Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Tribute to Oscar

December 2007 would be my first December since 1996 where I would not have listened to Oscar Peterson’s Christmas album (1995 Telarc) at least once before folks around me started belching out Auld Lang Syne. I bought the Peterson recording shortly before Christmas in the year of 1996, and have since then bestowed a prerogative thereupon to entertain me, ahead of everything else, in the month of December. That recording, perhaps Peterson’s best-selling and most accessible recording of seasonal music, is a gorgeous yet subtly effusive piece of art work that has defined many a December for me in ways that not even ecclesiastic traditions and conventions have.

But 2007 is not exactly a normal year for me. 2007 was the year I uprooted myself from America, where I have spent a great majority of my past 11 years, and moved to Beijing, where I now reside. I settled down in Beijing with trepidation and a great level of uncertainty. I also arrived with one suitcase, with just enough space for my clothes and not nearly enough to include any of my CDs (including my Petersons). For whatever reason, though my iPod has enough music to keep me entertained for a month without a single song repeat, none in my digital collection has anything to do with Christmas, and certainly nothing of the Peterson recording that I have been listening to every December in the past decade.

The above revelation, still, would not begin to describe how terribly I feel right now. As I posted earlier, Peterson passed away this Christmas Eve, an irony in timing, as if, not merely to remind me of that Christmas album (disclosure: I certainly was listening to his music, albeit not that specific recording of Christmas music), but also to formalize my guilt for having abandoned his recording this year, and alas, for the first time in more than a decade.

Oscar Peterson, whom I have never met in person, has always been special to me. The first jazz recording that captured my imagination was “We Get Requests”, a light but delightful, controlled execution of popular bossa nova standards such as “Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado”. Back in 1993, it was my most perfect introduction to jazz as Peterson, in that recording, was unambiguously deferential to the original bossa nova melodies – thus making the music more accessible –even as he colored them with jubilant but judiciously modest jazz constructions. This bit of discovery came well after I started repeating the tracks, before I had any inkling that the record, as it stands today in history, has its place in jazz history as an exemplary cornerstone of a movement that attempted to bring jazz back to a more polished, tuneful nature after a go-go period of bop, when melodies were often liberally dismantled, dissected and reduced, with abandon, into their most naked and primitive forms before being reconstructed into something else. Because jazz connoisseurs often find such “reconstructions” intellectually appealing, “We Get Requests” is often considered to be harmonic fluff, but the kind of frothy fluff so well made that reminds people of a perfectly executed soufflé in its immaculate, indefectible erection. Just as it takes nothing less than a chef obsessed with precision, restraint and finesse to deliver a lush soufflé beyond compare, it takes nothing less than a musical genius like Peterson to deliver musical numbers as palatable and joyous, yet simple and uncluttered, as those found in “We Get Requests”.

When my taste for jazz was finally mature enough to tackle Peterson’s more progressive works, I knew I was in for a serious treat. Of all of Peterson’s more formulaic, progressive works, I count the series titled “The Exclusively for My Friends” one of my all-time favorites. If metaphorized into painting, the music in that series offered a much larger, freer canvas on which Peterson could execute with more aesthetic flair and technical fervor. Peterson, at least as technically proficient as any other jazz pianist in the history of the music form, had a free roam in this vast, unadulterated land of improvising opportunity, often delivering numbers upon numbers of music that, if readers so indulge me, conjures delirious episodes of synesthesia and orgasmic nirvana. This canvas was where Peterson would unleash his technical and artistic arsenals: augmented arpeggios, catchy leitmotifs, re-harmonization of blues chords, temporal dissonance, block and parallel chords, alteration of dominant functions etc., providing a continuous source of sensory, almost dizzy triggers that allow the audience to drift into Peterson's personally handcrafted world. Technical dexterity notwithstanding, Peterson’s ability to control dynamics and tempo was another foundation of his artistic mastery, the kind of magical aptitude similar to that perfected by a sorcerer who would wave his wand and control the ebb and flow of the emotional and episodic energy flowing through mortals like us. Peterson’s music flies and glides in a border-less sky of emotional and spiritual possibilities, soaring into the celestial outer-space in Peterson’s sanctioned instances while sharp diving into the abyss in others, thereby creating a sensory roller coaster that leaves an enduring, indelible mark in the audience’s perceptive psyche.

