Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Stereotyping Wagner

If you haven’t seen the 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil, I can tell you that it is a most exciting and enjoyable film.

Based on the novel by Ira Levin, the story tells of the exceedingly evil Dr. Josef Mengele’s attempt to clone Aldof Hitlers (yes, plural). The movie boasts extraordinary star power – Sir Laurence Olivier as Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, and a brilliant casting choice of Gregory Peck as Dr. Mengele. Peck, most noted for his playing of extremely decent men, most notably Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird, masterfully plays the Nazi physician, with evil oozing out of every pore of the character. Interestingly, the movie also stars John Rubinstein, youngest son of pianist Arthur Rubinstein, as a young American aiding Lieberman.

At one point in the film, Dr. Mengele is reliving his past glories, and at that very moment, the music swells to a full orchestral fortissimo, and the music sounds very much like that of Richard Wagner. Indeed, Wagner’s music has been so much associated with the Nazi era, especially in the popular media, the unknowing might think that the composer had lived in the 1930’s.

Yes, Richard Wagner was no saint, and his anti-Semitic article, Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music), was not his finest moment as a man or artist, to say the least. In fact, certain members of the Wagner family were enthusiastic supporters of the Führer in the 1930’s and 1940’s. And Jewish inmates of the concentration camps probably did hear the music of Wagner played by the camp commandant, and would therefore have very painful association with it. Yet, to stereotype the music of Wagner as only associated with the Nazi is grossly unfair.

In his wonderfully witty and touching memoir, A Book of Hours, Father M. Owen Lee, one of opera’s most astute observers, shares with his reader an exchange he had with a German innkeeper in Nuremberg, who has very negative views on the composer. To me, no one has written more eloquently about Wagner, the man and the music, as Father Lee has, and what he writes in the book can give us much food for thought:

(I)n a many-sided genius like Wagner, you get many faults, self-destructive faults, that we ordinary people don’t have. That is one reason why the works of art that geniuses produce are so rich. What they can’t work out in their lives they are compelled to work out in their art.

About Wagner being misused by Hitler, Father Lee says:

(W)orks of art are often created by very imperfect men, out of a kind of madness that, if wrongly used, can be destructive.

He goes on to point out that the Bible has been quite often misused for man’s own end, just as Homer’s Iliad was used by Alexander the Great to justify his massacres.

When I listen to the music of Wagner, I hear love, compassion, magnanimity, generosity of spirit, nobility, and inner peace, qualities that Wagner himself did not possess. Again, quoting Father Owen Lee:

An artist has to pay for the gift of his genius. Wagner paid. He was defeated, one way or another, all his life. His own self-destructiveness always pursued him – possessed him, even. But what he couldn’t do, his characters do. They come to understand themselves and find peace.

I believe that it is possible, even crucial, to dissociate an artist from his or her art. In his play Amadeus, Peter Shaffer portrays the great composer as a vulgar, over-sexed, childish man. Although not historically accurate, I believe the playwright is making exactly the same point as Father Lee - that geniuses are, more often than not, less than perfect men or women.

Wagner’s curse is that his music was purportedly loved by Hitler, although I suspect the Führer’s understanding of Wagner’s music was probably very superficial. Hitler also professed to love the music of Schubert and Bruckner, and their names have never been tainted because of it. Another one of Father Owen Lee’s many books is titled Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art. The very rich body of music was Wagner’s true contribution to humanity.

To all who read this article, I wish you a very joyous and peaceful Christmas, and a very happy and healthy 2013.

Monday, December 17, 2012

50th Anniversary in Los Angeles

On January 15th, 1961, a young conductor named Zubin Mehta arrived in Los Angeles to rehearse the Los Angeles Philharmonic in preparation for a series of concerts. Mr. Mehta was almost completely unknown to orchestra or audience in Los Angeles. He had just been appointed music director designate for the Montreal Symphony, but who in Los Angeles had ever heard of the Montreal Symphony in 1961? Mehta’s appearance with the orchestra was the result of a cancellation by Fritz Reiner, who was supposed to have conducted.

At both rehearsals and concerts, the chemistry between conductor and orchestra was apparent from the start. The day after an especially successful concert, the orchestra administration offered Mr. Mehta the post of “associate conductor”. There have been many versions of the events that transpired next, but what eventually happened was that Georg Solti, the orchestra’s music director designate, was offended that he was not consulted about Mr. Mehta’s appointment, and resigned before he even began his tenure with the orchestra. Suddenly left without a music director, and seeing Mehta’s incredible success with both orchestra and audience, they offered the job to him instead. For the next 16 seasons, Mr. Mehta elevated the Los Angeles Philharmonic to a world class orchestra, with successful concerts throughout the musical world and recordings that still remained cherished items among music lovers.

This past weekend, the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Mr. Mehta’s tenure as music director of the orchestra. The programme was a re-creation of the concert he conducted as music director – the Busoni version of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, which incorporates the use of trombones as well as music from the end of the opera, Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler Symphony, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.  It is a serious programme, certainly far from the “showy” pieces Mr. Mehta has been accused of favouring.

Mr. Mehta’s 16-year tenure with the orchestra was not all smooth sailing. Despite his chemistry with the orchestra and popularity with audience, he would, for years, receive scathing reviews from the Los Angeles Times and its chief critic, Martin Bernheimer, who seemed to have devoted much of his career to (unsuccessfully) destroying Mr. Mehta’s reputation. Indeed, in his younger days, Zubin Mehta did not seem to have much luck with the critics, the main complaints being the conductor’s apparent superficiality, a lack of discipline and “depth” in his interpretations. I remember one reviewer, praising the conductor’s recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, adding that, “Alas, he is good for nothing else.” Such a statement is not only an insult to Mr. Mehta’s talents, but also disparaging towards the music of Liszt.

I have had the good fortune to hear Mr. Mehta in person on several occasions. In those occasions, and in listening to the conductor’s many recordings, I find the complaints from the gentlemen of the press entirely unjustified.

