Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Music. Show all posts

Friday, January 30, 2015

Police, Models, and a Violinist: Two Chongqing Trios

This afternoon near the New Century Department Store in Chongqing's Dadukou district I saw three People's Armed Police marching up and down a pedestrian street.

Three male People's Armed Police at a shopping street in Dadukou, Chongqing

At least two appeared to be armed with large weapons.

Four minutes later, after stepping off an escalator inside the New Century Department Store I saw two models and a violinist performing music accompanied by a recording.

two female models and a female violinist wearing a gold sparkly dress in a Chongqing department store

Presumably they were part of a fourth anniversary store promotion.

In some ways the two sights couldn't contrast more strongly, especially seeing them so close together. But both touch on themes in China I have noticed and pondered. And both brought to mind many similar things I have seen in China in the past.

They don't always come in trios though.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Activities At Scenic Chaotianmen: Outdoor Karaoke

At the scenic Chaotianmen docks in Chongqing yesterday, I saw two men setting up a portable karaoke system in front of a scene which has changed significantly during the past 6 years.

man setting up a portable karaoke station at Chaotianmen.

Elsewhere at the docks, I saw another man showcasing his karaoke offerings as well.

man singing at a temporary karaoke station on the steps at Chaotianmen Dock.

Nearby on the steps, I spoke to two college students visiting from Xi'an, China, wearing newly purchased flower headbands.

two Chinese female college students wearing flower headbands

When I later walked by the same area again, the students were the first paying customers I saw at the temporary karaoke stations.

female college student singing karaoke outdoors at Chaotianmen Docks

For singing two songs, they paid 10 RMB (about US $1.60).

Activity at the outdoor karaoke stations may have picked in the evening when people come for river cruises to take in more of the city's rapidly evolving skyline lit up at night.

Monday, December 15, 2014

China's National Anthem Ban

China has expressed its concern about when and where the national anthem is played:
China has banned the national anthem from being performed at weddings, funerals, commercial and other non-political events, state media reports.

Under new rules, the anthem is to be reserved for major political and diplomatic occasions, as well as places such as sporting arenas and schools.
Performing the anthem in the wrong setting will lead to people being "criticised and corrected". I am not sure how the rules apply if a wedding is held at a sports arena.

I see a bit of irony in China banning only its own national anthem and am reminded of an event in China several years ago which involved another patriotic song:
China's state TV accompanied coverage of the historic launch of the country's first space laboratory with a patriotic US song, America the Beautiful. . . .

Viewers of CCTV were treated to a minute-long animation set to the American song.
I suspect some criticism and correction occurred at CCTV's offices afterwards. Regardless, China has not announced any bans on America the Beautiful—something wedding and funeral planners might want to keep in mind. As CCTV knows, it's a great piece.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Dance Dance Revolution from Shanghai to 1812

Dance games similar to Dance Dance Revolution are popular in many video arcades I have seen in China. An arcade in the trendy underground D Mall in Shanghai has several. When I took a look today, most were in use, and some had people sitting in a row of chairs waiting to play.

people playing a dance video game in D-Mall in Shanghai

people playing dance video games in D-Mall in Shanghai

girl wearing a face mask playing Dance Evolution at D-Mall in Shanghai

Dancing games aren't my thing, so I didn't jump in. But recently a new online version of Dance Dance Revolution caught my interest.

screen shot from Dance Dance Revolution: 1812 Overture Edition

As described in Classic FM:
Ever wanted to be in the percussion section of an orchestra for the epic final bars of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture? Who wouldn't? All those firing cannons, thundering drums and crashing cymbals are just fantastic. Not to mention the full orchestra and rapturous audience in front of you.

The viral news site Us vs Th3m has created a game that lets you control the greatest percussive cacophony in music history.
I am not convinced the 1812 Overture is the greatest percussive cacophony in music history, but it makes a great choice for the game. Given my musical training, at first I found it odd I wasn't able to achieve a perfect score. The excerpt is not unusually difficult compared to other classical music, and the game allows a far greater degree of rhythmic freedom than most conductors would deem acceptable. After focusing on the music instead of the screen, I realized the visual cues, which aren't the way I am used to reading music, were sometimes causing me to hit the keys more quickly than the actual rhythms. So I tried playing more "by ear". My performance immediately improved, and I found 1812 glory. Perhaps there are some interesting perceptual/cognitive/motor issues to explore.

