those by Richard Strauss or Berlioz. Most successful Schumann’s recording relies on the transparency of the orchestra; but here the whole orchestra was painted almost in a single color, although sheer in itself, lacked the diversity and excitement that could keep music alive. For the first time, Schumann’s cello concerto sounded more like a work from Mantovani.

The second half brought the work by Korngold. Although Korngold is known more as a film composer, the work in the program, Symphony serenade, bears traits from romantic period. The second movement featured a fast pizzicato and the third movement was serene and broad. It was the last piece, Four Seasons by Astor Piazzolla that showed Gidon Kremer ‘s heart and technique. Without any doubt, Gidon was born for Piazzolla: the unconventionality, unexpected abrupt turn, the rugness of the texture, the gritty tango rhythm and most of all the natural spontaneity and improvisation match Gidon’s own personality. If there had had no score stand, he may have well walked off the stage in the performance. The young members in Kremarata Baltica accompanied the master in an almost cabaret fashion, with smiles, ease and freedom. The expressive yet non-narrative melodies and fast changes in tempos heated up the music hall and cast magic spells that intoxicated the young audience but confused some old listeners who walked away without additional encores.

Interestingly, under the light surface of the music did I find the unbearable heaviness of Piazzolla: The harsh texture combination and avid tango tempo were always followed by soul-melting elegies sung by the cello, then when the same fast tempo tune re-appeared, it only tried in vain to express the joviality and leaked out what it was really for: an outlet of uneasiness of life and uncertainty of future.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dutoit to lead Philadelphia Orchestra

The Philadelphia Orchestra announced this morning that Charles Dutoit will become chief conductor and artistic advisor for a four-season term beginning in September 2008.
Dutoit succeeds Christoph Eschenbach, whose five-year tenure was one of the shortest in the orchestra’s history. The appointment, which is a newly created position, is meant as an interim measure while the orchestra’s board undertakes a search for a new music director. According to a press release announcing Dutoit’s appointment, “The Philadelphia Orchestra Association plans to formalise a process for its music director selection this summer and will announce further plans at that time.”
Dutoit is very familiar with these players: he has been music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s summer residency in Saratoga for the past 15 years, and was artistic director of its summer concert series at Philadelphia’s Mann Center from 1989 to 1999. He is also a frequent guest conductor with the orchestra during its regular season.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper observed in their own report this morning, however, the conductor’s history with this orchestra has not always been easy. “Dutoit was passed over twice for the job of music director,” noted the newspaper, “and ended his decade as director of the Mann Center in 1999 by publicly handing in his resignation to the audience before a performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana.” The newspaper also reported that the new appointment was made without the knowledge of the full roster of Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, although the Philadelphia Orchestra Members’ Committee released their own statement last night supporting the board’s choice.
In this new role, Dutoit will lead the orchestra in no more than eight weeks of performances in Philadelphia, and conduct them at Carnegie Hall and on tour. He will also continue to lead the orchestra during their annual three-week summer residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in New York, and “will have the option to lead concerts” when the orchestra is in residence at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The damaging love

Is it true that every Chinese son is born to meet his parents’ requirements? Is it true that the tradition still holds that sons are part of the property of the family while the head of the family dictates their usage? For every Chinese gay man, how to bear with the notion that no descendant is No. 1 sin against filial respect?

Those are the questions that have arisen to me before I watched the movie “Sunflower”. Unfortunately, the movie makes these questions more imminent and relevant than ever, yet leaving them unsolved.

Zhang Yang has never tired of exploring father-son relationship. In “Shower”, such exploration serves as the footnote of fast-changing society; in his new movie “Sunflower”, the relationship comes to the center of the stage and the panorama of modernization provides the necessary elements for enduring conflicts and tensions between father and son.

It would be interesting to wonder how much his own experience has been woven into the film when the director, son of film director Zhang Huaxun, tells a story of a son who is taught to continue his father’s career as a painter, not without a struggle or even hatred. In fact, probably every Chinese at the age of late 20’s or early 30’s can easily collect some resemblance from their past: Those parents belong to the time when political disasters mashed their opportunities and trashed their youth. Through the next generation, they find the way to resume their dreams: For them, sons are what they were NOT but what they once wished to be. With fervent obsession they provide the most seemingly unselfish, sacrificing love to achieve the most selfish goal. The thirst for total control soon leads to consequent struggles between the relationships. They seldom win, or to some extent, they will never since sooner or later sons will break up the attachment to live by their own.

Such stories are no new. Back to the 18th century, with his incessant guidance Leopard Mozart brought a child prodigy to astonish the world, yet such a distorted relationship delayed the pace of mental growth of young Mozart and extended Wolfgang’s childhood well into his adult years. But unlike the western countries where young people are encouraged to live independently after eighteen years old, there is no specific time frame to end mental breastfeeding in China. Filial piety is tied with other virtues as the highest rank in an ethnic pyramid. Such filial piety is further transformed into filial obedience, so that no matter for what reason a son might rebel, what he faces is not just his father, but also the social standard against which arise the guilty feeling.

