Monday, 30 July 2012

Beijing Symphony Orchestra in London

The Beijing Symphony Orchestra gave a great London debut concert at the Royal Festival Hall last night, collaborating with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The gala concert was part of the Olympic celebrations, passing the musical baton from Beijing to London. I decided to go, not because they would be performing Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but because the programme showcased worked by contemporary Chinese composers Guo Wenjing and Tang Jianping. I've always had a slight prejudice against Chinese music, finding it predictable with it's pentatonic modes, which are pretty much impossible to wriggle out of, but Guo Wenjing, Tang Jianping, and the BSO have proved me wrong, and I'm happy they did.

Guo Wenjing's 'Overture, Lotus' was colourful and engaging from the beginning. Born in Chong Qing, and trained at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, Guo Wenjing has stayed in his home country unlike his other classmates such as Tan Dun, Chen Yi and Zhou Long. Although he has spent little time outside of China, you can hear Guo's awareness of Western-styles with his Messiaen-like harmonies, and Stravinsky-esque rhythms. Some parts of the piece, usually the calm or emotional sections sounded significantly like Chinese film music, which I was not a fan of, and reminded me of the musical clichés that I had always wanted to avoid with Chinese music, but Guo would always come to the rescue, and swoop in with a rich chord or a distant melody to offset the harmonic balance.

As for Tang Jianping's 'Sacred Fire 2008'. Wow. It's a concerto for percussion and orchestra and a lot of credit goes to award-winning percussionist Li Biao, who's boundless energy and poise contributed significantly to this labour-intensive piece of music. Shining a spotlight on drum kit, vibraphone and marimba, Tang Jianping's piece started off with a bang, and continued to do so for most of the 20 minutes. The concerto was exciting, not doubt about that, but in turn, there was hardly room to breathe, and hardly any room left for the ending to climax even more. During the calmer sections when the percussionist would turn his attention to the vibraphone, fifths were the main dish of the day, in fact we had fifths for starter, mains and dessert. I was sitting there begging for Tang to do the same as Guo - swoop in and rescue it, but it continued, and in turn I was disappointed. Luckily, the piece picked up its pace again, finally, and Li Biao could one more display his incredible technique and power. Unfortunately, Tang's pacing was a bit off, and left no room for the ending to climax even more. The piece was too full-on most of the time, and ran out of steam near the end. Still, it's one of those pieces that make a big impact either way, and perhaps being full-on is your biggest bet.

Beethoven 9 was pretty much perfect. It's hard to review a symphony that's been regurgitated in every single concert hall, by every single orchestra, under any conductor's baton. For two orchestras to collaborate, and I assume, with hardly any rehearsal time before the concert (as is usually the case), the performance was pretty polished, but at times communication was sloppy, and worse of all, the alto soloist in the last movement was weak, dominated by the bariton, tenor and soprano who were all brilliant singers. What a waste. At the end of the day though, Beethoven never fails to move anyone. I'm sure people in the audience still cried, and if not, at least a standing ovation was given.

The attendance was surprisingly full from the beginning, and I assumed most (like my friend who came with me) came for the Beethoven, not for the 1st half. However, this concert has been an eye (or ear) opener for a lot of members in the audience, showing that after a big hit from the Cultural Revolution, China is finally back on its feet (well it has been for a while), producing better music, oh, and proving me wrong! 

Percussionist: Li Biao

Conductor: Tan Lihua with BSO+LPO players

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Your Olympic Opening Ceremony playlist

Music featured heavily in last night's Olympic opening ceremony, which consisted of 70+ tracks. Danny Boyle burned through some of the most popular/well-known/iconic songs in a section of the opening ceremony dedicated to celebrating British music from the 60s to the present day. Someone even bothered to create a playlist on Spotify:

The Arctic Monkeys secured a pretty long slot, playing their debut single 'I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor' as well as covering The Beatles 'Come Together'. They did a great job, and in my opinion, a better job than Paul McCartney who experienced a horrible beginning to 'Hey Jude', exposing his use of a backing track after missing his cue. Awkward! But as any legend knows, the show must go on, and he resorted to creating a mass sing-a-long to end 'The Greatest Show On Earth'.

Also, I'd like to express my love for Thomas Heatherwick who designed the cauldron. His work has never failed to surprise me. What a genius.

Glennie, Rattle, Barenboim

Barenboim had the great honour of joining the UN Chairman as one of the Olympic Flag bearers at the Olympic Opening Ceremony in London! I was mega-excited when I saw him! Big day after having just finished his Beethoven Symphony Cycle that same night.

Also, appearances from Dame Evelyn Glennie and Sir Simon Rattle with LSO (and Rowan Atkinson). AWESOME. Well done Danny Boyle for an amazing Opening Ceremony.