Is Zubin Mehta a great conductor? Certainly.  Is he the “greatest”? I do not know, because I do not know what the word means. From listening to his music making, I can only say that Mr. Mehta is a hugely talented and extremely serious musician. Yes, he did conduct the by now famous “Three Tenors” concert, but then so did James Levine, whose reputation did not seem to have suffered from such an association.

In recent years, critics seem to have been kinder, at least fairer, to Mr. Mehta. Perhaps he will now receive what he has always deserved, to be judged by the merits of each performance, and not by the preconceived and malicious stereotypes.

Rather than relying on the words of the “distinguished” critics of the Times, maybe we could end by recalling the words of Arthur Rubinstein, who said, “Some of my most joyous and inspired performances have been in collaboration with Zubin Mehta.”

Endorsement indeed, coming from a pianist who had probably played with most of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Alone with Ryo Yanagitani

When pianist Glenn Gould recorded the piano music of Jan Sibelius, the pianist experimented with what he termed acoustical “orchestration.” Different sets of microphones were placed at various distances from the piano, some only a few inches from the piano, and others yards away from the instrument. The final master tape was a result of a “mixing plan” that “favors (sic) the image of the instrument most appropriate to the music of the moment.” Listening to the recording, the sound is always subtly shifting from one “perspective” to another, all in order to suit the “mood” of the music.

Listening to pianist Ryo Yanagitani’s latest recording – Alone With Debussy – I could not help but think that Gould’s aforementioned recording plan would have further enhanced these already outstanding performances. Let me begin by saying that engineer Chris Cline did an excellent job of capturing the natural sound of the piano, and the recorded sound is one that is wonderfully alive and present. The recording team favoured a sound that presented the piano in a rather close-up fashion, almost like the pick up favoured by jazz pianists. The microphone placement in the present recording perfectly captured the musical character and sound of pieces such as the Prélude, Menuet, and Passpied from the Suite Bergamasque, the Prélude and Toccata from Pour le Piano, and Mouvement from Images. Other pieces, such as the justly famous Clair de Lune, the two Arabesques, and Reflets dans l’eau, I feel, would perhaps benefit from a more distant microphone pickup.

The music of Claude Debussy forms the cornerstone of many of the greatest pianists of our time. For me, as a listener, not every one who plays Debussy, even the greatest pianists, plays him convincingly or idiomatically. When I was younger, I was bowed over by Walter Gieseking, especially the ravishing pianissimos. After a while though, I felt that everything he played began to sound the same. Arturo Benedetti Michaelangeli’s playing of the composer benefits from absolutely perfect technical control, but leaves me cold emotionally. Yet another great pianist and artist, Claudio Arrau, was surprisingly heavy handed when he played Debussy.

In this new recording, I find Yanagitani’s interpretation of the many familiar pieces, and the one unfamiliar (for me) Ballade, presented in this recording, both technically impregnable and musically utterly convincing. I loved the spaciousness and impeccable sense of timing in his playing of the Prélude from the Suite Bergamasque, as well as the rhythmic incisiveness of the Menuet, and Passpied. The very much maligned Clair de Lune sounds ravishing in the hands of the young pianist, and shines forth as the masterpiece it is, as does the relatively rarely played Ballade.

Pour le Piano was Debussy’s efforts in fully exploiting the “vast possibilities of color (sic) and texture the instrument has to offer” (from programme notes). It is also a most severe test of the pianist technical and interpretative abilities. Yanagitani very successfully and effortlessly brought out the colours and excitement of the Prélude and Toccata, and conveyed the absolute serenity of the Sarabande.

Ryo Yanagitani sets an equally high level in his playing of Book 1 of Images. The difficulty lies not only in rising to the considerable technical challenges, but in capturing and recreating the composer’s three sonic evocations. Listening to these very pieces reminds me yet again how musical masterpieces can sound new and fresh under the hands of a talented artist, as is case with Mr. Yanagitani.

This is Ryo Yanagitani’s second commercial recording. Both this and his first recording (Alone With Chopin) had been beautifully recorded in San Antonio, Texas. Judging from the playing in this recording, I expect and hope that we will be hearing much more from this talented Canadian artist. Mr. Yanagitani will soon be in residence in Washington, D.C., as a result of being one of the winners of the S&R Foundation’s Fellowship programme. The capital of the free world will, at least temporarily, be the beneficiary of Mr. Yanagitani’s artistry and talents.

Canada must find a way to lure him back to his native land.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Horowitz's Piano

I played on Vladimir Horowitz’s piano today.

When the great pianist died in 1989, Steinway & Sons decided to send Horowitz’s piano on tour, so that people can see it, touch it, play it. This week, the piano is “in residence” in Vancouver, and I got half an hour to play on it.

Few pianists, no matter how great their fame, are associated with just one instrument. Violinists and cellists travel with their own instruments, but the size of a concert grand piano makes such an arrangement just simply impractical, not to mention prohibitively expensive. But Horowitz was the supreme artist among Steinway’s roster of concert pianists, and when he said he wanted a certain piano, he got it. And so, Steinway piano CD503 would travel wherever Horowitz travels or records. The piano, along with legendary Steinway technician Franz Mohr, were even flown to Moscow and Leningrad for Horowitz’s triumphant return to the land of his birth in 1986, where he played in front of a weeping audience.

Steinway & Sons keep a fleet of concert grand pianos for use by its artists, and Steinway Artists are promised a good instrument to play on wherever they perform, in exchange for the promise to exclusively use Steinway instruments. I have witnessed pianists breaching this agreement, but that’s another story…

The idea of a “Steinway Artist” began as a bit of a marketing ploy. When the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein toured the United States, he had an arrangement with the piano firm to use their pianos exclusively for his concerts – an early form of product endorsement. William Steinway probably never dreamt that the roster of Steinway Artist would grow to as long as it has. Today, there are Steinway Artists in every genre of music, from Alfred Brendel to Billy Joel.

So what was it like to have played on Horowitz’s piano? It is a very responsive instrument, although the touch was not quite as light as everyone said it would be. The piano still has a gorgeous sound – even though it is beginning to show its age a bit - and an incredibly resonant bass register. Of course, what made it so special is the fact that this was Horowitz’s piano.