I remember listening to a rare interview of Peterson speaking of how he would prepare before a performance. To Peterson, the only preparation was to feel the depth of the keys, or the extent to which a key needs to be pressed before the hammer butt (which is coupled with the keyboard element) pivots towards the sound-generating string of the instrument. That description, though mechanical, if not also archaic, underlies Peterson’s pure genius: the same question posed to any other musician would probably induce responses such as a few minutes of physical warm-ups with chromatic scales and arpeggios, seat adjustments, a few deep breaths etc. To Peterson, it was merely a brief outreaching action to the keys that allowed them to become a part of him –in a way that seamlessly bound the musician with the musical instrument. This recollection reminds me of a quote by composer Phil Nimmons, a longtime friend of Peterson and a co-producer of Peterson’s “Canadiana Suite”: “The piano is like an extension of [Peterson’s] own physical being.”

I wish in my lifetime, I could say, with neither shame nor moral opprobrium, that the piano is an extension of my physical being. Just like a basketball, in the hands of Michael Jordan, becomes a part of the basketball player until Jordan decides to destine it for the basket, piano keys were completely Peterson’s until he decided to allow them to produce sounds for transmission to human audio nerves. While I have never listened to Peterson in a live concert, I would imagine how the audience, being mortals, would drop their jaws in an unrehearsed yet synchronized manner as they luxuriated in Peterson’s acoustic splendor.

My endless outpour of praise aside, I must contend that some of Peterson’s compositions, including famous ones such as "Place St. Henri", were, at least to me, more about technical exuberance than emotional connectivity which, I truly believe, is the anchoring hallmark of any jazz composition. "Place St. Henri", a piece that was slated to portray the vibrant economic and cultural viability in Peterson’s home town of Montreal, seems, at least to me, to glorify breathless technical rigor much more than the artist’s emotional connection with the geographical subject matter. As I read a plethora of obituary tomes (listed below), I wish obit writers would place more emphasis on Peterson’s more enterprising, radical compositions, one such as "Easter Suite", a magnum opus less known by the public but perhaps one that proves to be critically significant in the history of jazz composition. Commissioned by a British television show and broadcasted nationwide in England on Good Friday, April 24, 1984, the piece has eight movements, each following the events narrated in the corresponding gospel story. While other musicians before Peterson had improvised on top of gospel music, few have exploited a biblical story as a source of improvisational inspiration. In addition, it also seems ironic, if not fundamentally flawed, that a well-known, predictable story in the Bible was re-construed via the free-minded, unpredictable nature of jazz improvisation. Another tidbit that obit writers failed to capture was a part of Peterson’s childhood that was instrumental to Peterson’s development not only as a solo musician but as a part of a jazz collaboration. In cassettes of oral interviews to which I was able to access while I was still an extremely slack (but lucky) student in university, I had a strong impression that Peterson was exposed to collaborative music making and tonal balancing by playing with the rest of his family as his father would gather family members (including Oscar's sister, who was at one point Peterson's piano teacher) in weekly jamming sessions where everyone would take turns to play different instruments and produce music in a way that would allow one to be cognizant of the presence of other musicians’ lines.

Peterson’s music will always have a special place in my heart. With reference to classical music, I would characterize Peterson’s playing as Liszt-like, albeit with a jazz flavor –a characterization that was not off the mark as Peterson’s childhood piano teacher was himself a student of the famous Hungarian pianist –while his melodic integrity, punctuated with appropriate improvisational dissonance and rhythmic permutation, was akin to a jazzy parallel to Rachmaninoff’s variations of an original classical theme.

2007 is a calendar year that proves to be one of the most brutal and disheartening for a jazz lover: Carlos Valdez, Cecil Payne, Joe Zawinul (a founder of The Weather Report), Max Roach and Michael Brecker are among those who passed away this year. When Peterson's name was added to the list, the intensity of any grief must be (and surely is, at least as it seems to me) levitated to levels previously unfathomable. I will always have the music of Oscar Peterson on Christmas Eve, but Christmas Eve will never have the good grace of the legend. Nevertheless, Christmas Eve will always mark the day that my favorite jazz pianist has, appropriately, returned to the musical heaven from which he arrived 82 years ago...from which the invisible hand has, if ever so temporarily, lent him to mortals like us.

