Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Musical Memories

A musician’s autobiography is often as revelatory about the artist as well as the human being.

Musical memoirs roughly fall into two categories. There are, on the one hand, the raconteurs, who use the medium to chronicle their storied careers – encounters with famous personalities, marriages and love affairs, memorable performances. The danger here is that such books often end up to be nothing more than name dropping. The second of Arthur Rubinstein’s memoirs, My Many Years, unfortunately falls into this trap. In Glenn Gould’s wicked but killingly funny piece of writing, Memories of Maude Harbour, the pianist mercilessly makes fun of how Mr. Rubinstein recounts one amorous encounter after another in his autobiography.

Other musicians, while telling the story of their lives, share with readers their philosophical viewpoints, political sympathies, or musical insights. Yehudi Menuhin’s Unfinished Journey is just such a book. Both types of memoirs can make fascinating reading.

Pianist Leon Fleisher’s My Nine Lives – A Memoir of Many Careers in Music – co-authored with Anne Midgette, cannot be so easily categorized. While telling the story of his life and career as pianist, conductor, and teacher, Mr. Fleisher also gives readers his personal insights into many of the musical masterpieces that have been the cornerstone of his pianistic repertoire. They take the form of intermezzi sandwiched between various chapters of Mr. Fleisher’s life story. Personally, I find that such a format disrupts the flow of the narrative, and would prefer to have them at the end of the book as appendices.

Fleisher was of the outstanding American pianists of the 20th century. At the height of a brilliant career, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia of the right hand and lost its use in piano playing. Even with this major setback, Mr. Fleisher has continued his musical career by constantly “reinventing” himself – as pianist (with his left hand), teacher, conductor and musical administrator. Some of Mr. Fleisher’s early recordings, such as his Beethoven and Brahms concerti with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, remain classics to this day - a fact that Mr. Fleisher himself took pains to share with his readers.

What are unfortunate about this volume are the many instances of almost derogatory statements about some of his colleagues, or certain pieces of music. When writing of Arthur Schnabel’s recital programmes, Fleisher writes that Schnabel would have “a whole evening of Beethoven or Schubert, without a single crowd-pleasing bonbon like a Chopin mazurka or Liszt operatic paraphrase.” Chopin’s mazurkas as crowd-pleasing bonbons? The mazurkas are probably the most elusive of Chopin’s compositions, and are far from being crowd-pleasers. To categorically connect such diverse musical creations is unfair both to Chopin and to Liszt.

I was also surprised at Fleisher’s views on some of his fellow musicians. On conductor Sergiu Comissiona, Fleisher writes that “he was the best conductor of second-class music that I’ve ever known. He had his problems with Beethoven and Brahms, somehow; those performances never quite reached the heights of others I’ve experienced.” There are quite a few lines devoted to the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood where Mr. Fleisher was administrator for a number of years, and to Fleisher’s relationship with conductor Seiji Ozawa. Mr. Fleisher writes, “Seiji likes musical depth, and I was deep: a window into the tradition. Seiji doesn’t necessarily access that kind of thing himself, but he certainly appreciated it in other people.” When Fleisher is recounting his eventual famous rupture with Ozawa and with Tanglewood, it degenerates into a sad case of “he says, she says.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Leon Fleisher was and is one of the great pianists and artists of the 20th century. Upon finishing the volume, I cannot help but feel that the entire thing is more than a little self-serving, and does not do justice to Fleisher as an artist. Not everyone, regardless of how distinguished they are in their own field, is suited to writing about themselves. Perhaps someday a more thoughtful biography will be written, one that does justice to the life, career, and artistry of this great musician.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An Insult at the White House

So Lang Lang played at the White House state dinner for Chinese Communist leader Hu Jin-Tao.

As an encore, Lang played a Chinese song, My Motherland, and instantly became a hero to people in China. My Motherland is a song from the 1956 film Battle on Shangganling, a film (as well as the song Lang played) that vilified the Americans and their role in the Korean War.

Hu must have been laughing when he heard the song, because of its highly anti-American stance. Why the Obama administration would choose to honour the leader of the Chinese dictatorship in such an elaborate fashion is a mystery. It is surprising that the White House, which usually plans its event down to the last detail, would not have vetted Lang’s programme beforehand. Perhaps the encore was a spontaneous decision.

Ever since he burst upon the world of classical music, Lang has been changing our image of a “concert pianist.” From his embrace of the latest technology in performances to his wardrobe, Lang has been attracting much of the world’s attention to himself, if not to the music he purportedly loves. According to Lang, he wants to make use of technology to bring classical music to a wider audience – a commendable idea. But his antics at and away from the keyboard seem to suggest otherwise.

When playing My Motherland at the White House, Lang writes, according to one news source, that it felt like he was “telling them about the power of China and the unity of the Chinese.”

Lang Lang himself benefits from his American education at the Curtis Institute of Music, and he enjoys the privilege (and it is a privilege) of living in a free society. I am certain that a significant portion of his concert fees and recording royalties come from America. This is a great way to repay his benefactor.

Politics aside, though, Lang has also violated, in my view, one of the basic tenet that a musician, an artist, should abide by, namely that he or she puts his or her talent at the service of the composer. When Lang uses his music to convey a political message, whether or not it was his intent, he has sunk to the level of the countless composers and poets, now thankfully forgotten, who churned out odes and cantatas to Hitler, Stalin, or Mao.

Even his worst critic would have to admit that Lang Lang has an incredible ability at the piano. I hope and wish that he would devote his considerable talent towards his own artistic and musical growth. Without that, no amount of designer clothing or glossy promotional material would be able to sustain his life as a musician.