There are some very fine piano makers today, in North America, Europe and in Japan. There are pianos that are more expensive than the Steinway. For me, the pianos of Steinway and Sons will always be the standards against which other instruments are measured. I will only say that other pianos, however finely made, reflect the beauty of the instrument, while Steinway pianos reflect the uniqueness of every artist who plays it. On a Steinway piano, every artist can truly live by the dictum – To thine own self be true.

I will always remember this encounter with this holy relic of music – the instrument touched by the hands of Vladimir Horowitz.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Revisiting Brideshead

It’s amazing how so many people get it so wrong when it comes to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Although universally acknowledged as a masterpiece of literature in the 20th century, Brideshead Revisited is in fact one of the great Catholic novels of all times. Not surprisingly in our secular times, scholars and readers alike inevitably ignore, or choose to ignore, the explicitly Catholic elements that really forms the core of the entire novel.

In writing The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien once said that he started off wanting to write a story that is implicitly Catholic, but ended up writing an explicitly Catholic story. There is no doubt in my mind that in writing Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was consciously creating an explicitly Catholic story.

I believe one’s understanding of Brideshead Revisited would be incomplete without learning something about its creator. Evelyn Waugh was raised in a middle-class British family, and brought up in the Anglican faith. Although he professed his wish to become a clergyman at age ten, Waugh, like so many impressionable young men, soon entered a rebellious phase in his secondary school years, where he was taught to “think for himself.” When he entered Oxford, he claimed that he did no work and “never go to Chapel.”

Waugh left Oxford in 1924, and attended Heatherley’s Art School in London. He quit school again and became a teacher in a boys’ school. At one point, he became so depressed with his lack of accomplishments in life that he tried to drown himself. Waugh swam out to the ocean, and was stung by a school of jellyfish - a “sharp recall to good sense,” in his own words. He swam back to shore, and began to write seriously. By 1928, he had already had two published works. In the same year, Waugh married, but soon discovered that his wife was having an extramarital affair. The marriage ended in divorce.

Waugh began to long for a sense of order to his life, a kind of spiritual and moral anchor. He encountered a Father Martin Cyril D’Arcy, who encouraged him to look at Catholicism from an intellectual and logical standpoint. Evelyn Waugh was received into to Catholic Church 1930, and remained true to his Catholic faith until his death on Easter Sunday, 1966.

Many have said that in writing about Charles Ryder, the main character in Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was really writing about himself and especially his experiences at Oxford. Although there are similarities between the author and his fictional creation, I do not believe readers should try too hard in drawing parallels between the two. For me, Waugh was merely using himself as raw material in creating Ryder, just as Puccini drew from his own experiences as a young artist in creating La Boheme; just as any creative process which deduces and induces from life.

Brideshead Revisited is the story of Charles Ryder, an artistically inclined, agnostic young man with neither rank nor fortune, and his friendship with members of the aristocratic Catholic Flyte family. Charles’ friendship, first with Sebastain Flyte, younger son of Lord Marchmain, and then with other members of the Flyte family, shows the variety of reactions people to Catholicism, and how different people choose to live, or alienate himself or herself from the Catholic faith. Through his friendship with this flawed Catholic family, Waugh also tells the story of Charles’ eventual conversion to the Catholicism.

Right from the beginning of the novel, we see, in the words of George Weigel, “Evelyn Waugh’s deeply Catholic imagination.” In the first chapter of Book One, Waugh describes Oxford to be a place where “men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman’s day…” In evoking the name of Blessed John Henry Newman, Waugh immediately sets the tone for the entire story, and gives us a hint of what is to come.

At the center of the story is the friendship between Charles and Sebastian, and later the love between Charles and Julia. Charles met Sebastian during their time at Oxford, and an intense friendship ensues. As they get to know each other, Sebastian brings Charles to Brideshead, his stately and magnificent home, on several occasions, where Charles is overwhelmed by the beauty and sensuousness of the house and its surroundings. Through Sebastian and the Flyte family, Charles himself starts to first question and eventually wonder about the Catholic faith. Sebastian and Julia are the members of the family who have, other than attending the occasional Mass, practically left the practice of the faith. Yet, we can see in their response to Charles, who was questioning them about their religion, how their faith is still gnawing at their conscience:

Charles: I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?
Sebastian: Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.

Later on, almost the same exchange between Charles and Julia, by then lovers, takes place:

Charles: You do know at heart that it’s all bosh, don’t you?
Julia: How I wish it was!

When the Flyte family gets together, the children often ask Lady Marchmain to read. A story she read one evening is one of G. K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries. In the story, Father Brown says that he caught the thief “with an unseen hook and in invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

Waugh himself says, “The Roman Catholic Church has the unique power of keeping remote control over human souls which have once been part of her. G.K. Chesterton has compared this to the fisherman's line, which allows the fish the illusion of free play in the water and yet has him by the hook; in his own time the fisherman by a 'twitch upon the thread' draws the fish to land."

Time and time again, we see in the story signs of Julia and Sebastian’s eventual reconversion to their Catholic faith. Charles’s friendship with Sebastian cools and then deteriorates, partly because of Sebastian’s sinking into alcoholism. When Sebastian’s own life hit rock bottom, a religious order takes charge of him, and he becomes a part of the community. When Cordelia relates all this to Charles, he feels pity for him, and wonders aloud how Sebastian’s life would end. Cordeila’s response again shows, through Waugh, how God’s providential plan works differently on different individual:

I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I’ve seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He’ll live on, half in, half out of, the community, a familiar figure pottering around with his broom and his bunch of keys. He’ll be a great favourite with the old fathers…If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Home of their student days, and remember him in their masses.

Years later, Charles, now married and a successful painter, meets up again with Julia. Julia has married Rex Mottram, a very charismatic and successful politician, but the marriage is an unhappy one. Waugh’s description of Mottram, in Julia’s words, fits the description of the modern man – successful, self-assured, capable, confident, but soulless:

He simply wasn’t all there. He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending he was the whole.

