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Lang Lang

Monday, June 27, 2016


Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium

June 14

Second Violin Section Consider “Brexit” from Leading Orchestra

Kenneth Woods- A View From the PodiumThe second violin section of the Brumington Symphony Orchestra are bracing for a vote on whether to leave or remain in their orchestra. The upcoming referendum has created anxiety throughout the orchestra amidst concerns that the second violins, who are the second largest section in the orchestra, are leaning towards a so-called Brexit (an exit from the Brumington Symphony). Although the orchestra is one of only 12 salaried orchestras in the country and provides the second violins with a generous pension, paid sick days and funding for personal artistic development, some in the second violins feel that they have lost control over musical decision making. “It’s outrageous that we often don’t even control which direction our bows are going,” said Martin Geigeflegel, one of the organisers of the Leave campaign. “We’re constantly expected to match the first violins’ bowings, which are set by the leader, who is not a member of our section. Some bowings are even set by the conductor, who is not even a member of the orchestra. Voting Leave will restore our musical sovereignty- second violin bowings should obviously be decided by second violin players.” It is clear that some of the discontent in the second violin section stems from frustrations with the dominance of the first violins, who are the largest section in the orchestra and get to play most of the memorable tunes. “When we came together with the woodwinds, the brass and the rest of the strings to form a musical union,” said Debby Shyftmysser, the long-time third assistant principal second violinist of the orchestra, “it was about creating a common marketplace for our musical talents. The first violins have become too dominant- they drive too much decision making and get too much audience attention. Frankly, I hate them all.” Concerns have been raised as to whether a second violin Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the entire BSO, which has been riding high on a wave of critical adulation, sold out concerts, and one of the most lucrative recording contracts in the UK, one which is reported to generate dozens of pounds in income for the orchestra every year. The orchestra’s CEO Petri Jätehuolto said it would be a step into the unknown, “It is extremely unusual for an orchestra to perform without a second violin section. While they contribute very little to the music making of the orchestra overall and don’t seem to ever play a melody, they do take up quite a lot of space on stage, and I’m very concerned about whether audiences will think they’re getting value for money at our concerts when there is such a large open space on the stage. We’re currently looking at whether putting some small sculptures or possibly a water feature on stage would be a suitable alternative to a second violin section.” Jätehuolto’s remarks brought Geigeflegel back to one of the major concerns of the Leave the Orchestra campaign- that too much decision-making power was in the hands of un-auditioned bureaucrats. “Jätehuolto and his team sit over there in the office building and decide who is going to conduct, what time rehearsal starts and what colour the posters are, and he’s never had to learn the first page of Don Juan.” Leaders of the Leave campaign have expressed confidence that once they leave the BSO, the second violins will quickly be able to negotiate a new relationship with the orchestra’s audience for independent concerts. “We won’t be the first group outside the orchestra to perform in Market Hall [which is owned and operated by the BSO], said Shyftmysser, “the Tackacs Quartet and Lang Lang both did concerts last year which sold just as well as the orchestra, and we’re confident that once we’ve reclaimed our artistic independence, the market for our services will be better than ever. Personally, I think the BSO’s programming has become too highbrow, which is why I’ve suggested starting our new Second Violins Live series with a ViennaFest concert featuring all the best second violin parts by Johann Strauss Jr. I’m sure the audience will find it really exciting.” Concerns have also been raised about the uncontrolled influx of new musicians onto the relatively small stage. “We regularly do concerts with choirs, who take up an enormous amount of room onstage and crowd the dressing room. Lines for the toilets at the intervals are too long, and it’s ridiculous that an amateur singer can come on our stage and sing Mahler and Verdi without even learning how to play off-beats or read alto clef.” A look at the dynamics of the BSO as a whole reveals a sharp divide between sections seeking greater autonomy, such as the double basses, who many believe will follow the second violins lead and vote Brexit next season, and those demanding ever tighter union, such as the woodwinds. The basses are reported to harbour deep resentment over having to play at the same time as the rest of the orchestra. “We’re constantly being told we’re late,” said bassist Don Murkee. “Well, who’s to say the rest of the orchestra isn’t early? If we leave the orchestra, I can play the bass when the bass is ready to be played.” Meanwhile, principal oboist Nigel Bleistifthals says that a wider range of musical details need to be voted on by the entire orchestra. “We in the woodwinds feel that we should really have an equal say in the BSO’s bowings. After all, if the strings run out of bow, or play too loud, we’re the ones who have to bail them out. I’ve long thought Beethoven Five would sound better if the strings started down bow, and it’s crazy I can’t make them try it.” While most of the orchestra’s artistic and administrative staff have been unified in pleading for the second violins to remain, the BSO’s apprentice conductor Alexander de Pfeffel has given his endorsement to the Leave campaign, although many suspect that in spite of his public calls for second violin autonomy, he intends to poach the entire BSO second violin section for his newly-formed rival orchestra, the Brumington Philharmonic, which is rumoured to be offering “an atmosphere of profound musician empowerment and self-realization in place of the gilded cage of a salary and benefits.” “I have no plans to poach the BSO’s second violin section,” said de Pfeffel, “although I can hardly imagine a more stalwart group of violinists to build an orchestra around than these wonderful autonomous artists. If I was to form a Brumington Philharmonic, as has been rumoured, I would be honoured to make them the cornerstone of the new orchestra, even though none of them knows how to play above first position. They can always switch to viola in the BPO, which would make for a much stronger viola section than the BSO- everyone knows that most decent violists are actually violinists anyway.” Meanwhile, members of the cello section expressed surprise at the pending vote. “Nope, I had no idea they were thinking of leaving,” said cellist Murray Nice Nice’s stand partner, cellist Dwayne Comfort, overhearing Nice’s comments said “wait, you mean this orchestra has two violin sections? Wow- that’s cool. I had no idea- I just thought some of them kind of laid out or faked it when the parts got too hard.”

