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.