Whatever the case, you can play "Dance Dance Revolution: 1812 Overture Edition" here. Bonus points if you can explain how it is possible to score higher than the perfect score of 1812*.

* I have scored 1844, and see others have as well, but not sure how. I suspect it involves the series of triplets in the cymbal crashes.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Taiwanese Politician Wants People to "Lean on Me"

While no other political signs in Taiwan have caught my attention as much as Lin Jinjie's (林金結) Barack Obama signs, one set comes in a clear second for their use of a familiar-to-many phrase.

Like Lin Jinjie (林金結), Ye Linchuan (葉林傳) is a member of Taiwan's Kuomintang party and he has his own page on Facebook. Unlike Lin, Ye is a council member in Taipei City and his signs do not include Barack Obama. Instead, at least some include the title of a song from the 70s by American singer-songwriter Bill Withers. Lest there be any doubt about the source of the phrase, the lyrics to the song "Lean On Me" appear in light lettering on the sign as well.

Lean on Me campaign sign for Ye Linchuan (葉林傳) in Taipei City

Lean on Me campaign sign for Ye Linchuan (葉林傳) in Taipei City at night

Not only did I see Ye employing this theme on several signs in Taipei, but I also saw it on the tissue boxes at a restaurant where I sometimes eat Taiwanese-style cold sesame noodles for breakfast.

Lean on Me tissue box for Ye Linchuan (葉林傳) next to a plate of sesame sauce noodles

As I am not familiar enough with Ye or local Taipei politics, I will refrain from commenting on the effectiveness of Ye's campaign tactics.

I will say, though, that the noodles were tasty.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

(I Believe That) I Like "Esa-Pekka's Verse" by Apple

ESPN's "I believe that we will win!" ad left me me a bit surprised and asking a few questions. Another ad I recently saw also left me surprised but did so in a rather positive manner.

The ad by Apple is remarkable for featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen, a conductor and composer of "contemporary classical" music. As Alex Ross notes, despite their incredible talents, artists like Salonen usually doesn't garner much mass-market attention. I would say more except that I don't need to, because Ross already wrote a great piece about the ad on The New Yorker.

(I Believe That) I Would Change This Sports Chant

Thanks to the glories of online social networking and VPNs, I recently saw this ESPN advertisement for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil:

I appreciate ESPN wants to get Americans excited about the World Cup, but the chant "I believe that we will win!" leaves something to be desired. Not only does it call into question the claim that the U.S. is a leader in creativity, but its potential effect is weakened by the phrase "I believe that". Instead of detailing my thoughts in a three thousand word essay, I will instead simply share three other videos along with a few questions to ponder.

First, what if the refrain in this song by Queen were "I believe that we will rock you"?

It doesn't quite have the same kick, does it?

Second, after the rocking is over, what if the refrain in this other song by Queen were "I believe that we are the champions?

It raises the question of whether they are really the champions, no?

And finally, the ESPN ad sounds more like a daily affirmation than a rousing or intimidating sports chant. But even if that is its purpose, why add "I believe that"? Stuart Smalley didn't:

I could go on, but (I believe that) I will stop here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Extraordinary Streak Through the Lives of Many: John Shirley-Quirk

I will begin with an excerpt from a recent obituary in The Telegraph:
John Shirley-Quirk, the bass-baritone, who has died aged 82, began his working life as a scientist and went on to become one of the most significant and prolific figures in Benjamin Britten’s circle at Aldeburgh ...

Wherever he went Shirley-Quirk was a distinctive, larger-than-life figure, who could hold an audience with the beauty of his phrasing and clarity of tone. “A singer needs to be three-dimensional, not simply a walking voice,” was one of his favourite maxims, and one he invariably applied to himself.
Britain's "least boring music critic" Michael White described meeting John Shirley-Quirk two years ago:
I’d only ever seen him from a distance on a platform, or on record sleeves, and not for decades. Back then, he was conspicuous for an extraordinary streak of white hair, badger-like, that ran back from his forehead through an otherwise quite thick black mane. And now that streak was gone, because the whole head had turned white.

