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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 Hong Kong Philharmonic turns light entertainment into high artistic accomplishment April 14, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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April 9th, 2011

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

Rameau              Dardanus suite

Mozart                Così fan tutte: Una donna a quindici anni

Le nozze di Figaro: Giunse alfin il momento…Deh vieni non tardar

Così fan tutte: Temerari, sortite…Come scoglio

Exsultate Jubilate, K165

Beethoven         Symphony No. 2 in D, op 36

Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor           Jan Willem de Vriend

Soprano               Mara Mastalir

Giving its concert on April 9th the subtitle “Sing Mozart Sing” and promoting it with a tongue-in-cheek portrait of the mischievous genius with his mouth half open in a wry smile, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra probably intended the audience to expect an evening of cheerful and light entertainment.  The programming suited this intention down to a tee.  Progressing from the baroque to the classical, it was chronologically correct, and temperamentally appropriate.

Opening the concert was a rarely heard work by French baroque composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, the suite from his opera Dardanus.  Although the opera itself is a tragedy, replete with mythological deities in acts of war, the suite consists of bright and jolly dances.  Conductor Jan Willem de Vriend applied a light touch well suited to the dainty elegance of the music, and the orchestra responded well with a fresh and vibrant tone.

The eight sections of the suite vary greatly in tempo and rhythm, and the orchestra handled the changes in pace with confidence and ease.  From the slow, measured Ouverture, to the Tambourin, akin to Morris dancing, and the spirited Bruit de Guerre pour Entr’acte, representing ferocious military action, the orchestra never missed a beat, as it were.  The Chaconne closed this part of the programme with a stop-start melody of immense grace and polish.

Sandwiched between the two orchestral pieces in the programme were four vocal selections by Mozart, two arias from the opera Così fan tutte, one from Le nozze di Figaro and the motet Exsultate Jubilate.  Soloist Mara Mastalir curtsied deeply upon coming onstage in a black gown and long black gloves, winning over the audience immediately.  With a voice more mature than one would expect of someone her age – she is not even thirty – her tone is lush and she displayed superb control.   Smoothly gliding from the top to the bottom of her vocal range, confidently skating through coloratura and lyricism, she is clearly a master rather than a servant of the demanding material.  The variety of matching facial expressions accentuated the dramatic impact of the arias.

As Despina in Così fan tutte and Susanna Le nozze di Figaro, both vivacious and flirting maids, Mastalir was flippant but not flaunting.  She could have been a little more teasing as the wily Susanna and more forceful in her dramatic rejection of the Albanians as Fiordiligi, one of the sisters in Così fan tutte, but these were small blemishes.

Returning after the intermission in a bright red gown with a diamond-studded girdle, she was decidedly resplendent.  Launching herself vigorously into the first part of the motet Exsultate Jubilate, she changed gear almost unnoticeably into the gentle middle movement, finally rounding off triumphantly in the concluding movement Alleluia, cementing her performance as the centrepiece of the evening.

Beethoven wrote his second symphony during a particularly difficult period in his life, as he confronted the increasingly disturbing signs of deafness and contemplated suicide.  Yet the work is full of joyous optimism, humorous twists and mischievous charm.  After the brooding opening passage, the orchestra gave the first movement a full-blown buoyant treatment.  Tiptoeing on the somewhat elusive melodies in the second movement, it underlined the bucolic atmosphere prescient of the sixth symphony.

The third movement, a scherzo marked allegro, was graceful and refined, with the prancing woodwinds adding colour to the festive mood.  The bold and forceful opening bars of the finale were resolute and unequivocal, developing meticulously into a crescendo of cheerful triumph, bringing the concert to a gratifying close.

Three cheers to conductor Jan Willem de Vriend and soprano Mara Mastalir for turning an evening intended to be light entertainment into one of high artistic accomplishment, through thoughtful application of their skills and talent, and smart programming.

(This review also appears on Bachtrack)

 

Yundi and the San Francisco Symphony de-romanticise Tchaikovsky April 4, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco, California

Friday April 1st, 2011

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43

San Francisco Symphony

Herbert Blomstedt Conductor

Yundi Soloist


I had long thought that Tchaikovsky was a pioneer of decadent romanticism.  Many of his melodies have become well-hummed signature tunes of amorous longing in popular music, as in Caterina Valente’s Tonight We Love.