Musical Design of the Week (1)

I've always had a keen interest in art and design, especially when it has anything to do with music. So, I have decided to start doing a series on products, art work, ideas or even architecture that incorporates musical instruments or notation into it's design. A picture/video will be posted every Saturday!

This first design doesn't really need much explanation. What do you think? Clever, or mean on pianos?

Piano bookshelf!

Friday, 27 July 2012

Tomorrow I will be starting a new series... check the blog tomorrow to find out more!

Who wants to stalk Lang Lang?

Are you a big Lang Lang fan? Do you have tickets to the Olympic Opening Ceremony tonight? Maybe you can stalk Lang Lang...we know where he's sitting!

Here's Lang Lang being interviewed before the Opening Ceremony. He talks about the Beijing Opening Ceremony, queuing up for toilets and Danny Boyle.

P.S- I'm not a big fan of Lang Lang...but news is news.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Musical Torchbearers

Esa- Pekka Salonen, the world-renowned Finnish conductor/composer who is currently Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia got to be a torchbearer this morning running through the City of London. Here are a few pics:

Lang Lang also got to be torchbearer a few days ago running through the streets of Essex (22/7/12). He's had quite a bit of experience having been a torchbearer for the Beijing Olympics 2008 as well.

It's always good to see the music world being represented in the world of sports, because let's be honest, sports definitely isn't our forte. [Forgive the terrible pun]. 

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Something Olympic-Themed

Since it's the Olympics in 2 days...

Here is a commercial with David Beckham playing 'Ode To Joy' in a rather...special way, to advertise a Samsung product. Samsung is one of the official sponsors of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Interesting to know that Barenboim will also be conducting Beethoven's 9th Symphony on the same day of the Olympic opening ceremony, to finish off his Beethoven symphony cycle. How about that?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Is Boulez too challenging for the Proms?

I, like many other classical music enthusiasts, have been paying close attention to the Beethoven symphony cycle at the Proms this week, performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under the baton of Barenboim. Before it all started, I was very excited to see this very unique and perhaps brilliant choice to merge Boulez and Beethoven into the same concert. It is not everyday you get the chance to hear two composers, from two very different periods of music programmed together, especially when these two composers have made a huge impact in musical history. It was only recently however, that I've noticed quite a few audience members have had strong, negative opinions about the programming. [quoting comments in the Guardian]

"Of course audiences need to be challenged, but this was some distance past challenging".

"I hate the wilful disregard for the listener..."

A Proms audience is usually rather different from your usual concert audience, with an eclectic mix of different groups of listeners: classical music lovers who only like the 'pure classics', music students, and concert goers who attend just to soak up some culture. Of these three categories, you could most likely bet music students would be the group that could accept and listen to modern music, but the number of music students are small, and the main group that are willing to pay the ticket prices are the 'pure classical music' lovers: middle-aged, retired, middle to upper class. Especially with well-known names like Barenboim and Beethoven in the programme, you can be sure this group of pensioners make up most of the audience.

So, they see Boulez is in the programme, half probably know this is modern music, but figure it'll be rather short and they can endure it for the sake of Barenboim and Beethoven; the other half have probably never heard his name before, and decide it is a 'secondary composer' that could be Beethoven's contemporary. So when they are hit with what most people consider Boulez's greatest works such as 'Dérive 2' or 'Anthèmes', they are shaken. Thing is, every audience is shaken by something new. Isn't that what the new does? It surprises us... and the only difference is whether it shocks us in a positive way, or a negative way.

It is significant that Barenboim would choose to programme Boulez and Beethoven together, because the reaction that Boulez is still getting now, is what Beethoven would have faced in his time: shock and awe. There were unhappy reactions from the audience because he dismissed the traditional sonata form, or familiar chord progressions. Sure, programming a 50-minute long Boulez piece seems slightly heavy-handed, especially for the first Beethoven prom. Some said it completely overshadowed Beethoven (which is never what one wants in a Beethoven symphony cycle), but at least Boulez is being heard by two types of audiences that would never dabble in contemporary music otherwise. I say keep stuffing contemporary works in the middle of Beethoven or Mahler symphonies, otherwise contemporary music will always be confined to having its own concerts dedicated specifically to the genre, attended only by music students/professors.

Below is a video of Barenboim conducting members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performing Boulez's "Memoriale (...explosante-fixe...)" (personally one of my favourite Boulez works) at the Salzburg Festival in 2008.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Music on trains

I'm sure 90% of the population nowadays listen to music on trains. If I have a train journey that lasts for more than 10 mins I have a headphone ready in my bag, I pop some music on, and most probably I'll drift off and wake up in time for my destination station. But right now as I am writing this I have no headphones, and an hour long train journey ahead of me. DISASTER. What's a girl to do in this situation? Try to eavesdrop on conversations?... Or figure out what the train conductor said?