I was thrilled to meet him on that afternoon, he’d been a hero to me for so long. And while meeting heroes can be disappointing, in his case it wasn’t. He was charming, thoughtful, modest, fascinating; happy to be back in England with a third wife, having had two previous marriages cut short by death.
Prior to his return to England, Shirley-Quirk spent several decades teaching at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. His hair was all white during the time I studied there, and, more notably, he was on a wish list of teachers I especially hoped to learn something from. Since he taught voice and I played clarinet, I wasn't sure I would have such an opportunity. Fortunately, a soprano who studied with him asked me to perform Franz Schubert's "The Shepherd on the Rock" with her, and she invited me and a pianist to join her for a coaching during one of her lessons. That hour proved to be another example of how great musicians can transcend any particular instrument.

Again, thank you.

His impact beyond me at Peabody was made all the clearer from the many recent posts and comments I saw written by friends who studied there. In a private post he has allowed me to share here, pianist Michael Sheppard introduced a video with these words:
One of my very favorite songs, sung incredibly beautifully by one of my favorite teachers at Peabody, John Shirley-Quirk, who passed away today. I had the incredible good fortune of accompanying many of his students over the years, and learned so much of value about music and about collaborating with vocalists. This man was a true musician, who cared deeply about composers' intentions (he worked closely with Benjamin Britten for many years) but who was also not above exhorting his students to "SING, dammit, just SING!" And what a glorious example of both this video is. You'd never guess that the man I caught napping many times on that ratty old couch he kept in his studio was someone of such stature, because he never put on airs, and his artistry was just of that sort, too; not at all without subtlety, but just so perfectly direct and truthful. RIP, JSQ...may your ripples be felt for many more noons, silent or not.
I will end with the video shared by Michael and other friends--a performance by John Shirley-Quirk and pianist Martin Isepp of "Silent Noon" by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on a sonnet by English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The original sonnet "Silent Noon" by Rossetti:
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,—
  The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
  Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
  Are golden kingcup fields with silver edge
  Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fiy
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:—
  So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
  When twofold silence was the song of love.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Toyota Puts on a Show at a Mall in Changsha

On November 17, I visited the new Kaifu Wanda Plaza in Changsha, China. While there, I saw a promotion for the Toyota Vios, which Wikipedia describes as "a four-door subcompact sedan manufactured by Toyota Motor Corporation primarily for emerging markets in the Asia Pacific region". In an article published November 7, reported:
The new Toyota Vios has been launched on the China car market. Price starts at 69.800 yuan and ends at 112.800 yuan. The new Toyota Vios debuted on the Shanghai Auto Show in April, it is the cheapest Toyota branded sedan available on the Chinese auto market, competing head to head with cars like the Volkswagen Jetta and the Citroen C-Elysee...

The new Vios is an important car for Toyota in China. The old Vios was very unpopular because it was considered too small and underpowered compared to the competition. The new Vios is larger than the old one, but the engines seem rather old and underpowered.
Although the content, size, extravagance, etc. vary, I've seen numerous promotions like the one at Kaifu Wanda Plaza elsewhere in China. For now I will refrain commenting about this common form of marketing in China, but to provide an example of how companies are trying to connect with consumers in China and to add some more color to the earlier post about Kaifu Wanda Plaza I will share a few photos and a video of the Vios promotion.

It included a variety of performances. For example, a pair of foreign men with guitars:

two men playing guitar in front of a video display

And four women with modern-looking violins and a string bass:

four women in white dresses playing electric clear violins

There were also enthusiastic emcees, a fashion show, videos, and young women wearing dresses and tiaras (also appearing in the earlier post here) who appeared to mostly stand around and occasionally provide assistance:

three young women wearing dresses

I don't know how many cars sales resulted from the promotion, but at least it drew a crowd:

a performance at a promotion for the Toyota Vios at Kaifu Wanda Plaza in Changsha

For more, below is a video of one performance. I was interested in capturing audience behavior as well, so it's from a distance and not the greatest for fully appreciating the performance. I will not be providing a review of the performance (including commenting on the fog machines) other than to say, like the promotion as a whole, it reminded me of others I have seen in China.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Prelude, Fugue, Riffs, and FBI Files

Today would be Leonard Bernstein's 95th birthday if he were still alive (H/T to Adam Bear). As described on Wikipedia:
Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim. According to The New York Times, he was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history."

