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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.

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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?

Freud’s Last Session – no high drama, but enjoyable for its light humour August 9, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.
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There is no escaping the couch even, or perhaps especially, for Oxford don C. S. Lewis in the presence of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, although he does put up a vigorous fight in defence of Christianity.

Freud’s Last Session, a snapshot of an imaginary meeting between the two intellectual giants, takes place in Freud’s study on September 3rd, 1939, two weeks before his doctor pulls the plug on him at his request.

Such subject matter is prone to dramatic banality.  What saves it from such degeneration is Mark St. Germain’s witty script, which accords more humour to Freud than I can imagine him having in real life, despite his treatise on humour, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.  In response to his apology for being late, Freud quips: “If I wasn’t eighty-three I would say it doesn’t matter.”

The work is faithful to historical details.  Freud correctly points out that Lewis converted to Christianity on a ride in the sidecar of a motorbike driven by his brother, and doesn’t miss an opportunity to psychoanalyse: “…you’d wonder why someone would huddle in a sidecar rather than mount the motorbike,” he says. “The disappointing answer is that I can’t drive,” Lewis answers.

Freud is not one to give up.  Observing how Lewis rushes about when the air-raid siren sounds, he extracts intimate details about the impact of his experience in the First World War.  “When I heard the siren,” Lewis admits, “I was back there. The smell of explosives. Bodies all around me…”

Yet he nearly turns the table on Freud when he persistently questions him about his daughter Anna.  Freud is adept, however.  “What do you call a man whose desk is guarded by gods and goddesses?” Lewis asks. “A collector,” Freud shrewdly answers.

In a conversation between an avowed atheist and an intensely devout Christian, we can expect some heated arguments about religion.  Neither, it seems, has the upper hand.  “If you are right,” Freud says to Lewis, “you’ll be able to tell me so. But if I am right, neither of us will ever know.”  Despite the tension, the respect between the two never wanes.

Martin Rayner does a respectable job as Freud, an ascetic academic with vulnerabilities deserving of pity for persecution under the Nazis, now near the end of his life.  As cancer consumes his body, his mind rebels with cynicism and anger.  Rayner even bears some physical resemblance to Freud.

Mark H. Dold captures well the sensibility of Lewis as a compassionate, upright, and caring Christian, quite helpless though in the face of Freud’s suffering.  The story about him caring for the mother of a fellow soldier who died in battle, and his love for Joy Gresham is well known.  Douglas Gresham, his stepson, calls him “a great man”.  Next to Freud, a renowned scholar twice his age, he remains diffident.

Worthy of mention is Brian Prather’s set, which is elaborate in detail.  A floor to ceiling shelf on the back wall upstage filled with books, a couch draped in rugs, giant windows behind Freud’s desk letting in plenty of light, and the period radio all add to the coziness of the study.

Freud’s Last Session is no high drama, but intellectual jousting between two sensitive academics made all the more enjoyable for its light humour.  Director Tyler Marchant has done a sterling job.

Freud’s Last Session

The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater

New York

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.

News of The World – A moral crisis in the making? July 11, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Leadership and management, Management, Philosophy.
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The printed media industry, like the music industry, has been under pressure in recent years.  Convenient and timely electronic access to a wide variety of content has all but rendered traditional methods of delivery irrelevant.  When you can get breaking news as it happens, as long as you are on line, why would deadlines for inclusion in printed newspapers matter?

Reeling under conditions of hyper-competition to survive, let alone thrive, many big-name magazines and newspapers have had to find ways to differentiate themselves.  These include news “scoops” which are possible only through clandestine tactics involving invasion of privacy and rampant disregard for human decency.  Hacking into voicemail accounts of murder victims and celebrities is par for the course if it provides an edge on stories that pique the interest of readers.

On the surface, moral outrage against such practices has brought down UK’s Sunday tabloid News of The World (NOTW).  The abrupt decision by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire News Corporation to close the newspaper raises a number of questions in its wake.

The decision announced by News International’s Chairman James Murdoch that the edition of NOTW on July 10th, 2011 is its last appears at first sight to be admission of, if not atonement for, culpability in the phone hacking accusations.  In his statement on the closure, Murdoch says: “The good things the News of the World does, however, have been sullied by behaviour that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company.”