Luckily my growing pain was not as drastic as in the movie. I excelled in schools and made little trouble. My parents were only temporarily displeased when I chose not to become a physician. (“Who is going to read those medical books in the house” was their only comments.) But when I watched the father scolding his son vehemently and saying” Why can’t you have a child FOR US”, it immediately reminded me of those silent moments when my dad, on the other side of the earth, typed in the chat window: “Please find a girl friend, OK? I beg you!” There is no “for us” in the end of the sentence, but the word “beg”, like an edged blade, not only pieced their self-esteem apart, but also left me helpless drowning in my consciousness of filial disobedience guilt.

In Sunflower, there is not much as answered as the tension resolved. In the end, the father opens up to tell the grow-up story from his own point of view as if to deliver his last relay. Then he abruptly leaves the family, maybe he realizes that he succeeds and fails at the same time: He does see his unaccomplished mission fulfilled through his son’s hands, but at the price of being alienated and unforgiven.

Being invisible or at least being remote.

That’s the father’s final answer to keep the harmony within the family. Sadly, that’s what most of Chinese gay men’s strategy in response to family obligation. For them, life is somewhere else. Being away from where you grow up, whom you have known for long and what you have being used to is placebo for temporary relief, yet there is no cure in the end. For there is a famous Chinese saying: No one could ever return the same amount of love that he’s received from parents. That’s how the cruel reality differs from the movie. After year’s paternal love, whether unselfish or overwhelming, a father can leave his son without self-condemnation. Yet as a son, such internal struggles never cease, even at the end of the world.

Friday, February 16, 2007


After a series of emotional drenching works – All About My Mother, Talk To Her and Bad Education, Volver is a pleasant short break for the director Almodóvar. Volver means to return. The title certainly fits well into the well executed plot; it also marks Almodóvar’s return to his early style: bitter dialogues, witty story-telling, bigger-than-life plot and unexpected turns that are sharper than a serpent's tooth. But most of all, Almodóvar has gone back to explore his favorite theme that dominated most of his early works (Women On the Verge Of a Nervous Breakdown, High Heels and Kika): Men are the root of women’s suffering.

This time the director chooses his hometown where the longer life expectancy of females put a lot of women live long after their men pass away. The beginning scenes are masterfully shot: with a group of cheerful women cleaning tombstones in a gusty day, Almodóvar, in a declamatory narrative gesture, discloses what should be following: Not only does the wind have a particular function in the whole plot as is gradually revealed through the movie, but also it makes it clear that no matter how happy women can live on their own, the shadows of their men, even out of tombs, can still be wearingly burdensome. Soon the expected Almodóvarian surprises turn the movie into a whirlpool: the death of alcoholic husband who is killed by his step-daughter in an untold raping scene, the death of the ailing aunt who cannot remember the name of her niece but keeps an exercising bicycle in her room, the chaotic operation of an improperly obtained restaurant where the body is stashed and most of all the return of long-missed mother that brought the unspeakable past memory back. All women are wounded; some even share the same source. They live without men, yet they are not alone: each find the courage and resolution from others as long as they can reconcile their interwoven past.

Like all other Almodóvar’s movies, ethnic scandals and moral debauchment are as casual as slips in the tongue; yet these do not lead to more sophisticated and convincing characters. While in “All About My Mother”, Manuela’s Madrid trip is a journey of soul-searching and self discovery, here are the women delightful naïve (almost simple-minded), as if those sufferings never make a real dent on the lightness of their beings.

Penelope Cruz’s role as Raimunda is the most intriguing character in the movie. Like her mother, Raimunda is resourceful, but she is powerless in getting rid of her troublesome men, physically and mentally. And that powerless yet revengeful feeling leads to her silent estrangement from her mother. However, while the settlement of the alienation is told in a gentle and touching way, one cannot find the ground for Raimunda’s vulnerability after watching her super powerful handling of a restaurant catering more than 30 people with her dead husband lying in the freezer: She is simply too comic to be convincing.

For Almodóvar, Volver represents what he is and famous for: A gay man who loves women’s breasts. The twisted hate-love attitude toward manhood may well come from his worship of domination and potency, yet those scintillating scripts show his profound understanding of women thinking. Yet the only element missing is the passion which used to stir deep into audience’s consciousness, therefore the effect is soap-operatic, entertaining yet not challenging.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Image and Imagination

It is quite surprising to know that “Still Life”, the fifth movie by Zhang-ke Jia, won the Golden Lion award in Venice Film Festival, NOT because it is mediocre or inelaborate, but because its rich details were woven by nuances and implications in the context of the fast changing China such that familiarity of cultural background is a requirement, instead of a supplement for the movie.

