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Paul McCartney, Sting, Elton John and Avril Lavigne – questions about pricing November 14, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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As a student of marketing, I am fascinated by how product pricing influences consumer behaviour, and my love of music led me to a search on iTunes over the weekend which prompted me to make a few interesting observations.

I was considering downloading five albums:

  • New and Kisses On the Bottom by Paul McCartney
  • The Last Ship by Sting
  • The Diving Board by Elton John
  • Avril Lavigne by Avril Lavigne

Paul McCartney, Sting and Elton John have been around for donkey’s years, and I’m excited that they have all released new material recently.  Avril Lavigne shot to fame with her début album Let Go when she was only 17 in 2002, having appeared on stage with Shania Twain at only 15.  Fresh from her marriage to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger in July, she has also released a new studio album.  Since I have all her four previous albums, I’m keen to complete the collection.

It’s amazing that even after all these years, Paul McCartney is still able to churn out material that sounds relatively fresh, and his New album has received decent reviewsKisses On the Bottom is a collection of old songs from the 30s and 40s that McCartney apparently grew up with, but he surprises us with a new song he wrote in the style of the oldies called “My Valentine”, in which Eric Clapton is said to have a hand.

Sting was the lead singer for The Police for many years, until he ventured on the solo path in 1981.  His musical detours in recent years include an experiment with the music of English composer John Dowland, who predated baroque composers Henry Purcell and Vivaldi.  In 2009, he released a studio album If On A Winter’s Night featuring 14th century carols and tunes by Bach and SchubertThe Last Ship plumbs the depths of pain felt by those caught up in the demise of the local shipping industry.  Yet my favourite is a real softie unrelated to the album’s theme called “Practical Arrangement”.

Avril Lavigne, on the other hand, has gone back to her rock ‘n’ roll roots with an attitude. I love the way she says “…What if you and I/Just put up a middle finger to the sky/Let them know we’re still rock ‘n roll…” in “Rock And Roll” from her latest album.

As I surveyed the albums by iTunes, I discovered that New, The Last Ship and The Diving Board are available in both deluxe and ordinary editions.  Typically, the deluxe edition has a few bonus tracks and costs more.  Yet, all deluxe editions are not created equal – some are at a higher premium to the ordinary edition than others.  If you buy the entire album, deluxe New is 16.7% more expensive, but you do get 16.7% more tracks; similarly, deluxe The Diving Board is 25% more expensive for 26.7% more tracks.  The Last Ship is a real bargain, as it gives you close to 42% more tracks, but costs only 25% more, which means that per track the discount is close to 12%.

All five albums offer two download options for both editions: by album or by selective track, with the latter being more expensive per track than the former.  If you download the entire deluxe New album, you pay 22.5% less per track, but if you do the same for The Diving Board, the discount is almost 40%.  In the ordinary edition, the discount in the album rather than by track download is steepest for Kisses On the Bottom – a whopping 61.3%; New and The Last Ship offer the smallest discount of 22.5%.  Individual track downloads cost US$1.29 each,  standard across all albums and editions.

Assuming you download the entire album, New is most expensive among the deluxe editions,, at US$1 per track, whereas The Last Ship is the cheapest, at US$0.79 only, as the latter has 19 tracks compared with the former’s 14, or almost 36% more.  Does this mean Paul McCartney is able to command a higher price than Sting?  Not really, as in the ordinary edition, Kisses On the Bottom is half of the price of New per track, but Sting is the next cheapest, at US$0.80.

If you look at the total amount of cash you have to fork out to download the albums, Kisses On The Bottom will set you back only US$7.99, but New, The Last Ship and The Diving Board cost a standard $11.99; Avril Lavigne is in between at US$10.99.

If you’re interested in the detailed comparisons, the following table gives you a snapshot:

Image

The above comparison touches on many questions we often come across in pricing a product:

How much should we charge for a product – what is the cash outlay we believe a consumer is prepared to pay for it?  Why does Paul McCartney charge a lot more for New than for Kisses On the Bottom?  Why are Paul McCartney’s New, Sting’s The Last Ship and Elton John’s The Diving Board more expensive than Avril Lavigne’s eponymous work?

  • How many variants should we offer, and what sort of discount or premium should we charge for one versus another? Why does Avril Lavigne not offer a deluxe edition of her album, nor does Paul McCartney his Kisses On the Bottom?
  • Does our brand deserve a premium against another brand, or can do we need to sell ours at a discount?  Why is Avril Lavigne’s album 8% cheaper than any of the others, but contains more tracks than some and less than others?
  • If we offer different sizes of a product how much more should we charge for the larger volume version?  Can the incremental cost justify the incremental value?  Should we offer a discount for the larger volume, and per unit of measure how big should the discount be?  Why does Sting offer a bigger discount per track for the album download than Elton John?  And why does Paul McCartney charge the same per track for both the deluxe and ordinary editions of New, irrespective of whether you download only a few tracks of the entire album?

In the end I downloaded the entire Kisses On the Bottom, The Last Ship and Avril Lavigne albums.  It didn’t make sense to download a few tracks at a substantial premium, as I have a predilection for owning full albums anyway.  I previewed New and The Diving Board and withheld purchase – I wanted to think more about whether I should pay 50% more for New than for Kisses On the Bottom.  All my downloads were of the ordinary editions, as I didn’t believe the bonus tracks in the deluxe editions justified the additional spend.  In other words, I didn’t believe the incremental value I would derive from the additional tracks was commensurate with the incremental outlay.  I didn’t buy all five albums as the three I did buy cost US$31, about the amount I was comfortable spending that day.

I have now finished listening to all the albums I bought, and am very happy with my purchases.  It’ll be interesting to see whether, in time, I decide to buy New and The Diving Board as well.