Obituaries worth reading: AP, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Toronto Star, CBC News.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Oscar Peterson

This is an immensely sad day for me. Oscar Peterson just died, leaving one of my lifelong dreams –to meet Oscar in person – permanently unfulfilled, at least in my lifetime. Oscar will be sorely missed. Read the news here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Localization of Sam Walton's Vision

Strolling down the aisles of a Walmart in the U.S., one would find not only a gazillion different products and agricultural produces, but cooked items ranging from sliced pepperoni pizzas to grilled chicken salad in Cajun dressing. But at the end of the day, all items sold are unmistakably targeting at the American taste.

When I first heard that Walmart has a presence in China, my first reaction was whether they would know the Chinese consumer well enough to do well here. My experience at two Walmart Supercenters in Shenzhen (allegedly two of the most profitable Walmart locations anywhere in the world) and here in Beijing confirms that Walmart has done their homework before investing here in China.

Here in China, Walmart "localizes" by filling shelves with products and produces that are distinctly Chinese: dried sausages stuffed with duck livers and fat, pigeons cooked in sweetened soy sauce, pork knuckles braised with star anise, aromatic ginger and peppercorns, pickled radishes and cucumbers, and, you read it correctly, live turtles, bluntly labeled to reflect its eventual destiny not in an aquarium but at the dining table. A Walmart here is imbued with a fragrance that is unmistakably raw, but also very Chinese. Instead of seeing chicken meat modularized and prepackaged into frozen, brick-like constructions, a Chinese Walmart goes so far as to allow the shopper to see the rawness of a chicken's skinning and frenching, in ways that would probably raise a few eyebrows with PETA in the U.S. In a sense, this rawness brings honesty to what we eat --that what we eat were once living animals and plants, not merely goblets or slabs of proteins or cellulose with a bar-code and a USDA nutrition tag.

Each Walmart location seems to cater to a slightly different crowd, e.g. the Walmart in Nanshan, Shenzhen has an older crowd while the Walmart in Zhongguancun, Beijing has a younger, college-educated crowd. In any case, seasoned shoppers would guardedly stand next to mountains upon mountains of geometrically stacked produces and juggle with each item on the stack until they find and isolate the best ones that pass their touch and nose tests. Little kids would at times stray away from their distracted parents to munch on bite-size samples at food counters. The occasional first-timers would try, without success, to haggle with Walmart associates over prices. All that, on top of raised voices projected by associates across counters and wrecking sounds generated by shopping carts slamming into each other, form the basis of an improvised, locally-performed symphony of sounds and vibrations. I also can't help but hear, on top of my head, cash registers ringing and Walmart shareholders laughing all the way to financial freedom.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Bicycle Nation

Inside Beihang U: how does one find her own bike?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

To breathe and experience Seoul like another (local)

I don't know how to begin describing my visit to Seoul, for it fell well outside of my normal travel paradigm. Unlike previous trips, I neither defined any goals (e.g. to visit a physical place of interest, or to eat at a well-known establishment), nor immersed myself with the destination’s culture and history (e.g. by consuming related reading materials). My unpreparedness was compounded by two not-quite-insignificant factors: a language that is completely foreign to me; and, since it was my first visit to Korea, the lack of any prior experience to fall back on. Finally, I know not a single soul, other than a friend who now lives there.

All that, however, didn't amount to a blatantly pathetic oversight, because I did plan on experiencing South Korea not through the polished lens of popular recommendation but by my intuition and improvisation. My (true) plan, conjured up as I was aboard my short flight from Beijing to Seoul, is two pronged. While my friend was at work, I would spend as much time as possible walking the streets of Seoul and soaking up the city's aura and energy. While he was not at work, we would spend time at places where locals would escape to and deflate the day’s pressure.

After breezing past immigration, the first thing that came to my mind was to turn on my mobile phone. I was not expecting any calls; nor was I ready to make one. Instead, I was eager to find out, and be gratified by, the beauty of 3G’s ubiquity across different 3G standards. (Prior to 3G, a GSM phone from China or Hong Kong would not work in South Korea.) When I saw those four bars of salute (i.e. signal strength) lit up next to a 3G icon on my Nokia 6280, I beamed with unspeakable elation, not least because the techie in me has just jumped out in full force but because, over the years, I have been championing the ideals of cross compatibility in 3G (my cellular provider operates exclusively under one 3G standard, while SK Telecom operates another). With all the Jockey Club’s bet spreads and Yahoo! Finance’s stock quotes suddenly available to me through my 3G connection, I was too preoccupied to pay any attention to the rolling hills and calm waterfronts that galloped past me as I was bused from the airport to Seoul’s city center.