Charles and Julia’s friendship ripens and they become lovers. Charles leaves his wife and family, and he and Julia live at Brideshead, planning on eventually marrying after their respective divorces come through. It is at this point that God’s unseen thread begins to bring her back with “a twitch upon a thread,” not coincidentally the title of Book Three of the novel.

Julia tells Charles that when she thought she was pregnant with Rex’s child, she decided that she would have it brought up Catholic:

I hadn’t thought about religion before; I haven’t since; but just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, “That’s one thing I can give her. It doesn’t seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it.”

She adds that she thought she was being punished for marrying Rex, and that she couldn’t get the idea of Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell, out of her mind, “It becomes part of oneself, if they give it one early enough.”

When Lord Marchmain becomes gravely ill, and decides to return to Brideshead to die, Julia and Charles have repeated arguments about whether a priest should be call in to administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Charles takes for granted that Lord Marchmain, who has not been a practising Catholic since he left his wife, would not want it. Julia, wrestling with her own conscience decides, in spite of Charles’s resistance, finally decides to call for a priest. The death of Lord Marchmain, who everyone thought was too far gone to notice anything, remains one of the most moving scenes of the entire novel. Charles, the agnostic, the sceptic, finds himself “longing for a sign” from God, if only for the sake of Julia:

The priest took the little silver box from his pocket and spoke again in Latin, touching the dying man with an oily wad; he finished what he had to do, put away the box and gave the final blessing. Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought that he had felt the touch of the chrism and was wiping it away. ‘O God,” I prayed, ‘don’t let him do that.’ But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. That I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

That sign marks the final phase of Julia’s journey home to the Church, and the beginning of Charles’s only spiritual journey. Both Julia and Charles realize that their love for each other, though genuine, is, again quoting George Weigel, “an adulterous love on both sides. But this love, too, has limits. It is also love-as-escape, the effort to create a new and solitary Arcadia with Julia at Brideshead, like the Arcadia that life at Oxford in the first flush of friendship with Sebastian had been.” The lovers realize that they must part.

Throughout the novel, Charles has been in search of love, in search of Arcadia. The idea of finding Arcadia, an “ideal region of rural contentment,” according to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, is one of the recurrent motifs that run throughout the story. In his journey, Charles first loves Sebastian, who “is the forerunner” for Charles’s higher love for Julia.

At the end of Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder, a captain in the army training for World War II, happens to be stationed at Brideshead. Charles is a new convert to the Catholic faith. He now revisits Brideshead, and the chapel within, he realizes that the sanctuary lamp is once again lit, signalling that the chapel is in active use, and that the Blessed Sacrament is present within the tabernacle:

Something quite remote from anything the builders intended, has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time; a small red flame – a beaten-cooper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-cooper doors of a tabernacle…It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

After a quick prayer in the chapel, Captain Ryder emerges from Brideshead, at peace with himself. Seeing him, his second-in-command comments, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today.” Charles Ryder’s search for love ends with his conversion to the Catholic faith. He has found the highest form of love, because God is love - Deus caritas est.

Evelyn Waugh’s own journey as a Catholic was an uphill one, and he has no illusion that everyone within the Church, himself least of all, is a saint. When Sebastian tells Charles that “it’s very difficult being a Catholic”, one can almost see Waugh himself talking. But in his letter to writer Edith Sitwell as she was preparing to be received into the Church, he wrote:

I am sure you know the world well enough to expect Catholic boors and prigs and crooks and cads. I always think to myself: “I know I’m awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.” One of the joys of Catholic life is to recognize the sparks of good everywhere, as well as the fires of the saints.

Brideshead Revisited is a story about conversion, about love, and about redemption. The love described in the story is not the kind of love one sees in Hollywood or romance novels, but responsible love. In his excellent essay on Brideshead Revisited, George Weigel writes that in order for Julia to “grow into love, she has to accept that she’s been living as she shouldn’t, and that the only remedy for that is to stop, confess, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation.”

So why do I say that people get it wrong about this novel? I had read this story as a teenager, and thought it beautiful. But it wasn’t until I re-read it later did I realize that without understanding or realizing the Catholic elements that author carefully but deliberately embedded within, this novel would merely be one of many beautifully written stories. Even the synopsis at the back of my Penguin edition missed the point completely, probably deliberately:

Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebatsian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize his spiritual and social distance from them.

If you read this novel as a story of nostalgia for a more elegant past, or of romantic love, you are missing entirely the story Evelyn Waugh wants to tell you, and you would be disappointed with how the story evolves. Without understanding the concept of love from a Catholic point of view, the layers and depth of human relationships and love in this story would be missed.

In this Year of Faith for the Catholic church, Brideshead Revisited reminds us that one person’s faith journey is different from another’s, and that a “journey home” is possible for everyone, no matter how much or how far he or she had fallen away. God’s fisherman line extends far and wide, and that “twitch upon the thread” can come when we least expect it.

Patrick May
Vancouver, Canada

Monday, November 5, 2012

New and Old Friends

It’s always exciting to witness the debut of a young conductor. This past Saturday, conductor Alondra de la Parra, who is making quite a name these last couple of years, made her debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

On top of the familiar repertoire that made up the bulk of her programme, she was given the task of the Canadian premiere of composer Edward Top’s Symphony Golden Dragon. It is difficult to judge a work based on a single hearing, but Saturday’s performance of the work reinforced for me the question of the role of the composer in today’s society. Mr. Top’s work seems to be made up of a series of climaxes, where the composer, in his own words, “pulled out all the stops”, and challenged the skills of especially the percussion section of the orchestra. I could not help but wonder whether a piece like this would be played after the premiere, or would it be filed along with many pieces like it in the shelves of the Canadian Music Centre. That said, I can say that Ms. De la Parra did her best to bring out the strengths of the rather colourful, if soulless music.

It is always a treat to hear pianist Angela Cheng perform. For me, there is a refreshing lack of ego in her playing. For this visit, she essayed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466. Ms. Cheng has always been a wonderful Mozart player, and her performance on Saturday was no exception. She brought out the dark undercurrents of the music to perfection, but contrasted them with the sunnier aspects of the music. She was not afraid of injecting boldness and colours to the music, while balancing it within the realm of classical constraint.

