The Well-Tempered Ear

Can American film director Ron Howard make a sensitive and accurate biopic of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang? Or is it a cultural appropriation that deserves to be condemned?

September 27, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The self-appointed PC diversity police have struck again.

This is getting silly and tiresome, insulting and embarrassing.

Some advocates of cultural diversity are crying foul over the latest project of the American and Academy Award-winning Hollywood film director Ron Howard: making a biopic of the superstar Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang (below).

The script will be drawn from the pianist’s bestselling memoir “Journey of a Thousand Miles” — which has also been recast as an inspirational children’s book — and the director and scriptwriters will consult with Lang Lang.

It seems to The Ear a natural collaboration, as well as a surefire box office hit, between two high-achieving entertainers. Check out their bios:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lang_Lang

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Howard

But some people are criticizing the project in the belief that because Ron Howard  (below) is white and Western, he cannot do justice to someone who is Chinese or to Asian culture.

Here is an essay, found on the website of Classic FM, by one objector. She is Chinese film director Lulu Wang (below), who says she has no interest in doing the project herself: https://www.classicfm.com/artists/lang-lang/pianist-biopic-ron-howard-faces-criticism-lulu-wang/

Talk about misplaced alarm over “cultural appropriation.”

Don’t you think that Lang Lang will have a lot to say about how he is depicted?

Do you wonder if Wang thinks cultural appropriation works in reverse?

Should we dismiss Lang Lang’s interpretations of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Bartok simply because he is non-Western and Chinese rather than German, French or Russian?

Of course not. They should be taken on their own merits, just as the interpretations of any other Asian classical musician, and artists in general including Ai Weiwei, should be.

But however unfairly, cultural appropriation just doesn’t seem to work in reverse.

Mind you, The Ear thinks that cultural appropriation is a valid concept and can indeed sometimes be useful in discussing cross-cultural influences.

But it sure seems that the concept is being applied in an overly broad and even misdirected or ridiculous way, kind of the way that the idea of “micro-aggressions” can be so generously applied that it loses its ability to be truthful and useful.

Take the example of the heterosexual Taiwanese movie director Ang Lee. He certainly proved himself able to depict American culture in “The Ice Storm” and the gay world in “Brokeback Mountain.”

Let’s be clear. The Ear is a piano fan.

But if he objects to the project, it is because he doesn’t like Lang Lang’s flamboyant playing, his Liberace-like performance manners and showmanship, and his exaggerated facial expressions.

Yet there is no denying the human appeal of his story. He rose from a young and suicidal piano student (below) who was emotionally abused by his ambitious father – shades of the lives of young Mozart and Beethoven and probably many other prodigies – to become the best known, most frequently booked and highest paid classical pianist in the world. 

Yet not for nothing did some critics baptize him with the nickname Bang Bang.

Still, the Curtis Institute graduate does all he can to foster music education, especially among the young and the poor.

And there is simply no denying his virtuosity. (See Lang Lang playing Liszt’s Paganini etude “La Campanella” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

So there is plenty to object to about Lang Lang the Piano Star besides the ethnicity of Ron Howard, who also did a biopic of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti, in telling his story.

What do you think?

Is it culturally all right for Ron Howard to direct a film about Lang Lang?

Do you look forward to the movie and seeing it?

What do you think of Lang Lang as a pianist and a celebrity?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: Meet Mariana Farah, the new choral director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

August 17, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Following a national search, Mariana Farah (below) has been chosen to succeed Beverly Taylor as the new director of choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Due to prior commitments, Farah cannot start her duties until the fall of 2021. But the delay is understandable given that the coronavirus pandemic continues and group singing remains a particularly hazardous or high-risk activity during the public health crisis. (See her comments about choral singing during Covid-19 in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

(In case you are wondering, Taylor, who retired from the UW-Madison last spring, will continue as director of the Madison Symphony Chorus. One wonders if she will still have a chance to do performances of the requiems by Verdi and Dvorak, both of which were canceled due to Covid-19.)

At a time when more focus is being placed on diversity, the Brazilian-born Farah (below) seems an especially apt choice.

