May 2007

Lang Lang Performs and Discusses Tchaikovsky: Tchaikovsky Born Again

May 31, 2007 20:50

I recently had the great pleasure of hearing Lang Lang, the young, Chinese virtuoso pianist, play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The program also included Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody #2 and City Scape, a contemporary piece. After the concert there was still more entertainment: a question-and-answer session with the audience, Lang Lang, Slatkin, and Jennifer Higdon, the composer of City Scape.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 and Violin Concerto have a lot in common. Both are extremely difficult to play technically. Both can sound like a bunch of sound and fury to a very casual listener. The listener soon discovers melody, rhythm, and mood changes and likes the concerto. Some critics look down on these two concertos because of their “mass appeal,” as if that diminished their artistry. The two concertos even share historical disasters. Tchaikovsky dedicated his first piano concerto to Nicolai Rubinstein, who dismissed the work as “unplayable.” Fortunately, Hans von Bulow was traveling in Russia at this time, looking for a new piano concerto for his upcoming American debut. Von Bulow loved the concerto, and so did the audience when he played it at its premier in Boston. Likewise, Tchaikovsky dedicated his violin concerto to Leopold Auer, who declared it, too, “unplayable.” Tchaikovsky found another violinist to play the concerto at its premiere. It was not well received. Von Bulow, then the most influential music critic in Europe, said of it, “The violin is not played but rather beaten black and blue.” Today both concertos are widely played and very popular.

If anyone thought that the Tchaikovsky Piano Concert #1 was just a lot of loud noise, they would have decided otherwise after Lang Lang played just a few notes. The opening chords are thunderous, but almost immediately afterwards, Lang Lang played a few notes which were a sort of respite of tenderness. The whole performance was like that: There were breathtaking changes of mood and displays of sensitivity where they were least expected. The old war horse of a composition was born again. I felt as though I were hearing an entirely new piece. The artistry of both Lang Lang and Slatkin contributed to this miracle. Slatkin used all the sections of instruments in the orchestras as beautiful, powerful voices, effecting changes of moods, often where I was surprised to hear them.

After the breath taking performance, Lang Lang, Slatkin, and Higdon took questions from the audience and answered in a delightfully relaxed and happy way. I’ll focus here on questions involving Lang Lang and Slatkin.

Someone asked whether the performers minded the applause between movements of the pieces. I was interested in this question because I couldn’t restrain myself from clapping with other members of the audience between the movements of the concerto. Slatkin said, “Absolutely not!” In fact, he said that they loved it. It showed that the listeners were so full of emotion that they couldn’t contain themselves from expressing it. He added that applause between movements was the norm years ago. When Beethoven conducted the premier of his Seventh Symphony, there was so much applause after the slow movement that Beethoven had the orchestra replay the whole movement.

Someone else asked Lang Lang how he became interested in playing the piano. Lang Lang replied that it was because of a Tom and Jerry cartoon which he saw when he was 2 years old. The episode of the cartoon was called “Cat Concerto,” and the music, although Lang Lang did not know it at the time was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2, which Lang Lang recorded in 2005.

In response to a question about European music in China, Lang Lang said that after the Cultural Revolution, when European music was repressed in China, there was a huge wave of European music, which is now very popular in China. In fact, there are 20 million kids in China studying piano now.

Someone noted Lang Lang’s extraordinary accomplishments at a young age (25) and asked him what he wants to accomplish in the next 5-10 years. Lang Lang said that he wants to get kids to listen to and play more classical music. He wants to teach kids to feel music as it’s played and connect to it. Slatkin said that he has found it very helpful to establish a point of commonality with the kids he talks to. He said that when he mentions that he met Cold Play at the Grammy awards, the kids seem to take more interest in him. Lang Lang mentioned that he has played on Sesame Street, and he had a lot of fun. (I looked for it on youtube but couldn’t find it, although I did find performances by James Galway and Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street.) Lang Lang said that he feels great whenever a kid sees him and says, “I know you. You’re Piano Man. Do you know Elmo?” Regarding his performances, Lang Lang said that he wants to perform concertos he has not performed before. He said that he currently has “about forty concertos in my pocket.”

Another person asked Lang Lang whether he ever became discouraged in his playing and wanted to quit. The pianist laughed and said, “Yes, many times.” In fact, when he was six, his teacher told him that he was hopeless and fired him. Fortunately, Lang Lang ignored the teacher’s opinion of him.

A child in the audience asked how he could get to be a great pianist like Lang Lang. Slatkin responded that this is a very personal matter which the child should discuss with his teacher. Lang Lang laughed and said, “No. Just get up at 5 AM, start practicing, and drive your neighbors crazy.”

In response to the question, “How many hours a day do you practice?” Lang Lang said that as a child he practiced at least 6 hours a day, but now he only practices about 2 hours a day. I and most of the audience were shocked, but Lang Lang added, “That’s because most days I’m either giving a concert or riding on an airplane.”