Being forced in this headphone-less position once again, I've finally noticed that only in this environment does music seem to have a slightly negative outcome. It seems the job of the iPod/mp3 player on a train is to block the outside world from the listener. Sure, it's a horrible world out there, I wouldn't argue against that, but it also makes us oblivious to the pregnant woman who needed a seat, or the elderly man who needed help getting up.

So I wonder, if I didn't listen to music during my everyday commutes, would I notice more? Hmm probably - I've so far noticed that the man next to me has a talent at sketching, and once by not listening to music I managed to check something off my bucket list: catching the legendary 'London Tube Tapper' in action!!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Thank goodness I stumbled across this. visualizes the first Prelude from Bach's Cello Suites. It uses the mathematics behind string length and pitch, and explores the idea of what it would be like if all notes were drawn as strings. It makes us visually see the subtle shifts and structures in a very unique way.

For more details visit:

Great pianist mishaps

I love this video! Sure it seems a bit mean to nitpick at so many live performances that don't go 100% according to plan but:

a) it makes ME feel so much better about wrong notes
b) they're geniuses so it doesn't matter

Of course a lot of these mistakes are due to speed and technical difficulty, but not matter what the circumstances, I have major RESPECT for these maestros because they never lose the character of the music while the mistakes are happening. As Rubinstein says in his video, he played Chopin Etude Op.25 No.11 in A minor 'Winter Wind' at a Paris Gala when he was younger, and though there was not one right note in the R.H, his left hand maintained power and character. The reaction? Cheers from the audience. But maybe only Rubinstein can get away with it?

Enjoy the video below, and thanks to StockhausenIsMyCat for making this.

"The pianist should never be afraid to take risks"- Horowitz
"In the old days wrong notes were the right of the genius"- Arrau

Youtube channel:

The pros of tinnitus

A few days ago I was struck with tinnitus. Mine was exactly a high E flat ringing sound which would occasionally shift to an E natural and back. It was like a messed up Jaw's soundtrack, and it was very eerie during the night. The tinnitus lasted for 2 days (thank god), and in that time I was annoyed, frustrated, and irrationally scared I was going deaf. However, the tinnitus made me aware of a few things:

1. Silence is never actually silence. As many composers have been exploring throughout the history of modern music (Er John Cage hello?) there is always something- white noise, your heart beat, your thoughts... I always knew that fact, but tinnitus really pushed my hearing to a different level, and made me acutely aware of everyday sounds for the first time in my life.

2. The only way I could drown out the ringing? Listening to something else, which meant I was practising a lot more, a lot harder, and with a lot more enthusiasm. Practise was a relieving experience and I loved every minute of it. In fact I became scared of silence.

3. I could sort of live out my dream of having 'perfect pitch' for a couple of days. Of course I could only tell you what an Eb or an E was, and for the rest I'd still have to use my relative pitch skills, but hey, I still thought it was pretty cool.

4. It gave me some great ideas for a piece I'm composing at the moment.

So one day if you have tinnitus, don't fret, get it checked out if it doesn't go away after a few days, but more importantly think of all the weird and wonderful things you might discover!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Child prodigy? No. Early starter? Yes.

So recently there has been 'hype' about 2 year-old Lavinia Ramirez, who's teacher Matej Lehocky claims is a child prodigy. Ramirez has already been hailed as a 'Mini Mozart' for an apparently 'perfect rendition of 'Mary Had A Little Lamb' '. Ok, sure, for a 2 year-old that's pretty impressive. I know a few 2 year-olds and they haven't learnt their alphabet yet. You have to admit, the child is bright, and fast at learning. Then again, seeing that teacher plop her hand on the correct note without allowing her to figure it out herself makes me doubt she can read music that well, or,  just gives me the impression he's one of those teachers that spoon-feeds way too much. 

A new child prodigy seems to pop up every few months nowadays, so much so that the frequency of it seems to be making it less extraordinary each time. I've never really liked the label 'child prodigy'. I prefer to see it as someone who just got ahead, very young, before other people their age could. Because at the end of the day, most child prodigies grow up like everyone else, and others catch up. Always being ahead of the game? Then you deserve the title. 

First blog post!

I've finally, albeit rather impulsively, started a blog! My main subject on this blog will probably be about classical/contemporary music (considering I'm a music student) but I have yet to decide whether I want it to be about my own experiences too. All I really need, is an outlet to try and get certain observations across, and hopefully I can do that, and hopefully SOMEONE will be reading it...?
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