The links below will take you to the iTune pages for the various albums mentioned in this post:

Paul McCartney New

Paul McCartney Kisses on The Bottom

Sting The Last Ship

Elton John The Diving Board

Avril Lavigne Avril Lavigne

The Philadelphia Orchestra ends its Fortieth Anniversary China Tour with Wagner and Brahms in Macao June 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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June 9th, 2013
Venetian Theatre, Macao
Richard Wagner Overture to Tannhäuser
Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Allegro non troppo

Adagio non troppo

Allegretto grazioso

Allegro con spirito

 The Philadelphia Orchestra
Conductor: Donald Runnicles

A casino is an unlikely venue for an orchestral performance, and it’s a mystery why the Philadelphia Orchestra chose to stop at the Venetian Theatre on its 2013 Residency and Fortieth Anniversary Tour of China.  In 1973, at the request of President Nixon, the orchestra had been the first to perform in China upon the establishment of diplomatic relations.  According to an article in the New York Times, nine players in the orchestra today were apparently on the first tour.  For them, the two-week visit must bring back fond memories of a very different China.  Conductor Donald Runnicles hit a nostalgic nerve when he talked about how members of the orchestra were about to go their separate ways the next day after two weeks of bonding.

The Venetian Theatre is a grand auditorium, probably a hundred feet from floor to ceiling, with plush seats found in modern movie theatres rather than concert halls.  I can imagine the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera having a field day sliding all the way from the middle of the hall to the stage.  Yet its acoustics are unkind to a symphonic orchestra, the combined effect of a flat hard ceiling and plenty of empty space creating delayed reverberations.  This created a cushion effect on the music, sometimes even muffling it.

Call him a serial philanderer, bigot or megalomaniac – for he was probably all of these – but there’s no denying that Richard Wagner possessed a vision which drove him to write operas on a breathtakingly gargantuan scale that bowl over even the most disinterested concertgoer.  His oeuvre is more than enough for a lifetime’s study, and I have long given up the quest to understand the complex Ring Cycle.  Yet the overtures to many of his operas are gems of orchestral grand gestures and expressive languor.  The Overture to Tannhäuser is a case in point.  The opening chorale on clarinets, bassoons and horns, in a sustained murmuring tone, develops into a hauntingly lyrical passage on strings.  An interlude on woodwinds blossoms into a majestic brass flourish underpinned by insistent triplets on strings.  Scurrying string dashes pave the way for more march-like grand gestures, before a period of pensive placidity sets in with sprinklings of solo violin.  All the trappings of the orchestra then converge to bring the overture to a climactic close in a flurry of nervous energy.  In a nutshell, the music captures the story of Tannhäuser’s entrapment by Venus, and his odious behaviour which ruptures any hope Elisabeth may hold for his love, causing her to die of despair.

Sitting in the front row, I heard the strings and woodwinds with crystalline clarity.  The delayed echo in the hall softened the sharp edges and made the strings sound quite lush.  Unfortunately, the brass section at the back became second cousins and was hardly able to flex its usual muscles in bringing out the chest-puffing and tear-swelling grandeur so characteristic of Wagner.

Compared with his first symphony, which took a decade and a half to complete, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D was a relatively painless composition, which he finished in four months.  Unlike the first, its bucolic sentiments give it lightness not typical of his works.  His approach to music is diametrically opposed to the wanton romanticism espoused by Wagner.  As the cellos and horns at the opening die down, a quiet passage gives way to a boat ride down the undulating river on strings tutti.  Many have pointed to the similarity of the material in the first movement to the lullaby from his Op. 49, exposing a childlike appreciation of nature.  The second movement is restless but not depressing, peaceful but not lethargic.  Pizzicato cellos and a lilting oboe in the third movement introduce a light skip around the fields, while the fourth movement sounds like a locomotive cranking up speed as it leaves the station.  Brahms eventually throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix in a race of frenetic energy to close.

In contrast to the Tannhäuser Overture, the strings in the Brahms symphony seem to have lost a little lustre.  The woodwinds continued to shine, while the horns and trombones emerged from obscurity.  Maintaining Brahms’ stately character, Donald Runnicles nevertheless brings out the lighter moments with panache, driving the strings to near breaking point to a triumphant close.

Concluding a relatively short programme, the orchestra played the brief Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, with sprightly brass in full blast from beginning to end.  With smiles of satisfaction, the Philadelphia Orchestra bid China farewell by betting that their performance of Wagner and Brahms at the Venetian Theatre would leave indelible memories, and they did.

James Rhodes holds court in a soiree at the China Club in Hong Kong March 11, 2013

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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When James Rhodes holds court in a soiree billed as “An Unconventional Recital” at the China Club in the Old Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, we are entitled to expect some fun.  And we were not disappointed last night.

As we seated ourselves in the dining hall cleared for the evening, Club founder Sir David Tang expounded his views on how concerts should last no more than an hour, and promised the evening would start promptly at 7 pm and finish at 8 pm.

On the dot at 7 pm, James strode into the hall and, instead of chatting about what he was going to perform – a practice which has become his trademark – he went straight to the piano and started playing a piece by Rachmaninov (the Prelude in C sharp minor, I think) – an  item not on the programme – with electric intensity.  He explained that he had “Rachmaninov” tattooed on his arm in Cyrillic, which could well say “Elton John” for all he knows.  Down-to-earth, charming and your regular guy next door: that’s what James Rhodes is all about.

Most of us think of Beethoven as the angry deaf composer.  Yet barely out of his teens he had been nearly beaten to death by his alcoholic father.  He single-handedly took classical music into the romantic period with a “big R” – for the first time, here was someone writing not for the church or the state, but for himself.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”, is an odd work.  Almost halfway through his 32 sonatas, it marks the crucial point at which he became convinced he was going deaf.  Yet the work shows no obvious depression, nor is it given over to much brooding.  The four movements are hardly distinguishable, running more or less into each other, linked often by material that keeps re-appearing in different guises.