The San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt with soloist Yundi (formerly known as Yundi Li) in the piano concerto number one in B flat minor put paid to that idea for good.

Tall, lanky, with sharp features and a full body of wavy hair, Yundi cuts a dashing figure as a teenage heartthrob.  The standing ovation that followed his performance, I suspect, was due in no small measure to his Korean soap-opera star looks.  That is not to say he is not a competent pianist.  On the contrary, he is very much a technical virtuoso.  Yet I wonder whether underneath the pyrotechnics, the breakneck speed and the fluency in his performance, there was genuine empathy with the emotional intentions of Tchaikovsky in creating the work.

Quite apart from the repressive environment of conservative sexual mores in 19th century Russia, Tchaikovsky suffered traumatic ups and downs in his emotional life.  After being jilted in an infatuation with the soprano Désirée Artôt, his marriage to Antonina Miliukova drove him to the brink of nervous breakdown.  These disastrous experiences with the opposite sex led to a slow coming to terms with his homosexuality: “…nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature,” as he wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly.

Some commentators have surmised that Tchaikovsky secretly coded Artôt’s name into the concerto.  Whether or not this conjecture has any merit, the work effuses unmistakable passion.  The melodic progression rises and falls like white foam in a stormy sea, straining to break out as Dr. Bruce Banner does to his clothes when he turns into the green giant in The Incredible Hulk.

In his focus on the technical challenges of the concerto, Yundi glossed over the emotional contours of the work, leaving the audience yearning for a more intimate connection with the composer.  His technical virtuosity was like a sheet of steel over which the emotional hot water of the work flowed.  The heat was quickly cooled, and there was no attachment.

The orchestral accompaniment was compartmentalised, with each section executing its part competently but hardly welding into a cohesive whole.  The tone was jagged, sometimes even strident, and the colour was lacklustre.  The rhythm was at times inappropriately pointed.  I know something was awry when I heard, although for only a fleeting moment, snippets of a Mozart divertimento in the third movement.

I mustn’t be too harsh, for Yundi made his name as an interpreter of Chopin.  His performance in the Carnegie Hall of Chopin and Mussorgsky last year was certainly much more sensitive.  Perhaps he is better at handling muted hankering than explosive outbursts.

Compared with Tchaikovsky’s concerto, Sibelius’ symphony number 2 is more measured with structural clarity.  The work seems to trace the germination of a small idea into triumphant maturity.  As if taking us on a tour of a forest in Finland, with thick trees allowing only small streams of light at a time, the elusive melodic machinations stretch forth and withdraw in a tug-of-war with our imagination.

Blomstedt launched into the tame and understated opening theme of thirds with a full frontal assault, and throughout the work there was a lack of contrast in intensity between the soft and loud passages.  Like a shy young debutante, the best of the thematic material in the symphony needs to be teased out gradually.  Blomstedt didn’t seem too interested in the subtlety.

The orchestra did excel in the passages where frenzied trills on the strings gave way to a single statement in the woodwinds, the oboe in the second movement and the bassoon in the third.  In addition to the horns and brass providing the impetus that frog-marched the melody into triumph, the strings also handled the suspended development of the theme in the last movement with suitable restraint, inveigling it gradually into full bloom.

The San Francisco Symphony dedicated its concert to victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Opening the concert, conductor Herbert Blomstedt led the orchestra in Japan’s national anthem.  This extra-curricular addition was probably the work I could least find fault with, on account mainly of its unfamiliarity.

Opera Australia’s The Barber of Seville is remarkable musical theatre at its best March 30, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Opera.
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Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre

Sydney, Australia

Thursday March 24th, 2011

The Barber of Seville Gioachino Rossini

Opera Australia

Anthony Legge, Conductor

Elijah Moshinsky, Director

Opera Australia Chorus

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra

José Carbó, Baritone: Figaro

Dominica Matthews, Mezzo-soprano: Rosina

John Longmuir, Tenor: Count Almaviva

Jud Arthur, Bass-baritone: Basilio

Andrew Moran, Baritone: Dr. Bartolo

Opera Australia’s production of the Rossini magnum opus The Barber of Seville is a period piece, featuring an era a century later than the one in which it was composed.  In this revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production, director Cathy Dadd masterfully transports the action from the classical period of the 1810s to the silent movies of the 1910s.