By the time I realized that my data roaming bill was getting obscenely enormous, I was already in the city center, at a stop just between City Hall and Deoksu Palace. A bit about Deoksu Palace: dating back to the 15th century, it is a walled compound of palaces that has served many a royalty of the Korean Empire. Decorated with groomed and forested gardens, the compound's palaces capture the brashness of the Empire’s past glory while its manicured gardens define the more subtle, refined essence of the aesthetic past. Today Deoksu Palace is surrounded by a countless number of concrete high rises, including, most visibly, the Imperial Palace Hotel which stands, at more than 20 floors and merely four traffic lanes away from the Deoksu Palace, as though it was seeking to outshine its namesake forebear. When I turned into the side streets that radiate from City Hall, I discovered a plethora of sensual stimulants: simmering pots of soups would effervesce a potent, gritty smell of cooked meats and a more subtle, delectable bouquet of blossoming spices. Hunks of pork and beef, grilled and slightly charred over choice charcoal, would emanate the rhapsodic aromatics of cooked animal fats and proteins. The most extraordinary, however, was brought forth by a middle-aged man who, standing outside what seemed to be his proprietary used-book store, would charcoal-grill a fat slab of squid, seasoned with salt flakes and little else, over a small, make-shift stove. When the grilled squid was ready, the man, with his stentorian voice, would make dinner calls to his neighbors. Upon his and his neighbors' insistence, I tried a piece of his masterpiece, which turned out to be a genuine pleasure as the squid retained much of its impeccably fresh juices just as the charcoal heat worked magic to provide a smoky surface flavor. My only other thought at that time: if only I had a cold beer handy to wash it all down. Anyway, these small but amicable side streets would eventually merge into larger streets where larger buildings would dominate. These imposing concrete monsters were bustling with energy as office types shuttled in and out of the revolving doors while jumbotrons flashed endlessly into eternity. As if there wasn't enough emotion, psychedelic fractals were projected onto facades of many of these big buildings, where they danced merrily to the music of pedestrian and automotive traffic.

While my friend was at work, I would use all sorts of improvised body language to communicate with local folks to overcome my language barrier. I must admit I took pleasure relishing the fruits of the most minute communicative success, fully knowing that I would experience something entirely different if my friend, a native, were around and allowed me to fall into the conversational background (imagine being a Robin to the Batman, i.e. always there but never quite able to claim any achievements as one's own). It would take me nearly twenty minutes to get my order right at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where I relied on finger-pointing and hand gesturing to tell the chef what I wanted to eat (by the way, my meal, which included fried rice with salted shrimp and kimchi, was delightful). One of my most memorable moments was spent at Sky Bar, a well-known drinking establishment in Gangnam that was unmistakably pompous and stylish. I was attracted to the joint because of its bird's eye view of Gangnam and of the beautiful folks that adorned the place (surely I was superficial but, after all, I was on vacation). I was also attracted by its atmosphere, in which soft Korean ballades, played through Sky's impeccable sound system, helped to smooth out (or perhaps blend with) the ruffles generated by a bartender's mixer. I also had a few great conversations, one of which was with Hae Jin (慧珍), a bartender with big, sparkling eyes and a rubicund visage. Her flirtatious, feisty manners betrayed her inward sincerity – despite her limited English vocabulary, she was patient enough to communicate at length with me, often at loss over (the lack of) word choice but never faltered, and essentially became my first Korean teacher and my trusted, breathing guide book. What intrigued me in our conversation was this rhythmic oscillation between frenzied spontaneity and cold stillness –something that mirrored a side street's vibrant sensation juxtaposed against the tranquil repose of an ancient palace. Also, as awkward as it may sound, Hae Jin also implored me to experience teenage authenticity by visiting a "DVD bar" where, originally designed for friends to rent and watch DVDs, teenagers nowadays would go and make out in privacy (I took her recommendation, sans the making out). She also convinced me to check out an exhibit at a vocational training school in the more industrial side of town. Helmed by her friend from high school and some other graduating students in industrial design, the exhibit was a mind-blowing experience as it amply disproved any notion that Asians always copy and never know how to create.