James Rhodes’ interpretation was polished, subdued and exploratory; the left hand gently tapping a persistently repetitive rhythm, while the right scaling the sounds of nature.

For someone whose works remain stubbornly in play throughout the world, Chopin was apparently not a very nice person, ruined by a disastrous relationship with George Sand.  His Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor is the more popular among the four he wrote.  The signature opening of the work consists of quiet arpeggios followed by emphatic chords.  The rest then flows mellifluously in roller-coaster fashion.  In James’ hands, the Scherzo sounded warm and friendly, but a little staid, as if he was trying too hard to de-romanticise it.  I heard a few extraneous notes too.

Responding to our clamour for encores, James surprised us with what sounded like Beethoven’s Colonel Bogey Dudley Moore used to mischievously play, except I think he added snippets of the “Moonlight” Sonata towards the end.  Next up was an excerpt from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a lilting work that hangs in the air like little water vapours, which he dedicated to Sir David.  To finish off, he served up a piece he claimed not to have played for a long time, a transcription by Liszt of Schumann’s Spring Night, one of 160 songs he composed during the year he courted Clara Wieck.

As we savoured the rapid outcry at the end of Schumann’s love song, we couldn’t help feeling grateful for Sir David’s generosity in bringing James to Hong Kong and opening the China Club specially for him on a Sunday night.  Most of all, we were proud to count James as a friend who happens to be an excellent pianist, rather than a virtuoso we put on a pedestal.

Philadelphia Orchestra, London’s Philharmonia and the Montréal Symphony…all in less than two months June 14, 2012

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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It’s been a busy couple of months for concert-going. I was fortunate enough to visit six different concert halls in five cities to sample performances by some of the world’s finest musicians.

During a stop in London on April 24th, I saw Leif Segerstam conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra and pianist Denis Matsuev in London’s Royal Festival Hall.  I found Segerstam a bit of a plodder, in a programme of works by Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky – “respectful, subtle and down-to-earth”, as I said in my review for Bachtrack.

It was my first real stop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the end of April, and was delighted it coincided with the city’s eponymous orchestra performing in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts under Sir Simon Rattle.  I was keen to find out how Maestro Rattle would fare with an American orchestra going through Chapter 11, having swept the world off its feet with the Berlin Philharmonic.  In a programme of Brahms, Webern and Schumann, he gave me some interesting insights into works which shared similar origins but took different paths of development. 

The Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia

In October 2010, I saw Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s dynamic Music Director, in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.  My heart goes out to him, as he must feel the breath of Mahler down his neck, the famous composer having been his predecessor as conductor of the orchestra a century ago.  The performance in the Carnegie Hall on May 2nd was impressive enough, and a reviewer taking copious notes in the next seat remarked that the concert was “pretty good”, but I preferred what I heard some one and a half years previously.

For many years, the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, part of the Place des Arts complex in the heart of Montréal, was home to the city’s world-famous orchestra (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal – OSM).  Having steadied itself under Maestro Kent Nagano after reeling from a few years of turmoil with the departure of Charles Dutoit, who brought OSM international recognition, the orchestra seems to have picked up the pieces and pulled itself together.

I was lucky to get into the OSM’s concert at the end of May featuring Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, not often performed as a symphonic work in its entirety.  For a change, I sat in the balcony this time in the orchestra’s new home, La Maison Symphonique de Montréal.  I was never a fan of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, where at one point I heard only muffled sound under the balcony covering half of the lower level of the hall; I was equally unimpressed by La Maison.  With a large number of wooden surfaces, it sounded too much like an echo chamber.

I had it on good authority that Kent Nagano had just returned on the morning of the concert with the OSM from Munich, where he had been working on the première of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the Bavarian State Opera.   He showed no sign of fatigue as he raced his way through a fine programme of Berlioz and Shostakovich, in addition to Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloé, the latter featuring Cirque Éloize.

Closer to home, I had my first experience with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, smaller than the Hong Kong Philharmonic but with a fine reputation for innovation and audience development.  It was quite refreshing to hear conductor Jason Lai in fairly demanding and well-known works by Arvo Pärt, Mozart and Brahms.  The Sinfonietta and piano soloist Yeol Um Son, 2nd prize winner in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, challenged very high world standards and did well.

The change of guard at the Hong Kong Philharmonic is already taking place.  Outgoing Artistic Director and Chief Conductor Edo de Waart said his farewell in an emotional performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in April, and the music director designate, Jaap van Zweden, arrives later in the year for the new season.  The two concerts I heard in the past couple of months featured guest conductors Johannes Wildner and Jun Märkl, the former’s lacklustre interpretation of Debussy’s La Mer having been saved by the soloist Garrick Ohlsson, while the latter put in a truly exceptional performance of works by French composers with clear Spanish themes in collaboration with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

I can’t imagine my lucky streak with world-class orchestras and soloists will continue for long, but I’ll relish it while it lasts.

The Bicentenary of Franz Liszt October 22, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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Two hundred years ago today, Liszt Ferenc, better known to us as Franz Liszt, was born to Marie Anna Lager and Ádám Liszt in the Kingdom of Hungary.  In the service of Prince Esterházy, his father played a number of instruments and counted Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven as personal acquaintances.

As talented musicians are wont to do, Liszt started playing the piano early, and appeared in concerts at age 9.  He was to develop friendships with leading musicians of his time, including Berlioz, Paganini, Hans von Bulow and Wagner, who influenced him and were influenced by him.  For example, Paganini’s superb skills on the violin spurred Liszt on to become a virtuoso piano player.

