Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lang Lang at the Intersection of Art and Money

I love Lang Lang, the young wunder-pianist from China.  I go to hear him in person whenever possible, and I've bought several of his CDs.  I think he is incredibly talented.  He plays standards of the repertoire that I've heard many times, and he makes them new in his own way.  I especially love the way he plays Beethoven's Piano Concerto #4, the second movement, based on the Orpheus and Euridyce story.  I think he interprets it in a very Chinese  way, and one of my Chinese friends agrees.  Here he plays the last part of that movement.  He plays so gently and affects the listener's heart so strongly.

 He is especially well liked by people like me who love to hear him talk.  He has such a mesmerizing effect on his audiences.  He sounds so humble and so personal at the same time, in a way similar to Yo Yo Ma.  I've heard him give Q and A sessions after concerts, and he appears quite open and honest with the audience.

His life story is an interesting one.  He was brought up in poverty by parents who strongly wanted him to succeed and gave up the little creature comforts they had to pay for him to live and study in Beijing when he was only a small child.  Lang Lang has told his story repeatedly and lovingly in ads for his music when he worked for Deutsche Grammophone and in two "as told by" books. His CDs and DVDs sell like hotcakes.  He endeared himself to a worldwide audience when he played at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Lang Lang recorded for a long time on the DG label.  DG has a history of hiring the very best artists, making the very best recordings of them, and educating people about them on their website.  Here Lang Lang talks about the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio on the album "Tchaikovsky / Rachmaninof Piano Trios," another of my favorite recordings by Lang Lang.

Lang Lang no longer works for DG.  Recently, in a move that shook up the classical music community, Sony "bought" Lang Lang from DG for a mere $3 million (3,000,000 USD).  Lang Lang has caught on to the entrepreneurial spirit in a big way, as noted by the magazine  Success.  He is promoting three products on his website , which I am presenting in order from the sublime to the ridiculous.

First is a series of Lang Lang Youth Pianos made by Steinway.

Lang Lang said that as a child, he dreamed of playing the Steinway, and he wants other children to have the chance to do so.  The Lang Lang series pianos bear the star's signature in Chinese and English (simplified to LL) and gold stars on the vertical piano cover and  sometimes inside the piano.

Next, as described on his website,is a silk scarf in "regal blue and black with a vibrant illustration of a classical piano in fuchsia" priced at a mere $150.

The third item blew me away.  I thought, "At least Lang Lang is endorsing goods related to the arts, not athletic shoes, a la Michael Jordan."

Enter the Adidas originals for Lang Lang, a limited edition pair of shoes worn by Lang Lang himself, but presumably not at performances in the concert hall.  As quoted on the Adidas website, Lang Lang says "As an international pianist I combine both artistry and enthusiasm for sports – especially football...Therefore the linking of sports and culture is a very natural combination.”  These black shoes bear Lang Lang's Chinese signature in gold on the heel, a golden silhouette of a pianist playing a concert piano on the side, and golden piano pedals printed on the sock liners. 

Lang Lang sounds just as humble and sincere in his commercials as he does in his talks about music.  I don't know what to make of his brash money making, but I still believe that he is an incredibly good musician.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Noteworthy: The Secret Memo about the Pope

I found this article in the of April 25, 2010.

"The Foreign Office has apologised over a jokey internal memo written by junior staff suggesting the pope should open an abortion clinic during his visit and start a child abuse line. Photograph: Giuseppe Giglia/EPA

An internal Foreign Office memo about September's papal visit to Britain, born of a Friday afternoon brainstorming session involving a group of junior civil servants, resulted yesterday in the demotion of a young official and a formal government apology to the Vatican.

The memorandum, apparently written by staff planning events for the four-day visit by Pope Benedict XVI, suggested he might like to start a helpline for abused children, sack "dodgy" bishops, open an abortion ward, launch his own brand of condoms, preside at a civil partnership, perform forward rolls with children, apologise for the Spanish armada and sing a song with the Queen.

But Jim Murphy, the cabinet minister overseeing the visit and a practising Catholic, failed to see the funny side of it, describing the memo as "absolutely despicable. It's vile, it's insulting, it's an embarrassment".

The ideas were circulated across Whitehall, including to Downing Street, weeks ago with a covering note suggesting it should not be shown externally and adding, unnecessarily perhaps, that its ideas were far-fetched.