The Romanze, with a stormy middle section bookended by a simple but sublimely beautiful opening and closing, was magnificently realized. In the third movement, there seemed to have been a bit of tempo discrepancy between soloist and conductor. Ms. Cheng set quite a lively tempo in her opening, but Ms. de la Parra clearly conducted the orchestral response more slowly. Soloist and orchestra eventually came to some agreement in terms of tempo, but I could not help but sense a slight stylistic tug-of-war between conductor and soloist. Sometimes this kind of tension makes for an exciting performance, as was the case on Saturday.

There was much to admire in the conductor’s reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98. I especially enjoyed the passion that she brought to the third and fourth movements of the work. In measure 88 of the second movement, there was a palpable warmth and beautiful glow in the strings that one does not always hear from this orchestra except under the best guest conductors.

I must confess a disagreement with the conductor’s choice of tempi for the first two movements, which she took rather slowly. It was not the slowness of the tempi that I quibble, but the fact that her choice of tempi for the first two movements disturbs, or disrupts, the tempo relationship with the final two movements of the symphony. She conducted the symphony beautifully, even brilliantly, but I feel that when viewed as a whole, there was a feeling of lopsidedness to the structure of the symphony in her reading.

Ms. de la Parra is clearly a musician with a voice, and a conductor with strong convictions. She is, I feel, a young artist who is still finding her way, but better this than taking the easy way out. It would be very interesting to witness her development in the next decade. I very much look forward to future visits by these two outstanding artists.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Czech Nonet

It was an embarrassment of riches last night in Vancouver – the opera presented their second performance of La Bohème, Paul Lewis played a recital of late Schubert sonatas, and the Friends of Chamber Music presented the Czech Nonet in a programme of Wagner, Prokofiev, and Dvořák.

Formed in 1924, the nine players of the Czech Nonet, a combination of wind and string players, play a wide array of repertoire, from the Baroque to the 20th century. Of great interest to me was their performance of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, one of the composer’s most lovable and loving works. I had only heard the work performed by a full orchestra, and so I was very curious to hear this scaled-down version of the piece (the original score was scored for 13 players.)

Siegfried Idyll was beautifully executed by the Nonet. However, I do have a quibble with extremely slow tempo they set for the opening which, to me, went against Wagner’s marking of bewegt – lively, or with motion, roughly translated. For me, the tempo of a piece of music is of secondary importance, as long as the players can maintain the tension within the music. In this case, however, the extremely leisurely opening tempo makes the tempo relationship with the other sections irrelevant. Shortly after the opening, Wagner writes Noch mehr zurückhaltend – still more holding back, which became difficult since the opening tempo was already so “held back.” I feel that Wagner is warning us against the danger of the piece becoming too static, since he fills the pages of this relatively short work with instructions in tempo changes. Only in the final bars did Wagner use the word langsamer – slower. Again, this becomes less meaningful since the opening bars were already played so slowly.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet in A Minor for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Bass, Op. 39 shows the composer at his sardonic best. To me, the sense of humour found in this work is almost an extension of the black humour one finds in the scherzo movements of Mahler symphonies; bits of the writing for winds even reminds me of Webern. I remember the delight Prokofiev took in imagining how the players look when they play certain passages. I think the composer would have been pleased and tickled by the performance last night. The players obviously relished the many technical and musical challenges the work offers, and brought out the sarcasm and humour that is inherent in every one of the six-movement work.

After the interval, the entire ensemble returned and essayed Antonin Dvořák’s Serenade in D Minor for winds, cello and double bass, Op. 44. According to the programme notes, Brahms was impressed enough with the work to have recommended it to his friend Joseph Joachim. The charm of the piece is that it does not pretend to be more than what it is – a simple but beautiful piece of music that aims to delight. From the opening march, reminiscent of Mozart’s wind serenades and Schubert’s German dances to the jubilant finale, the players conveyed their love for the score, and performed it with all charm and gusto. The slow movement, marked Andante con moto, brought out especially ravishing playing from the wind instrumentalists.

Considering all the musical events that were available last evening, the concert had a fairly good house. In this difficult economic climate, I do hope that the Friends of Chamber Music, now in their 65th season, will continue to bring Vancouver audiences this purest form of music making.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Elusive Bohème

What is it about Puccini’s La Bohème that makes it so difficult to bring off? Technically, it is certainly less complex than anything by Wagner, or even Verdi. To be sure, it requires very good voices, as any great opera does. But a great performance of La Bohème calls for more than great voices, or beautiful tunes.

Vancouver Opera’s latest production of the perennially and justifiably popular opera again illustrates the difficulties in any performance of this great work. Other than a very moving fourth act, the performance was strangely lacking in passion. All the principals had beautiful voices, the orchestra played competently, and conductor Leslie Dala held everything together - but there was no sense of urgency in the performance. Once when coaching tenor Vinson Cole, Herbert von Karajan told him to sing “as if the police were behind you,” precisely the kind of urgency, an ardent quality in the music making, that the performance lacked. When we add up all the elements of this particular production, it just doesn’t add up to be more than merely the sum of its parts.

In 1982, New York’s Metropolitan Opera put on a new production of La Bohème, directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli. The performance, televised on Public Television, remains for me, one of the most moving performances of that opera. Even with the extremely poor sound quality, all the singers poured their hearts out and became, a la Stanislavski, the characters they were portraying. Years later, I visited the Metropolitan Opera and saw the same production of the opera with a different cast of singers and a different conductor, and the performance was one of the least inspiring and most lacklustre La Bohème I had seen.

Other than total commitment on the part of the singers, La Bohème requires a conductor that does more than direct traffic, but one that possesses a definite vision of the score. On opening night, Leslie Dala merely accompanied the singers in beautiful singing, rather than drove and inspired everyone on stage and in the pit to give more of themselves than they thought possible. There was a complete lack of tension in the music making – not physical tension, but a tension in the musical fabric.

