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:

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:

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

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.

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

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: The Ear hears the impressive young pianist Joyce Yang and thinks Madison needs more piano recitals. Plus, a FREE concert of female vocal duets is at noon on Friday.

October 22, 2015

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held 12:15-1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, will feature sopranos Susan Savage Day and Rebekah Demaree with pianist Sharon Jensen in duets by Gabriel Faure, Jacques Aubert, Jules Massenet, Claudio Monteverdi, UW-Madison alumnus Lee Hoiby and more.

By Jacob Stockinger

There he was last Thursday, sitting in the lower balcony in Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

The Ear was in Piano Himmel, listening to a masterful performance.

The occasion was a solo piano recital by Joyce Yang (below), an up-and-coming, prize-winning Korea-born and America-trained pianist, still in her late 20s, who was making her Madison debut.

Joyce Yang

And the same thought haunted The Ear, himself an avid amateur pianist, that also came to him during a fine student piano recital this summer.

That thought was simply this: Madison needs to have many more solo piano recitals.

The piano is perhaps the one most commonly studied musical instrument and is a staple of music education, so the potential audience should be there. The repertoire is vast and wonderful. And the piano just hasn’t been receiving its due compared to the many new choral groups and chamber music ensembles that always seem to be proliferating in the area.

The Wise Teacher recalls years ago when almost a dozen solo piano recitals happened during a single season. This season there are only three -– and two have already taken place.

One was the recital of Mendelssohn, Franck and Chopin by Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino (below top)  on Oct. 4 at Farley’s House of Pianos on its Salon Piano Series. (The Ear couldn’t go because he is was in Chicago that afternoon hearing a piano recital by Maurizio Pollini.) The second was by Joyce Yang. The third one will be the performance by UW-Madison virtuoso professor Christopher Taylor (below bottom) on Friday, Feb 26. (No program has yet been announced.)

Daniel del PIno square

Christopher Taylor new profile

Here is an afterthought: Maybe the Madison Symphony Orchestra could start a piano series like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers on Sunday afternoons?

Let’s be clear: This is a matter more of pleasure and education than of justice.

Take Yang’s performance, which drew an unfortunately small house of only 300-400.

The first half was remarkable for both the clarity and color she possessed. Ethnic themes, folk songs and folk dances, especially Latin American and Spanish in nature, united the first half of her program.

She opened with two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the three “Estampes” or Prints by Claude Debussy and two pieces from “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz and three virtuosic “cowboy” dances by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera.

In all those works, Yang proved a complete and mature keyboard artist. Her technique is rock solid, but it is her musicality that most impresses the listener. The Ear was particularly struck by Yang’s command of dynamics, her ability to play softly and still project, and to delineate and balance various voices.

The second half, all works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, proved less satisfying to The Ear, if not to the audience. It featured two transcriptions of vocal works or songs — “Dreams” and  “Vocalise”  — by the late American virtuoso pianist Earl Wild (below).

earl wild

Unfortunately, Wild himself possessed a Lisztean (or Horowitzean) command of keyboard technique. And like Franz Liszt (or Vladimir Horowitz), Wild just couldn’t resist adding Liberace-like flourishes, flash and trash to his transcriptions in places where simplicity rather than Big Chords would have more than sufficed.

At certain points in a Wild transcription, the work inevitably sounds louche or decadent and over-the-top, like something you might hear at a piano bar or in a cocktail lounge. In short, they are more piano than music. (You can listen to Earl Wild himself performing his own transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Then came  the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor by Rachmaninoff (below) in its revised 1931 edition. To be honest, this is a Big Piece that is full of sound and fury signifying not very much that The Ear can discern. (The Ear much prefers Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, preludes and Etudes Tableaux.)

To be sure, the bombastic sonata requires impressive and powerful piano playing, which must explain the muscular work’s popularity among professional pianists and certain segments of the public. It is a Wower and wow us it does, although many of us would rather be seduced than wowed.


The sonata surely is effective in live performance and brought an immediate standing ovation. That, in turn, was rewarded with another Earl Wild transcription this time of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Too bad the love once again seemed overpowered by difficult but flawlessly executed scales and runs.

But putting those shortcomings aside, the sound of an amazingly played piano recital was such a welcome experience.