The production stays meticulously faithful to the era, with the men wearing boaters and gaiters, and the leading woman breaking into Charleston once in a while.  Even the libretto is adapted to make reference to John McCormack, the Irish tenor whose career reached its height in the second decade of the 20th century.

The story is ridiculous enough.  An aspiring young aristocrat falls in love with the ward of a fuddy-duddy doctor, and disguises himself as a drunken soldier and music teacher to win the love-match against the guardian, with the town’s dogsbody providing assistance along the way.  Based on the first play in the trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, The Barber of Seville was written 30 years after Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, but is its narrative prequel.  The central character is the wily Figaro.

Let’s face it, Rossini’s opera buffa has all the elements of farce susceptible to dramatic manipulation of the highest order, but this production stands out because of its perfect execution.  An incredible plot, ridiculous disguises, unlikely, larger-than-life characters and double-takes are masterfully brought together in a melodramatic silent-movie treatment by an outstanding cast effortlessly working together.

This version of The Barber of Seville is a visual feast.  It opens with a set of miniature terraced houses, replete with mechanical marionettes and sprinkled with disproportionally tall palm trees stretching to an arched moon in the sky.  This undersize Iberian resort gives way to a massive and sturdy cross-section of Dr Bartolo’s duplex residence-cum-surgery that fills the entire stage for the rest of the evening.

The characters run freely up and down the stairs and in and out of the various rooms without the set swaying at all.  This ingenious contraption creates a split-screen effect, with simultaneous action taking place in different parts of the set.  As Lindoro and Dr Bartolo battle it out in the sitting room, for example, the nurse Berta comically manipulates the neck-brace of a hapless patient in the surgery, culminating in a bout of gin-and-vodka binge drinking.

In comedy, timing is everything, and rarely have I seen such perfect timing and rapport among all members of the cast.  They flawlessly move from one antic to another, falling over each other throughout the set without missing a beat in the demanding musical synchronisation, even in the rapid-fire tongue-twisting choral recitatives.

John Longmuir as Lindoro and Count Almaviva is somewhat overly chubby and too much of an effeminate aesthete for my liking, especially in the opening scene in which he appears in a white suit with a red buttonhole.  His voice is somewhat tentative and thin at the beginning, easily upstaged by Figaro in his grand entry from the back of the auditorium.  Fortunately, it strengthens as the show progresses, eventually hitting all the high notes with effortless clarity.

José Carbó as Figaro is every inch the suave, mercenary opportunist ready to profit from all situations in which he finds himself: “my mind is like a volcano…at the thought of money,” he declares.  He effectively accentuates his rich baritone voice with solid projections and precise diction.

Dominica Matthews’ Rosina combines good acting with some fine coloratura singing.  Her voice is silky and flexible.  Andrew Moran as Dr Bartolo, the delusionary, ageing dunce with grand amorous designs on his young ward, exudes moronic gullibility. Jud Arthur as Rosina’s music teacher Don Basilio is a resonant bass.

The varied performance of the minor characters, in arias that resemble throwaway lines in a comedy, adds to the ingeniousness of the production.  Bartolo’s buxom housekeeper Berta has only one memorable aria in the entire opera, and Teresa La Rocca carries it off to a breathtaking climax.

Also worthy of mention is Christopher Hillier.  Although his Ambrogio, Bartolo’s servant, has no singing part, his zombie-like makeup, deadpan expression and sluggish movements stir up a great deal of mirth among the audience.  I wonder, though, whether the cabaret make-up for the rest of the cast, with everyone appearing in a lifeless pallor, is necessary.

It may sound belittling of the orchestra, but in comparison with the captivating visual and vocal performance on stage, the musical accompaniment is almost an unnoticeable side show.  No doubt it provides the melodic and rhythmic momentum that moves the action along, yet the tone and colour of the strings may not stand up to the close scrutiny of a symphonic concert.