parterre box

June 3

There ought to be clowns

Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of listening to someone tell a joke badly? One can see the punch line from a mile away; and yet, the inept comedian takes an interminable amount of time to get to it, to actually make the joke. All sense of surprise is lost. The magical timing, essential to humor, dissipates into thin air. The comedian fumbles. We wince. He forgets the words; he repeats himself. We wait impatiently. We wince again, despite the punch line having no punch. It lands with a limp plop. Only later, when one recalls the joke as a memory, is one able to recognize it on its own terms. Such was the experience of watching Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Ernest, an utterly dismal operatic adaption of Oscar Wilde’s evergreen play, which received its U.S stage premiere at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater last night—a co-presentation by the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial and Lincoln Center’s Great Performers, the production was by The Royal Opera. Wilde’s play is like a perfect machine, assembled by a genius mad scientist. It hums, moving swiftly toward a perfect conclusion. The last time I saw the play, on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater in 2011, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer pleasure of Wilde’s language; it was a sensation not dissimilar to that of a child with a jack-in-the-box: anticipation, surprise, and a surge of delight—I giggled and clapped like a toddler. “This,” I thought, “is what it means to be creative!” It was the zenith of craft, style, and sense. Cut to: the nadir of it. If one takes Barry’s score at face value, it seems he has a preoccupation with destruction; he certainly destroyed Wilde’s play, not to mention a few cucumber sandwiches, some vocal cords and several dinner plates. The composition and production had no rhyme or reason—except, perhaps, the whims of unchecked self-indulgence: unexplained quotations of Auld Lang Syne? Extended, unnecessary settings of Schiller? Spoken dialogue through megaphones? Needless to say, these unexplained aspects of the score did not illuminate Wilde’s play. In fact, they severely detracted from it, reducing a frothy farce to drudgery and boredom. I suppose I should not be surprised with Barry’s shenanigans—the proceedings were not beyond the musical tradition from which this student of Stockhausen springs. However, I simply could not stomach the pairing of Barry’s muddled sensibilities with Wilde’s perfect clarity (apparently two thirds of the play’s text have been cut to accommodate the zany score, a fact that surely has Wilde gyrating at Père Lachaise). In short, Barry’s setting strips the play of all its joy, humor, and style—and while Wilde might have enjoyed the opera’s outrageousness, he could hardly have appreciated its vacuity. With such vulgar, harebrained music, how does one judge the performances? Well, I admire the singers’ gumption. They survived the composer’s sadistic setting with voices relatively capable of phonation, in part thanks to the adroit playing of the New York Philharmonic, under the precise baton of Ilan Volkov. As Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing, Benedict Nelson and Paul Curievici were amiable Wildean prototypes, doing their best to seem suave and witty under such grueling conditions. However, despite their athletic singing and physicality, their performances seemed more like endurance tests than outright triumphs. As Gwendolen Fairfax, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Marshall proved reliable, if a bit bland. Poor Claudia Boyle, as Cecily Cardew, squeaked her way through the piece with admirable courage, despite the stratospheric setting of her character’s vocal line. Her capable soprano was reduced to the sound of a dog whistle. Even so, she looked very pretty, and possessed a promising instrument. Hilary Summers, as Miss Prism, and Simon Wilding, in the dual role of Lane/Merriman, survived the evening generally unscathed. However, the most unsettling performance came from Alan Ewing as Lady Bracknell. While past gender-bending stage incarnations of the role, by actors like Brian Bedford and Geoffrey Rush, embodied an irresistibly tart drag persona, Ewing’s butch version eschewed any gesture of femininity in favor of bellowing, screaming, and a suit and tie—which is to say, he was nothing more than a patriarchal bully. If the character is called Lady Bracknell, and referred to as aunt Augusta, then why in the world does she wear a suit and tie, and clearly possess a penis? All sexual and historical contexts were undermined. But, more to the point, it wasn’t funny. And pointless might be the exact word to describe the production by Robin Gray, which tried to pass off random shifts in lighting, broad physical comedy, and excess scenery chewing as serviceable direction. A more generous person might try to chalk it up to a camp aesthetic, but as Susan Sontag so astutely wrote, “Pure camp is always naïve.” In contrast, Gray’s direction was way too cynical, hell-bent on letting you know how hip, provocative, and self-aware it was. Yes, I don’t see the point. Why did Jack and Lady Bracknell suddenly do a jig? Why was the orchestra on the stage, chanting in rhythm with the singers like members of a suicide cult? These questions went unanswered. And all the while, the composition lurched slowly, lugubriously, toward what was once a statement as lustrous and brilliant as the Hope Diamond: “…I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” Thud! The joke crashed before its audience, floppy and feckless. I felt very disillusioned while leaving the Rose Theater, surrounded by upper middle class white people who didn’t know what to say to one another. Again I thought of how pointless the entire evening was: a complete waste of time and money. A perfectly hysterical play ruined. However, I will do my best not to read too much into this experience, to tag the opera as a pernicious symptom of the state of the art. Instead, I will simply try to forget what happened, and put on a recording of another opera set to another play—Salome, which, in its respect for the source material, knows how to get Wilde right.