Here is the official UW press release about Farah’s appointment along with much biographical material:

“Mariana Farah is the Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, where she teaches courses in graduate choral literature and conducting, directs the university’s Concert Choir and Women’s Chorale (below bottom), and helps oversee all aspects of the choral program.

Born in Brazil, Farah received her Bachelor of Music degree from the Universidade Estadual de Campinas; her Master’s degree from the University of Iowa; and her Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Her choirs have successfully performed at the Missouri and Kansas Music Educators Association conventions and at the 2008 and 2018 Southwestern ACDA conferences.

Farah’s research focuses on Brazilian choral music, particularly the a cappella choral works of Ernani Aguiar (b. 1950, below). Her edition of Aguiar’s “Três Motetinos No. 2” has been published by Earthsongs, and she expects to introduce more of his music to the United States through performances, recordings, editions and future publications of his unknown choral literature.

In addition to her work at KU, Farah (below) maintains an active schedule as a clinician for festivals in Brazil and in the U.S., where she is often sought out for her expertise in Brazilian choral music.

Farah has presented at several conferences for the National Association for Music Education and the American Choral Directors Association.

Recent engagements include appearances as a conductor at the 2019 Northwest Kansas Music Educators Association High School Honor Choir; the 2018 Southwestern ACDA conference, 2016 and 2014 Kansas Music Educators Association Convention; Universidade de São Paulo-Ribeirão Preto; Universidade Estadual de Campinas; Universidade Estadual de Maringá; Festival de Música de Londrina; Adams State Honor Choir Festival; the 2015 Kantorei Summer Choral Institute, a residency with the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum; and the 2014 Idaho All-State Treble Choir.

Farah is the music director at First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence, Kansas, where she directs the Chancel Choir and oversees a thriving music program. She also serves as the interim 2019-20 conductor for the Wichita Chamber Chorale (below) and as a board member of the National Collegiate Choral Organization.

She has served as the president elect (2018-2020) and R&R Chair for Ethnic and Multicultural Perspectives (2014-2018) for the ACDA Southwestern Division.

As a singer, Farah performed with the Kansas City Te Deum Chamber Choir (2015-2018) and participated in their 2016 recording of Brahms’ “A German Requiem” (Centaur Records). The recording was recognized by The American Prize, naming Te Deum a semi-finalist for best Choral Performance (community division) for the 2019-20 contest.

Do you have an observation or words of welcome to say?

Please use the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: What composer or piece of music would you like to hear once the coronavirus is contained and concert halls open again?

August 15, 2020
3 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

The news can be confusing and even contradictory about some specifics, but the general direction of reports and statistics about the coronavirus pandemic and deaths from COVID-19 is clear.

It is going to be a long haul until we safely get to go hear live music in large crowds again, just as The Ear talked about earlier this week. (Below is a photo of conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Overture Hall.)

Here is a link to that post: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2020/08/11/classical-music-its-clear-to-the-ear-it-will-be-at-least-another-full-year-before-music-lovers-in-the-u-s-can-safely-attend-live-concerts-what-do-you-think/

When performers finally get to play, and the concert halls finally get to open, and audiences finally get to listen in person, here is what The Ear wants to know:

What composer would you like hear?

Maybe Beethoven (below) because so much of the Beethoven Year – marking the composer’s 250th birthday this coming December – has been canceled or postponed?

Maybe Johann Sebastian Bach (below) because he just seems so basic, varied and universal?

And what specific piece of music would you like to hear?

Perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Choral” with its “Ode to Joy”? Or maybe the “Eroica” Symphony? Or one of the string quartets?

Perhaps the “St. Mathew Passion” or the Mass in B Minor? Maybe one or more of the cantatas?

Should the music pay homage to the suffering, loss and death – perhaps with Mozart’s “Requiem”? Or Brahms’ “A German Requiem”? Or Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony?

Or should the music be upbeat and joyous, like Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture” (below in the YouTube video)? Or some glittering and whirling waltzes by the Strauss family?

Is there an opera that seems especially relevant?

Would you prefer instrumental, choral or vocal music?

And what period, era or style would you prefer?

It will be great to be reacquainted with old and familiar friends. But it would also seem an ideal time to commission and perform new music.

Leave your suggestions in the Comment section with, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance to help us decide.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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