The question, “How did you break into the classical music star scene?” drew some interesting answers. Lang Lang said that he was often on a list of substitute performers, but usually he was #4 or #5. His great break came when the pianist Andre Watts got sick suddenly, and Lang Lang subbed for him. He was an immediate success. Slatkin said that back in the 70s, he subbed for Ricardo Muti, and that’s how his stardom began.

Another child asked Lang Lang how he memorized a piano concerto. Lang Lang said, “I live with it. I play it over and over and over. I go to sleep listening to a recording of it. Sometimes I have strange dreams about it. I dream that I’m talking to Mozart in Chinese.”

Someone asked about the role of the orchestra in a concerto. Slatkin said that the orchestra was not just for support, but for collaboration. He said that this was especially true in the case of an outstanding soloist like Lang Lang.” My impression exactly.

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Violin transformation

May 26, 2007 22:47

One of my students recently got a set of Infeld Reds on his violin, and I fell in love with them, especially the E string. I read about them and decided that I must get a set. My bridge was terribly low and slightly warped, so I’m getting a new, higher bridge. The luthier told me that he would adjust the soundpost after putting on the new bridge. I told him that the G string always had a kind of buzz to it and asked him to check the effect of the soundpost on that. Finally, he convinced me to get my fingerboard adjusted/straightened because ebony fingerboards show the effects of uneven wear after many years. (I wonder whether this is really true.) So I’m spending a lot of money (relative to my budget) on my fiddle, and it will be transformed. I can’t wait until Wednesday, when I’ll get it back and play it again.

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Front porch string band at W Va festival

May 21, 2007 21:35

New River Mills in Hampshire County, West Virginia was a thriving town until the mills shut down during the Civil War. Now it’s a ghost town with only one couple as residents. People from that area and their descendants have a strong sense of history and their roots. Once a year, there is a North River Mills Festival, and descendants of the towns’ inhabitants converge to celebrate. Many of them live in nearby places in West Virginia, but some come hundreds of miles, from places like Kentucky, Missouri, and Connecticut. A major part of the occasion is the front porch band, an informal group of string musicians who gather on the front porch of the old inn and jam, playing old time music. This year, the musicians came from Hampshire County and the metropolitan DC area, and I was fortunate to be one of them.

The area is rural and very pretty.

The only building near the inn which is in active use is the small Methodist church, most of whose members live in the nearby town of Capon Bridge.

A welcome modern convenience was brought in for the day.

The jam took place on the front porch of the town’s inn, which was opened for the occasion.

There were about 20-25 musicians there total, but not everyone played at the same time. The instruments included fiddles, guitars, mandolins, banjos, and one noning instrument, a flute.

This fiddler was obviously not classically trained, but he sounded great.

This fiddler had a great smile and a great style.

This ukulele player sounded awfully good on his Gibson.

In spite of all the bad jokes about banjos, they can sound wonderful when played by a good musician, such as this one.

The man with the guitar and the smile is Wilmer Kerns, musician, historian, and former resident of W Va, who organized much of the festival and all of the music. The young lady is an absolutely fantastic fiddler from W Va.

While we played, we could watch flat-foot dancers who performed when the spirit moved them. Flat-foot dancing, or flat-footing, is similar to clogging, but the knees aren’t raised so the overall effect is less flashy. It is exhibition dancing, done without partners, free form. The dancers get some very stunning effects from ankle movements. They were especially impressive to me because of my ankle weaknesses, injuries, and surgery. The performers made the dancing look smooth and effortless.

Individual musicians took breaks whenever they wanted for such activities as hiking; photography; wagon rides; walking around and enjoying the scenery; socializing; eating hot dogs and homemade fruit pies served by women from the Methodist church in the kitchen of the old inn; and just hanging out.

We were scheduled to play from 10 AM to 2 PM, but the group I went with was delayed by factors beyond our control: highway construction, traffic jams, rain, and an antique store. We didn’t arrive until 11:30 AM, but we stayed until the very last note of the very last tune -- at 7 PM. I got home at 9:30 PM, exhausted but very happy.