The Ear hopes that many more of them are somehow in store.


Classical music: The New Yorker magazine opens up its on-line archives. You can read for FREE fascinating profiles of pianists Lang-Lang, Helene Grimaud and Jeremy Denk; of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato; and of violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Follow these links on NPR.

August 16, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Two of the best sources for reading about classical music are NPR (National Public Radio) with its Deceptive Cadence blog; and The New Yorker magazine, which features Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Alex Ross (below) on its staff.


These days a lot of publications are figuring out how to “monetize” their websites and on-line stories since they are losing readers of printed editions.

Perhaps David Remnick, the reporter-turned-editor of the The New Yorker who has more than doubled the magazine’s circulation and inaugurated a series of best-selling books of story and cartoon collections, may have a new and unorthodox approach. He seems to be thinking “outside the box” and in reverse: Use the web to increase the profile, and profitability of the print edition.

That approach may mean opening up to FREE ACCESS some of the stories that will give people a taste of what they are missing if they do not subscribe to or regularly read the source.

Whatever the reasoning, The New Yorker has opened up its archives to classical music fans with five not-to-miss profiles and stories about high-profile musicians.

They include the Chinese phenomenon and superstar pianist Lang-Lang (below), who is often dismissed by critics as “Bang-Bang” for his Liberace-like flamboyance and unmusicality, but who remains the most sought-after classical pianist in the world. (At bottom, you can see and hear the opening of a BBC documentary about Lang Lang on YouTube.)

Lang Lang Liszt cover

Others include the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is highly articulate about the world of singing and opera; the French woman and highly individualistic pianist Helene Grimaud, who aims for unusual interpretations; the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who is renowned for eschewing the customary path of virtuosity; and the famous essay on taking piano lessons “Every Good Boy Does Fine” by American pianist Jeremy Denk (below), who recently won a MacArthur  “genius grant”; who has performed recitals twice in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater; and who will be releasing a book-length volume of his essays and postings on his acclaimed blog “Think Denk” this fall.

Jeremy Denk, 2013 MacArthur Fellow

The weekend is a good chance to catch up on such reading. You will learn a lot if you read these stories.

And maybe you, like The Ear, will also become a loyal New Yorker reader. When it calls itself “the best magazine in the world,” it is not kidding.

That goes for politics, social trends, art and culture, and even poetry.

Here is a link, which also features some audio samples:


Classical music: Would you believe that seeing a musician perform WITHOUT SOUND is a better predictor of competition success than hearing the performance? That’s what a new study tells us.

August 24, 2013
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

It turns out that composer Igor Stravinsky (below) was on to something when he urged people to listen to live performances of music with their eyes open.

Igor Stravinsky young with score 2

But The Ear is betting that even he did not realize just what he was on to since maybe all you need is eyes.

So let me put the question to you:

How could you best predict the winner of a music competition? By using: A) audio only; B) visuals only; or C) audio and visuals.

I would have answered probably A followed by C.

And I suspect so would many of you.

But a new study says we would be wrong.

The correct the answer is definitely B.

That’s right. The music doesn’t matter after all. Don’t even listen. Forget the music.  Just look! Or if you are a contestant, just send in a silent video.

It turns out that even very experienced professional musicians – yes, including the judges of competitions — did better using silent visuals than other sources including the combination of audio and visual.

Not surprisingly, a number of classical music websites have been buzzing with news of the study.

But the best summary I know of so far was done by NPR’s “Morning Edition”’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam (below) who also blogs on the website www.hidden Here is a link you can use to listen to his story (don’t just look at his picture):

Shankar Vedantam NPR

And here is another good version from the Harvard Gazette of Harvard University where pianist and human behavioral psychologist specializing in organizational behavior Chia Jung-Tsay (below in a photo by Kris Snibbe) was a co-researcher of the surprising study:


And to think I always enjoyed and emulated the non-emotive and regally quiet bearing of pianists Arthur Rubinstein (below) and Vladimir Horowitz, of violinists Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman.

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

I do wonder if an earlier generation, less used to social media and YouTube, would have yielded different results. But we won’t ever know, will we?

So perhaps the Liberace-like flamboyant gestures and physical antics or performing style of the superstar Lang Lang (below) have their place in communicating musical beauty after all.

Lang Lang performing



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