Murdoch sugar-coats the decision by claiming to take the moral high ground, but even  commentators who are not die-hard cynics have reason to believe that other motives are behind it.  Terminating a 168-year-old institution is a momentous decision that cannot be taken lightly, especially when many jobs are involved, and even in the context of the allegations of outrageous practices by its staff, surely can be but the last resort.

First, there are commercial considerations.  Like many other brands in recent times publicly dragged through the dirt of scandalous behaviour, for example, Tiger Woods, NOTW is likely to face mass desertion by commercial benefactors
such as advertisers, at least in the short term, damaging its commercial viability.  Yet as the dominant Sunday tabloid with a circulation of 2.6 million readers, NOTW is probably profitable, and can withstand a little pressure before sinking into red ink.  Besides, shrewd businessmen such as the Murdochs don’t just give up a profitable venture that easily.

Many point to Murdoch’s intention to launch a title that mirrors the highly successful The Sun, which doesn’t publish on Sunday.  On July 5th, two days before the NOTW closure was announced, two URLs, TheSunOnSunday.com and TheSunOnSunday.co.uk, were registered.  Could closure of NOTW be a convenient way to re-brand it as The Sun?

Second, closing NOTW is a masterstroke of guilt denial.  By cutting off what might be a rotten branch, James Murdoch is clearly trying to distance himself and the rest of News International from the culprits as the tree that remains unspoiled.  Yet Rebekah Brooks, the editor in charge when NOTW committed the alleged offences, remains a trusted executive of News Corporation.  Rupert Murdoch is said to have expressed “total support” for her as CEO of News International.  Could she be the one bad apple?

Third, even if the Murdochs are genuinely ignorant about about the outrageous practices in NOTW, as leaders of the organisation, they must take responsibility for the root cause of such behaviour – sacrificing moral standards in a relentless drive for commercial results.  Even if they don’t overtly condone the behaviour of a handful of NOTW staff, they cannot deny endemic failure to maintain moral standards in the organisation.

Debates about the closure of NOTW will continue for months.  Some will concern the commercial brutality facing newspapers in general; others will focus on the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media.  In my mind, the most important questions we need to answer are:

Are we facing a moral crisis in general, and if so do we even know?

The media survive only if they provide what readers want.  NOTW obviously did this well.  Many readers interviewed by stv claim that despite the phone hacking practices, they continue to buy NOTW.  Are we so inured to injustices in the world that all we look for is the next cheap thrill, and in response are the media right in serving us everything that we want?  If not, are they going to survive?  What wider responsibilities do the media have in defending moral standards and human decency, in the same way as they shape public opinion?

What is the responsibility, if any, of commercial executives to balance the drive for results and maintenance of moral standards?

Commercial enterprises exist to generate profit for shareholders and economic benefits for the wider population.  Many regulations prevent behaviour detrimental to some segments of society, for example unfair competition, price
fixing and misleading product descriptions.  Yet many commercial practices are legal but morally questionable.  How do leaders in these organisations choose between the ignominy of missing commercial targets and defending moral
standards?

What lessons are we going to teach the next generation about NOTW debacle?

The financial crisis of 2008 has taught the world nothing about the fiduciary duty of bankers to protect customers’ life savings.  In fact, banking leaders have shown no remorse for taking, and then passing on, incalculable risks.  Worse still, they feel entitled to millions in bonus payments in return.  As economies in developed countries suffer severe budget cuts resulting from decades of profligacy, it is inevitable that comercialisation of education will intensify.  We have
already shown an avid appetite for vocationally friendly courses at universities (cf. my comments on Middlesex University’s abolition of philosophy courses).  Are we likely to reflect on the NOWT case and pause to think about the need for moral education as a fundamental requirement?

Until we have fully considered and answered the above questions, those who have lost their jobs in NOTW will have done so in vain.  They deserve our sympathy.

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.