Jia once commented that Robert Altman was a master of portrait of group people. He especially admires his ability to magically present the meaning through seemingly loosely-intertwined casual dialogues. Still Life shows the influence of Altman. Although the story is linked by the changing fates of two marriages, one seeking reunion, the other divorce, the real main actors/actresses are those silent majority influenced by Three Gorges Dam project, those that were forced to leave where their ancestors had been living for centuries, and those that came to seek the opportunity to make their fortune. No particular script or scenario is absolutely inseparable in the movie; yet each provides a tiny note for the final elegy. The movie is a 108-minute-long snapshot, yet with effect of an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Besides the flooded sceneries and houses along the Yangtze River, gone are the family value, the trust between people and pastoral life style that were once cherished in those riverside towns. Shan ming and Shen Hong represented two different classes that have lost their voices in China: rural peasants and blue-collar workers in small towns, both lack of sophistication to drive them ahead of changing waves. While Shan ming still entertains himself with songs from 1980’s before the final reform took place to uproot west China, the more realistic Shen Hong doesn’t see the solution to her future even after she found the answer for her ending marriage. All she knows in the end is that the soaring cliffs and the connection to her to-be-ex husband will be soon carried away. Shan ming’s fate is equally cloudy as he decides to go back to the most dangerous job in the world: coal mining in China.

While the plotless feature in Robert Altman’s movies is mainly achieved through endless multi-sided dialogues, Jia painfully chose silence to carry equal-amount of delicate remarks. Just as the title of the movie indicated, most of the story is told through body-language and still images with particular settings. With the biggest budget ever, the director finally could pursue his own cinematographic style: the eerie combination of greenish blue and dark yellow makes up most of the movie. The former, seems natural in Fengjie where the dam is being built, projects a sense of aloofness and despair of inescapable loss. The yellow is mostly carried in the foreground as an elemental color for people. Thus they all look weary and over worn. There is certainly a visual conflict between the two colors and one soon begins to sense that those people are meant to leave such environment even though the town could have been saved.

In an interview, Jia said he intentionally chose the same opening day as Yimou Zhang’s blockbuster movie: Curse of the Golden Flower. It is a gesture of protesting the decaying market which has been indulged by the eyeball-striking, fantasy-filled, Kong-fu-oriented entertainment. Jia’s low-budget movies, with its mundane topic, smaller-than-life plot, amateur acting and austere setting, speak the rusting consciousness of Chinese intellect. For those lucky Chinese that do watch the movie in the end, the feeling of admiration could be equally given to the director and those jury in Venice who gave the top award to the name of the movie.


I am confident to say Pan’s Labyrinth is the best I’ve ever seen in 2007. (You must be kidding!) Actually, considering it was released in Dec 29, 2006, I should rephrase and say that it was the best movie I saw in 2006, period. Compared with others such as Departed, Little Miss Sunshine and Babel, Pan’s Labyrinth wins easily by its originality, intriguing story-telling and great acting.

The director, Del Toro simply told a captivating story by balancing the dark violent real life with otherworldly mysterious fantasy. The cruelty and innocence clash while compliment each other so that each is projected more extreme and at the same time more convincing. What prevails in both worlds is the somber atmosphere: no one, even without the snapshot of final ending at the beginning, would expect a happy end. But what a beautiful way to carry that harrowing sensibility!

I wish the movie a good luck for the coming Oscar!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Rise and the Fall

It was not surprising to hear Manfred Honeck becomes the next music director for PSO. The praise of his artistry has grown since his debut last year, not only from music critics, but also from orchestra members. In the official statement, Mr. Honeck said:” It is with great joy that I assume the post of music director of one of the world's finest orchestras”. While I am happy that the trio system finally comes to its end (which I don’t think has achieved its expectation), the fate of the new collaboration cannot be predicted based on the first impression.

Sure, Mr. Honeck should be excited. He is stepping on the podium which saw the rise of several legendary maestros. Except William Steinberg, the other conductors such as Fritz Reiner, Lorin Maazel and the latest Mariss Janssons built up their career from PSO and soon moved away for better orchestras. Reiner chose to rein Chicago, Maazel went to nurture NYC while Janssons now leads both the Royal Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But even so, Honeck’s background is more green than any of his predecessors. Before Janssons came to the Steel City, he had brought Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra to an international-acclaimed level and made several critics-lauded EMI recordings such as works by Tchaikovsky. But besides recordings of Waltzes by Strauss, no CDs can be found to know about Honeck’s style.