His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music for West Side Story, as well as Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town and his own Mass.
To celebrate this day, I will share a recording of a piece I first heard when I was in junior high school: Prelude, Fugue and Riffs (1949). The All Music Guide to Classical Music offers this description:
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is scored for a standard dance-band instrumentation of solo clarinet, saxes and trumpets in fives, four trombones, piano, string bass, and drums, to which Bernstein adds a second percussion part. It is one of the most frequently performed of Bernstein's shorter concert works, and has been widely embraced by wind ensembles in particular. While it was intended as a sort of crossover piece that combines jazz and classical elements, the material in Prelude, Fugue and Riffs leans more heavily in favor of the jazz aspect. Stravinsky's jazz-inspired music is an obvious point of reference for this work, and the similarity is felt most strongly in the opening Prelude, scored for the brass. This is followed by the Fugue for the saxes. In the Riffs section the solo clarinet is heard over the whole ensemble, which concludes with a riff reminiscent of Count Basie and of Kansas City-style ensemble jamming.
And with that out of the way, here is the recording (also H/T to Adam Bear):

If you now desire to learn more about Bernstein and are deeply suspicious of musicians, perhaps you will enjoy perusing the more than 500 pages of FBI files on him here which begin the same year Prelude, Fugue and Riffs was finished. They reflect another side of American life during the middle of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Non-Traditional Traditional Performance of Gabrieli

In a post I wrote while guest blogging for James Fallows over 2 years ago, I shared some of what inspired this blog's name. I also shared a musical fugue and explained my choice of a specific video recording:
One, it is a fantastic example of how technology can be used to find new ways for people to express themselves - even when the subject is an old masterpiece. Another reason is it features instruments from an older period of music unfamiliar to many. Finally, and not least, the performer is a friend of mine who I first met while studying at the Peabody Conservatory of Music of Johns Hopkins about a decade and half ago.
For similar reasons, I would like to now share another recording by James Howard Young. The piece performed, Canzon Primi Toni à 8 by Giovanni Gabrieli, is not a fugue but an earlier form of contrapuntal music. I doubt Gabrieli ever imagined his music would be performed in the manner James chose. And who knows how (or if) today's music will be performed in the year 2429. So lose yourself for a few minutes in a piece from 1597 that even after hundreds of years continues to receive new interpretations.

[video also here]


Tenor Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Bass Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Great Bass Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Subbass Recorder 1: James Howard Young
Tenor Recorder 2: James Howard Young
Bass Recorder 2: James Howard Young
Great Bass Recorder 2: James Howard Young
Subbass Recorder 2: James Howard Young

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Moment of Guitar from the Alhambra

As recently noted in an article about guitarist Valerie Hartzell by Mike Dunham in the Anchorage Daily News:
Fanfare Magazine called guitarist Valerie Hartzell "a master at creating moods." Classical Guitar magazine praised her "impeccable musicianship and technique." Top reviewers on Amazon have chimed in on her CD "Ex Tenebris Lux," B. Noelle Huling saying the performance is "absolutely breathtaking" and Luz Sirbenet saluting Hartzell as an "extraordinarily talented performer ... a classical guitarist of major importance."
And as written on her website, Valerie Hartzell:
...was a prizewinner at the Portland Guitar Competition, the ECU Competition and Festival, and the Appalachian Guitar Festival and Competition. She has won 1st prizes at the 10th International Guitar Competition “Simone Salmaso” in Italy and at the Concours de Guitare Classique Heitor Villa-Lobos in France. At the Peabody Conservatory, Valerie studied with Manuel Barrueco on scholarship earning her Bachelor’s Degree in 1997. She was awarded a Graduate Teaching Fellowship at Radford University and was placed as Adjunct Faculty while studying for her Master’s Degree in Music, receiving her performance degree in May of 1999.
The article and the website provide more details about Hartzell's life and music, including her mix of commitments which leave her regularly traveling between Alaska and Texas. But they both miss one key fact: for half a year she lived on the same dormitory floor as me at the Peabody Conservatory.

