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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.

Philosophy education goes down the drain at Middlesex University May 24, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Culture, Philosophy.
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In the money-frenzied and celebrity-gossip-hungry world of modern media, it is not surprising that the decision by Middlesex University in the UK to close its philosophy department did not make the headlines.

It would have passed unnoticed had it not provoked a three-week sit-in by a small group of students terminated by a court injunction.  It has also stimulated opposition among international academics, although admittedly mainly in the area of philosophy, but it has not yet reached a level of general debate.  The politicians and policy-makers have not seized upon it as the issue of the day because the electorate does not yet feel it’s important enough in the midst of the economic turmoil.

As The Times reported it, the closure of the philosophy department is on account of student numbers being “unsustainably low”.  Apparently, the department has failed to “develop any strengths in continuing professional development or consultancy”.  In other words, The Times concludes, “it costs too much and doesn’t do anything practical”.

At a very basic level, Middlesex University’s decision highlights a flaw in the approach to the allocation of resources to tertiary education funding based on how much courses cost to run.  It is also symptomatic of the heavily utilitarian and vocational bent of tertiary education in recent years.  Above all, it exposes a trenchant lack of respect for culture and humanities at universities in the 21st century.

Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize.  Middlesex University was, apparently, born a polytechnic.  It should be forgiven for taking an above average utilitarian approach.  Tariq Ali says that “a university that closes down subjects like philosophy should lose its status as a university and be returned to a polytechnic”.  The UK also has a fine tradition of excellence in the humanities, a la Oxford and Cambridge.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine that in an environment of fierce competition for dwindling job opportunities, students tend to neglect subjects which are not seen to be directly related to a ready career post graduation.  The more fundamental question is: is it true that graduates in humanities are less professionally competent?  They certainly can be more professionally disadvantaged, but only if we decide that they should be so.  We must change our way of thinking.

Let’s confine the discussion here to the study of philosophy rather than the humanities in general.  Having been, nay still being, a student of philosophy, I have direct experience.  To my mind, the study of philosophy has a number of characteristics:

–          it sharpens critical thinking

The study of philosophy emphasises discourse and the examination of premises.  As in the study of law, philosophy teaches the construction and defence of arguments; but unlike law, it uses values and humanity rather than practical considerations as rules of engagement.  Above all, students of philosophy are taught to take nothing for granted and to challenge assumptions.

–          it breeds curiosity and freedom

Philosophy is man’s quest for truth.  Its importance lies not in the observation of phenomena, as in science, but in pursuing the underlying reasons.  The need for curiosity to challenge the status quo, to stress test reasonable assumptions and to persist stubbornly in charting new territories leads to real freedom, of the intellectual kind.

–          it reinforces values

Philosophical discourse enables man to delineate good from bad, right from wrong, and reasonable from unreasonable.  It develops a framework of values for human interaction as well as social order.

–          it demands clarity and consistency

Human discourse relies on language, which is often a blunt tool for the purpose.  The study of philosophy helps promote precision in the use of language, and reduce inconsistency or muddiness.  If we accept certain assumptions to be correct – or if we define them to be so – philosophical investigations will compel us to accept certain other related assumptions to be correct as well.

–          it enhances humility and tolerance

One of the first things we discover in studying philosophy is that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know.  Getting an answer to one question often opens up many other questions, to which there may or may not be answers.  Further, it makes us appreciate the vastness of human intelligence, and the validity of opposing points of view.  Although philosophers are no less opinionated than others, they tend to be more respectful and accepting of dissent.

All of the above characteristics of studying philosophy point to its value in building character, in shaping a tolerant society, and in enabling better decision making.  We should persuade more people to engage in philosophical discourse, and not to dismiss it as an activity irrelevant to the practicalities of life.  In doing so, we may equip them better to reject pursuit of unbridled materialism as progress and achievement, temper extremist views that defy reason – and the use of violence to defend them – and develop innovative solutions to cope with rapid changes in technology that wreak havoc with the comfort of relative certainty.

The notion that studying philosophy is of no practical value in life is pure hogwash.  For the benefit of future generations, whether they decide to specialise in science, commerce or the arts, we have the responsibility to encourage the study of philosophy as a means to ensure more ethical, tolerant and reasonable behaviour.  In fact, it should be a required foundation course.

True artistry that reflects the deepest of human emotions and values January 26, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Communication.
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In the mail yesterday I received the following message:
 
This video shows the winner of "Ukraine’s Got Talent", Kseniya Simonova, 24, drawing a series of pictures on an illuminated sand table showing how ordinary people were affected by the German invasion during World War II.  Her talent, which admittedly is a strange one, is mesmeric to watch.
 
The images, projected onto a large screen, moved many in the audience to tears and she won the top prize of about $130,000.00 
  
She begins by creating a scene showing a couple sitting holding hands on a bench under a starry sky, but then warplanes appear and the happy scene is obliterated. 
  
It is replaced by a woman’s face crying, but then a baby arrives and the woman smiles again. Once again war returns and Miss Simonova throws the sand into chaos from which a young woman’s face appears. 
  
She quickly becomes an old widow, her face wrinkled and sad, before the image turns into a monument to an Unknown Soldier
  
This outdoor scene becomes framed by a window as if the viewer is looking out on the monument from within a house. 
  
In the final scene, a mother and child appear inside and a man standing outside, with his hands pressed against the glass, saying goodbye. 
  
The Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Ukraine, resulted in one in four of the population being killed with eight to 11 million deaths out of a population of 42 million.

 

Kseniya Simonova says: "I find it difficult enough to create art using paper and pencils or paintbrushes, but using sand and fingers is beyond me. The art, especially when the war is used as the subject matter, even brings some audience members to tears. And there’s surely no bigger compliment."

 

Please take time out to see this amazing piece of art.
 
 
Very moving artistry that brings out deep emotions and the core values of humanity.