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: The Salon Piano Series offers pianist Ilya Yakushev playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” online for FREE with no deadline

September 8, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following news from the Salon Piano Series to post:

During these uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic, we appreciate remembering time spent together enjoying music.

Please take a break from the stresses of your day to see and hear George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” performed by Ilya Yakushev (below) at Farley’s House of Pianos as part of the Salon Piano Series on Jan. 11, 2020.

The virtuosic Russian-born and Russian-trained Yakushev is well known to Madison audiences through his appearances with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and his recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos.

His performance of the popular Gershwin piece in a solo arrangement was especially noteworthy. Because of bad weather and a canceled flight, Yakushev drove straight through to get here from New York City, where he lives and teaches, and performed just 1-1/2 hours later. He was up for 27 hours straight.

Here is a link to his website: http://www.ilyayakushev.com/index.html

You can see the LIVE performance in the YouTube video at the bottom.

It is free and there is no deadline for when the video stops being accessible to the public. The Salon Piano Series hopes to offer another unseen video in October.

Over the years, you have supported Salon Piano Series with your attendance, individual sponsorships, and donations. We look forward to bringing you world-class musical performances in our unique salon setting again soon.

Sincerely,

Salon Piano Series


Classical music: This Saturday night, Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to the Salon Piano Series at Farley’s House of Pianos to perform popular works by Beethoven, Liszt and Gershwin

January 6, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night, Jan. 11, at 7:30 p.m., the acclaimed Russian-born pianist Ilya Yakushev (below) will make his fourth recital appearance at the Salon Piano Series.

The concert will be held at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall.

Yakushev — who studied in his native St. Petersburg and at the Mannes School of Music in New York City — has also performed several times with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

He never fails to impress with both his virtuosic technique and his insightful interpretations, whether he is playing Russian repertoire by Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev or jazzy American classics like Gershwin.

“Yakushev is one of the very best young pianists before the public today,” said the American Record Guide about Yakushev who has also won major  international competitions.

For more information about Yakushev, including critics’ reviews, a biography, concert dates and a discography, go to his website: http://www.ilyayakushev.com

The Madison program includes:

Beethoven – Sonata “Pathetique,” Op. 13

Liszt – “Six Consolations” (You can hear the famous Consolation No. 3, often learned by students and played as an encore by concert artists, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Gershwin – music from the opera “Porgy and Bess” in an arrangement for solo piano

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance ($10 for students) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event.

You can purchase tickets on line at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809

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

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.

The Salon Piano Series is a nonprofit founded to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts featuring exceptional artists. For more information about the series, including upcoming concerts and how to support it, call (608) 271-2626 or go to: https://salonpianoseries.org.

 


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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS – the “Meditation” for solo piano by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez

July 27, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The solo piano repertoire is huge, but The Ear knows quite a lot of it.

Yet here is a piece he had never heard, live or recorded, until he finally did hear it this week on Wisconsin Public Radio.

It is the five-minute ”Meditacion” – or Meditation – by the 20th-century Mexican composer Carlos Chavez (below, in a photo by Paul Strand).

It is played beautifully and sensitively in a live performance by the unjustly neglected Mexican virtuoso pianist Jorge Federico Osorio (below), and was recorded — perhaps as an encore, given the applause at the end — with the Piano Concerto by Chavez for the nonprofit Cedille Records in Chicago and distributed by Naxos Records.

Listen to it and let The Ear know what you think.

Does anyone else hear echoes of the eccentric French composer Erik Satie in the music? Shades of other pieces or composers?

Do you like the Chavez piece?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Pianist Ilya Yakushev returns to play Russian jazz with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night, then a recital of piano classics at Farley’s House of Pianos on Saturday night

February 21, 2019
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ALERT: The second of two FREE Friday Noon Musicales — devoted to the music of John Harbison on the occasion of his 80th birthday — will take place this Friday at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive. The Mosaic Chamber Players will perform. The concert runs from 12:15 to 1 p.m. The composer will be there to sign copies of his new book “What Do We Make of Bach?”

By Jacob Stockinger

Although he has heard the jazz suites by Dmitri Shostakovich many times, The Ear was surprised to learn how many modern Russian composers fell under the spell of American jazz.

Cultural difference combined with cultural exchanges might be one explanation.

But he also wonders if perhaps living in a state of psychological and emotional distress and danger – the Stalinist Terror facing composers in the Soviet Union and the Jim Crow racism facing African-American jazz artists in the United States – created a certain affinity between such apparently different musical traditions.

One thing is certain: the program that Ilya Yakushev (below), who was born and trained in Russia and now teaches at the Mannes College of Music in New York City – promises to be one of the most interesting programs of this season.

During his return to Madison, the Russian virtuoso pianist – who has his own interest in jazz and played a solo version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” when last here — will perform two programs at venues where he has proven to be a sensational audience favorite.