For a good part of his life, Liszt travelled frequently and more or less divided his time among Rome, Weimar and Budapest, playing music and directing musical events.  His biggest legacy is his compositions, which can be divided into two types: transcriptions of works by other composers and those of his own creation.

Although having been vaguely aware of his piano works for a long time, I am a relative newcomer to Liszt’s music, and certainly not qualified to discuss it in any detail.  But I do know this much: his piano music can be technically daunting, and he practically invented the symphonic poem format.

As I tried to find out more, I came across some interesting sources.  As always, the first stop for any information is Wikipedia, which has a long entry on him:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Liszt

From there you can navigate to a page which contains a full list of his compositions:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_works_of_Franz_Liszt

Allmusic is a good source of information about popular music for me, but it seems to be lacking in classical music.  Nevertheless, its entry on Liszt is a good starting point for further investigation:

http://www.allmusic.com/artist/franz-liszt-q7627

Naxos, the pioneer of affordable classical music CDs, has a long list of items on its catalogue with recordings of Liszt’s music:

http://www.naxos.com/person/Franz_Liszt/22599.htm

I recently stumbled upon an excellent web site, apparently maintained by author Rich DiSilvio:

http://www.d-vista.com/OTHER/franzliszt.html

On this site, not only are there detailed sections with commentary on his biography and his role in the development of music, there is also has a list of recommended recordings and bibliography.  What I find most fascinating is its list of links to other sites with information relevant to the composer:

http://www.d-vista.com/OTHER/Links.htm

Of course, it’s easy to find a list of videos of Liszt’s music on Youtube.  With the help of Toobbox.com, I have compiled a list of my own personal playlist of Youtube videos:

http://toobbox.com/playlist/franz-liszt–11243

And to whet your appetite further, you can create your own radio channel of music similar to that of LIszt on last.fm:

http://www.last.fm/listen/artist/Franz%2BLiszt/similarartists

But if you insist on generating a list of videos on Youtube, here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=liszt&aq=1

If you are anywhere in Indiana from October 27th to November 13th, you may want to attend one of the concerts the Indiana University is putting on to celebrate Liszt’s 200th birthday:

http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/19912.html

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources.  I’m sure you will come across a lot of other sites with interesting information.  If you find one, drop me a line and let me know.

Seniors in the entertainment industry are going strong October 17, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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No sooner had I finished uploading my blog post about a crop of young female pop talent came the news that veteran singer Tony Bennett had broken a record: at the end of September he became the oldest singer to have a number one hit on the Billboard top albums chart.  Hermione Hoby of the Guardian in the UK says the album sounds like “a fantasy birthday party in full swing”; and Mikael Wood in the LA Times says “it’s a beautiful bummer to hear Winehouse do her best Billie Holiday…”

In fact, as far as chart success goes, 2011 seems to be the year of the seniors.  Earlier in the month, Doris Day had just become the oldest artist to have reached the UK top 10 with new material.  Unlike Bennett, whose album consists of material recorded recently, Day didn’t go into the studio to record new material.  Her CD My Heart consists of tracks recorded between 1951 and 1994.  Even then, at 87, she is two years older than Bennett, for the record.  Reviewing the album for the Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick says: “If someone stepped up on X Factor singing like this, they’d be unbeatable.”

Bennett and Day are not the only senior artists in recent years to taste chart success.  In September 2009, the BBC reported that Dame Vera Lynn, a favourite entertainer for the British forces during World War II, became the “oldest living artist” to top the UK album charts.  She was 92 at the time, and the album in question was We’ll Meet Again – The Very Best of Vera Lynn.  Again, this was not new material, but remarkable as it had knocked Arctic Monkeys off the top.

Other artists, of course, have topped the charts at an advanced age.  Actor Clive Dunn, famous for his role in the sitcom Dad’s Army, was 51 when he had a surprise hit called Grandad , which topped the UK chart in 1971.

Frank Sinatra was almost 54 when his hit My Way spent 75 weeks from April 1969 to September 1971 among the top 40 in the UK, but it never went to number one.  Perry Como’s It’s Impossible in February 1971 became his first song to reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 in more than 12 years, peaking at number ten.  He was 59.  Later in the decade, in 1973, when he was 61, his song And I Love You So reached number 3 on the UK singles chart.

In an age of rapid technological advances favouring the young, it’s good to see that seniors in some industries are still showing the way, with help, no doubt, from supporters among the growing legion of baby boomers.  One of the pioneers of rock and roll, Chuck Berry, turns 85 on October 18th.  I have it on good authority that he usually performs one Wednesday each month at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar located in the Delmar Loop neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri.

In the entertainment business, the seniors are going strong.

Vienna Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach October 12, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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October 9th, 2011  
Concert Hall,Hong KongCultural Centre
Johannes Brahms Tragic Overture, Op. 81
Franz Schubert Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, ‘Unfinished’
  Allegro moderato
  Andante con moto
Gustav Mahler 11 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
ViennaPhilharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Christoph Eschenbach

It’s no surprise that the programme for Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s visit to Hong Kong should consist of well-known works by composers closely related to its home city; it is quite something else to hear the orchestra’s unique interpretation of these works.

Together with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic is probably the pre-eminent custodian of the Germanic tradition in the classical music repertoire.  Apart from conductor Christoph Eschenbach’s trademark black tunic making him look like a character out of Star Trek, everything about the orchestra is traditional – period instruments, straight-down-the-line interpretation, and respect for the composers’ intentions.

Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Op. 81, supposedly a companion to the jubilant Academic Festival Overture, is dark, brooding and sometimes turbulent, but not tragic in the sense of death and destruction.  In the hands of a less sensitive and capable conductor, it can easily become 15 minutes of unwieldy thickness.  Under the stewardship of  Christoph Eschenbach and the Vienna Philharmonic, however, the overture was sufficiently depressing, but not overwhelmingly distraught.   They managed to wind their way through the various moods with enough contrast and sensitivity to make the work interesting.  The gentleness of the sound produced by the orchestra’s period instruments also helped reduce the sense of ponderousness.  The lower strings, in particular, were lush without being dense.