Opera Australia’s production of The Barber of Seville is remarkable musical theatre at its best, with all the elements perfectly executed and working seamlessly together to create a sum far greater than the parts through.  This innovative company has an unparalleled ability to bring a refreshing edge to even well-worn masterpieces.

(This review also appears on Bachtrack.com)

A mixed bag of old and new with the Montréal Symphony October 10, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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The last time I was in the Salle de Wilfred-Pelletier in the Place des Arts, Montréal, I sat underneath the balcony which extends almost halfway into the hall.  The acoustics was so restrictive that I found it hard to concentrate on the music being played.

Fortunately, on October 3rd, I sat on the balcony itself.  Under the baton of music director Kent Nagano, the Montréal Symphony Orchestra opened the evening with Sur le même accord, nocturne for violin and orchestra, by contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux.  The expansiveness and resonance of the acoustics, by contrast, was refreshing.

Sur le même accord is a mood piece, with the solo violin gliding smoothly over the orchestral accompaniment, much like a skater on ice.  Although the work is dedicated to the soloist of the evening, Anne-Sophie Mutter, the solo part does not seem that demanding of virtuosity, perhaps leaving Mutter little opportunity to showcase her technical mastery of the instrument.  Nevertheless, soloist and orchestra worked well together to present the relaxed tone of a walk in the park.

The second work on the programme, the violin concerto In tempus Praesens by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina is no doubt a work of extreme intensity, well developed intellectuality and a tour de force of tonal, melodic, harmonic, temporal and rhythmic exploration.  Compared with Sur le même accord, it also offers Mutter a great deal of room for showing off her technical prowess.

Gulbaidulina’s concerto is a trek through the Siberian wasteland in the depth of winter.  The absence of the violins in the orchestra heightens the tension between it and the soloist – a tension the programme notes characterise as that between “the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ of a Dostoevskian Russia”.  The wailing first notes soon progress to a rhythm much like the trotting of a horse, with the undulating strings leading to a climax accentuated by loud percussion.

The value of the concerto may be high as a didactic exploration of the esoteric aspects of composition, but in the concert hall it is somewhat a misfit.  Its idiom is arcane, and its structure obscure.  Nevertheless, the performance received a standing ovation, reaffirming my depressing suspicion that I was the only obtuse one in the crowd.

The worldliness of Mahler came to the rescue in the second half of the programme.  Although his fifth symphony has a feeling of optimism overall, it opens with a funeral march.  Despite intermittent moments of hope and triumph, the opening trumpet call keeps returning to remind us of the menace of death.  Although the tone of the orchestra was somewhat diffuse, it handled the contrasting moods well.

The brass and shivering strings of the second movement, at first delivering a sense of shock and anguish, soon gives way to idyllic passages in the winds, presaging the unbridled romanticism of Erich Korngold and Hollywood epics such as Gone With the Wind.  Under Nagano, the Montréal Symphony’s tone was confident and forceful.  Its handling of the contrasts and mood swings was skilful.

 

The orchestra’s real mastery of the subject matter was most obvious in delivering the humour and irony in the scherzo.  Opening with a light dance tune, the horns and winds pave the way to an elegant waltz, with glimpses of darkness and nostalgia emerging in the bassoon.  The return of the waltz is short-lived, rapidly degenerating into horror, almost like terrorists breaking up a party.

The use of the adagietto in Visconti’s movie Death in Venice has perhaps unjustly flouted it as the personification of decadence.  According to Norman Lebrecht in Why Mahler, it is “about love and the renunciation of love…in which the same few notes convey love and loss, commitment and retraction…”  Thus, says Lebrecht, “the meaning depends how it is performed, how a conductor shapes and stretches the movement”.

It is here, perhaps, Nagano shows his weakness most.  His detached and controlled style did not quite bring out the wistfulness of the movement.  Under him, the sequence of notes stayed as it was – a sequence of notes – rather than an emotionally-charged melodic idea.

As a conductor, Kent Nagano is down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, and effective.  His performances are orderly, measured and even-tempered.  This is perhaps why he excelled in Dutilleux and Gubaidulina, but fell somewhat short in Mahler.

