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: As superstar Itzhak Perlman turns 75, a critic assesses his virtues and shortcomings in playing both the violin and his audiences

September 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Last Monday, Aug. 31, superstar violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman (below, in a photo by Yael Malka of The New York Times) turned 75.

To celebrate, Sony Classical released a boxed set of 18 CDs (below) with many performances by Perlman – solo, chamber music and concertos – recorded over many years.

On the occasion of Perlman’s birthday, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim of The New York Times wrote a retrospective review of Perlman’s long career. (You can hear his most popular performance ever — with more than 6 million hits — in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The Ear finds the opinion piece both brave and truthful, pointing out Perlman’s mastery of the Romantic repertory but also criticizing his stodgy treatment of Vivaldi and other Baroque music that has benefitted from the period-instrument movement and historically informed performance practices

Yet the essay, which also touches on ups and down of Perlman’s career, always remains respectful and appreciative even when discussing Perlman’s shortcomings.

Offering many historical details and photos as well as sample videos, the critical assessment of Perlman seems perfectly timed.

The Ear hopes you enjoy it as much as he did. Here is a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/arts/music/itzhak-perlman-violin.html

If you have heard Itzhak Perlman either on recordings or live – at the Wisconsin Union Theater, the old Civic Center or Overture Hall — let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: UW-Madison piano virtuoso Christopher Taylor performs a free virtual recital of impromptus by Schubert and Scriabin this Wednesday afternoon

August 4, 2020
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A note from The Ear: Thank you to the many blog followers who left a message of encouragement when I had computer troubles last week. The problem seems to be solved, at least temporarily. And I am healthy, despite the fears that some of you expressed that I was covering for coming down with the coronavirus virus or Covid-19.

By Jacob Stockinger

A friend has passed along the following note from Christopher Taylor, the piano virtuoso who won a bronze medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and who has been teaching for many years at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music.

Taylor (below) writes:

“Despite having my performance schedule ravaged, like everyone else, I do actually have one positive morsel of news to relay regarding a “recital” coming up in the near future, which I wanted to you know about.

“It is being hosted by the Chautauqua Institution, where I’ve performed a few times in the past. Unsurprisingly, they’ve had to switch to an online format this summer.

“Just last week I made the actual recording, playing four impromptus by Scriabin, and Four Impromptus, Op. 142, by Schubert in the Mead-Witter Foundation Concert Hall (below, with the UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra), which seemed like a propitious setting. (Editor’s note: In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear the third impromptu in the set by Schubert performed by Vladimir Horowitz during his historic 1986 recital in Moscow.)

“Under the circumstances I think the video turned out pretty well. The actual streaming, which will include the 45 minutes of music plus a little live interview before and afterwards, takes place this Wednesday – Aug. 5 – at 3 p.m. CDT.

You can get there by way of the following link: https://porch.chq.org/ue/event/6518/

“Apparently there is a brief registration form one has to fill out prior to viewing the show, but basically getting in should be a free and painless process for all and sundry.

“Hope you get a chance to join in, and that you enjoy it!”

 


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Classical music: This Saturday night, UW pianist Christopher Taylor will perform the virtuosic Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9

January 28, 2020
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ALERT: The first concert by the Verona Area Community Orchestra is set for this Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. in the Verona Area High School’s Performing Arts Center at 300 Richard St. in Verona. A reception, with a sheet cake, will follow the concert. Admission is FREE.

Thirty-five amateur string orchestra musicians will play selections from: Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No. 3), Aaron Copland (“Rodeo”), Sir Edward Elgar (“Serenade for Strings”), Eric Whitacre (“October”), Louis Prima (“Sing Sing with a Swing”), and Peter Warlock (“Capriol” Suite).

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday, Feb. 1, will see what promises to be one of the most interesting and impressive events of The Beethoven Year in Madison.

At 8 p.m. in the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall, in the new Hamel Music Center at 740 University Avenue, the UW-Madison’s virtuoso pianist Christopher Taylor (below) will perform the solo piano transcriptions made by Franz Liszt of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 9.

When he was just 12, the young Liszt — often considered the greatest pianist who ever lived — performed for and met Beethoven, who gave the boy his blessing.

For the rest of his life, Liszt (below top) promoted Beethoven’s piano sonatas and symphonies through the keyboard. Liszt also studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven (below bottom).

These performances mark Taylor’s completion of the ambitious and monumental cycle of Liszt’s Beethoven symphony transcriptions.

The Ninth or “Choral” Symphony – with the famous “Ode to Joy” finale – will also have five singers to perform the solo and choral parts. They are: Mead Witter School of Music faculty members Mimmi Fulmer and Paul Rowe (below top); and graduate students Sarah Brailey (below bottom), Thore Dosdall and Benjamin Liupaogo.