When my friend was finally not at work, we covered the city, checking out bars, restaurants, clubs, noraebangs (karaoke joints) as though I have been living in Seoul since time immemorial. My friend also took me to MTL, which is a “talking bar” in Gangnam (and a stone throw away from his house). In these “talking bars”, the bartender makes drinks for you, and for you only until you either decide to leave or run out of money. In other words, each bartender only handles one client at any given time, although a number of friends may go to such “talking bars” and engage an equal number of bartenders. The idea is such that the client gets to engage and talk with the bartender without the fear of losing the bartender’s attention. While one has to work hard to catch a bartender's attention (and certainly as it was the case with me, to catch Hae Jin’s attention at Sky), a bartender at these “talking bars” is ready and willing to talk (again, at least until one either decides to leave or runs out of money). My bartender was a twenty-something college student with a porcelain face and slightly bulging eyes who hoped to enter into a career in beauty care after finishing design school, in a year’s time. She told me her life stories, in broken English and with my friend’s sporadic (and obviously alcohol-influenced) translative help. She also asked me about my life, although she seemed lost the moment I punched the two dreaded words: intellectual property. In any case, based on the way she groomed and handled herself, I had little question that she had all the aesthetic talent and mental toughness to do well in what she aspired to do. These “talking bars”, as I was told, are mainly designed for the working men of Korea who are too macho and proud to talk small talk with their wives at home but otherwise want to do so with somebody, even if they have to pay for it. Furthermore, it seems to me (though I may be wrong) that this format of “bartending” is very unique to Korean culture and not commonly, if at all, found in other countries. As far as I understand, although the clientele is predominantly male and these bartenders are predominantly female, such talking bars strictly forbid unseemly, immoral transactions beyond drinking/talking and are not, at least in principle, set up for men to “pick up” bartenders. Nevertheless, this makes me wonder whether the proliferation of these talking bars highlights a social ill in South Korea –that, because Korean men would generally prefer spilling their hearts to a stranger at a talking bar over talking to their spouse, there is something inherently missing in the typical Korean spousal relationship. I have tried seeking an answer to that question, but most people I have spoken with, including many of my Korean friends, have not formed any solid opinions in respect of such a warped social dynamic.

Attending an exhibit at a vocational training school or listening to a beautician talk extensively, albeit in broken English, about her career was not what I would plan to do in any other ordinary course of visit. But there was nothing ordinary about this visit. When I left South Korea, I didn’t bring with me any photograph of me standing in front of one of those luscious palaces that would prove my visit. Yet, by doing what locals do, I have breathed, lived, and experienced a South Korea in a way that was very raw, yet, at least as it seems to me, honest and authentic.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Modern Sky Festival and its Crowd

Amid the effusion of praise that I have lavished on China's rock scene, I must admit that the Modern Sky Festival fell well short of my expectations.

Granted, my observation was not truly representative, since I was to attend only one of three days of the festival (I reserved tomorrow for hiking and for the rest of the week, I would be in HK), which featured dozens of artists performing at different time slots over those days. Nevertheless, I found my patience running out as I went from stage to stage, only to find artists who severely lacked the kind of punch and energy which one would typically expect from a rock festival, and a lukewarm audience whose apathy seemed to feed right back to the subconsciousness of the artists.

To be sure, there were exceptions to the case. At the stage for new bands, an enthusiastic audience clamored for more after No Name completed their set with a Sum 41-like, whirlwind locomotion infused with well-known Chinese elements. Enthusiastic audience members would also climb over each other and wave their limbs in an absolutely gorgeous, blue-sky day in Haidian Park. At the electric/techno stage, a few ebullient souls showed off their acrobatic dance moves neither caution nor compulsion. There was also the flag-waving, body-thumping, beer-splashing crowd in front of the main stage, a scene reminiscent of Woodstock. Those aside, however, I couldn't help but recognize a wall of expressionless folks, who looked either too tired, too stoned, or just plain too indifferent to physically react to the music. Not even the head nod...not even the lap tap...are we all becoming the disengaged philosopher whose relationship with live music is strictly analytical? Most of the time I just felt that people were just standing there in front of the stage, as if waiting to board an imaginary subway train.

Perhaps it was just me, but while it seems that the organizers did a great job by putting slightly different music on different stages to cater to each and everyone at any given time, the heavy metal on one stage seemed to drown out, for example, Sandee Chen's melancholic, twitter-like ballade on another. Was there not enough insulation mechanism to at least compartmentalize the sound a little better? Of course, nobody would be serious enough to demand concert hall acoustics at a rock festival, but when it got to the point where the sound from another stage became a distraction, the feeling of liveliness and spontaneity instantly became a nuisance.