The memo was leaked, though, and details of it were printed in the Sunday Telegraph. David Miliband, the foreign secretary, was said to be appalled and a formal expression of regret was offered to the Vatican by the British ambassador, Francis Campbell.

In a statement, the Foreign Office said: "This is clearly a foolish document that does not in any way reflect UK government or Foreign Office policy or views. Many of the ideas … are clearly ill-judged, naive and disrespectful. The text was not cleared, or shown to ministers or senior officials before circulation. As soon as senior officials became aware of the document it was withdrawn from circulation."

Foreign Office sources said that the memo's author was a university graduate in his mid- to late twenties. "He is completely contrite. I don't think the intention was to amuse. It was supposed to be blue sky stuff, thinking out of the box. He had absolutely no intention to offend," an official said. "They were genuinely trying to think the unthinkable so that they could identify everything that was thinkable."

Senior officials became aware of what has become known in King Charles Street as Popegate more than a week ago, and the aspiring diplomat was carpeted. "As soon as adults found out about it, he was moved sideways and down," the official said.

The document was written on a Friday in early March, some weeks before the latest waves of child abuse accusations engulfed the Catholic church, and which have indeed resulted in the departure of several bishops, including two in Ireland and Belgium this weekend. Among its other suggestions were that the now-Catholic Tony Blair and the singer Susan Boyle might be suitable candidates to be introduced to the pope, while the atheist Richard Dawkins and Wayne Rooney – who married in a Catholic ceremony – might be less suitable. In an odd twist, Scottish Catholic bishops said last night they indeed hoped Boyle would sing for the pope at a mass in Glasgow.

The ludicrous nature of some of the memo's suggestions did not prevent some within the Catholic church demanding apologies for a disrespectful slur rather more urgently than senior Vatican officials have offered apologies over children abused in church care.

In Italy, La Stampa reported the story under the headline "Too much humour, we're British". It described the proposals as "intentionally absurd" but said the memo "certainly hasn't helped improve the anti-papal feeling that certain sectors are trying to feed in Great Britain ahead of the pope's visit".

The response was more intemperate on the web. One Catholic commentator denounced "strident, snide, cheap and ignorant prejudice [which has] flourished under this government." It was left to Jack Valero, spokesman for the organisation Catholic Voices, to add a note of moderation: "I think it is a joke that has gone wrong … [Catholics] will think about it today and then forget about it. In the Catholic church we are used to forgiveness. It's part of our culture."

The part that made me laugh the most was the suggestion that the pope introduce his own brand of condoms. The idea of increasing the use of condoms worldwide is championed by some highly respected groups, notably the United Nations Public Fund, which says that the world's ongoing population growth would have tremendous impact on global warming and that the best solution to this problems would be distribution of free condoms. Some environmentalist groups have shown their support for this plan and have made it part of their celebration of Earth Day, just a few days ago. I can't imagine what rationale they could have for using the Pope's own brand of condoms.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Romeo, Juliet, and Twitter

The Royal Shakespeare Company is being very modern about Romeo and Juliet.  Their current version of the play, "Such Tweet Sorrow," is a drama posted on Twitter in real time.  According to the rules of Twitter, each post is limited to 140 characters, even if the post is in Japanese.  The new play has 6 characters, 3 of whom have appeared so far:  Julietcap16, Tybalt_cap (Juliet's ne'er do well brother), and Jess_nurse (Juliet's older sister).  The story is a rough adaptation of Shakespeare's play set in real time.  Juliet Capulet adores her deceased mother, who died in a car driven by the artist Montague.  Her father has banned all of Montague's art -- and, of course, Montague's son, Romeo --  from the Capulet house.  The plot unfolds... 

Julietcap16 is distinctly less eloquent than Shakespeare's Juliet.  The former says such things as, "Morning tweeple!! Tweeting live from my bed... Need to leave for school in 20 mins but... My 17th viewing of Twilight is taking over!!"  However, she did use Youtube to give her followers the benefit of a tour of her bedroom, complete with a photograph and a sentimental trinket of her beloved Mum.  The characters on Twitter often speak in obscenities, but so did Shakespeare's characters. "Such Tweet Sorrow" is pulsing with audience / reader participation.  At 7:25 AM, April 14, Julietcap16 has 3,786 followers and 109 Tweets. 