Although it is known that Honeck was certainly the choice of the orchestra members, I doubt whether the managerial level have had a second thought: after all, Mr. Honeck is no name in music industry. It is true that with the donation from Simmons’ family, PSO’s financial status should be pleasant for the next few years, but it is essentially the orchestra’s own responsibility to operate independently, or in nowadays situation, not to build budget short like a rolling snowball. The season box office income usually accounts for one third of the annual budget. (With a fresh unknown name, a near-full house of season seats is unlikely to be possible) Then orchestra has to find contracts from other sources such as touring or recording for subsidy, but sadly similar to Hollywood film industry, whether it sells or not is largely determined by the stars. During Janson’s seven years’ tenure, only one recording of Shostakovich was made with EMI. It would be hard to think that PSO can seal another contract (unless they decide to create their own recording brand) since even the Big Five now are waiting for the nods from ever-shrinking recording industry. As for touring, for the first time in decades, PSO cannot even secure a date in Carnegie Hall. Unless paired with super stars, PSO’s own brand name with an unfamiliar music director may sound just as rustic as the old image of the city.

What prevailed about the collaboration between Honeck and PSO is chemistry. It was described as love at the first sight (although marriage after the second-date seems definitely reckless). Probably this is the most important criterion for selecting a music director for it is, in the end, through the musicians that music can be made. But marriage between music directors and the orchestras is just as complicated as family affairs, whether it will work or not cannot be simply predicted from the reaction in the honeymoon. In some cases, great collaborations have been witnessed in some authoritative, even tyrannical manner. Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Arturo Toscanini were not amicable persons but somehow it worked out in an honorable way, even Celibidache was notorious for extended rehearsals. While the fondness by the orchestra members is a bless for Honeck at the very beginning, it may become an obstacle for him to build up his authority especially when the final words have to be said when arguments arise. In my mind, PSO has great musicians, but they have lost keen ears to hear each other. It will be the music director’s job to balance different sections and bring back ensemble intimacy and coherence.

If Honeck’s designation is largely due to the unanimous support from the orchestra, Eschenbach’s leave due next season just shows in the opposite way how important the chemistry is.

I finally got the chance to sit in Kimmel Center last month. In fact, I was so close to the maestro that it would be unfair for me to comment on the sound of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra: My seat was orchestra section Row B117, a seat which allowed me to see the socks of Eschenbach in great detail (and in fact I did).

The reason that I chose the seat was to get a better view of Thomas Quasthoff, but his performance was canceled due to illness. The first half of the program was hence changed from Mahler to failure-proof Vivaldi featuring orchestra’s own violinists. Even with advantage of being close to the fiddlers, I didn’t feel much connection through their bows except that of the concertmaster David Kim. Although all the principles from Philly and Boston orchestras possess skills for Vivaldi’s four seasons, all except Kim seemed a little bit pressing as if they wanted to make Nigel Kennedy sound authentic.

It was the beginning of the second half that I realized how awful my seat was. The great Bruckner Sym. No 9 was hour long, but all I could hear was the string section with exaggerated pluck sound. The bombarding brass section was blocked by the stage and when gradually the music came to the climax in the end of the first movement, the orchestra sounded a little bit mellow from my seat.

Verizon Hall is probably twice as big as Heinz Hall. The mahogany-clad cello-shaped hall not only renders a fresh warm feeling but also provides an advanced acoustic effect. However, one begins to wonder why a city which opted for a shinning new symphony hall couldn’t accommodate a conductor who yearns for probing something new. Eschenbach’s intensive scrutiny of Mahler and Bruckner finally won critics’ favor, but it failed to please some orchestra and board members. Even though the music ended in a pensive mood, the audience burst applauds immediately as if they were glad to get out of the hour-long boredom. Without note, Eschenbach filled the last symphony of Bruckner with space, fragility and meditation. Eschenbach is one of the rare conductors who could integrate the mosaic-like sections into a mesmerizing narrative essay.

But to be a successful music director, music talent is not the only required caliber, communication skill, managerial manner, negotiation capability and even strategic planning are all necessary. Eschenbach’s devotion to heavy-taste of Mahler and Bruckner could win admiration from peer and connoisseur, but it is economically unjustifiable if every concert calls for a full orchestra after intensive rehearsal due to its difficulty while only a tiny portion of the audience is fully satisfied. As the music director, Eschenbach may never look at the exact number on his salary slip, but those musicians sitting on the stage know what it means if the audience number keeps dropping, not to mention now the hall is bigger than ever. Maybe artistically Eschenbach did win, but without compromise he couldn’t please those whose favors he needs for continuing his careers.

Ax Return

I have been longing for Jahja Ling’s return to Heinz Hall. In 2004, his last moment substitute of Lorin Maazel for Mahler Sym. No. 5 was one of the best concerts I’ve ever heard from PSO. In fact, it was so splendid that I couldn’t find the same connection one year later in Chicago symphony center.

Yesterday’s program was interesting, not only because all three pieces were written when the composers were young, but also those pieces, with their unusual mood and maturity, surpass the definition of early stage.