During my years at the conservatory, I often heard the sounds of musicians with their guitars in the school's practice rooms (also in the dorm rooms, dorm lounges, courtyard, cafeteria, hallways, stairwells, and elevators). Although I never studied classical guitar, my appreciation of it certainly grew. And I think most of the guitarists I knew would agree with Valerie on this point:
"One thing I hate is when people call the guitar a 'relaxing' instrument," Hartzell said. "It's so diverse. It can be Spanish and fiery, royal, dynamic, yet romantic and lyrical. It's such a chameleon."
In addition to the article, the Anchorage Daily News produced a video of Valerie performing the piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Memories of the Alhambra) by Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909). Valerie's performance is impressive not only for its display of technical prowess, but also for the unique expressive voice brought to the music. I share it here to bring more attention to a style of guitar music that is too often overlooked or mischaracterized and, of course, to "show off" my college friend Valerie.

Valerie Hartzell plays "Recuerdos de la Alhambra".

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Humanity Within a Typewriter

Composer Leroy Anderson has been described as "one of the great American masters of light orchestral music". Although I suppose I prefer "heavier" orchestral music, today I appreciated Anderson's piece "The Typewriter" as performed by Alfredo Anaya with the Voces para la Paz (Músicos Solidarios) orchestra.

In an article about Anderson on NPR, Pat Dowell wrote:
Anderson's "The Typewriter," a pops-concert staple composed in 1950, actually features a manual typewriter on the stage with the orchestra. In a 1970 interview, Anderson described how he made the typing sound a part of the music, not just an added effect.

"We have two drummers," Anderson said. "A lot of people think we use stenographers, but they can't do it because they can't make their fingers move fast enough. So we have drummers because they can get wrist action."
The piece not only shows how technology can be applied in unexpected ways, but also how it can have hidden charms. As violinist and conductor Vladimir Spivakov said of Anderson's music, "The craftsmanship, the humor, the humanity!"

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Julliard School Betting on Artistic Growth in China

Chengcheng Jiang in Time reported on the Julliard School's plans to open a campus, its first outside of the U.S., for pre-college & pre-professional students in Tianjin, China. Some of the reasons for Julliard's new campus highlight the different directions that China and the U.S. are headed in their commitment to the arts:
The Juilliard brand is landing in China at a time when interest in — and money for — the arts is on the rise. As part of President’s Hu Jintao‘s plans to build the nation’s soft power, the central government has established ambitious targets for the development of what it calls China’s ‘cultural industries.’ In the current Five Year Plan, the government’s blueprint for growth, for instance, 2 billion RMB, or about $315 million, has been earmarked for a national arts fund.

This level of enthusiasm and funding is a welcome change for American educators who are used to dealing with dwindling audiences and funding cuts. “The tradition of government funding of the arts has never existed in United States,” [The president of the Julliard School, Joseph Polisi,] told TIME on a recent visit to China to announce the new campus. “What has supported the arts for most of the 20th century in America was the value system where the public educational system saw the arts as being important as part of an overall education.” That, of course, has changed. But in China, he says, parents and school systems increasingly value music. “I see Chinese students, I see Chinese faculty members, I see Chinese educational administrators, who are all working towards an environment that is supportive of the classical arts.”
Like the aviation industry, the development of the arts could be representative of broader changes in China. And similar to some other fields, if the U.S. shoots itself in the foot and does not continue to support the arts, America could decline in a field where it now shines regardless of what China does.

Another set of issues raised by Julliard's plans relate to censorship. Julliard will be joining a variety of other American institutions of higher education with campuses or with plans to build campuses in China. They have had to consider how to best foster open learning in China. Isaac Stone Fish in The Daily Beast reported on the degree to which American universities have adjusted to China's censorship and how it is not easy when it is sometimes not clear what is off-limits:
Rowena He left China in the 1990s and is currently teaching 
courses at Harvard University about the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement
 and its aftermath—a course that she could not teach in China. “The 
problem is, we don’t know where the line is and what the punishment
 would be. That’s where fear and self-censorship comes from,” she says.
It would seem, though, that Julliard may have fewer challenges in this regard and may be less likely to have professors barred from China. Although there are many popular music songs which are banned in China, I am not aware of any cases where the style of music typically studied and performed at a school such as Julliard has been banned. However, there are certainly pieces which have the potential to be considered sensitive [if you are aware of any such pieces being banned, I would be curious to hear about it].

Regardless of the challenges that may be ahead, I think it is wonderful that Julliard is pushing forward in China. It will help to further spread the arts and creative expression in China. It will also provide Julliard a valuable mechanism to funnel talented and trained musicians to its main campus. Like other leading schools, it continues to draw many talented people to the U.S.

