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
6 Comments

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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: This summer the Token Creek Festival goes online. The music starts TODAY at 4 p.m. Concerts run daily through Sept. 15 and remain up for this month

September 2, 2020
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival normally occurs in the final weeks of summer, just before Labor Day, in the welcoming rustic comfort of the beautifully converted barn (below) located on the rural farm property of composer John Harbison and violinist Rose Mary Harbison.

With its normal concert season canceled due to Covid-19, the festival is pleased to announce an alternative for the summer almost ended.

Slightly later than usual, “MUSIC FROM THE BARN” is a two-week virtual season, a retrospective of concert compilations from 30 years of performances.

The topical programs will be released daily over the period Sept. 1–15 at 4 p.m. (CDT), and will remain posted and available to “attendees” throughout the month. From anywhere in the world, you can revisit whole programs or individual pieces.

The goal of the series has been to achieve the broadest possible representation of repertoire and artists who have graced the Token Creek stage since the series began in 1989.

To festival-goers, it will come as no surprise that the virtual season emphasizes music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, vocal music, works by artistic director John Harbison and his colleagues, and, of course, jazz.

In addition to the welcoming beauty of the barn and festival grounds, with sparkling creek and abundant gardens and woods, and the convivial intermissions at every concert, one of the features most beloved by audiences is the concert introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and MIT professor John Harbison (below) that begins each program. Happily, these remain a feature of the virtual season as well.

Season Schedule

Tues., Sept. 1: Welcome and introduction from the artistic directors (below and  in the link to the YouTube video at the bottom)

TODAY, Wed., Sept. 2: Founders Recital

Thurs., Sept. 3: Haydn Piano Trios

Fri., Sept. 4: Bach I: Concertos

Sat., Sept. 5: A Vocal Recital (I)

Sun., Sept. 6: Beethoven

Mon., Sept. 7: Contemporaries

Tues., Sept. 8: Early Modernists

Wed., Sept. 9: A Vocal Recital (II): Schubert and Schumann

Thurs., Sept. 10: Jazz 2003-2019

Fri., Sept. 11: Neo-classicists: Pizzetti, Martinu, Stravinsky

Sat., Sept. 12: Schoenberg and His Circle

Sun., Sept. 13: Mozart

Tues., Sept. 14: John Harbison: Other Worlds

Wed., Sept. 15: Bach II: Preludes, Fugues, Arias, Sonatas

Programs will be posted on Token Creek’s YouTube Channel, accessible from the festival website (https://tokencreekfestival.org), which will also host concert details: works, artists, program notes and other information.

All concerts are FREE and open to the browsing public.

In addition to the virtual concert season, the Token Creek Festival is pleased to release two new CDs.

A Life in Concert (below) features music written for Rose Mary Harbison by John Harbison, and performances of diverse music by the two of them. It includes the world premiere recordings of Harbison’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Crane Sightings: Eclogue for Violin and Strings, inspired by frequent encounters with a pair of sandhill cranes at the Wisconsin farm.

Wicked Wit, Ingenious Imagination (below) offers four piano trios by Haydn, a beloved genre the festival has been surveying regularly since 2000.  CDs will be available at the festival website by mid-September.

For more information, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org

https://tokencreekfestival.org/2020-virtual-season/welcome/#


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Classical music: The Oakwood Chamber Players perform a mini-opera version of “A Christmas Carol” this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

December 6, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

Over several deuces, the Oakwood Chamber Players have built a solid reputation for their top-notch performances of unusual and neglected repertoire.

So it comes as no surprise that the group will offer one of the newer, more unusual and promising takes on the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.”

Twice this weekend, the Madison-based, widely experienced musical theater actor and baritone Robert A. Goderich reprises his tour-de-force performance, last done in 2016, of Charles Dickens’ characters for the Oakwood Chamber Players’ presentation of the mini-opera “The Passion of Scrooge” by New York composer Jon Deak.

A dozen musicians, including ensemble members with special guest artists, provide the platform for Goderich’s characterizations on this coming Saturday night, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m., and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 8, at 2 p.m.

The concerts take place at Oakwood Village University Woods Auditorium at 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets are available at the door and are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $5 for students. Go to https://www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Members of the ensemble for this program are: Marilyn Chohaney (flute), Nancy Mackenzie (clarinet), Anne Aley (horn), Elspeth Stalter Clouse (violin) and Maggie Darby Townsend (cello), and guest musicians Hillary Hempel (violin), Emma Cifrino (viola), Brad Townsend (bass), Mike Koszewski (percussion), and Margaret Mackenzie (harp).

Over the past two decades, New York Philharmonic bassist and composer Jon Deak (below) has created a variety of “concert dramas” that tell stories through words and sound. 

Performed annually at the Smithsonian, this two-act musical setting re-imagines Ebenezer Scrooge’s struggle to transform his past, present and future from a life of avarice to warmth and humanity.

As singer and narrator, Goderich, who plays all the parts, is the focal point; but the composer has given the instrumentalists an integral part in the story line, too. Conductor Kyle Knox (below) leads the ensemble through many facets of this humorous work filled with dramatic effects.

Deak requires the musicians to be nimble performers, juggling melodic lines while interjecting entertaining sounds into Dickens’ traditional tale. You can hear the opening introduction by the Storyteller in the YouTube video at the bottom.

One of the score’s important aspects is the varied use of percussion, which provides a broad range of instruments and sound effects. Audiences can enjoy both the aural and visual artistry of chains rattling, doors creaking and footsteps echoing in this holiday classic.

Additionally, the Oakwood Chamber Players will perform a suite of British reels and carols, including songs mentioned in the text of Dickens’ original story.

For example, when the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge of his first employer Fezziwig, a fiddler plays the tune “Sir Roger De Coverley.” This Scottish-English country dance, arranged by composer Frank Bridge in 1922, is one of the tunes providing an engaging introduction to “The Passion of Scrooge.”

 


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