The little G-minor symphony was written when Mozart was 17 years old. Although the works was completed in Salzburg after Mozart returned from Vienna, its expressiveness theme and thematic development is more than what cheerful local styles asked for. Ling pushed the orchestra in a tense fast tempo, but with less contrast. The effect of tremolo at the beginning carried a sense of inescapability, but the looming menace and pressing anger couldn’t be found, as if it was notified in advance that those fierce winds would calm down soon. Perhaps, in Ling’s mind, the romantic crisis is nothing but a foray of expressiveness within the frame of rococo style.

The slow movement, on the contrary, was performed at a slower-tempo side, even though it is actually andante. Unfortunately, PSO were not well equipped with refinery and delicacy for Mozartean manner. The wind section sang briskly while string section projected a darker but nocturnal mood.

The vigorous Minuet provided an echo for the first movement as if the lingering residue of storms had come back. But it was soon interrupted by the rustic trio which was performed with even brighter color. The cyclic arrangement of mood did surprised me that Mozart, at his early age, already tried to keep coherence within the structure, even though it meant to end music without relief. Still, PSO smoothed the inundating changes in moods between pensiveness and vivacity, thus reached a lukewarm, placid little G-minor.

But Ling quickly revealed what he and PSO could achieve when the right piece was chosen. Richard Strauss is a natural fit for PSO, maybe because of the tradition which can be traced back in 1904 when the composer himself visited the orchestra.

The beginning about the silent bedroom and childhood memory was almost painting-like vivid, but it was the transfiguration which took place soon after that showed the orchestra’s responsiveness and energy. PSO sounds like a giant for heroic pieces with splendid orchestration, and Richard Strauss brings the best of instrumental colors.

The highlight of the whole concert was definitely Emanuel Ax, who, in his top form, inserted his personal Romanism to the thought-provoking Brahms No. 1 piano concerto. In the first movement, he was resourceful, with both the clarity that defined every melody lines and the strength that rivaled turbulent orchestration. In the solo part, he immersed the keyboard with such Brahmsian deep brood that balanced the first dramatic theme.

The second slow movement inherited Beethoven’s spirit: unleashed breadth, fancy chromaticism, a strong sense of yearning, only deeper and wider that are inborn from the pensive young composer. While Ax kept metallic texture in the virtuosic section in the first movement, his interpretation is more Chopin-approach in the slow movement. It is true that Brahms’ own descriptive words indicate sacredness; However Ax colored the serene melodies with less pondering and more cantabile lyricism. The effect was simply astonishing and indescribable: For a moment, I felt that the Heinz hall was empty except the piano sound, rounded, at one end was the two hands, at the other were deeply touched a full house of audience and the orchestra.

Emanuel Ax is scheduled to return to Heinz Hall next April to play Chopin No. 2 Piano Concerto.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


FROM Bob Lauver
Every once in a while the stars align and things are truly amazing to behold. The Simmons family gave us cause to feel positive about the future of the PSO, generously giving and creating a framework for others to do their part….and today we received news that we’ll have a new music director in 2008….we got Manfred Honeck! I’ve written a couple of things about his weeks here with the PSO and I’m looking forward to many more posts about the effect this guy is going to have on us (I have joyfully high expectations). But that doesn’t come close to conveying the extent of the happiness that I’m feeling. About the only thing that comes close is the Snoopy dance (I confess I did my own little rendition of it when I was out of public view). Another thing that I’ll admit is I have a hard time focusing on good things because I fear they will disappear before I’m ready to let go, but for this news I will celebrate….openly and repeatedly.

After Maestro Honeck’s last visit here I went up to Bob Moir and said, “In my opinion we ought to be doing anything that we can to get him here.” I don’t think my perspective is any more valuable than anybody else’s, but if I saw him get a Music Directorship with another orchestra instead of us I would’ve wondered if my complacency had some role in it. I know that Honeck wouldn’t come here if he didn’t want to, but I give a huge amount of credit to Bob Moir and the great work he does for us day in and day out. That’s a guy who obviously loves his job…..and he’s great at it.

As I’ve said before, Maestro Honeck’s rehearsal style is really intense. He is in such command of the music in front of him that he doesn’t need a score even for the first rehearsal (except for Reza Vali's "The Being of Love" that he conducted with us). His demeanor on the podium is one of musical energy, enthusiasm, and respect. I remember a moment in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia when we had a rehearsal for the program we were about to play there. Honeck wasn’t convinced that we were playing our softest pianissimo. Instead of delivering a dismissive negative comment, he paused in silence and looked up toward the ceiling high above us. Then he asked if we heard the faintest buzzing coming from the lights up there (I think it was an e-flat). When he heard the murmur from the orchestra that meant “yes, we hear it” he responded, “Play softer than that”. The result was astounding. There’s nothing like the sound of an orchestra when everybody on stage understands the goal and plays an equal part in achieving it. The future holds many more of these experiences for us all, I hope everybody takes full advantage; it’s going to be a special time.