The Boston Musical Intelligencer

May 17

The Rapt Textures of Haochen Zhang

Haochen Zang (B. Ealovega photo) Imagine a completely conventional-looking piano recital program (Chopin, Schubert, Prokofiev), one where you know every piece well, maybe had even had a fling with one or two of the less-difficult ones—and yet from the opening notes the presentation sounded so probing and nuanced, the voicing so originally textured and sometimes unexpectedly deemphatic, the thoughtfulness so arresting, that you were seemingly hearing the works for the first time. Haochen Zhang, a Shanghai-born Curtis-educated pianist, appeared Saturday evening at Jordan Hall in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts series. Twenty-six years old in a couple of weeks, he has studied with Gary Graffman and Andreas Haefliger. His dramatically sequenced program comprised Chopin Mazurkas, Schubert Impromptus, Chopin Sonata 2, and finally Prokofiev Sonata 7. (Why the Mazurkas aren’t presented more, and as openers, is hard to understand.) It was the damndest experience. Zhang plays with poise and aplomb, yet always peering, listening to each line’s levels and inflections, calmly adjusting. That might make his work sound forced or labored or overthought, but his artistry actually has none such, flowing naturally almost always. The Mazurka in A Minor Opus 17 no. 4, with its indirect, backing-in beginning, floated over an unsure beat (unsure in the good sense), washed in a haze weirdly presaging Debussy: an extraordinary start and a partial tipoff to what lay ahead. The chords in Opus 24 no. 2, in C Major, could maybe have stood a pinch of militarism. A seatmate asked if Opus 59 no. 3 was macho enough, but I was in my own daze from the preceding no. 2, trying to figure out exactly what was so enthralling. While Schubert’s four D935 Impromptus are not everywhere wistful, Zhang was hypnotic throughout, permuting the phrases that we morosely half-heard just a moment ago, or long ago. Of the first Impromptu, the F Minor, Schumann wrote that it was “conceived in an hour of suffering as though meditating on the past.” Heck, that applies to half of all Schubert. John Daverio more recently speaks of the “unmistakable imprint of pastness … uncanny … imbued with the quality of reminiscence.” The second and third Impromptus may have been simply too beautiful, filling Jordan Hall with a rare, almost distracting gorgeousness. Some complaint, huh. But in the A-Flat Major, brusqueness offered relief, and in the B-Flat Major drama arose amid the prancing. The last of the set, same key as the first, showed banging energy yet was still largely melody-free, even as it ended with vehemence. The Chopin and Prokofiev sonatas similarly were intense, focused, distilled. Zhang’s righthand throughout the Chopin may have been the quietest I’ve ever heard. The Grave—Doubletime rose and fell in waves, the Scherzo cohered disconcertingly, the Funeral March sang, and the Finale’s graveyard wind blew in a flurry of light anxiety. The Prokofiev Sonata No. 7’s Allegro Inquieto seemed to pay clearer attention to the notes than we had consistently heard from the pianist. The Andante Caloroso sang with deep warmth. The famously precipitous closing toccata was almost too fast, perhaps the most immense reading ever, splintering the air and kicking Stalin’s bones from afar. I am sure the hall needed overnight to calm down. One was surprised to see Zhang able to button his coat as he bowed to roars. A reporter should note drawbacks. Sometimes a given piece simply has to show more profile. A few times Zhang did not eschew melody so much as bury it deliberately, at least from where I sat. There were excess pedal and, twice or thrice, rubato. Also a