We may never know whether Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 is genuinely “unfinished”.  All we do know is that his friend Anselm Hünterbrenner didn’t tell anyone about it until decades after his death, and that he had the score for only two full movements.  Given Schubert’s first six symphonies, and the grandeur of the 9th, the Symphony No. 8 seems to be a “transitional” work – between the early attempts conforming to the classical symphonic form to the artistic breakthrough of the “Great” C Major symphony.

Even when in its most depressed state, Schubert’s music sighs, rather than weeps, as Brahms’ does; or wails, as Mahler’s.  The Vienna Philharmonic’s approach was almost gingerly.  The first movement began with a nondescript theme on the lower strings, followed by a clear statement by oboes and clarinets.  There was good articulation of contrast between glow and gloom without high drama, and of lyricism without sentimentality.

The horns and the oboes stood out in the second movement, which featured two main themes, one light and resigned, and the other emphatic.  Even in delivering the airy parts of the movement, the orchestra maintained a sense of dignity.  In the more serious parts, soothing tenderness underlined the gravity.

Baritone Matthias Goerne joined the orchestra in 11 Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Mahler.  Des Knaben, a collection of folk poems by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, was a rich source of inspiration for Mahler, providing material for his second, third and fourth symphonies.  Compared with his later song symphony, Das Lied von der Erde, Des Knaben’s orchestration is light, giving the voice parts due exposure.

Goerne’s smooth and fluid tone flowed like water in a stream, with a range that reached deep into the territory of the bass.  He manipulated inflections effectively to suit the different emotional contents of the songs, from the sombre death march of Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Night Song) to the overt humour of Lob Des hohen Verstandes (Praise of High Intelligence), which reminded me of Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja from Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Deserving particular mention were Rheinlegendchen (Little Rhein Legend), in which Goerne delicately shaped an air of magic and idyllic beauty, and Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the fine trumpets blow), in which he glided through a glowing melody of lulling romance.  I only wish that his diction was a little clearer.

The Vienna Philharmonic celebrated the success of its visit with an encore of Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, a staple in the orchestra’s repertoire.  With his somewhat robotic conducting style, Christoph Eschenbach has brought the orchestra into the 21st century while preserving its precious heritage.

A crop of female talent – from Adele to Winehouse August 28, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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The top 5 albums on the BBC Radio 1 chart in the week of August 14 were all by female artists.  The top 4 positions were shared by two UKsingers, Adele and Amy Winehouse.  This odd phenomenon started at the beginning of August, and prompted The Guardian to declare that “Men can’t do pop any more”.

For the last decade, I have been following the careers of a crop of female artists with a unique sound that sets them apart.  They are mostly from theUK, several were barely 20 when they gained prominence, and many have come into the mainstream in the last five years.

Adele

Alphabetically the first on the list, and currently the most successful, is Adele.  Earlier this year Billboard, theUS music magazine, declared her “the first living artist since the Beatles in 1964 to have two titles simultaneously in the top five of both theUK singles and album charts”.  Not bad for a girl just past 20.

She has had two studio albums so far, 19 and 21, the latter of which was at top of both the UK and US charts in the early part of August.

Born Adele Laurie Blue Atkins on 5th May, 1988, in Tottenham, England to a teenage mother, Adele moved to West Norwood, South London when she was 11.  West Norwood was the inspiration for her first song Hometown Glory.

After graduating from The BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology in Croydon, she was discovered by Jonathan Dickins at September Management, who became her official representative.  Releasing Hometown Glory in October 2007, she received the BRIT Awards Critics’ Choice and was named the number-one predicted breakthrough act of 2008 in an annual BBC poll of music critics, Sound of 2008.

At the 2011 BRIT Awards, Adele sang the single Someone Like You, which went to number one in theUK, while the album from which it came was also top of the chart.

Lily Allen

Lily Rose Beatrice Allen, daughter of actor and musician Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen, was born in 1985.  She developed an interest in glam and alternative rock at a young age, and left school to spend time developing a musical career.

After achieving some success with recordings she offered on MySpace, she signed a contract with Regal Recordings and completed her first studio album in 2006, Alright, Still, which produced the first single Smile and won her nominations at the Brit, Grammy and MTV Music Video awards.  A strong Cockney accent and crude language are hallmarks of her early work.

Lily had a troubled childhood, having been expelled from several schools for drinking and smoking, but her musical talent was unmistakable.  Her musical career was likewise troubled, with her acidic remarks about other pop musicians attracting controversy.

The gestation of her second studio album, It’s Not Me, It’s You, was long and beset by personal problems and changes in the structure of the parent of her record label.  Nevertheless, it debuted at number one in the UK, Canada and Australia, and number five in the US.  It also produced a couple of singles, The Fear and Not Fair, which reached the top ten 10 in theUK.

In June 2011, Allen married Sam Cooper, owner of a building company, and is said to be working on a musical version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, scheduled to open inLondon’sWest End in 2012.

Dido

In sharp contrast to Adele, Dido, born Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong, was already 28 when she came into prominence with her debut Album No Angel.  Unlike Adele, who has a gutsy, in-your-face voice, Dido sings almost in whispers.  Also unlike Adele, she comes from a well-educated, and probably well-to-do, family, her father being a publisher and her mother a poet.  Perhaps this explains why she was christened Dido, after the Queen of Carthage in Virgil’s Aeneid.  Her brother, Rowland Constantine O’Malley Armstrong, also known as Rollo, is a record producer and a member of the dance band Faithless.

