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: Award-winning prodigy pianist Maxim Lando performs a recital at Farley’s on Sunday afternoon and gives a free public master class on Saturday afternoon

November 15, 2019
4 Comments

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ALERT: At noon this Saturday, Nov. 16, Grace Presents offers a FREE one-hour concert by Lawren Brianna Ware and friends. The concert is at Grace Episcopal Church, 116 West Washington Avenue, downtown on the Capitol Square.

Pianist and composer Ware, the 2017 Grand Prize Winner of the Overture Rising Stars Competition, will perform a program of original, contemporary and classical solo and chamber works entitled “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.” Featured are works by Aram Khachaturian, Fazil Say, Frederic Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert W. Smith, Martin Ellerby  and Eric Ewazen.

By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to Farley’s House of Pianos and its Salon Piano Series: They sure know how to book young up-and-coming performers to stay ahead of the curve.

Last season, they presented Kenneth Broberg, a silver medalist at the last Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, before he was accepted into the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, where he won a bronze medal.

This weekend, the Salon Piano Series presents another timely choice.

This Sunday afternoon, Nov. 17, at 4 p.m., the 17-year-old American piano prodigy Maxim Lando (below, in a photo by Matt Dine) will perform a solo recital at Farley’s showroom, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Once again, Lando was booked just before winning a big award and honor.

In addition, at his Salon Piano Series premiere, Lando will have grandparents in the audience, as well as an aunt, uncle and cousins, all from the Madison area.

The son of pianist Pippa Borisy, who grew up in Madison, and clarinetist Vadim Lando, Maxim was raised in Great Neck, Long Island, New York, and has a full-time career as a touring pianist while still finishing high school.

Lando first received national attention in 2017 when he performed with superstar Chinese pianist Lang Lang and jazz great Chick Corea with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s Gala Opening Night.

He won the 2018 Young Concert Artists auditions at the age of 16 and Susan Hall of Berkshire Fine Arts has described him as having “a very old musical soul.”

This fall he received a Gilmore 2020 Young Artist Award, which recognizes the most promising of the new generation of U.S.-based pianists, age 22 or younger. He will perform a series of concerts this season at the Gilmore Keyboard Festival as part of the recognition.

For this Salon Piano Series concert, Lando will perform the same program he performed for recent sold-out performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Lando’s program includes: Nikolai Kapustin’s Concert Etude “Toccatina”; Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 (you can hear the opening movement in the YouTube video at the bottom); Alexander Scriabin’s Prelude in B major and Etude in D-sharp minor; and Franz Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes.”

Tickets are $45 in advance (full-time students are $10) or $50 at the door (if any remain). Service fees may apply.  Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the concert.

Tickets can be purchased at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4275212

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

For more information, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

MASTER CLASS

Also, on this Saturday, Nov. 16, at 4 p.m., Maxim Lando will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will instruct four local students.

This is a free event that the public is invited to observe.

For a complete list of the music by Beethoven, Prokofiev and Clementi to be performed as well as the names of the local students and their teachers, go to: https://salonpianoseries.org/concerts.html

The master classes for the 2019-20 season are supported by the law firm of Boardman and Clark LLP.

This concert is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.

 


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Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


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