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: 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

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE 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 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.


Classical music: Master pianist Richard Goode performs music by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Alban Berg in a MUST-HEAR recital this Saturday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater

November 1, 2017
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

He may not have the instant worldwide name recognition and box-office appeal of, say, Lang-Lang or Martha Argerich.

But in The Ear’s book American pianist Richard Goode (below) is nonetheless a superstar.

That is because Goode is a chameleon in the best sense.

Whatever he plays — live or on recordings — feels as if someone with a deep understanding and a natural affinity for the unique qualities of that specific composer and work is at the keyboard.

His Bach always sounds so Bachian. His Mozart always sounds so Mozartean. His Beethoven always sounds so Beethovenian. His Schubert always sounds so Schubertian. And his Brahms – for which he won a Grammy – always sounds so Brahmsian. (In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear Goode discuss how he deliberately chooses a selective repertoire that he can return to again and again.)

Whenever you hear Goode, you come away thinking, “Now that is  how the composer meant his music to sound.” Goode just disappears into the music.

Goode, who co-directed the venerable summertime Marlboro Music Festival for 14 years until 2013, always puts himself at the service of the music, never the other way around as so many other firebrand virtuosos do.

Goode, a shy man who collects books and fine art, is not given to flamboyance or theatrics. His interpretations always seem exactly right, never exaggerated and weird but both beautiful and emotionally convincing. He is, in short, a complete musician — recitalist, soloist in concertos and chamber music partner — and not just a great pianist. His is a quiet, self-effacing virtuosity.

You get the idea.

And you can sample such superlative musicianship for yourself this Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. when Goode returns to perform a varied recital in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

This is a performer and a program that no serious fan of the piano – professional or amateur, teacher or student — should miss.

On the program of music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, are: a selection of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, by Johann Sebastian Bach; Alban Berg’s Sonata No. 1; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101, which Goode, who has recorded all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, says is his favorite; the Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1, and the Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3, by Chopin.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Norman Gilliland (below) will deliver a free pre-concert lecture at 6 p.m.

Tickets run from $20 to $47.

Here is a link to more background and information about obtaining tickets:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/richard-goode-piano/


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