Once again, singers and instrumentalists were not helped by the dead acoustics of the atrocious Queen Elizabeth Theatre. No matter how hard they are singing or playing, the sound just does not bloom in that dreadful space.

Nancy Hermiston directed the production with her usual thoughtfulness, but I believe that she was somewhat limited by the constraints of the rather small set, and thereby missed many dramatic possibilities in the action.

And so, I will continue to search for that perfect La Bohème. Perhaps one fine evening, when all the stars are aligned correctly, we will see and hear a performance of this magnificent opera when all the elements come together to give us a Bohème that far exceeds the sum of its parts. Perhaps that is asking a lot, but it was and is what Puccini’s great score calls for, and it is what every piece of great music calls for in its performance.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Miraculous Evening

Pianist Ferruccio Busoni once said that, when performing, a musician must, “Find and lose himself at the same time.” I have the feeling that András Schiff was doing exactly that when he played the complete first book of J. S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. After the final chord of the 24th fugue, I felt that to applaud would have been almost rude, or at least an intrusion, since Schiff was obviously so very absorbed in Bach’s sound world. (I cannot help but recall Glenn Gould’s very clever and funny article: Let’s Ban Applause.) For more than two hours, András Schiff was a man who lost himself in Bach’s music, and yet one who saw clearly the way before him. A fine balance indeed.

What can one say after such an evening? To use words like “great”, or “wonderful”, or even “magnificent” seems trite and meaningless after such an experience. One can only say what a privilege it had been to witness the recreation of Bach’s miraculous creations – the first of two books of preludes and fugues in alternating major and minor keys. In the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, and in the Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering, Bach exploited contrapuntal compositional technique with such mastery, and reached such incredible heights of sophistication and complexity, that he essentially left other composers with nothing more to say on the subject.

András Schiff wrote that, “Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours.” Certainly, comparing Schiff’s playing of these pieces with that of Glenn Gould’s recordings, Gould’s interpretation is, deliberately so, much more austere - I cannot help but make an association with Gould’s fondness for black and white films. Schiff’s interpretation is certainly full of colours and, for lack of a better word, more “romantic” – not in the sense that he disregards Baroque performance practice, but in that his playing has more of a sense of fantasy. While, for me, Gould’s playing transcends the instrument, Schiff makes no apologies about exploring all the tonal possibilities of the modern piano – and what a beautiful Steinway he was playing on last night! Surely Bach’s compositions leave room for a whole host of varying interpretations, all equally valid.

In his playing, Schiff made it seem like each prelude leads seamlessly into the fugue, which in turn leads into the next set. The pianist has lived with these pieces for a long time, and there was an incredible sense of totality in his playing of the entire set. In the massive B Major fugue, the last of the set, he made it seem as if the entire piece was conceived in one long breath, and he builds the music with a clear sense of the goal. When he reaches the magical B Major chord at the end, there was a feeling of complete satisfaction.

The Vancouver Recital Society has scored a real coup here in having András Schiff give the first concert of his year-long Bach project, where he will perform throughout North America the bulk of Bach’s major solo works – the Well Tempered Clavier, the French Suites, the English Suites, the Partitas, and culminating with a performance of the Goldberg Variations in Carnegie Hall, New York. We must be grateful to Leila Getz, artistic director of the VRS, for bringing us concerts of this calibre, so that we in our little corner of Vancouver can experience the same recitals as audiences in New York, London and Paris.

But in the end, we are left to ponder, in wonder and amazement, at these incredible musical works that Bach left us: Music that elevates the mind, fills the soul, and lifts the spirit. Music that, in the words of Arthur Schnabel, is greater than anyone could ever play. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am most thankful for having Mr. Schiff in our midst, for making this music come alive with his hand and heart.

And humanity will forever be in your debt, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Hong Kong Philharmonic

Among the many high calibre orchestras of the world, the history of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra holds a unique place in the story of its evolution.

The orchestra began as an amateur group in the 1960’s, its members truly a reflection of the ethnic diversity of Hong Kong. Other than a few double-bass players of Filipino origin, the string section of the orchestra was made up mostly of Chinese players. The wind and brass section consisted of members of the British police and military bands. The group, led by an Italian conductor, one Professor Foa, gave occasion performances in the newly opened City Hall concert hall. I would guess that there was a great deal of flux among members of the orchestra, as well as the standard of music making.

In 1974, the orchestra gave its inaugural concert as a professional ensemble. Its first music director was an Indonesian-Chinese violinist / conductor Lim Kek-Tjiang, who had studied violin with the legendary Georges Enesco. The orchestra played a total of ten programmes during the year of its inception.

I have memories of hearing the orchestra shortly during those heady days, and what struck me was that the musicians played with great fire and enthusiasm, but the sound was often rather rough. I do remember a very memorable concert with a very young Itzhak Perlman, playing the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concerti in one evening. The ovation from the audience led Perlman to play two Paganini Caprices as encores. Moreover, the orchestra was never shy to tackle the major works from the canon of western symphonic literature. In the 1976 – 1977 season, the orchestra ventured into the world of opera, presenting Smetana’s The Bartered Bride as its first efforts. All in all, it was not a bad beginning for the sometimes fledging ensemble.

Since its founding, the orchestra has had its ups and downs. Conductors came and went; some boosted morale among players and brought the orchestra to a higher level of excellence, others having the opposite effect on the orchestra. The orchestra’s standards must have been helped also by the constant influx of great orchestras and conductors visiting Hong Kong. Ever since 1973, the Hong Kong Arts Festival has brought to the city most of the world’s greatest orchestras. During the weeks of the Festival, and throughout the year, the orchestra would find itself playing alongside orchestras such as the London Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic, to name just a few. I would guess that such competition would only breed excellence.

I next heard the orchestra in June of 1989, shortly after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in China. The city, still under British administration, saw the true face of its future Chinese masters, and was in somewhat of a state of crisis. I do remember the programme from the two concerts I attended, under then music director Kenneth Schermerhorn – Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Mahler’s 5th symphony, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto and Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. The coincidence of having the Shostakovich was certainly ironic, since the piece was written during the height of the Stalinist terror, when the composer was trying to redeem himself in the dictator’s eyes. The soloist for the piano concerti was Jon Kimura Parker, fresh from his win at the Leeds Piano Competition. What stunned me was how much the orchestra had improved after only a dozen years, from the tightness of its ensemble, to the sheer sound of the orchestra.