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Pauline in Lang Lang Land

May 15, 2007 00:51

I just came back from another world where I spent several hours. Just as Alice was transported to another world by stepping Through the Looking Glass, I was transported to another world by clicking on this site. Then I followed more links, heard and saw more and more, and became ever more deeply entranced with the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang. He appeals to me in some of the same ways that Hilary Hahn does. He is a magnificent artist and a great teacher. He talks about the music he plays and how he relates to it personally much as Hilary Hahn does. They are both superstar musicians, and they both come across as honest, humble, down-to-earth people who love to share their musical insights with the listening public. Lang Lang shows some traits I associate with Chinese culture: He is humble and has a great deal of dignity and respect. Deutsche Grammophon has put lots of wonderful material on his website. There are separate pages for each of his releases (CDs and DVDs), and each page has audio clips, video clips, and promotional clips, in which Lang Lang talks about the music and plays some of it to demonstrate his points. For example, before recording his Rachmaninov CD, he traveled through Russia and experienced the vastness and sadness of the country. He saw the connection to Rachmaninov’s own depression and to the music he wrote. His Rachmaninov CD has the Second Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. That concerto has been played so often that it sometimes seems hackneyed, but Lang Lang imbued with new life and more beauty than I ever thought it had. His latest CD contains Beethoven Piano Concertos 1 and 4. He explained the story behind part of Concerto 4 that I was unaware of – the part with the conflict between the orchestra and the piano. I had not known that this told of the story of Orpheus pleading with the forces of the Underworld for the return of his wife. Lang Lang told the story and illustrated it by playing parts of the music. His playing was incredibly tender and prayerful at the start and deeply, softly tragic at the very end. Through my wanderings in Lang Lang Land, I became aware of his vast range of expression. I have his CD “Memory” with solo music by Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, and online I have heard some of his playing of traditional Chinese music in his CD Dragon Songs. Overall, I had an impression of him as a player of gentle music, and I wondered how he would play something as fiery as the Tchaikovsky Concerto, since I have a ticket to hear him play it it on Friday night. He has recorded it, and when I listened to clips online, I felt the boldness and excitement of it. There is one more very interesting bit of news: Lang Lang will celebrate the release of his new Beethoven album with an exclusive live concert on Second Life. He will be the first classical artist to perform an exclusive concert on this website. The concert will take place on Tuesday, May15 at 8 PM (CET), which is 6 PM (GMT) and 2 PM (EDT, my time zone). All this whets my appetite for hearing Lang Lang live in concert on Friday.


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What do skiing and playing the violin have in common?

May 9, 2007 21:12

I have a new adult beginner student who loves playing and catches on quickly. We’re just starting Suzuki Book 1. I play a piece for him so he’ll know how it sounds, and then I have him play it. He puts his violin and bow in playing position, focuses on the music quietly for a while, and then plays it, almost flawlessly the first time. I asked him to explain what he’s doing, and he told me that he plays the piece all the way through mentally before he plays it physically. He learned this technique from a skiing instructor, who would have his class mentally ski a course they had skied before in preparation for skiing it again. He instructed them to ski the entire course mentally, omitting nothing. He even timed them to be sure that they were mentally skiing the entire course at a realistic speed. This approach had helped my student learn to ski, so he tried it on the violin, and it is working. I’ve heard about the value of practicing mentally when you can’t get your hands on a violin, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone do it, and the results are impressive. I wonder what will happen as we play longer and more complex pieces.

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May 4, 2007 23:24

I’ve experienced a lot of rejection in the last few years in my ongoing effort to find a job. Rejection is a real pain. In the past week, Kelsey Z and Natasha Marsalli have written blogs on the subject, and now I’m adding my thoughts to theirs.

I’ve been rejected many times in the last few years in my job search, and I know the odds are against me. The economy is bad. There are very few openings for people with professional backgrounds like mine. I’m too old (58) and too experienced, and I’m threatening to a lot of people. Fear of rejection is reality-based for me. Job hunting is a pain. I spend many of my waking hours searching for jobs on the Internet; talking to recruiters; rewriting my resume; completing pages and pages or screens and screens of largely irrelevant questions; studying to prepare for interviews; going to interviews, which often include pop tests of writing and/or editing (like auditions); writing thank you notes for interviews; and, last but certainly not least, being rejected. Although most interviewers are civil, I’ve been verbally brutalized by some of them. Why do I keep doing this? Because I’m obsessive? In part, that’s true. When I get locked onto a goal, it takes the forces of heaven and hell to unlock me. I keep asking myself, is the battle worth the prize? In my case, the answer is unequivocally “yes” because I need to support myself financially, and I can’t do it just by teaching violin.

One of my friends gave me some advice that I really like: Hope for the best and expect the worst. That gives me permission to be a pessimist and to acknowledge reality, but it also allows me to have some hope, to leave the door open just wide enough for a ray of light to get in.

Fearing and experiencing rejection can do strange things to the psyche. I try to maintain a healthy but realistic approach. When I’m rejected, I tell myself that I’m just not a good fit for the job or that I don’t have all the kinds of experience that my potential employers are looking for. However, long term rejection can lead to feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. It can engender thought patterns such as, “Of course, they’re going to reject me. Everybody else does. I’m just no good. I don’t have what it takes to succeed. I’m a loser.” Thinking like this frequently can be a symptom of clinical depression. I admit that those thoughts emerge from my brain sometimes, and I know that it’s largely because my parents told me things like that. To help me keep my balance, I keep a quotation from Woody Guthrie posted near my desk. It says,

“I hate a song that makes you think you’re not any good! I hate a song that makes you think you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too thin or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you because of your bad luck or your hard travelling.

I am out to fight those kind of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.

I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world, and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you down for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it’s run you down and rolled over you, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.

PS. Check out my website,

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