Would I go back? Sure...only to prove myself wrong. The crowd was perhaps merely recovering of a full day of partying on National Day, but I am sure music fans, and a lot of them, could do better not merely by showing up physically but by being more engaged in circulating (and amplifying) energy to and from the artists --something which I find to be the unique hallmark of live rock music. But I would give the benefit of the doubt, until next time.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Jacky Cheung World Tour '07

It seems ironic that I would go to a canto-pop concert in Beijing, and even more ironic, as my mom would put it, that I would go to a canto-pop concert at all. It is true that my interest in canto-pop has been lukewarm over the years, and that my only real claim to (any) connection with canto-pop was a stint as a member of a drumming consortium that once backed up The Winners (are they really canto-pop?) and a gig as a percussionist at a Hacken Lee concert. Otherwise, you won't see any canto-pop CDs on my rack or see me humming to a canto-pop track.

That said, I wouldn't say I was not fascinated by canto-pop's rise as a major force in Greater China's music scene. Jacky Cheung's music, for starters, transcends any geopolitical barrier by making the hit list at every metropolitan area where Chinese congregates: there used to be a saying that in some communities in and near Vancouver and Toronto, one would hear Jacky Cheung on radio more often than Madonna+Backstreet Boys+Bruce Springsteen+Westlife+(fill in with your favorite non-Asian artists) combined. Beijing folks can sing Jacky's Cantonese songs even though they have little idea whether they are hitting the right 白话 pronunciation, while folks in Hong Kong can lip sync to any of Jacky's Mandarin songs before Mandarin was even considered an indispensable linguistic asset in what was then an English-speaking British colony.

But Jacky today was not the Jacky who won the singing contest that made him famous 23 years ago. His voice is still brilliant by most standards. Yet, it also seems to show its age, as it no longer carries the level of high-octane punch that was the hallmark of his old voice. I also counted at least two occasions where some of his high notes cracked, only to be mercifully drowned out by an dutiful band behind him. As perhaps canto-pop's most consistently successful superhero, he nevertheless represents a star fading into a more contemplative, reflective phase of his career. That said, the concert was supremely organized (other than transportation to and from Feng Tai Stadium, of which, alas, there was none), the stage well-designed, the acoustics quite adequate, and the dancing numbers quite well choreographed. Jacky is the kind of performer that requires neither exquisite dance arrangements nor scantily-clad models/dancers gyrating around him --both of which seem to be the norm today for any Asian male star trying to make it in the Asian music scene. Instead, it seems to me that Jacky naturally, and only relies on emotional appeal and a face of human ingenuity (whether feigned or real) to connect to his audience, and I must say he was very good at those last night.

Perhaps to no importance to most, during the concert I did yell out "got maid?" as an ironic vituperation of his off-stage antics as a sub-par employer, although I doubt anyone who heard that -- he most certainly could not, given the level of noise in the stadium and the position of my nose-bleed seat -- had any inkling of what I meant.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

My Pavarotti

For the past few weeks, we have been hearing about Pavarotti undergoing further treatment for his pancreatic cancer. The news has been cautiously optimistic, until yesterday when Pavarotti’s condition was reported to have worsened. Today we finally heard the news that Pavarotti has left us. I am sure that in the next few weeks we shall be hearing a lot about Pavarotti, the hymns eulogizing the passing of the great tenor, his flamboyant style, and his no-nonsense, anti-establishment approach to widen the opera fan base.

He was not as politically savvy as Domingo. Nor was he as sexually appealing and attractive as Bocelli. He was the raw, unrefined lion on stage, and the relentless businessman off stage. If everything written about him was true, then he was at least as shrewd and ruthless as Howard Breslin would describe him to be. If his public behavior was any guidance as to who he really was, then he must savor his moments as opera’s royal paladin, as evidenced by his frequent, last-minute cancellations of public appearances in the twilight of his career. He was the womanizer who would dump his wife of 35 years to hook up with his 26-year-old secretary.