If all this is confusing to you, look at    for a good explanation.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Call Someone

This was written on April 10, 2010.

One evening earlier this week, I stepped off the bus, and the warm humid weather hit me in the face -- and the lungs.  I have allergies and asthma, and both have been bad lately.  My destination was only about two blocks away.  I started walking, feeling dizzier and dizzier with each step.  I tried to cross the street, but by the time I reached the median strip, I felt as if I were about to faint.  I have had some fainting spells recently, so this was a realistic concern.  I grabbed on to a pole that was holding up a street sign and let it hold me up, too.  A sympathetic driver stopped right next to me and asked me whether I was OK and whether he could do anything to help.  I was genuinely moved.  I told him that I was beginning to feel better and that there wasn't anything he could do to help me.  "Do you have someone to call?" he asked.  That hurt, as the thought of it always hurts.  No, there is no one looking out for me, no family, no significant other, no close friend who would drop everything and come to help me if the need were severe.  "No," I replied simply.  "Are you sure I can't do something to help you?  Don't you have anyone to call?" he kept asking.  When he was finally convinced, he advised me to go sit down on a bench and rest, and then he drove away.  His advice was excellent.  I should have thought of it myself.  If I'm sitting down when I faint, I can't fall and hurt myself.  I sat for a while and rested until my stubborn determination got me up and going again.  I was so happy when I arrived at my destination that I hugged every friend there.

"Don't you have anyone to call?"  I've been thinking about that for years, and it always hurts.   

Naturalist's Log #4

This was written on April 7, 2010.

We've had a spell of unusually warm weather, and everything happened quickly.  All the trees are green.  Daffodils and  forsythia have bloomed and withered.   My Japanese cherry tree has lost all its flowers and gone completely green.  Bradford pears have bloomed and are now shedding their flowers.  Tulips and crab apple trees are blooming now.  It's hard to keep up with everything, especially because the time frame for changes is shorter than usual.  It's as if spring came in at fast forward.

Hubble 3D Imax -- Wow!

This was written on April 6, 2010.

It's almost 3 AM, and I can't stop exclaiming,"Wow!" as I watch something I just found on the Internet.  It's the Hubble 3D Imax page.  It's a great find for anyone interested in astronomy or space exploration, as I have been since I was a kid.  I have vivid, exciting memories of the first Sputnik, the Russian/American space race, the first human walk on the moon, and, especially appealing to the scientist in me, the accumulation of a wealth of data about our solar system and places far beyond. 

The Hubble space telescope was launched in 1990 and orbited the earth collecting data from the far reaches of the universe and transmitting the data to Earth.  When Hubble developed some serious problems with its scientific equipment, there was a heated debate about whether or not to send humans up there to fix it.  The Hubble telescope was, by then, a cherished symbol of man's desire and ability to push the limits of our astronomical knowledge.  The decision was made:  Several crews of astronauts were sent "up there" at different times to fix Hubble's ailing scientific equipment, a formidable task.  The astronauts did it successfully (wow!).  A new Imax film about the Hubble repair job was released on March 19 of this year.  I can't wait to see the film on the huge Imax screen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.  Right now, I'm reading and watching a video about it online.  I'm also wow-ing over the fantastic photographs we've got from Hubble.  If you love the film 2001:  A Space Odyssey, as I do, you'll love the Hubble site and the new film, too.  You can download one of Hubble's photos for your computer's desktop, and I downloaded the little icon you see above.

Watch it!  It's great!

A Difficult Letter To Write

This was written on April 3, 2010.

I often get very attached to my violin students and, if they're kids, to their families.  Losing a student can be very hard on me, especially if the loss is totally unexpected.

Recently I got a letter from the mother of one of my best students saying that her daughter was stopping her violin lessons right now and would participate in other activities instead.  I was stunned.  I have taught her daughter for about three years.  She is a very sweet and talented girl, and she loves to play the violin.  She even practices regularly (many talented kids do not), and I'm always impressed with the progress she makes in just one week.  Her mother is musical and has been quite supportive of her daughter as a violin student until now.

I'm very fond of this little girl.  Recently I bought her a small violin related gift for her and wrote her a note of praise.  My praise was specific and heartfelt.  The girl was really excited about it, and I had her read it out loud to her mother.