Whether the U.S. appreciates how valuable that can be and works to ensure it continues is another question.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Layers, Movies, Sea-Buckthorn, and Purcell

The extensive recovery effort for my earlier mishap continue, but the end is in sight. Since I do not have time for a proper post today and want to hold off commenting on what I have learned from my recent experiences until later, I will share just a few unrelated items.

1. Thursday at 7pm China time (7am US EST time; 1pm Berlin time) I will be joining a discussion on Hangouts led by the president of the China Speakers Bureau, Fons Tuinstra, and also including Thomas Morffew & Alicia Noel. The topic will be "the current wave of anti-foreigner press in China - where it comes from, what it means to foreigners living in China, and employment implications for non-Chinese living in China." I look forward to discussing a topic that I believe has many layers. If you want to join or watch you can find more details here.

2. The article "Hollywood gripped by pressure system from China" on the Los Angeles Times describes how despite Hollywood sometimes being seen as a part of America's soft power, the desire to appease Chinese viewers and censors is influencing the nature of the movies Hollywood now produces:
In fact, references to the Middle Kingdom are popping up with remarkable frequency in movies these days. Some are conspicuously flattering or gratuitous additions designed to satisfy Chinese business partners and court audiences in the largest moviegoing market outside the U.S. Others, filmmakers say, are simply organic reflections of the fact that China is a rising political, economic and cultural power.

Meanwhile, Chinese bad guys are vanishing — literally. Western studios are increasingly inclined to excise potentially negative references to China in the hope that the films can pass muster with Chinese censors and land one of several dozen coveted annual revenue-sharing import quota slots in Chinese cinemas.
Read the article, but I must point out an important fact first -- Kung Fu Panda has bad guys.

3. The other day in Xining, Qinghai I found this:

bottle of sea buckthorn juice

I had never heard of sea buckthorn juice so I figured I would give it try when I noticed it in a small convenience store. I must say it had a rather unique taste, and I am at a lost to describe it. I will give it another try when I have the opportunity.

4. And for today's baroque culture, I will share a video of a one minute long song with music by English composer Henry Purcell (it takes about 20 seconds for the music to start). The piece has the title "Man is for the woman made". Lyrics and music are displayed making it easier to follow. I found it a catchy tune and the title brought me amusement. Soon you may find yourself singing this song on the street as others look on in bewilderment. Anyways, I simply share it as a quick taste of music from long ago.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Musical Experience in Beijing: Menuhin, Wieniawski, and Lee

Last month Beijing had the honor of hosting the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition. The competition describes itself as "the world's leading international competition for young violinists" and includes two age groups: "Juniors" who are under the age of 16 and "Seniors" who are 16 to 21 years old. Americans won first prize in both groups and had three prize winners in total. South Korea also had three prize winners and China had two.

I did not become aware of the competition until a friend who was a conservatory classmate of mine and is now a professional musician positively commented on a video recording of a performance. Especially since this friend rarely shares recordings, I was rather curious. It only took a few notes by the junior group 2nd prize winner for me to be captivated. The performance is not just technically impressive, but surprisingly musical for one so young. I am sure a lot of practice was involved, but you cannot play like that without an excellent ear and a lot of spirit. I could go on, but performances are better listened to than described.

Below is Soo-Been Lee from South Korea ripping up Wieniawski's "Variations on an Original Theme in A Major" like I never imagined possible for an 11 year old. I recommend listening even if you do not care about the performers young age:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Outdoor Musical Performances in Tainan, Taiwan

I haven't done a music related post in a long time, so I'll share some of the outdoor musical experiences I've had during the past several days in Tainan, Taiwan.  They help capture some of the diverse styles of music that can be heard across Taiwan.

For example, there was this Chinese opera being staged across from Lady Linshui's Temple ( 臨水夫人廟):

And in another part of town I stumbled upon a large group of 10-12 year olds performing traditional music as seen in this video:

Sometimes, it is the visuals accompanying the music that can be most striking.  The following video of a concert in front of a restaurant on Zunwang Road is an example of such a case:

Maybe even more than musical performances with SpongeBob SquarePants in the background, what has most caught my attention in Taiwan is that Western art music (often referred to as "classical music" -- a term to discuss another day) seems to be more infused into the culture than anywhere I've seen in Mainland China.