Alexander Lazarev slows down with the HK Philharmonic at the Cultural Centre June 6, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Culture, Music.
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The last time I saw Alexander Lazarev he was somewhat like a prancing hyperactive teenager, and nearly botched Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings at the Festival Hall in London.  In the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall on June 3rd, he was a changed man.
 
Stepping on to the stage slowly behind the soloist of the evening, he was the very epitome of composure and maturity.  Together with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal clarinettist Andrew Simon, Lazarev opened the programme with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, K622.
 
Mozart completed the Clarinet Concerto, said to be his last purely instrumental work, a few months before his death in 1791.  It’s one of several works for the clarinet he wrote for fellow Freemason and master clarinettist Anton Stadler.
 
My introduction to this work was some 30 years ago, in a recording by Jack Brymer and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis.  At the time, Brymer also happened to be the host of a weekly BBC music programme I played on the radio.  When Brymer made this recording in 1964, he was almost 50 years old, probably a tad older than Simon.  I had high expectation, which Simon fulfilled.
 
Before the orchestra launched into the work, Simon explained that he was going to use the “basset-clarinet”, for which the work was originally composed.  The basset-clarinet has four more semi-tones than the modern clarinet with which we are more familiar, reaching the low C instead of just the E.
 
Lazarev meticulously coaxed a gentle and subdued tone out of the orchestra in the delicate and somewhat bashful introduction, in a measured tempo Mozart would have approved, maintaining an even rhythmic pace throughout the rest of the first movement.  Simon handled his entry with equal finesse.  The fine interplay between soloist and orchestra was balanced and lively.  Although Simon’s fluency in the rapid scales and arpeggios was less silky than that of Brymer, his tone was fuller with the resonance of his instrument in the lower register.
 
Simon brought out the best of the wistful lilt in the Adagio – popularised by the movie Out of Africa in the 1980s – a melody you could almost sway to in a reverie.  In the last movement, he was able to maintain the vivacious pace without becoming overly ebullient, with the orchestra always a step behind lending solid support.
 
The second work in the programme, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103, with the title The Year 1905, was no less than a “great leap forward” from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in historical as well as musical terms.  An evocative work that surveys 50 years of suffering by the Russian people in the first half of the 20th Century, the work spans a range of moods, melodies and harmonic structures, sometimes adopting the somber pace of a funeral march, and sometimes the heady pace of blood-curdling violence born of desperation.
 
As a first generation “baby boomer”, born just after World War II, Lazarev would not have suffered cultural persecution under Stalin.  Nevertheless, as an ethnic Russian, he would no doubt have empathised with Russian composers from that era in their pain.  He clearly succeeded in transferring this empathy to the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which effectively captured the contrasting moods and raw emotional power of the four consecutive movements of the Symphony, culminating in a deafening combination of percussion and clanging bell in the final movement, entitled The Tocsin.
 
At the end of the concert, a small gesture by Lazarev showed that he understood the essence of leadership.  As the audience raved in rapturous applause after the concert, he re-entered and stood at the side of the stage rather than the centre to acknowledge the contribution of the orchestra.
 
Under Edo de Waart as Artistic Director and Chief Conductor in the past few years, the Hong Kong Philharmonic has honed a mature and subtle tone of world-class quality.  It’s said to be one of the finest orchestras in Asia.  Its handling of the diversity of the two works on June 3rd demonstrated its coming of age.

Alexander Lazarev in a hurry at the Festival Hall May 22, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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By all accounts, Maestro Alexander Lazarev is a hyperactive conductor in a hurry.  According to Tennant Artists, from 1987 to 1995 he was “Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Theatre, the first person for over thirty years to hold both positions concurrently”.

 

Not only is his repertoire said to be “particularly enterprising in its scope, ranging from the eighteenth century to the avant-garde”, he is also said to be “a prolific recording artist”, having made over 35 recordings for Melodiya, in addition to many others with the Bolshoi Symphony, the BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic and the Royal Scottish National Orchestras.

 

His unbounded energy was obvious the moment he stepped, nay leapt, on to the stage at the Festival Hall in London recently, nearly tripping in the process.  Hardly had he steadied himself on the podium did he start waving his hands to the Philharmonia Orchestra to begin Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Op. 48.  His conducting style was passionate and animated.