But there is no question that Pavarotti was a talented tenor. In my opinion, he was possibly the most naturally talented tenor in the 20th century. Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe Di Stefano, two of the best tenors of our time, often looked strained and tired when trying to sustain high notes. Domingo, perhaps the modern-day tenor most beloved by opera aficionados, is a great interpreter of opera composer’s works and a great master of tonal quality, but always sounds as though he couldn’t reach a level of vocal projections that he would want, especially between A5 and C6. Without implying to put down any other tenors, Pavarotti seems to have a natural ability to punch high notes with not only rhythmic precision but also superior tonal quality. I am not merely talking about the nine C6s that Pavarotti famously belted out with ease in “Ah! Mes amis,” in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” at the Met in 1972. I am also talking about how he, in his early years, handled Verdi’s requirement of a Bb5 in pianissimo in “Celeste Aida” in Verdi’s “Aida”. To be sure, Pavarotti wasn’t Franco Corelli, who arguably was the best recorded Radames ever, but Pavarotti never had as nimble a voice as Corelli’s, which made rendering of the pianissimo a lot more manageable. I’m sure when I go back to Pavarotti’s earlier recordings, I would rediscover the beauty of Pavarotti’s voice – a bold but agile voice – like a Ferrari creaming a tight corner or Michael Jordan swooshing a turnaround jumper – effortless to the regular eyes, but magical to those who practice such, day in, day out.

In terms of singing, Pavarotti’s public legacy will be linked to his high notes and his handling of the passaggios. In my opinion, however, his flamboyant and raw style made him the ultimate, purest interpreter of canzone napoletana/italiane: the Marechiares, the O Sole Mios, the Torna a Surrientos of the world, providing a standard upon which all future tenors of the napoletana genre shall be judged. He will, in my mind, forever be linked with the genre, and the genre will, in my mind, always be linked with Pavarotti.
It is incredibly sad to see him go. Had he entered the world in the early 19th century, he would have left us with nothing tangible except a mythical legacy. But he left us with an incredible amount of recorded music that we and future generations will be able to enjoy. Pavarotti the man has left, but Pavarotti the voice will live and grace us forever.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The AP (via Yahoo! News).

Sunday, September 2, 2007

My first classical music concert in China

The China Philharmonic opened its 2007-2008 Season last night with a heavyweight program featuring the world premiere of a composition by Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang, and the Piano Concerto No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Ye’s new work, The Lofty Kunlun Mountains, is a monumental piece of music commissioned by and written for the China Philharmonic, and was completed barely a month ago. Continuing his ongoing series of scores featuring the customs and cultures of China’s various regions, Ye borrows from Qinghai province’s instrumental and vocal elements to carve out a substantial piece of work with three contrasting symphonic movements. Kunlun Mountains’ orchestral footprint is similar to that of Ye’s other work, Twilight in Tibet, in that Kunlun Mountains weaves through an intricate balance of rapturous Mahlerian moments and delicate pianissimo harmonics to illustrate the imposing and undulating landscapes of the region. The first movement, “The Lofty Kunlun Mountains”, is a testament to Ye’s frequent practice of east-meets-west ideals in which Holstian orchestral frameworks were gorgeously realized through the application of cascading pentatonic scales. The second movement, “The Ode to the Kunlun Mountains”, is an emotional interlude that reminds the audience of the tranquils of Howard Shore’s middle earth. Its baroque, careful string structures also provide perhaps the most poetic and original moment of the three movements. The third movement, “The Chinese March”, is the most symphonically bold, yet also stylistically least interesting, as if the piece tried to gallop to a Khrushchevian closure. In Poly Theatre’s foyer after the concert, I had a brief moment to congratulate Ye on finishing the composition, but I stopped short, for whatever lame reason including, out of deference, of complaining that Kunlun Mountains, while successful in evoking an impressive array of ethnic elements, lacked a fundamentally unique style that I often attribute to the composer's other more satisfying compositions.

Rach 3 was performed by Kun-Woo Paik, a Korean-born pianist most famous for his interpretation of Liszt. Last night’s performance was average, although anyone who knows more than a thing or two about Rach 3 would testify that any pianist who can sprint through the extremely difficult, “finger-breaking” piece without major lapses deserves at least a few rounds of standing ovations. And Paik got his share and more, at least half a dozen of them. Paik’s performance wasn’t necessarily bad –in fact, his rendition of Rachmaninoff’s legato moments in the first movement was as lyrical as any I have ever heard –but, on the overall, Paik’s Rach 3 seems to lack a sense of controlled fragility that seems, at least to me, to be the hallmark of Rachmaninoff’s piece. The third movement was also slow –a tad slower than Ashkenazy’s typical, leisurely pace of 15 minutes and a lot slower than Argerich’s exuberant pace at just over 13 minutes (in the legendary RSO Berlin/Chailly recording). To be sure, nobody will ever accuse a pianist of dragging in a performance, although if Paik had admitted that his performance dragged last night, it would not necessarily have been his fault: there were times when it seems obvious that Paik was trying to race the orchestra to a tempo of his liking, only then to be suppressed by the baton of conductor Long Yu. It was not easy to conclude who dragged and who raced, but there were moments when I had a clear impression that there wasn’t enough communication between the concerto conductor and the concerto performer.