(You can hear the famous Scherzo movement played by Cyprien Katsaris and see the note-filled score for it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets are $20, except for music school faculty and students who will be admitted free on the night of the performance if space allows.

For more information about the tickets, parking, the performers and the program, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/christopher-taylor-and-friends-beethoven-symphony-extravaganza/

To just purchase tickets, go to the Campus Arts Ticketing box office in the Memorial Union, call (608) 265-ARTS (2787) or go to: https://artsticketing.wisc.edu/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=79084672-5D75-4981-B0A3-B135EDB97FF1

For more information about the extraordinary keyboard transcriptions, go to the Wikipedia entry and be sure to read the section on History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beethoven_Symphonies_(Liszt)

 


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Classical music: Oakwood Chamber Players take a “Journey” to explore neglected and oppressed German and Dutch composers this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon

May 16, 2018
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The accomplished and acclaimed Oakwood Chamber Players (below) continue their exploration of neglected repertoire and end their “Journey” season with two performances of a concert titled Legacy on this Saturday night, May 19, at 7 p.m. and on Sunday afternoon, May 20, at 2 p.m.

The concerts will be held at the Oakwood Center for Arts and Education, 6209 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Tickets can be purchased with cash or personal checks at the door: $25 general admission, $20 seniors and $5 students. Visit www.oakwoodchamberplayers.com for more information.

Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon by Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (below) was written in 1917 and is neo-Classical in style. Röntgen was a classmate and lifelong friend of Edvard Grieg’s whom he met at the Leipzig Conservatory. He studied with Lachner and Reinecke, and collaborated with Brahms and Casals in concerts. His musical career spanned the roles of composer, teacher, and concert pianist. He was instrumental in the founding of the Amsterdam Conservatory and the world-famous Concertgebouw Orchestra.

A frequent participant in chamber music himself, he was a fine contributor to the genre. Röntgen’s Wind Trio in G Major shows his compositional facility: from a playful Haydn-influenced first movement (which you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom) to an adagio melody in the second movement that is drawn from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” and to the final movement with a Danish folk melody at its heart that is enhanced by upbeat creative variations.

German composer Heinrich Kaminski (below) wrote his atmospheric String Quartet in F major. Written over the time period leading up to World War I, this four-movement piece encompasses moodiness contrasted with high energy. The scherzo movement has the feel of a driven dance, the adagio movement is emotionally charged, and Kaminski’s final movement recaps themes of the piece’s restless expressivity.

Recognition of his talent in Berlin was cut short when the Nazi Gestapo intercepted correspondence that revealed Jewish heritage. His music was deemed unsuitable for performance in Germany and banned in 1937. He fled to Switzerland yet his life was profoundly impacted by events. He died shortly after the war, having endured the dissolution of his marriage, declining health and loss of children. However interest in Kaminski’s unique composition style has led to resurgence in recent performances of his works.

Dutch composer Leo Smit (below) studied at the Amsterdam Conservatory and then lived in Paris for a decade before returning to Holland. He was greatly influenced by Ravel and Stravinsky’s innovations and exchanged ideas with fellow composers Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Arthur Honegger. He enjoyed jazz rhythms and they often are found in his works.

His three-movement Sextet for piano and wind quintet is full of variety, warm melodic lines and fascinating harmonies. With the German invasion during World War II Smit’s circumstances as a Jewish musician deteriorated and he was forbidden to continue as a professional musician. Despite the dire circumstances he continued composing, completing a Sonata for flute and piano in 1943 just prior to his transportation to and death in a concentration camp.

The program ends with a cleverly written piece by German composer Bernhard Sekles (below). The final movement from his Capriccio for violin, cello and piano is titled Yankee-Doodle with variations and a delightful way to conclude the concert. Based in Frankfurt, Sekles was an innovative composer and teacher, and in 1928 became the first European teacher of jazz.

Oakwood Chamber Players members are Marilyn Chohaney, flute; Amanda Szczys, bassoon; Anne Aley, horn; Leyla Sanyer, violin; and Maggie Darby Townsend, cello. They will be joined by guests Martha Fischer, piano; Elspeth Stalter-Clouse, violin; Shannon Farley, viola; Aaron Hill, oboe; and Bernard Parish, clarinet.

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a group of Madison-area professional musicians who play in other professional organizations such as the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and who have rehearsed and performed at Oakwood Village for over 30 years.

# # #

The Oakwood Chamber Players are a professional music ensemble proudly supported by Oakwood Lutheran Senior Ministries and the Oakwood Foundation.


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