The announcement came suddenly as I’m sure things of such a sensitive nature need to. I traveled to the hall with two of my colleagues and we speculated as to what the announcement could be, and we all agreed that this would be the best possible reason to be coming in to Heinz Hall for special news. When the announcement was made there was a spontaneous shout and a standing ovation (which I dutifully recorded with my camcorder and hope to post on this blog soon). The applause went on and on until Maestro Honeck held up his hands and got everybody to be seated again. His first words were, “I’m so happy ladies and gentlemen that you react on my sign.” As funny as that was, it hits on one of the reasons that I think that this new relationship is going to be so special. This orchestra likes to work hard. We’re eager to be challenged and we don’t shy away from getting to the details of a work, and I think that Honeck is the perfect compliment for that work ethic.

I didn’t make it to the toast after the announcement in the Mozart room at Heinz Hall, the horn section had an outreach event scheduled that we needed to leave for. So here I am raising my glass………<>

PSO picks Austrian conductor as music director

From Post Gazette

By Andrew Druckenbrod

Less than a calendar year after debuting with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conductor Manfred Honeck has been selected to lead it.

The PSO has hired the Austrian conductor as its music director, making it official last night at a board meeting, which Mr. Honeck attended.

Mr. Honeck, 48, will succeed the trio of conductors now providing artistic leadership for the orchestra. His three-year contract begins in fall 2008, when the contracts of conductors Andrew Davis, Yan Pascal Tortelier and Marek Janowski expire. Terms were not disclosed.

"It is with great joy that I assume the post of music director of one of the world's finest orchestras," said Mr. Honeck yesterday in a statement. "It is no exaggeration to say that the orchestra and I got on like a house on fire. Right from our first encounter, I realized that with these highly professional and motivated musicians, it would be possible to convey a vivid message much needed in today's world of classical music."

Mr. Honeck will lead the orchestra in eight weeks of concerts in his first season, and 10 in subsequent seasons. He also will conduct several tours in Europe, including a return in 2010 to Vienna's famed Musikverein, the hall that gave him his start as a violinist years ago.

"In taking our time to assess the needs of the PSO, we have concluded that a strong, central leader is important to enhancing the artistic excellence of this orchestra," said Larry Tamburri, PSO president. "We have found that leader in Manfred Honeck, and we are exceedingly happy to welcome him."
"I think this is going to be great," said William Caballero, PSO principal horn player and a member of the search committee. Mr. Caballero points to Mr. Honeck's auspicious debut in May at Heinz Hall. "The chemistry was very evident between the orchestra and Honeck and the audience. From that point on, he stayed in the front of our mind."

He may have been on the minds of the Pittsburgh musicians, but Mr. Honeck is not a "name" conductor. But neither was Mariss Jansons, who until his departure in 2003 was the last person to hold the music director title.

"When we got Mariss, he was not known," former PSO head Gideon Toeplitz recalled recently. "I had to spell his name to people for quite a while."

That hire proved to be one of the best in PSO history, and the orchestra feels it again has caught lightning in a bottle.

Dick Simmons, chairman of the board of trustees and a major PSO benefactor, said, "In the 16 years I have been associated with this orchestra, I have never heard the overwhelming endorsement of a conductor by the musicians, and that includes some pretty high-level conductors."

Certainly Mr. Jansons is excited about the hire. "Manfred Honeck is a profound musician and a wonderful human being," he said. "He is a superb choice."

Rare is the review that doesn't praise the musicality and talent of Mr. Honeck. Under his baton, the PSO produced a thrilling sound but one that was attentive to musical detail. He seems to have the best of the traits of a showman and a musician.

After several appearances with the PSO, the musicians also said it was the way he communicated his ideas that was most impressive.

"He has the ability to be insistent on a result without being negative in any way," wrote Robert Lauver, PSO horn player, on his symphony blog on Nov. 23, after Honeck's most recent concert at Heinz Hall. "He speaks softly (on purpose, I believe) and requires the orchestra to be quiet and attentive to hear what he is saying. ... It takes a leader to pull that off with such grace."

The Washington Post called Mr. Honeck's conducting of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Centre its "Single Best Orchestral Concert in 2001."

In recent years, other critics have concurred in their praise. The Guardian called him "the model of good taste." The Times of London wrote: "The impressive thing about Honeck was not his showmanship but his subtlety." The New York Times praised Mr. Honeck for drawing "a lively, supple and elegant performance from all." And the Boston Herald wrote: "The Austrian-born conductor, making his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut ... impressed greatly with a rigorously intellectual program. He will be invited back."

Mr. Honeck recently relinquished his post at the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, allowing him to focus on the Stuttgart Opera, the PSO and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (where he will be principal guest conductor for the 2008-09 season). He also has held positions at the MDR Symphony Orchestra Leipzig and the Oslo Philharmonic.