Celebrating, and mourning, Mahler with Norman Lebrecht May 18, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music, Reading.
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A century ago today, the world lost a great conductor, Gustav Mahler.  Now ensconced with the Met and Philharmonic in New York, having hailed from an illustrious career in Budapest, Hamburg, and Vienna, mentor to Bruno Walter, he was the focus of nascent mass media and other hangers on who chronicled the details of his last months.

It is debatable, however, that the world recognised that it had also lost a great composer.  There certainly was interest in his works, which were frequently performed, but which received mixed reviews.  Apart from patronage by a few dedicated conductors, his music stayed almost silent between the two World Wars.

I first came into contact with Mahler’s works as a teenager more interested in Black Sabbath, Neil Young and Jethro Tull.  Sure, I had marvelled at the pleasant melodies of Mozart’s last symphonies and the
breath-taking grandeur of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9, but Mahler?  I went see Helen Watts and Robert Tear in Das Lied von der Erde only because the student ticket was free.

Even as a classical music presenter on the radio, I remained fairly straight-laced in my tastes.  Handel was standard fare, as his Water Music Suite was the station’s opening tune, before the introduction of 24-hour broadcasting.  I stuck to the well-trodden paths of the three B’s and giants of the classical and romantic periods, occasionally dipping my toes into Debussy and Ravel, and only because a schoolmate won a prize playing Jeux d’eau.

Mahler is intimidating.  His major works all last over an hour, some substantially more.  With my short attention span, I wondered how I could garner enough stamina to sit through a performance.  I was thus happy to let my ignorance persist for several decades, until the hype started building up to his double anniversary, beginning with the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2010.

With trepidation, I decided to find out a little more.  Why did I know so little about this composer over whom everybody was hyperventilating?  My guide was Why Mahler?: How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht, published probably to coincide with Mahler’s anniversaries.

Irrespective of whether Lebrecht’s adulation of Mahler is hyperbolic exuberance or passionate devotion, there is no doubt that he spent a good part of his life researching the man and his music.  His quest began as accidental rebellion against the musical tide of the day: “My musical tastes were turning away from the confrontational sounds of my own generation to challenging complexities of classical music”, he says in the introduction.

The book is neatly divided into four parts.  The first, “Why Mahler”, is subtitled “Some frequently asked questions”.  It outlines Lebrecht’s views on the importance of Mahler not only to the history of music, but also to humanity by referring to the universality of his appeal and the immediacy of the ideas his music communicates.  The questions range from deep philosophical ones such as “Can Mahler change your life” to frivolous ones such as “Did Mahler ski?”  By the way, the answer to the first is a re-sounding yes; and to the latter, probably no.

Lebrecht recounts how Mikhail Gorbachev, then supreme leader of the then Soviet Union, heard Mahler’s fifth symphony for the first time with his wife during one of his last days in office.  The performance under the baton of Claudio Abbado so moved them that Gorbachev had the feeling that Mahler’s music “somehow touched our situation, about the period of perestroika [reconstruction] with all its passions and struggles”.

The second part of the book, in twelve chapters, charts Mahler’s progress from an abandoned Jew born in an area of dubious Czech and German heritage, to a rising star as the conductor of the Vienna Opera and eventually the New York Philharmonic.  It also tells of Mahler’s hapless infatuations with women of all shades, culminating in an aborted attempt at elopement with Marion von Weber, daughter-in-law of Carl Maria and a Jewish mother of three, and his marriage to the mercurial Alma Schindler.

Mahler was the classic alpha male, a punctilious and overbearing martinet with an electric presence who suffered from mild inferiority complex on account of his Jewish origin.  From imploring Hans von Bülow to take him on as a pupil, to coming of age as a fiery conductor, he was an intense and neurotic perfectionist driven to distraction, driving his orchestras up the wall, reducing his opera divas to tears and working himself up to a frenzy in performance.

Yet nobody doubted he felt deeply: “Most people shun sorrow; Mahler embraces it.  Sorrow is his retreat, the place he calls home when he is Lost to the World. Rather than avoid pain, he seeks it as a creative incubus.”