For example, in Tainan this past weekend there were several performances outside the historic Chikan Towers (赤崁樓):

Western art music has also impacted Taiwan's culture in a way that has been experienced by many people who live in or have visited Taiwan.  Garbage trucks will loudly play music to announce their approach and often the musical selection comes from a piece of Western art music (or is similar in style).  The trucks play the music so that people know when to bring out their garbage.  The net effect is that garbage doesn't need to be sitting outside on the streets or sidewalks.

Often the music will be electronic but in Tainan I came across a garbage truck with music that didn't sound like it came from a simple synthesizer.  Capturing a scene that to me feels somewhat like a piece of performance art, here is a video:

Where else can one be serenaded as one takes out the garbage?

There is of course more to Taiwan's musical scene then just the above and this doesn't touch on many of the more popular styles.  However, those weren't featured in any live outdoor performances I came across in Tainan.

And no garbage trucks were playing them.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Documentary of "A Concept of Existence in its Totality"

Imagine a work so large that it mirrors the entire world.
One is only an instrument the universe plays upon.
Gustav Mahler

I'm going to try to sell you on watching at least just a few minutes of a fantastic video on an incredible piece of artistic expression.

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 - May 18, 1911) is typically considered one of history's great composers.  While his name may not be as universally familiar as Mozart or Beethoven his compositions have had an immense impact on music in the 20th and 21st centuries and are regularly played in concert houses around the world.

Most of his work can be found in his series of massive symphonies.  Of these, the longest was Symphony No. 3.  It's not just about "music" but directly draws upon ideas in philosophy, theology, literature,  and science.  This is not the elevator music I think many associate with the term "classical music".  It has an emotional breadth, depth, and intensity that can leave one staggered.  As described by Tony Duggan:
It was largely composed in the summer of 1895 after an exhausting and troubling period that pitched him into feverish creative activity.  Bruno Walter visited him at that time and as Mahler met him off the ferry Walter looked up at the spectacular alpine vistas around him only to be told: "No use looking up there, that’s all been composed by me."  Mahler was inspired by the grandeur around him at the very deepest level of feeling and also by visions of Pan and Dionysus.  In fact by a sense of every natural creative force in the universe infusing him into "one great hymn to the glory of every aspect of creation", or, as Deryck Cooke put it: "a concept of existence in its totality."
For many, such a large piece can be intimidating -- especially since it lasts at least 90 minutes.  However, recently I've come across a documentary "What the Universe Tells Me - Unraveling the Mysteries of Mahler's Third Symphony" that helps make this piece more accessible.  It's probably the best documentary I've seen for a piece of classical music -- especially in terms of acting as a guide for people with no formal training in or significant exposure to classical music.  H/T to a tweet by Net Jacobsson (see here for purchase and reviews).

Much of Mahler's music is programmatic, it has a story to tell, and Mahler's Third is no different.  The documentary reveals that a reviewer of one of the first performances of the symphony wrote that the 3rd movement reminded him of a particular poem.  When Mahler later saw the review he was "astounded" and later called in the reviewer to express that it was exactly the poem he had in mind.

For now at least, the documentary is available on YouTube.  I hope the publishers allow it to remain there as I think it can attract help attract attention from people who otherwise would have never considered purchasing this or similar documentaries.

Whatever you may feel about classical music, I highly recommend giving the video at least 5-6 minutes of your time.  See what you think -- you may be surprised.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

If that caught your attention I further recommend listening to the actual symphony.  Try to set aside the 90+ minutes to listen to it in a single sitting without interruption (although a break after the first movement is common for live performances).  As one learns the "language" of the piece more of its beauty, intricacy, and ideas will be revealed with every listening.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vietnam, meet Mahler and the Backstreet Boys

In Hanoi you can listen to a Vietnamese premiere of music by Gustav Mahler:

Or to the Backstreet Boys:

I wonder if there is anyone who attends both...

Monday, February 14, 2011

More on "Fugues"

Recently, I posted "Fugues" on James Fallows blog.  I particularly recommend checking it out as not only does it provide some of the reason for my blog name, but it also communicates a part of how I see the world.

Plus, it has a great video!!!  Check it out.