little rushing and slowdown: it was never the emergency rubato followed by automatic catchup that weaker pianists require, not with Zhang’s jawdropping technique, just from being in a bit of hurry at that spot. Nevertheless. If you’re a Rembrandt viewer who revels in also examining the details within his browns and the shades of black, beside the creamy lighting of main points, do not fail to hear Hoachen Zhang next time. To judge from the penetrating local reviews six years ago by Caldwell Titcomb and Matthew Guerrieri and the 2009 Van Cliburn competition CD the year before, Zhang has been formulating for some time his interested-in-all-lines approach. I pondered things I’ve never cared to ponder before with a young pianist, such as, “What will the next six decades or so hold for him interpretatively?” On Saturday night, all of his artistry sounded somehow better, more engrossing and less didactic, than the similar nifty equal voicing and inner-line exposures from Russell Sherman long ago and then (say) Andrew Rangell the decade after. Their spotlighting pointed from a penlight: check out this subtle canon you never heard before. I like that sort of thing plenty, but Zhang’s was more thorough and hence more interesting. The first encore was pure Cirque du Soleil—Arcadi Volodos’s Turkish March (Mozart) transcription . His hands a blur, Zhang played it altogether as well as and a bit faster than Volodos, and, for those keeping score, notably better than either Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. By the end (talk about splintering) it was not unlike the Donald-Daffy Liszt duel in Roger Rabbit, and thus should become a competition mandatory, I say. The second encore was the profoundly aching Brahms Intermezzo Opus 18 no. 2 in a rendition that, for my mood, was just too perfect and pretty, after all that had gone before. I usually try and mooch from savvy colleagues. One present who is a real pianist described the arc of the evening: Lightyears from the oh-so-tender rendering of Chopin’s Op. 17 no. 4 Mazurka that opened the program, Zhang’s assault on the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata was sharp, brutal, warlike—desolate yet still lyrical. We were already pretty much blown away by the power and tonal richness of the Chopin B-Flat Minor Sonata that preceded it, but Zhang’s weaponry in the Prokofiev leaped forward a century. There was more elasticity in the first two movements than previously on record (plasticity being a 20th-century invention, no?). The breakneck speed of the vicious but giddy finale was a risk that paid off. We were battered but not bruised. The slow movement was too elastic and would have had more force if it had been in stricter tempo. Rubato diminished power. And the tempo of the Finale was just too fast for him to control the very end, where he had to overpedal. But then who could possibly play it that fast with the articulation required. These are such minor criticisms. I loved the wildness of the last Schubert Impromptu. In Brahms’s Op. 118 no. 2 Intermezzo encore, there he kept such a classic tempo, no rubato. That was a good lesson for me: just right, especially after that program. Bravo! Anyway, if you are the sort of consumer who tracks the most promising under-30 superhuman keyboard entrants, now include Zhang’s name alongside Albright, Buniatishvili, de la Salle, Grosvenor, Kholodenko, Levit, Li, Lisiecki, Trifonov, Tao, Wang, plus all those I’m unaware of. I will want to hear Haochen Zhang playing anything. David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard. The post The Rapt Textures of Haochen Zhang appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .



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