Patrick May

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Glenn Gould said that during a concert, the performer walks a tightrope, and the audience secretly waits for, or even wants, the artist to fall off the tightrope. Gould lamented that live performances bring out this gladiatorial instinct in all of us. We snicker when the horn cracks, the pianist forgets, or the soprano missing the high note. In Europe, audience routinely heckled performances (or artists) they disapprove of. Even Luciano Pavarotti was victim to this treatment.

Much has been made about Vladimir Horowitz’s famous memory lapse in the second movement of the Schumann Fantasy during his famous Carnegie Hall “comeback” recital. Years ago, I was at a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Vienna State Opera. When tenor Siegfried Jerusalem’s voice cracked during the demanding final scene, there was a collective gasp from the audience.

Why is our generation so hung up about mistakes in performances?

Many great pianists from the early 20th century had stupendous techniques, but they were often less concern about playing all the right notes. When we listen to recordings from when technology was still in its infancy, we often hear performances that are less than note-perfect.

As recording technology improved, it allowed artists endless opportunity to edit, splicing together portions of a complete performance in order to make it “perfect”, meaning, without wrong notes.

What follows is an entire generation of listeners who would, in the comfort of their homes, be able to listen to a faultless performance at the press of a button. Over time, we come to expect that in live performances as well. In addition, because of the availability of recorded performances, many of the members of the audience attending a concert would be very familiar with the music being played. This, I believe, is part of the reason of an increase in the technical level of music making. Paderewski or Anton Rubinstein would never be allowed in any decent conservatory, people say, because they played their performances were so splattered with wrong notes.

But is that all there is to music making? Playing a “clean” performance and hoping that we do not stumble?

Artists have divergent views in their answers to these questions. Artists like Leonard Bernstein, Alfred Brendel and Sviatoslav Richter had taken to recording their own live performances; performances that they thought represented the best of themselves. In the other extreme, Glenn Gould had completely abandoned the concert stage to devote himself to making music in the recording studio. According to Gould, one of the great pianists of the 20th century, a recorded performance and a concert performance are two entirely different things, and recorded performances should never be compared with a live performance. Gould believed that in the recording studio, the artist has the luxury, with the aid of technology, to create a performance that he or she would deem to be the ideal conception of the music.

As a member of the audience, it is often too easy to be judgemental, especially when performances (we think) do not live up to our expectations. Music making is difficult, and even the greatest artists have days when they are below par. As for me, I would much prefer a performance that brought out the essence of the music rather than one that was clean but sterile.

Would there come a day when we all gather in Carnegie Hall to listen to a “perfect” performance on speakers?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Political Music

Throughout the history of music, composers have been called upon to create works serving extra-musical needs. Composers have written music to celebrate the openings of churches, concert halls, and coronation of kings and queens. In the 20th century, major composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev had to write music glorifying their odious regime. Adolf Hitler did not so much call for music glorifying himself or even his equally odious Nazi regime, but exploited music by composers such as Beethoven, Bruckner, Liszt, and of course Richard Wagner, for his own political ends. German newsreels from the 1930’s and 1940’s would inevitably show huge party rallies accompanied by such great music.

In post-1949 China, Mao Zedong, saw himself as a patron of the arts. Conservatories in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai continued to flourish, with occasional visits by distinguish professors from China’s “older brother”, the Soviet Union. Then in the latter half of the 1960’s, Mao’s Cultural Revolution saw the attempted destruction of all “bourgeois” art and artists. Composers who were able to continue their work had to churn out hack works such as Red Detachment of Women, The Red Lantern, and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, music to accompany Jiang Qing’s (otherwise known as Madame Mao) revolutionary ballets. I do not know whether to feel sorry for the composers of such scores, or the musicians who had to play them night after night. The music produced during this period was no more than watered-down Tchaikovsky or Glazunov, adapted to Chinese specifications.

An interesting by-product from this unfortunate period in Chinese history is the Yellow River Piano Concerto. Written in 1969 by a committee of six composers, the piano concerto is really a reworking of themes from composer Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata, a work written during the Sino-Japanese War in 1939. The style of orchestration and piano writing is a curious mixture of piano concertos by Grieg, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky. The fourth and final movement of the concerto is based on The East is Red, a song glorifying Mao Zedong. According to pianist Yin Cheng-Zong, one of the composers and original performers of the concerto, he took part in creating this monstrosity because he wanted something he could play that would at least simulate music by the great composers, and he made it as difficult as he knew how so as to keep up his piano technique.

What is disturbing is that, unlike so many works deifying Stalin and Mao, or music from Jiang Qing’s revolutionary ballets, the Yellow River Concerto is still performed and recorded today, and popular as ever, especially throughout Southeast Asia. There can be several reasons for this aberration – a lack of awareness of history, and of the background associated with this music, but also a mistake, made even by many in the west, of not putting Mao Zedong in the same “pedestal” as Hitler or even Stalin. Even the great 20th century composer John Adams, in his opera Nixon in China, made the mistake of normalizing Mao as just another major historical figure. How would we feel if our local opera company or symphony orchestra performs a work that tells of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or Neville Chamberlain signing the Munich agreement with Hitler?

We must remember that in today’s China, where the government is constantly using words like nationalism and patriotism to divert people’s minds off its dictatorial regime, continuing performances and recordings of works like the Yellow River Concerto, a work of zero artistic merit, only serves to contribute towards our collective historical amnesia.