Dido’s breakthrough came when her first single, Here With Me was used in the television series Roswell and Thank You in the movie Sliding Doors, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow.  Both are from the No Angel album.  Thank You was given a further boost when Eminem featured its first verse in his single Stan, the video for which also contains a cameo appearance by Dido herself, although this segment is censored in most versions.

On the back of her follow-up studio album Life for Rent, which produced two further hits, White Flag and Life for Rent, she went on a sold-out world tour in 2004.  A third studio album, Safe Trip Home, took several years to appear, and although containing some strong singles material, such as The Day Before The Day and Grafton Street, was not as popular as Life For Rent.

Duffy

Duffy, born Aimée Ann Duffy in Nefyn, Gwynedd, Wales, became the first Welsh female singer to have a number one single on the UK charts since Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart in 1984 when she released Mercy from her debut album Rockferry, which won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album.

Her teen years were marked by some dramatic events, one of which was being put into a police safe house at age 13, when her stepfather’s ex-wife apparently contracted an assassin to kill her stepfather.  Development of her musical talent was not always smooth sailing either.  The Mail on Sunday reported that she was “…asked to leave her school choir because her voice was ‘too big’…”.

Duffy did not have a large record collection in her youth.  Her exposure to music was her father’s videotapes of the 1960s TV show Ready Steady Go!  After finishing school in Pembrokeshire, she returned to her birthplace in 2003 and started singing in various local bands, eventually appearing in the Welsh talent show, Wawffactor.  In 2004, when she was 20, Duffy recorded an EP with three Welsh songs which achieved some fame in Wales, while holding down two part-time jobs.

By 2007, Duffy had achieved enough fame to win a contract with A&M Records in the UK, as she was preparing material for her debut album named after Rock Ferry, where her grandmother lives.  In January 2008, Duffy was runner-up to Adele in the Sound of 2008 poll among industry experts by BBC News.  In March, she released Rockferry, which scooped up a number of awards, including three Brit awards and the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album in 2009.

Several songs in Rockferry won critical acclaim.  Mercy, which featured in the final episode of the American TV show Grey’s Anatomy and the soundtrack for Sex and the City: The Movie, was Song of the Year in the 2008 MOJO Awards, and Ed White was named Songwriter of the Year for his contribution to Warwick Avenue.

Her second studio album, Endlessly, unfortunately did not repeat the success of Rockferry, and Duffy announced early in 2011 that she was taking a break before working on her third studio album.

Ellie Goulding

Like Adele and Duffy, Ellie Goulding was named in the BBC News poll Sound of 2010, predicted to be an emerging act, and shared the honour with Adele as the only other artist who also went on to win the Critics’ Choice Award in the BRIT Awards.  Her debut album Lights reached number one in the UK upon release in 2010 and produced several singles – Starry Eyed, Guns and Horses and The Writer.  It was later re-released as Bright Lights, with some extra tracks, including a cover of Your Song by Elton John.

Born Elena Jane Goulding in 1985 in Hereford, Herefordshire, she started playing the clarinet at age nine and subsequently also learned to play the guitar, winning a singing competition in college.  The pinnacle of her career to date is being the only live performer at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  She is said to be working on her second studio album.

Norah Jones

Born in March 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, to world-renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar and concert producer Sue Jones, Geethali Norah Jones Shankar spent her childhood with her mother in Grapevine, Texas after her parents separated.  She sang in the school choir and played the alto saxophone in the school band, having developed an interest in the music of Bill Evans and Billie Holiday, and eventually won the DownBeat Student Award for Best Jazz Vocalist.

Her breakthrough came when executives of Blue Note Records got hold of a three-track demo and decided to sign her on.  Her debut album, Come Away With Me, a mixture of acoustic pop, soul and jazz, reached number one in the Billboard 200 albums chart and won five Grammy awards in 2003.  The title track, Come Away With Me, reached number two in Canada.

Her follow-up studio album, Feels Like Home, showed influence of country music.  This is understandable, as Jones herself cites Willie Nelson as her mentor.  It sold a million copies within a week of release and reached number one in at least 16 countries around the world.  In 2004, TIME magazine included her among the TIME 100 list of the most influential people.

She wrote or co-wrote every song in her third album, Not Too Late, which appeared in 2007 and reached number one in 20 countries.  In the same year, she made her film debut in My Blueberry Nights, co-starring with Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman.

Her fourth album, The Fall, was also her first to reach number one in the United States, although the single from it, Chasing Pirates, reached number 7 on the jazz charts.

Laura Marling

In the first decade of the 21st century, folk music may not be considered mainstream musical material.  It is surprising, therefore, that Laura Marling, born in Hampshire, England, in February 1990, won the Best Female Solo Artist in the Brit Awards in 2011.  The reasons for her success are perhaps the strong melodies and angst-ridden lyrics of her work.  I wrote a blog post about her in 2010.

Her father, who ran a recording studio, introduced her early to folk music.  Her first album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was released in 2008 and nominated for the Mercury Prize.

The follow-up album, I Speak Because I Can, appeared in March 2010 and entered the UK album chart at number four.  It shows more maturity and emphasis on the “responsibility of womanhood”, according to NMEWhat He Wrote and Devil’s Spoke are haunting tracks.

She has announced the title of her third album to be A Creature I Don’t Know, scheduled to be released in September 2011.

Katie Melua

Katevan Melua was born in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, in September 1984, and moved to Northern Ireland and later England with her heart specialist father.  She originally planned to be either a historian or a politician, but winning in a British talent show Stars Up Their Noses on ITV changed the direction of her career.

Composer and producer Mike Batt gave Melua the break in her musical career when he signed her to his company Dramatico, releasing her first album Call Off The Search in 2003.  The lead single from the album, The Closest Thing To Crazy, had a difficult start.  It wasn’t until Terry Wogan started to play it on his breakfast show on BBC Radio 2 that its recognition gathered momentum, ahead of the release of the album in November, which eventually spent six weeks at the top of theUK charts.