Lebrecht cleverly weaves Mahler’s major compositions into the complex strands of his life.  Its perspective is a cross between paparazzi following a celebrity and radio presenter analysing and assessing his contribution to music.  He maintains a lively pace throughout, and uses language that is descriptive and evocative.

For me, the third part of the book is probably the most useful.  “A Question of Interpretation” gives an account of the conductors who have recorded Mahler’s symphonies, and comments on recordings of each.  Despite his meticulousness as a conductor, Mahler left a lot open to interpretation as a composer: “Where Beethoven and Brahms wrote metronome speeds in their scores, Mahler called the tick-tock device ‘inadequate and practically worthless’ and left the measurement of time to the maestro.”

Part IV, “Finding the Key to a Private Space”, is advice on how to approach Mahler for personal enjoyment: “If you take a new listener to a Mahler concert, talk to them first about one trademark moment – the child’s funeral in the First Symphony, the offstage ensemble in the Second, the introductory ironics in the Third…” 

Why Mahler is significant for its contribution to the body of reference on a very important composer of the last century, and for me it has particular significance as the first book I read entirely electronically.  For Lebrecht, delving into Mahler is a quest to understand and make sense of his personal universe.  It’s self-actualisation, and his book a paean to music as cosmos.  For me, it’s an excellent guide to a composer I now yearn to know more.  Rest in peace, Gustav, and may you live forever.

The Royal Wedding and the Endeavour Space Shuttle Mission April 28, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture.
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April 29th, 2011 is shaping up to be a momentous day on both sides of the Atlantic.

In London, it’s the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

In Cape Canaveral, Florida, the last but one of the space shuttle missions, Endeavour, will take off at 3:47pm EDT.

There is no doubt, however, that the Royal Wedding is hogging all the media attention.

It’s easy to understand why.  William and Catherine are a couple made in heaven.  They have similar interests; they have spent time among a similar social circle, and they have been steady for some time.  Their marriage stands a good chance of surviving, unlike that of William’s parents.

Catherine is good-looking, intelligent, well-educated and has flair as opposed to mere glamour.  The Royal Wedding gives the UK welcome respite from depression in the worse economic belt-tightening since Charles and Diana tied the knot thirty years ago.

Besides, much as the monarchy can be an anachronism in an age of liberal values, members of the royal family have celebrity appeal by virtue of their elevated status, and it’s impossible for any other event on the day to compete with the pageantry of the wedding.

In short, William and Catherine’s wedding will fulfil the commoner’s yearning for fairytale dénouements.

By contrast, the Endeavour space shuttle mission is blasé.  There have been many such flights, although as the last but one mission before the programme shuts down, it has some peripheral historical significance.  Nor is it the first time the commander, Captain Mark Kelly, has been in space.

The story behind the Endeavour mission, on the other hand, is more touching.  Whereas the Royal Wedding is about coming together, the Endeavour mission is about separation.  Captain Kelly’s wife, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is recovering from severe brain injury after taking a bullet in an assassination attempt in January.  She is almost re-living her life all over again.  It was a wrenching decision for Kelly to carry on with his role in the Endeavour mission.

USA Today says of the couple: “This is a love story, which at its heart, is very grounded. A story of two driven but devoted people who love, respect and support each other — and in the process, are inspiring family, friends and strangers alike.”

All expectations are that the Endeavour mission will return safely to earth, but NASA has lost two shuttles and their crews in the past, Challenger and Columbia, so it’s not a foregone conclusion.  Giffords will be on hand at Cape Canaveral to witness the blast-off, probably praying.

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron, who married Kelly and Giffords, is reported to have described the couple this way: “They both have a strength of person, a strength of character — the courage to be a leader, he in terms of space, and she, to step onto the floor of Congress.  People want to listen to them and go on the path with them.”

The Royal Wedding harks back to traditions and institutions dating back centuries; the Endeavour mission is forward looking in that it pushes the limit of human exploration into the outer world.  William and Catherine exude glamour; Kelly and Giffords draw from inner strength.  Two facets of human existence.  Both try to vindicate mistakes of the past.  Which of these two events will you be watching on April 29th?  Have you noticed that the space shuttle is spelled “Endeavour” rather than “Endeavor”?

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)