I believe the orchestra began its rise to its current level of prominence with the arrival of the two recent music directors – David Atherton and Edo de Waart. I had heard the orchestra on two more occasions, a concert conducted by Atherton and the other by Gianluigi Gelmetti (but during the tenure of Edo de Waart). In both instances, the musicians gave performances that could stand alongside those given by any world class orchestra.

There are those who criticize the Hong Kong Philharmonic for relying too much on “overseas” talents, and not drawing upon the pool of local (read Chinese) musicians. To that rather narrow view I would only say that Hong Kong is an international city, and any orchestra nowadays would try to attract musicians from all over the world, regardless of their ethnicity. The Hong Kong Philharmonic is no different from any other orchestra in that it tries to get the best musician to fill every available position.

The rapid growth of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s, benefited from the British administration’s commitment to promoting culture. The former government of Hong Kong, in the form of the Urban Council, devoted much of its resources to making various forms of culture accessible to its citizens. Because of this, the Hong Kong Philharmonic has always been able to recruit the services of very high calibre orchestral musicians, soloists and conductors.

At this point, the future of Hong Kong is uncertain. China’s dictators, acting through Hong Kong’s rubber-stamp government, is determined to destroy Hong Kong’s unique identity as well as its social fabric, and to quell its people’s independent spirit. Under such a political climate, I can only pray that the city’s role as one of the world’s cultural capitals can and will remain strong, and that culture will not be a victim of China’s attempts at making Hong Kong part of its monolith.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Finding Richter

I know of two books by musicians from the former Soviet Union that give us a glimpse of the artist, but also into the lives of artists and society in general in that imprisoned society. Galina by Galina Vishnevskaya and Testimony: The Memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich by Solomon Volkov. In those two volumes, both authors were scathing in their criticism of the lies, hypocrisy, cruelty, unfairness, and, often, stupidity within Soviet society.

But in this latest book about a musician of the Soviet Union, Sviatoslav Richter – pianist, by Karl Aage Rasmussen (Boston University Press, Boston), finally gives us a peek into the life of one of the great pianists of the 20th century. Born on March 20th, 1915 in Zhitomir, Sviatoslav Richter led a sheltered childhood, a developed “veritable hatred of school, ball playing, sports competitions, and anything else that smacks of competition or espirt de corps.” The writer went on to say that “Richter’s lifelong dislike of any form of competition, in art, politics, love, and daily life, presumably has its roots here.” In this way, Richter has a similar outlook as pianist Glenn Gould, who also disdained competition and any form of competitiveness. Like Gould, Richter was an iconoclast who did things exactly his way – in choice of repertoire, pianos, where to perform and where not to perform, and in how he approached each work he played.

Teofil Richter, the pianist’s father, taught piano to the Consul’s children, and Sviatoslav Richter himself performed at cultural evenings at the consulate, to the extent that he played in a memorial service for the death of Paul von Hindenburg. Because of this close association with the German community in the Soviet Union, and with the German sounding last name, Teofil Richter “was arrested and shot by the secret police before the Germans and the Romanian Fascists reached Odessa in 1941.” Another dark chapter in Richter’s life involved his relationship with his mother, who escaped with her lover Sergei Kondratiev (who was of German ancestry) to Germany after the war. Because of Richter’s name in the music world, Kondratiev later even changed his own name to Richter, and pretended to be Teofil Richter’s younger brother. The pianist abhorred Kondratiev as a man, and considered that “his mother’s deception…the great tragedy of his life.”

The trials and tribulations of the composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev within the Soviet Union are well known to historians. The author devotes two chapters, one on the pianist’s relationship with each of the two great composers. Rasmussen also gives us much insight into the relationship with Heinrich Neuhaus, Richter’s great teacher and mentor, with his colleagues, the violinist David Oistrakh, pianist Emil Gilels, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and composer Benjamin Britten.

Most interesting is the pianist’s relationship with Nina Dorliak, whom many (myself included) considered to be his wife. From the book, I discovered that Richter was homosexual, and his cohabitation with Dorliak (they were never married) became a convenient front for Richter, since homosexuality was, to say the least, frowned upon in Soviet society. Eventually Dorliak became essentially someone Richter could not live without, since she travelled with him, took care of every single detail of his day-to-day living. The relationship between Richter and Nina Dorliak lasted more than fifty years (certainly longer than many marriages), and Dorliak only survived less than a year after Richter’s death.

Sviatoslav Richter was completely apolitical, and this one fact perhaps explains why he never considered living anywhere other than Russia, even during the darkest period of the Stalin era. After his first tour of the United States, pianist Rudolf Serkin offered to find Richter an apartment in New York if Richter decided not to return to the Soviet Union. Richter replied, “My countryman value you highly; if you wish to leave the United States, I can find an apartment in Moscow for you in less than fifteen minutes!” According to Rasmussen, “It takes a dearth of imagination to fail to understand how and why it was (and is) possible for people at all levels of society to find a totalitarian regime repulsive and, at the same time, acknowledge it as a sine qua non; it is narrow-minded to overlook how and why citizens in an unfree society can be both its victims and its supporters.” Perhaps this might explains the current attitude of people from Communist China or North Korea towards their own respective countries. And perhaps, like Richter, they simply see such a society, such a way of living, “as a condition of life.”

I count myself extremely fortunate to have heard both Richter and Emil Gilels – the other great Soviet pianist of the same generation - in concert. The playing of both pianists made an indelible impression in my mind. Of the two pianists, Gilels is the one more familiar to concert audiences, at least in North America, simply because he used to give concerts in the United States and Canada with some regularity. Richter played in the United States, a country he considered “vulgar”, only three times in his life. In fact, his dislike for long term planning led him to eventually form his own music festival, the Fêtes Musicales en Touraine in France, where he was treated like royalty by locals. In his own festival, Richter “enjoyed the freedom of giving concerts where no one could predict what he would play or when. He often surprised his audience with a sudden, unannounced concert or with cancellations” in his own festival, and in concerts in Japan, a country he admired and enjoyed visiting.