Subsequent singles from the album, Call Off The Search and Crawling Up A Hill, didn’t repeat the success of the first.

Melua’s mellow and introspective singing style is soothing and endearing.  Since Call Off The Search, she has issued three further albums, Piece By Piece, Pictures and The House.  Beyond Nine Million Bicycles from Piece By Piece, other singles from her follow-up albums seem to have achieved less success.

She holds the Guinness World Record for playing the deepest underwater concert at 303 metres below sea level on Norwegian Statoil’s Troll A platform in the North Sea

Joss Stone

Born in April 1987, Jocelyn Eve Stoker, otherwise known as Joss Stone, was 17 when she hit the headlines with her debut album Soul Sessions, which made the Mercury Prize shortlist in 2004.

Her distinctive style combining soul and funky a la Aretha Franklin is not surprising, as Franklin was one of her idols.  She readily admits that Aretha Franklin: Greatest Hits was the first CD she owned.

In 2001, at the age of 13, Stone took part in the BBC TV talent show Star for a Night in London, eventually winning it with Donna Summer’s 1979 hit On The Radio.  She caught the attention of S-Curve Records founder and CEO Steve Greenberg, who signed her on in 2002 and released Soul Sessions in 2003.  The album reached the top five in the UK charts and the top forty of the US Billboard 200.

As the material in Soul Sessions is mostly covers, Stone sometimes calls her second album, Mind Body & Soul, her “real debut”.  It proved to be an even bigger success than Soul Sessions, breaking into the UK charts a number one, enabling her to break Avril Levigne’s record of being the youngest female to reach the top of the UK album charts.  The album produced her biggest hit to date, You Had Me, which reached number nine in theUK.

Although her third studio album, Introducing Joss Stone does not seem as successful as her first two, it nevertheless debuted at number two in the US, unseating Amy Winehouse as the highest debut on the US charts by a British female solo artist.  The lead single, Tell Me ‘Bout It, reached number twenty-eight in theUK.

Stone apparently wrote and recorded her fourth studio album, Colour Me Free!, in a week in Devon, where she spent her teenage years, but a dispute about its cover eventually ended with her leaving the EMI label.

Amy Winehouse

Since her passing in July, details about Amy Winehouse’s troubled 27-year life have been well celebrated.  Although her output consists of two studio albums only, she remains one of the most talented female singers to have emerged in the last decade.  Her idiosyncratic mix of musical styles and uniquely powerful voice have earned her numerous awards, also making her the first female to win five Grammys.

Apart from a distinctive musical style, Winehouse also sported instantly recognisable hairstyle and makeup, traceable to Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes from the 1960s.

Winehouse’s second studio album, Back To Black, was more successful than her debut Frank, and produced more widely recognisable singles, such as Rehab, Back to Black and You Know I’m No Good.  Was the video for Back to Black showing a funeral prophetic?

Several of her peers, including Adele and Lady Gaga, credit Winehouse’s success for making it easier for them to break into the market.  It was as if she made unconventional style for female artists acceptable.

Winehouse clearly overstepped the limits of acceptable behaviour even for the worst rock stars, bungling live performances and just generally making a messy spectacle of herself in public.  Now that she’s dead, I prefer to remember the tremendous music she brought to us.  Rest in peace, Amy.

From Adele to Winehouse, a crop of female talent in the last decade has challenged the musical standards of their predecessors in the history of pop and rock, and raised the bar significantly for their successors.  Is it really true, as the Guardian claims, that men can’t do pop any more, and would it matter if it was true?

Mid Summer Modern: Hong Kong New Music Ensemble and Paul Zukofsky July 30, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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July 26th, 2011

Loke Yew Hall, The University of Hong Kong

Igor Stravinsky Septet (1952-53)

Allegro

Passacaglia

Gigue

Milton Babbitt Composition For Four Instruments (1948)

Arnold Schoenberg Suite, Op. 29 (1924-26)

Ouverture [Overture]

Tanzchritte [Dance Steps]

Thema mit Variationen [Theme with variations]

Gigue [Gigue]

Hong Kong New Music Ensemble

Conductor: Paul Zukofsky

As a student of philosophy, I dread formal logic; as a student of literature, I dread structuralism; as a lover of music, I dread serialism. It was therefore with some trepidation that I went to the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble’s concert of 20th century works by Igor Stravinsky, Milton Babbitt and Arnold Schoenberg, the first in the Hell Hot New Music Festival 2011.

As it turned out, the thoughtful programming helped the audience find its way more easily into what might sound “chaotic” to the untrained ear, as one listener put it during the post-concert discussion. Conductor Paul Zukofsky’s advice on learning to appreciate this type of music is to keep an open mind and listen repeatedly.

The New Music Ensemble struck a beautiful and balanced tone in the opening work, Stravinsky’s Septet, completed in 1953, which is chronologically the most recent composition among the three on the programme. Said to be a transition from the composer’s hitherto neo-classical style into serialism in later works, the Septet is charming, short and sweet.

The Allegro is almost in sonata form, with a seven-note theme that appears again and again in different guises. The Passacaglia is dainty and elegant, and the Ensemble’s treatment of the dialogue between clarinet and cello launching the movement highlighted these qualities. The viola opens the Gigue with a confident statement that gradually builds up into an exposition for all the instruments. Mr Zukofsky’s direction kept the instruments in fine balance, with none dominating the work.

The obituary in the New York Times on Milton Babbitt when he passed away early in 2011 described him as “an influential composer, theorist and teacher who wrote music that was intensely rational and for many listeners impenetrably abstruse”. I found his Composition For Four Instruments quaint and interesting. A rather jerky opening on clarinet paved the way for the flute played with a tremolo similar to the purring of a cat, and a succession of near monologues or cadenzas by the individual instruments seldom playing together.

