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 Saturday night, pianist Emanuel Ax returns to the Wisconsin Union Theater in an all-Beethoven recital, and also is in a FREE and PUBLIC Q&A that afternoon. That same night, UW-Madison professor Alicia Lee gives a free clarinet recital

November 1, 2019
1 Comment

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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, Nov. 2, brings two separate but noteworthy recitals by Grammy-winning pianist Emanuel Ax and by UW-Madison clarinetist Alicia Lee.

Here are details:

EMANUEL AX

Emanuel Ax and Madison go way back.

Since 1974, the Wisconsin Union Theater has often seen Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) perform both as a soloist and a chamber musician with the legendary violinist Nathan Milstein and the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is also a close friend. (Ax has also performed with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra at the old Civic Center and with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in the Overture Center.)

This Saturday night, Nov. 2, Emanuel Ax returns again to help celebrate the centennial of the Union Theater’s Concert Series and to help kick off the Beethoven Year in 2020, which marks the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in Shannon Hall with a pre-concert lecture, given by Andrea Fowler, a UW-Madison graduate student in musicology. Her lecture is at 6 p.m. in the Memorial Union’s Play Circle.

The program centers on the first three piano sonatas, Op. 2, by Beethoven (below) plus two rarely heard sets of theme-and-variations. In addition, he will start the performance with the popular “Für Elise” Bagatelle known to so many piano students, their parents and the public. (You can hear “Für Elise” and see a graphic depiction of it in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Tickets run from $15 for UW-Madison students to $70. For more information about tickets, Emanuel Ax, the program, sample reviews and links to Ax’s website, go to:

https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/emanuel-ax/

NOTE: This time, there will also be a special event as part of his appearance.

On Saturday afternoon from 1 to 2 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall at the new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave., Ax will participate in a FREE and public Q&A.

Here is a publicity blurb about that event: “Join us for a Q&A with Grammy Award-winning pianist Emanuel Ax. Now is your chance to ask how he selects repertoire, what his practice schedule is like, if he has any pre-recital rituals, or whatever you would like to know!”

“This event is intended for UW-Madison students and UW campus community, however the Madison community is welcome.”

For more information about the Q&A, go to: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/q-and-a-with-emanuel-ax/

ALICIA LEE

At 8 p.m. in Collins Recital Hall, UW-Madison clarinetist Alicia Lee (below), who also plays in the UW Wingra Wind Quintet, will give a FREE recital of chamber music.

The program includes music by Robert Schumann, Bela Bartok, Isang Yun, Eugene Bozza and Shulamit Ran.

Two faculty colleagues will join Lee: pianist Christopher Taylor and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino.

For more information about the event, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/event/alicia-lee-faculty-clarinet/

For an extensive biography of Alicia Lee, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/alicia-lee/


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