Rasmussen also devotes a chapter discussing Richter’s musical legacy, namely, his large and comprehensive discography. Richter’s many recordings consist of studio recordings with major labels, radio transmissions by dozens of broadcasting services, and “pirate” recordings of unknown origin. As the author rightly points out, it is impossible to discuss even the highlights all of Richter’s recordings. There are discussions of his major recordings of Beethoven sonatas (including a single recording of the massive Hammerklavier), Haydn sonatas, Liszt concerti and solo pieces, Handel Suites, and of course Bach’s two volumes of the Well Tempered Clavier. Richter was not hesitant to explore unusual repertoire, and some of these include Glazunov’s Concerto in F Minor, Dvorak’s Piano Concerto, Carl Maria von Weber’s Sonata No. 3, Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto, and Paul Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, Piano Concerto, and Kammermusik No. 2.

Of Richter’s many recordings, the author writes that they “emphasize the life-affirming fact that a musical performance is always both spirit and life, both soul and body.” Of the dubious sound of some of the pianists older and “pirated” recordings, the author adds that “the unique physical presence in Richter’s music keeps him wonderfully alive, in every sense of the word, even when he speaks to us through the fragile memory of an antiquated technology.”

For me, this book is, to date, perhaps the most comprehensive telling of the life and art of the great pianist. For a more intimate, if a bit one-sided, view of Sviatoslav Richter, one can do no better than Bruno Monsaingeon’s superb film Richter: The Enigma. In the video (alas not available on DVD in North America, since my VHS tape just broke from repeated viewing!), one sees and hears a continuing monologue by the pianist, his views on a variety of subjects, interspersed with precious footage (many excerpts from Soviet television and film archives in garish colours) of Richter’s performances.

More than a decade after his death, Sviatoslav Richter continues to fascinate us, as a man and as a musician, an artist. The more I listen to recordings from his vast catalogue, the more I find it tragic that, in our age of mass marketing of music and a sense of sameness in music-making, we no longer have an artist with the originality, the daring, and the stupendous imagination of a Sviatoslav Richter. Lovers of music, admirers of Sviatoslav Richter, and those interested in the musical life of the Soviet Union, would find this book most rewarding, revealing, and interesting.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Musical Journey

When record producer Walter Legge tried to convince conductor Carlo Maria Giulini to record a certain work, arguing that it would be good for his career, the already legendary conductor responded, with, I imagine, some disdain in his voice, “What is this word ‘career’?”

Pianist Lang Lang probably thinks of little else other than his career. After reading Journey of a Thousand Miles, Lang Lang’s memoir, given to me by a friend, I was filled with a sense of sadness; sadness at an artist who devotes so much of his considerable ability and obvious talent, not towards his own musical and artistic growth, but merely towards advancing his career. And sadness that this is an artist who symbolizes what most people would consider the future of serious music. It is also presumptuous and arrogant for an artist in his early thirties to think that a look back at his life is warranted. I am sure his legion of fans all over the world would disagree with me. Perhaps Lang Lang is taking lessons from pop star Justin Bieber, who published his memoir at an even earlier age.

If success in classical music is measured by record sales, concert attendance, and exposure in the press, Lang Lang can probably be considered to be the most successful musician on the planet.

It all began with Lang Lang’s father, a musician of the Erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument, who himself was denied entry to the conservatory, and ended up playing in the Chinese Air Force band. Lang Lang’s mother was also musical, and dreamt of becoming a singer or dancer. In the pianist’s own words, “As a child of two musicians who had had their ambitions and hopes shattered, I was born of great expectations – ones that both guided me and led me to great success.” Indeed the word success seems to be the leitmotif of the entire book and of Lang Lang’s life.

After discovering that his son is musically talented, Mr. Lang senior inflicted upon his son a regiment of practice that can only be described as inhumane and downright abusive. The approach of his father, again according to Lang Lang, “had to do with winning, winning, winning.” The only objective is to win every competition, and the phrase “to be number one” also appears frequently throughout this rather thin volume. When the pianist was rejected by a teacher, his father screamed at his son and offered him a choice of killing himself by taking poison, or by jumping off a building. I can only imagine what such an upbringing does to the psyche of a young person, let alone one who is sensitive.

Much of the book is devoted to the pianist’s string of triumphs in piano competitions, in China and then abroad, culminating in his winning of the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Japan, his success at the Curtis Institute of Music, and then even greater success with major conductors and orchestras the world over. Indeed, more than half of the book reads like a litany of accomplishments, almost like a World War II fighter pilot bragging about the number of enemy planes he shot down. It gets a little tiring after a while.

The young pianist has often been criticized for the flamboyance of his gestures while he plays. No one is able to judge whether, or how much, his rather extravagant gestures contribute toward his music-making. Maybe we can get some insight into the pianist’s gestures from his own words:

I thought of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, and in my mind I transformed their most brilliant moves into my playing: I imagined Jordan’s slam dunk as the big beginning of the Tchaikovsky chords; I thought of Tiger Woods’s swing while playing the octaves.

Well, whatever works for him, I guess.

In spite of the tension in their relationship, Lang Lang and his father eventually did reconcile their differences, to the extent that the two played a short duet at Lang Lang’s Carnegie Hall debut. Mr. Lang senior, the failed musician, made it to Carnegie Hall after all - Mr. Lang senior finally realized his own dream through his son.

In the final paragraph of his book, the pianist confesses that he has “always dreamed big.” Yes, Lang Lang, you have realized your big dreams. But, as violinist Malcolm Lowe says, music is not a business, and that music “can’t flourish without the idea that it is a gift.”

My only wish for Lang Lang is that he would one day devote his great abilities to deepening his understanding of music, to becoming a musician, and not merely a pianist who can play fast and loud. There is nothing at all wrong with success, but success and career do not guarantee deepening musicianship, no matter how loud or long the applause is.