Musicologists have a field day analysing the structure of the work and its exposition of twelve-tone serialism, but it makes quite heavy demands on the listener to “connect the dots”. In the end, stretching the feline analogy, I decided that it could best be likened to four nimble cats jumping up and down vying for the attention of their owner. There is good reason why Babbitt didn’t name the work a “quartet” but simply a “composition for four instruments”. The composer is said to have described it as “applying the pitch operations of the twelve-tone system to non-pitch elements”. Herein, perhaps, lies the problem for the general listener.

The final work in the programme, Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29, chronologically the most ancient of the three, returned to a style, which although quite distinct even from that of contemporaries such as Richard Strauss, remains approachable for the general audience. Without intimate knowledge of the fine structural intricacies of the twelve-tone system, I was fascinated by its vibrancy and almost playfulness. The colour the bass bassoon added to the piece particularly intrigued me.

The Overture: Allegretto, opening with a rapid-fire, urgent theme and an emphatic rhythm, traverses an undulating landscape without a dull moment. Lively dance rhythms continued in the second movement Tanzchritte (Dance Steps). In the third movement, Theme and Variations, the pace slowed somewhat, with the wind instruments and piano being slightly more assertive. Like the Stravinsky Septet, the closing movement is a Gigue, opening with a lively and almost chirpy tune on clarinet, and after a happy saunter, stops rather abruptly in suspense.

Mr Zukofsky’s sensitive touch and the tender harmony of the New Music Ensemble made the evening of modern works a most enjoyable musical experience. They deserve kudos for helping bring such important works to the general public, particularly in the year of the Hong Kong University’s centenary.

Musical “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” July 5, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Musical.
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As a professional actor, Daniel Radcliffe gets full marks for boldness.  In the span of five years, he has morphed from being an apprentice wizard in the Harry Potter movies, to a horse-obsessed teenager in a psycho-drama stage production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.  His latest attempt at breaching the boundaries is in the Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Al Hirschfeld Theatre,  8th Ave. & 45th St., New York) playing a mailroom upstart who weasels his way through a corporation to become chairman of the board.

How to Succeed is by far the most demanding.  It not only tests his dramatic, but also his musical and dancing skills.  He has demonstrated that he can hold an elusive melody together without being out of tune, and he is clearly an agile dancer with a good sense of timing.  Nevertheless, his star value as a teenage heartthrob is not enough to make him credible for the role of J. Pierrepont Finch.  But then, since when has credibility been important in a Broadway musical?

Although Frank Loesser’s parody of the chicanery in the corporate world of the 60s now appears somewhat dated, there is still some truth in the premise that many achieve corporate advancement through scheming and mouthing platitudes corporate leaders like to hear.  Radcliffe’s boyish looks and handsome innocence work against him in a role that requires cunning and manipulation.

The story is simple enough, in fact somewhat facile.  Window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch (Radcliffe) slavishly follows the advice of a how-to manual on corporate success, and manages to find his way into the mailroom of the World Wide Wickets corporation by exploiting chance encounters with secretaries to key executives.  Once inside, he uses a range of counter-intuitive tactics and manipulative schemes to get ahead.  In a classic tactic of advancing by retreating, as in Sun Tzu’s Art of War, he turns down the offer to be head of the mailroom in favour of Bud Frump, the nephew of J. B. Biggley (John Larroquette), the company’s president.

It is not only through pure sleight of hand that Finch gets ahead.  He does his research and has a great knack for good timing.  Knowing that Biggley is quite proud of his alma mater, the Grand Old Ivy, and knits to relieve stress, he allows Biggley to find him in the office on a Saturday looking as if he had been there working all night.  Finch exploits this rare face time alone with Biggley and lets on that he is also a graduate of the Grand Old Ivy and knits.

After advancing to be head of advertising, he embarks on a disastrous promotional event that causes havoc, trouncing the company’s share price.  He appears in front of the board of directors and takes full responsibility for the debacle.  Insinuating that the idea for the promotion came from Bud Frump (Christopher J. Hanke), he shifts part of the blame.  He implores the chairman not to make a scapegoat of anyone as “all men are brothers”.  Wally Womper (Rob Bartlett) the chairman, whom Biggley’s mistress Hedy La Rue (Tammy Blanchard) has snared, miraculously hands over the reins to Finch.

Radcliffe’s diminutive stature against Larroquette’s towering presence, exploited fully in frog jumps in the song “Grand Old Ivy”, is otherwise awkward.  Aside from this, the cast generally works well together.  The rotund Rob Bartlett, doubling as the head of the mailroom and Wally Womper the chairman, does an outstanding job.  Bud Frump is too slick to be frumpy, and not nearly dumb enough to be running to his mother for help all the time; nor is Tammy Blanchard’s Hedy La Rue empty-headed enough as the dumb blonde mistress of Biggley.

Musically, How to Succeed is nothing to write home about.  With the exception of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”, “The Company Way” and “Grand Old Ivy”, the melodies are contrived and not very memorable.  Several numbers, however, do allow the cast to showcase some nimble choreography.  “The Company Way”, with boxes flying everywhere and action taking place on stage and on the mail sorting table, demands precise timing.

The staging is quite remarkable.  The main backdrop is a steely see-through catacomb that doubles up as split-screens for simultaneous action in different rooms of the office.  It opens up as sliding doors to the side of the stage.  Office desks slide on and off the stage on tracks.  Costumes are also quite imaginative, reflecting the fashions of the time and fit for the occasion.

How to Succeed is a slick production of a somewhat dated script, with very good choreography, passable music and clever staging – reasonable entertainment for an afternoon nevertheless, as long as you temper your expectations.

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