This Friday night, Feb. 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center, Yakushev will once again team up with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below) and its music director and conductor Andrew Sewell, to perform two rarely heard Russian works that demonstrate the influence of American jazz.

Those two Russian works are “Ten Bagatelles for Piano Orchestra” by Alexander Tcherepnin (below top) and the “Jazz Suite for Piano and Small Orchestra by Alexander Tsfasman (below bottom).

You can hear the Lyrical Waltz from Tsfasman’s Suite in the YouTube video at the bottom.

The WCO complements that with two jazz-influenced works by Igor Stravinsky (below): Suite No. 2 for Small Orchestra and “Ragtime.”

Then the concert concludes with one of the most iconic and well-known pieces of all classical music: the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

For much more information about Yakushev and the program as well as to a link to buy tickets ($15-$80) go to:

https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/masterworks-ii-4/

SATURDAY

Then on this Saturday, Feb. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, on Madison’s far west side near West Towne Mall, Yakushev will perform a program of impressive tried-and-true classics as part of the Salon Piano Series.

An artist’s reception will follow the concert.

Tickets are $45 in advance (students $10) or $50 at the door. Service fees may apply. Tickets can also be purchased at Farley’s House of Pianos. Call (608) 271-2626.

Student tickets can only be purchased online and are not available the day of the event. Tickets can be purchased in advance from:

https://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/706809brownpapertickets.com

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

Yakushev’s recital program is:

Adagio in B minor, K. 540 (1788), by Mozart

Sonata in F minor “Appassionata,” Op. 57 (1804), by Ludwig van Beethoven

Vallée d’Obermann, S. 160 (1855), from “Années de pèlerinage, Première année” (Years of Pilgrimage, First Year), by Franz Liszt

The song “Widmung” (Dedication) by Robert Schumann as transcribed for solo piano by Liszt, S.566 (1848)

“Mephisto Waltz No. 1,” S. 514 (1862), by Liszt (below, in an 1886 photo, the year before he died, when Liszt was teaching many students, by Nadar)

In addition, on Saturday at 4 p.m., Yakushev will teach a FREE and PUBLIC master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will instruct local students.

The master class program will include:

Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1, First Movement by Beethoven; performed by Kevin Zhang who studies with Kangwoo Jin.

Six Variations on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” (In My Heart I No Longer Feel) by Beethoven, performed by Daniel Lee who studies with Irmgard Bittar.

Etude in G-Flat Major (“Black Key”) Op. 10, No. 5,by Frederic Chopin; performed by Alysa Zhou, who studies with Denise Taylor.

Master classes for the 2018-19 season are supported by the law firm of Boardman & Clark LLP.

The 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.

The Salon Piano Series is a nonprofit founded to continue the tradition of intimate salon concerts featuring exceptional artists. To become a sponsor of the Salon Piano Series, please contact Renee Farley at (608) 271-2626 or email renee@salonpianoseries.org


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Classical music: On Saturday night, UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor continues his virtuosic Liszt-Beethoven symphony cycle along with music by Kapustin and Schubert

February 5, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has received the following press release, researched and written by Katherine Esposito, concert manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, about a noteworthy upcoming concert:

Franz Liszt (below, 1811-1886) was a superstar pianist. He was a virtuoso who invented the orchestral tone poem, taught 400 students for free, conducted and composed.

Musicologist Alan Walker wrote a definitive three-volume biography of Liszt, shedding light on all of Liszt’s work but especially his genius for transcription.

Writes Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times : “The best of these works are much more than virtuosic stunts. Liszt’s piano transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies are works of genius. Vladimir Horowitz, in a 1988 interview, told me that he deeply regretted never having played Liszt’s arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies in public.”

Few pianists have tackled all nine Beethoven transcriptions.

UW-Madison professor and Van Cliburn Competition medal winner Christopher Taylor (below in a photo by Michael R. Anderson) is one of them. On this coming Saturday night, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, Taylor will perform his sixth transcription — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93.

Saturday’s concert will also include: six preludes (Nos. 19-24) from 1988 by Nikolai Kapustin (below), whose works span both classical and jazz; and the Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (based on the song “The Wanderer”) of Franz Schubert, a piece so virtuosic that the composer himself had to give up playing it  before finishing. (You can hear Kapustin’s Prelude No. 23, which Taylor will play, in the YouTube video at the bottom and can follow the intimidating-looking score to it.)

In 2020, Christopher Taylor will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary with performances of the Franz Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, in Madison and elsewhere.

In Boston, Taylor will perform the entire set of nine in five concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Tickets for Taylor’s Feb. 9 concert at the UW are $17 for adults, and $7 for children and students. They can be purchased online or in person.

Purchasing options are here: https://www.music.wisc.edu/about-us/tickets/

Or, purchase online directly at this link.


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