Guest appearances have included Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Born in 1958 in the small town of Nenzing, in the mountainous region of Austria, Mr. Honeck knew he wanted to be a conductor at 13 while attending a Vienna Philharmonic concert.

"In this moment I got the inner vision that either I would be a member of the Philharmonic or get to be the conductor," he told the Post-Gazette in November.

After graduating from the Academy of Music in Vienna, he soon achieved both of those goals with that famed orchestra, first as a violinist, then as a violist, then as a guest conductor. His brother, Rainer, is concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Along the way, he studied with Claudio Abbado, performed under Leonard Bernstein and in general soaked up music from the many eminent conductors leading the Philharmonic.

"I call all of these conductors my teachers," he told the Post-Gazette.
Mr. Honeck grew up in a family of nine children, and he and his wife, Christiane, have six of their own, ages 5 to 25. They live in Altach, Austria.
While name value means little if the chemistry between music director and orchestra is scintillating, it does have an effect on touring. One of the biggest concerns among the PSO and industry pundits had been whether Mr. Honeck had the reputation to command European dates, since these are based on selling tickets and the personal connections of maestros. The PSO's administrators have stated that touring to the world's top stages is essential to being a world-class orchestra.

With a tour already confirmed to the holiest of classical music sites, the Musikverein, and others in the works (the BBC Proms likely among them), it appears these concerns have been at least partially met.

"In Europe, he is very much a rising star," Mr. Tamburri said. "We look forward with a lot of enthusiasm to introducing him to America."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Frugal with Froogle

Usually I don't buy CDs in bulk. The pleasure of finding treasurable CDs at reasonable price can only be obtained through patience and luck. In general, I don't mind those re-issued CDs. After all, it is the music I am looking for, not the cover or manufacturer.

But when CDs which are usually marked for more than 15 dollars are sold for a little bit more than THREE dollars, I have no intention to be frugal.

When I searched Thomas Quasthoff CDs from Froogle last week, I found out J&R were selling them for two dollars. After a few keywords search, I effortlessly found several other for two dollars each. I grabbed ten at one time, the bill said 31 dollars including 2-day UPS shipping when I checked out.

It turned out that J&R mispriced those CDs. When I went back after about two hours, those CDs went up to $12.99.

Somehow I regreted that I only got ten CDs, but the order probably would have been canceled if I had been more aggressive.

Thanks J&R for their keeping order through.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The fates of music halls

When we came back from Severance Hall to Downtown of Cleveland, fog rolled in from the lake like walls of one thousand veils. Suddenly, air became weighty. I could not only breathe but also feel or touch it. Every skyscraper faded away, bringing the roads, only the roads to the center of the consciousness.

Euclid Avenue, the once wealthiest avenue in American history, has become a bumpy road sparsely filled with rows of some newly-built condos and office buildings. Only eight mansions survived through the turbulent Hough Riot in 1966. Luckily, Severance Hall, at the other end of the road, survived through those nights with unrelenting fire alarms.

Severance Hall was built in 1931, only twelve years junior than the Cleveland Orchestra. Artur Rodziński was the first conductor on the stage. But it was George Szell who left his mark permanently in the music hall. Even though unlike the other bigger cities such as New York and Chicago, Cleveland didn't have city blocks named after its legendary maestros, George Szell’s influence to Cleveland is tremendous not only because he brought the middle-west medium-sized industrial city a world-class orchestra with pedigree European blood, but also because he changed stage shell physically in order to improve acoustic result.

Although the exterior of Severance Hall was designed to complement to the Art Museum in neoclassical form, from the entrance lobby to the auditorium room, the style gradually transitions to Art Nouveau and Art Deco. In 1958, when facing the trade-off between aesthetic beauty and acoustic integrity, George Szell sided with the latter, putting his famous “Szell shell” over the stage which visually confronted with Art Deco interior. Today those ugly modern Szell shells have been replaced by material both visually and acoustically satisfying. But most of all, the glory and the history of the architecture are preserved with the ever-growing orchestra. Concertgoers, when entering the grand main lobby and see the restored shimmering golden hall, will sure agree with Alburn’s assertion that “Severance Hall is one of those singular and complete triumphs which come to an American community infrequently, if ever”.

Pittsburgh was not that lucky.

In late August of 1994, Syria Mosque, the original home for Pittsburgh Symphony was demolished when a group of activists were still protesting in front of bulldozers. Among them Sen. Jim Ferlo spent a night in jail for his last effort. He almost won this brutal battle because the demolition permit was obtained only two hours before the building’s historical landmark nomination.