 

Unfortunately, it was a false start.  Although Tchaikovsky apparently worked on the Serenade at the same time as the 1812 Overture, the fact that it is called a serenade suggests that it should be treated with tenderness, intimacy and leisureliness.  Lazarev’s interpretation, on the other hand, was anything but intimate, tender and leisurely.  The opening passages were certainly too loud, and the tempo was too fast at times and the emphasis too intense.  Lazarev gave the impression that he was trying to finish the piece to move on to the next one.  Curiously, the audience started clapping at the end of the third movement, making one wonder whether they are keen to see Lazarev finish.

 

The second in the in a programme of works by Russian composers was Rachmaninov’s famous Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43, with Nikolai Lugansky at the piano.  In contrast to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, Lazarev and Lugansky got it just right in the Rhapsody.  Although it would have been easy to over-romanticise the lyricism in this work, it wasn’t so.  Lugansky tackled those passages at breakneck speed with ease, clearly demonstrating his confident virtuosity.  The fine balance and rapport between the piano and the orchestra was maintained most of the time, except brief moments in which the brass almost totally drowned the piano.  The lilting variation 18 left the audience in a trance.

 

Last on the programme was the Sixth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovish.  In this, Lazarev totally redeemed himself.  Completed in 1939, the work consists of three movements – an unconventional slow first movement marked “largo”, a second marked “allegro” and the finale marked “presto”.  Lazarev effectively brought out the gloomy sense of foreboding in the first movement, possibly a representation of the composer’s concern about persecution by the Stalinist machinery of repression.  The light-hearted sense of mischief in second movement and the compelling rhythmic gallop in the finale were finely captured, bringing the evening to a dramatic close.

 

All in all, it was an evening well spent among Russian giants.

Easy listening is lazy listening when it comes to Harry Connick Jr. April 5, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Pop and Rock.
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I’m a late comer to the music of Harry Connick Jr.  I had heard his name often, and had been aware that some considered him heir apparent to Frank Sinatra, but I had never bothered to find out what his music was like, until recently.

After all, I thought, Michael Bublé was the true heir apparent to Sinatra, and his records had been on the charts far more often than Connick’s.  Furthermore, I had heard Bublé live by pure coincidence in a Manhattan bar and grill.  It was standing room only, and I stood all the way.

Connick’s latest CD Your Songs is listed in the Air Canada in-flight entertainment programme as “easy listening”.  I often wonder what easy listening means, as opposed to other types of “hard listening” music.  Since the flight was not long enough to do much else, and most of the music in other genres was eminently unappealing, I decided to give him a try.

As far as I can tell, Your Songs consists purely of covers, and no original material.  The opening track, Sinatra’s All the Way, is followed by Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, the Beatles’ And I Love Her, the Carpenters’ Close to You, Your Song by Elton John and, among others, Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa.

Covering other artists’ material in itself does not mean that the effort has no creative value – even “hard listening” artists have tried their hands at covering material of another artist, another genre, or another era.

Linda Ronstadt broke new ground collaborating with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra in What’s New in the 80s, and Rod Stewart set new standards for the full gamut of the classics in The Great American Songbook.  Black Sabbath front man turned reality show superstar Ozzy Osbourne released Under Cover a few years ago; as did Bette Midler a collection of Rosemary Clooney songs.

Peter Gabriel’s latest release Scratch My Back probably ranks among the most interesting cover project to date.  According to his web site, this is “a very personal record with the twelve songs performed only with orchestral instruments and voice”.  The project is a “song swap”, in which the next phase involves each of the original artists whose songs Gabriel covers performing one of his in return.

The mark of true artists is that even when covering someone else’s material they bring an interpretation uniquely their own.  Ronstadt and Stewart both cover the Gershwin classic Someone to Watch Over Me, yet they each instil the song with such unique vocal qualities and phrasing that they may as well not be the same song.  Ronstadt never seems to be able to shake her nasal twang, and Stewart’s husky voice is distinctly well aged.  Stewart’s interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust is far and away better than my next favourite rendition by Nat King Cole.

What about Harry Connick Jr.?  Granted, he does have a smooth voice and sing well, but it’s hard to pin down what new angle he brings to the various songs he covers, apart perhaps from sugar-coating them until they blend into the background.  All the tracks on Your Songs are so watered down and evenly paced that they don’t command a lot of attention.  Somehow something is missing.