I will write back to the mother and implore her to let her daughter continue violin lessons, if not with me, than with another teacher.  I'll tell her that her daughter has an unusual gift, and it should be nurtured.  I'll tell her that her daughter will feel very bad if she is separated from something she loves so much.  I'll offer to lower my charge if money is tight.  I'll tell her everything I can think of. 

I hope that the sweet, talented little girl will be able to take violin lessons, if not now, then at some time in the future.  I'm very glad that I praised her so much when I did, not knowing how soon I would lose her.  I hope that my praise will stick with her, reminding her that she is blessed with talent and keeping alive the wish to resume her violin lessons. 


Naturalist's Log #3

This was written on March 29, 2010.

It's happening!  Green is returning.

My Japanese cherry  tree is in bloom.

The Red Menace (red maple) has lots of pollen which is strongly allergenic.  I've got allergies and asthma, and pollen is the only part of spring that I don't like.

Naturalists's Log 2.1

This was written on March 26, 2010.

I woke up this morning, got dressed, and went to my dining room, where the window looks directly out on the center of the big Japanese cherry tree.  "Wow!" I exclaimed.  The cherry tree is partially in bloom and so pretty.  I grabbed my camera and tried to take some photos, but there was a bit of wind, so the photos may be blurred.  No problem.  I'll try again tomorrow.  There should be more blossoms then.

Naturalist's Log #2

This was written on March 25, 2010

There is a large Japanese cherry tree outside my living room window, and it is beginning to bud.  When this happened last year, I took photos every day until the blossoms appeared.  The photos were rather boring so this year, I'll wait for the blossoms to appear and then photograph them.  They are so beautiful.  I could photograph them every year as a sort of nature worship. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Naturalist's Log #1

This was written on March 21, 2010.

I took a walk around the condo complex, looking for signs of spring.  I found daffodils with large buds showing yellow, about to bloom.  All it will take is one or two warm, sunny days.

The first flower I saw in bloom was periwinkle, a cheerful sign of spring.

 I saw a lot of storm damage from winter snowstorms which had dumped heavy, wet snow on everything in December and January.  The damage is most severe in the evergreens because of the combined weight of the foliage and the snow.  I saw one spruce which was downed completely, and lots of others with their branches dragging on the ground.  Now the condo grounds have lots of tree branches on the ground, and I wonder who will clean things up.  I disposed of a few fallen tree limbs near my condo unit.

I saw a large branch of a pine tree on the ground.  Nearby was sedge grass that looked like it was kissing the ground.  I've never seen sedge grass like this before.  I hope it survives.

One thing I don't like about spring is tree pollen.  The red maples are pollinating now.  I have allergies and asthma.

Tulips sprout long before they bloom, and their foliage can be quite pretty.  Sometimes their foliage looks like swirls of different shades of green, as in the next photo.

Some varieties have attractive, striped leaves.

I finished my walk by going to see the pansies which I knew would be in bloom.  They are cool weather flowers and beauties to treasure in the spring and fall.

The Green Bubble

This was written on March 18, 2010.

I live in a sprawling condominium complex with grass, trees, shrubs, and flowers all around.  In addition, the home owners who live on the ground floor often plant small gardens of their own, which the rest of us can enjoy.  The complex is bordered all around, except for the entrance, with undeveloped land.  Some of it belongs to the county, and some of it is part of a 25 mile long bike/walk path with a creek and big, old trees.  Through my living room window, I see a plot of wooded land.  It is a joy to watch and listen to all year long.  When I leave the condo complex, I get to roads with stores, offices, and traffic.  I feel like I live in a green bubble.

George Harrison and Eric Clapton

The other night I came home late and tired, and I decided to relax for a while by looking at Youtube.  I conveniently forgot that I can never spend a short time on Youtube.   

I remembered that George Harrison had recorded guitar tracks with Eric Clapton for one of the Beatles songs, but I didn't remember which one.  I looked it up and found that it was "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," by Harrison himself ( ).  I loved listening to it, but I loved the following one, "Something," even more because it really showcases the two great guitarists, Harrison and Clapton.  This is one of my all time favorite love songs, and they play it so very seductively.

I continued following links on Youtube until dawn, but I always came back to the video I've posted above.  I still go back to it frequently.  I love it.