Although most agree that relocating the orchestra to culture district of downtown area is a wise move, it was surprising to know a building which cost $750,000 in 1916 would be torn down in modern time. It is true that Syria Mosque is huge and the sound is muffled in the over-sized music hall, but there was no reason that under scientific study such problems cannot be solved. If fact, Penn Theatre was scheduled to be demolished if Henry Heinz hadn’t stepped in and donated ten million dollars to preserve its Baroque and Rococo style and transformed it to Heinz Hall. The same money could have been used to hire Dr. Heinrich Keilholz, who directed the Heinz Hall transformation project, to improve Syria Mosque’s acoustics.

Syria Mosque saw the growth of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, from Fritz Reiner to William Steinberg, the latter, through decades, nurtured the orchestra to a world-class level. After the orchestra moved to Heinz Hall in 1971, Syria Mosque still held a lot of pop concerts and attracted vast amount of audience.

The raze of Syria Mosque can be regarded as a scandal resulted from shortsighted politician and ambitious University who has been seeking expanding ever since. Lorin Maazel, who graduated from University of Pittsburgh and was the music director in that turmoil period, saw the fall of the temple. To what extent his reaction was is hard to know, but in the same summer he declared that he would not renew his contract after 1996 season. A city that didn’t honor and treasure his glorious past can’t stand tall for its future.

More than 10 years after Syria Mosque was demolished, I walk by UPMC parking lot, where the temple used to be, almost everyday. Oakland, as the cultural and educational center to the city, has lost its architectural integrity and been disfigured by this ugliness of the land-wasting seas of parking lot.

More than 50 years ago, it was in the site of this parking lot that the unsurpassable Beethoven and Brahms violin concertos with Nathan Milstein were performed. It was a mono-recording. The sound captured reflects the amplitude of Syria Mosque vividly. Under Steinberg’s baton, there was a sense of pressing and forwarding, but the orchestra still kept its fluidity and flexibility. At the beginning of Beethoven violin concerto, timpani stretched far and deep and the reverberation of the string sections was held long like ocean waves. Then Milstein’s violin pierced through the stage, roaring in the air like an independent spirit, uninhibited.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Hello, Mr. Fred Kirshnit, can you hear me now?

As a Pittsburgher, I feel surprised and proud at the same time when the title of Mr. Kirshnit's article "New York Drops Off the List Of ‘Big Five' Orchestras" grabbed my eyeball from Google search engine. What made the news special to me is not about NYPO, but actually PSO is now listed as one of the Big Five!

And the article was dated Dec 5, 2006! Still wet-inked!

Even when I talk with friends about current PSO, I try not to be too over-confident. It IS a great orchestra and can make marvelous music if it goes right.
But is it possible to even substitute NYPO?

I doubt.

Then after I followed the article, I was surprised to find out the author was still talking about Marriss Jansons. It is known to all that his leaving did not happen recently and also everyone agrees (though no one speak loud) that the trio-system is not the most successful way to manage an orchestra.
I begin to wonder who is Mr. Kirshnit and how many times he has been in Heinz Hall?

The latter question can be easily answered because he frequently quotes reviews from other critics as calibre measurement. I am wondering whether he has kept the records regarding the number of reviews, the authors, the dates and how positive they are. (The last one could be very difficult to quantify if it is possible.)

To compare performances of different orchestras by reading reviews from different critics, at different time and for different repertoire is totally ridiculous. Putting an orchestra into Big-Five list without listening to it in person is nonetheless irresponsible, even though the orchestra may mean a lot to Pittsburghers.

No wonder that Sibelius commented: "Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Thought of Tower Record Liquidation

The fate of Tower Record (TR) is doomed from its root business ideal: deep catalogue; or its preference to variety contradicts to its dependency on profitability. Of course, there are some measures that could have been done, such as branching out online-business earlier and more aggressively, having sample-kiosks available earlier, etc; but there is no panacea for the ailing music retailer. When I stepped into TR branch in downtown Philadelphia one year ago, with myself the only customer in the classical section big enough to hold a ball, I knew its final due was coming.

When Russ Solomon began to sell records in his father’s Sacramento drugstore in 1960’s, what he saw was music passion and devotion in the baby boomer generation. What he didn’t see was the rising and the fall of music retailer business. At one time around mid-1990s, Solomon was named by Forbes as one of the richest men in USA, but TR’s declination came afterwards with hardly a pause. Ironically, the rising of TR lies on the same reason that it fell: locations, abundant staffing, and deep catalogue with imports and even out-of-print. But all these don’t matter any more when new business model was introduced by first online stores such as Amazon or eBay then later by iTune. There is no way to keep the same profit when retail stores hold the same exhaustive catalogue as a bunch of hard-drive disks in iTune server. Eventually the latter outsold TR in 2005, one year earlier than its final liquidation.

Sadly TR’s destination reflects somehow the same dire threat for classical industry. Music, as merchandise, is facing a new generation of consumers, a generation who are shaped by American Idol, youtube and the slim hard-drive called iPod. TR symbolizes a disappearing generation of pure-spirited music enthusiasts who value individualistic tastes and independent minds, and who enjoy involved ambience in social terms.