The whole point about an artist covering someone else’s material is that it brings a challenge to our assumptions about him or her.  It makes us sit up and listen.  Ozzy Osbourne certainly does that with the Beatles’ In My Life and the Mott the Hoople classic All The Young Dudes.  Peter Gabriel’s version of David Bowie’s Heroes is hardly recognisable.  Osbourne and Gabriel present a musical as well as an intellectual challenge.  To enjoy their covers, you have to suspend disbelief and view them in a different light.

With Harry Connick Jr. all you have to do is sit back, relax and take it all in, as the music simply glides over your consciousness and leaves nothing behind.  You don’t have to suspend disbelief, as you don’t know what to believe in the first place.  There is no challenge, as his smoothness is amorphous and defies description.

So it seems Harry Connick Jr. is not only easy, but lazy, listening.  It goes to show that in music, as in everything else, I do it the hard way.

Discovering Laura Marling, barely 20 but going strong… March 15, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Pop and Rock.
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Of Schumann, Chopin and Mahler… January 24, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical.
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There isn’t a great deal in common among Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin and Gustav Mahler – except perhaps that they delineate early and late stages of what is often described as the romantic period in music.

In 2010, important anniversaries of their birth bring them together – Schumann and Chopin two centuries ago, Mahler 150 years ago. In fact, in 2011, we also commemorate the centenary of Mahler’s death.

Schumann apparently developed his interest in music when he heard a performance by the Bohemian composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles, a teacher of Mendelssohn whose Recollections of Ireland, Op. 69, for piano and orchestra I discovered accidentally on a radio programme in Australia.

Well known for many popular melodies, Schumann had ambitions to be a virtuoso pianist, yet had to settle for being a composer after what might have been a self-inflicted hand injury. His Träumerei , from Kinderszenen, op. 15, is said to be one of the most famous piano pieces ever written. Apart from music for the piano, he also wrote a number of symphonies, other choral and chamber works, as well as an opera.

A beautiful but lesser known work by Schumann is Der Rose Pilgefahrt (The Pilgrimage of a Rose), op. 112, “for soloists, chorus, horn and orchestra. Described as “a hybrid work, combining aspects of the choral ballade, oratorio, song cycle and even opera”, this bold experimentation in musical genre at the beginning of the 19th century would have distressed many a traditionalist and delighted others.

The son of a French émigré to the then Duchy of Warsaw (Poland), Chopin is famous for his large volume of innovative and sometimes fiendishly difficult piano works. He is said to have reinvented and transformed many musical forms, for example, John Field’s nocturne and Bach’s preludes and fugues. He molded the étude into showpieces in his own inventive, revolutionary style.

An ardent admirer of Chopin, Schumann is said to have written about his sonata in B-flat minor : “He alone begins and ends a work like this: with dissonances, through dissonances and in dissonances”. The deep emotional and sensual content of Chopin’s works epitomises the romantic period, as Arthur Rubinstein says: “When I play Chopin, I know I speak directly to the hearts of people.”

Although Chopin is almost exclusively identifiable with his piano works, his Polish songs, Op. 74 remain a collection of unappreciated gems well worth some attention. I discovered these while rummaging through second-hand CDs in a shop, and they have remained favourites ever since.

Compared with Schumann and Chopin’s delicate works for solo piano, the symphonies of Gustav Mahler appear gargantuan and assertive. He completed nine of them, each lasting up to an hour or more in performance, and many using choral elements profusely.

Although I learned about Mahler at an early age, I started with his later compositions and worked backwards. The performance of Das Lied von der Erde by tenor Robert Tear and mezzo-soprano Helen Watts that I attended in secondary school was not an easy introduction. It was only fairly recently that I have started to explore his earlier works, such as Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Although Mahler’s writing is said to be highly innovative at times, stretching the limits of conventional tonality, some of his work is very lyrical, for example the adagietto from his 5th Symphony, featured in the film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice.

In celebrating Schumann, Chopin and Mahler’s anniversaries, we are also remembering their perseverance in breaching the boundaries of musical conventions and fathoming the depths of musical expression.

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