In any case, it was an incredible night not least because it was my first time to listen to classical music in Beijing, but also because I always fancied finding out what kind of crowd I would get at a classical music concert in mainland China. I was quite impressed – other than a slight mishap in which an audience sitting not far behind me felt the need to ruffle his/her plastic bag (whose act was then promptly verbally abused and denounced by other audience members nearby) – the crowd was very courteous, and did not clap, contrary to my earlier expectation, between concerto movements. I went to the concert with Carrie, a smart auditor who often lets her disengaged, emotion-less self spill over to her personal life. So it was only fitting that the highlight of my evening was to see her face light up, and her emotions flow, as she raved about Ye’s sweetness and Rachmaninoff’s genius.

Monday, August 27, 2007

La Bohème

La Bohème is undoubtedly one of my favorite operas. Coincidentally, there are two pieces written about it today: by Tim Page in the Washington Post, and by Mike Greenberg at Express-News. Greenberg’s article was a fairly standard review of the San Antonio Opera at the Lila Cockrell Theatre. While it is mundane and devoid of the flowering descriptions that usually grace a classical music review, it does serve a good, descriptive purpose:

The traditional sets, built for New Orleans Opera, worked well and looked pretty good, though they fell short of the current state of the art. Tim Francis' lighting design was fairly basic. The off-the-rack costumes had that off-the-rack look.

Page’s writing, on the other hand, is nothing but mundane. As he writes a preview of Kennedy Center’s upcoming season, he trumphets the social and romantic values of what may be Puccini’s most famous work:

I wonder if there is another opera that so convincingly bewails the horrors of poverty while making most of the resultant hardships seem so romantic. Cold weather permeates "La Bohème," and yet the impression we take away with us is inevitably that of a suffusion of warmth.

I sincerely hope that when The Egg opens, there will be more opera performances here in Beijing. In the meantime, I will indulge myself in DVDs, and in reviews of performances around the world.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Super Band

Super Band is an American Idol-like competition for rock bands in China. It is jointly produced by media outlets in Guangzhou and Hong Kong to promote original compositions, to discover new talent, and to nurture a crop of Chinese musicians that have the potential to redefine the country’s rock scene in the coming years.

Zhang Peirong, a friend here in Beijing, told me about Super Band while we downed a few Yanjings in Houhai a few weeks ago. Peirong, by all standards, is quite a character. By day, he labors as a film editor in the city. By night, he is a rocker who hounds the Houhai scene. While he is extremely fluent in and deferential to the history and traditions of rock, he is adamant that China as a nation be proactive in developing its own rock sound. He also informed me of a Super Band regional, and implored me to check it out if I ever want to seriously understand China’s pop music and culture.

I have not been extensively exposed to rock and its history, but decided to give it a try anyways, not least because he was dead right about my severe lack of knowledge in China’s pop music but also because I was very interested in the competition format that has swept through China in the past few years.

And boy, what an experience: impeccable on-stage coordination, exquisite fretboard fingering, assertive vocals…those are some of the things that impressed me most. After nearly four hours of music, I came away feeling a little full and a little empty. Full, in a sense that the experience was wholesome, educating, and different from anything I have ever seen. Empty, in a sense that, despite all the classical training that I was fortunate to get when I was young, I have been cloaked away (in some ways by my own doing) from this other world of music in which passion and creativity flow with the freedom of the mind. It is unfortunate that I didn’t discover this world until now, but it is also fortunate that I have, finally, discovered it. Here are some of the highlights:

Band 1: excellent contrast between two entries; male vocalist was superb in creating a soulful, interactive experience with the audience

Band 8: young but very mature, a careful balancing act amongst the players; it first appeared a little thin and weak but soon emerged as this emotional train that charged all the way to the finale

Band 9: pretty sound, but drummer seemed disjointed from the rest of the group

Band 11: well rehearsed with precise control of instrumental and melodic flow; I love its charismatic and pentatonic-heavy sound.

Band 12: a blend of German punk and novel vocal; the ending was crisp and clean

I wished I had written down the bands’ names. Perhaps I’ll one day dig them up from Super Band’s website.