[classical] everything it should be: Czech Philharmonic’s Dvorak and Smetana

Two weeks ago, I randomly thought to myself, I’d love to hear Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony in e minor (“New World”) live. I randomly googled for performances in DC; to my delight, the Czech Philharmonic was giving a free performance of it in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. A Czech orchestra playing the quintessential Czech composer! For free!

On the bitingly chilly and wet Monday evening, I trekked over to the National Cathedral (which is irritatingly situated so there is no metro within 20 minutes walking distance) and sat through close to one hour of speeches by eminent politicians, furiously complaining on Facebook chat to one of my classically-minded friends that “I’m never going to hear the music.”

Once the Czech Philharmonic finally started playing, I couldn’t stop the tingly feelings in my spine and my hands unconsciously making small motions loosely following conducting movements. The warm, golden strings reverberated in the National Cathedral, the brass rang clear yet smooth and rounded, and the orchestra was like a well-oiled, luxury vehicle, refined, deliberate and cohesive. They had both restraint and spontaneity, purpose and whimsy. It was a nuanced performance, yet with breathtaking vistas overall. I can confidently say this is one of the best orchestral performances I have ever heard– certainly, the Czech Philharmonic was a step beyond just understanding Dvorak. They had the experience and supple musicality to execute their visions well and in full.

The recording that I listen to most often is the two-piano arrangement by Duo Crommelynck. The arrangement distills the essential lines very clearly and cleverly; Patrick and Taeko have a raw energy that is particularly, I think, suited to Dvorak’s folk melodies and rhythms. Yet, listening to the Czech Philharmonic interpret this music in real time reminded me why the cold brilliance of the piano can never match an orchestra. Of course, any reasonably good pianist can create warmth, but at its core, the piano is a percussive instrument. Strings have no such bite, and the tender moments are all the more moving– the sound swells in a way that pianos cannot.

The Czech Philharmonic also played a selection from Bedrich Smetana’s My Country. I often think of Smetana as a lesser Dvorak, but perhaps I have not given Smetana a long enough listen. The selection was a little heavy-handed in motif repetitions; while also a common occurrence in Dvorak’s music, Dvorak tends to vary the repetitions much more whereas Smetana sometimes seems to be needlessly doing recycling. As this is a paragraph of complaints, I will lodge one more– the National Cathedral is not a good space for an orchestra. It is long and narrowly tall, more suited for chamber music than a full-bodied orchestra. A better venue would have been the National Shrine, more open and airier.

In the future, I’ll keep an eye out for the Czech Philharmonic, especially if they are playing Romantic or Classical repertoire; they’re just begging for a Yo-yo Ma Dvorak cello concerto collaboration. I also have a funny feeling that they’d be absolutely fantastic with Samuel Barber’s cello concerto as well. One can only hope.

[piano/review] NCPA & Yuja, an atmosphere of little magic

After seeing Yuja kill it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing a Prokofiev concerto, I knew that I had to see her in D.C., playing Ravel’s piano concerto in G major. Ravel is rarely so unbridled and exuberant as in this piano concerto, which I know like the back of my hand, thus I was especially looking forward to this concert.

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The China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra (which I will heretofore refer to as NCPA) started off with a suite named Five Elements by Chinese composer Chen Qigang. It was overall a fascinating piece, using Chinese traditional music as the base. The composer utilized many tessitura extremes of the instruments, and I imagine, had meticulously written in dynamics– there were many subtle shifts in dynamic that the NCPA rendered particularly well. The piece also called for using the violin as a percussive, slightly off-key instrument, which I found to be novel, and further underlined the subtle atonality of the piece. Much of Five Elements reminded me of Peking opera in which each singer may be singing in a different key. Yet, the disharmony was skillfully fused by the orchestra to create a cohesive sound.

The next piece performed was Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, the piano solo played by Yuja Wang. First, I will comment on Yuja’s rendition: she was mostly on point for the concerto, limber and striking the bass with incredible confidence. Yet, sometimes I felt that the piano did not project well and was too soft particularly at the higher register, which could have been due to the piano itself– dead from C5 up, notes dying quickly if one does not take care to adjust one’s playing. The whole second movement was plagued by this problem. It was especially evident at a few tender moments in the second movement when the left hand was playing the standard dance chordal accompaniment, and was louder than the melody-playing right hand (left hand: mf, right hand: between a p and mp). There are several remedies, none of which are mutually exclusive: she could have restrained her left hand, pedaled more generously, been more meticulous about the movements of her right hand to keep the notes ringing for longer. I noted this issue back in March, but it seems like Yuja has not adjusted.

Under the direction of conductor Lü Jia, the NCPA is a new orchestra formed in 2009; this is its maiden tour in the United States. Nonetheless, without considering their fledgling status, NCPA handed in a disappointing performance. The concerto begins suddenly with a whip-crack, and I remember feeling unsettled– the whip-crack was not nearly as loud or spontaneous as it should be, an impression I carried with me the entire performance. The NCPA has many good individual players, but they do not play as a well-oiled machine together. For example, while the pace of the concerto was standard, the piece felt weighted and sluggish at many points. This concerto was inspired by Ravel’s travels in America and being exposed to jazz; if anything, this piece should have moments of exhilaration and fleetness. It also took the orchestra and Yuja several measures each time to fit to mood changes: sparkling, plaintive, what-have-you. There were also a few noticeable technical glitches: the flautist during her solos was having trouble with her pitch, and during the second movement where the flute trades off its held note to the oboe or clarinet, someone was noticeably off-key, around half a semitone. Perhaps I have been spoiled by listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra live for the past four years, but I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows quite high.

When it came time for applause, the audience felt largely the same way, consciously or unconsciously feeling the lack of enthusiasm and wonder in the performance. For the Yuja’s Prokofiev concerto in Boston, people leapt to their feet right away and she had to come for more than five rounds of applause. For Yuja’s Ravel concerto in D.C., perhaps 20% of the audience got almost grudgingly to their feet during the second round of applause; applause ended after the third round. In many ways, Ravel’s piano concerto is rather the more accessible than Prokofiev’s to an American audience, and if both performed with the same aplomb, I believe the Ravel would garner more popular praise. Yet, response was muted, just like the performance itself.

In contrast to their inertial rendition of the concerto, the NCPA flipped around completely and performed Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major with abandon. While Dvorák does call for a certain expansiveness and goldenness, Dvorák never intends to have a ruckus in the house. Brash and abrasive at times, NCPA was smashing table lamps and shouting at neighbors. I felt a queer parallel to modern Chinese classical music, especially the subgenre that is based on traditional forms and/or has nationalistic sentiments. This modern form is straightforward, broad, and at times, unforgivingly brash and spectacular; essentially, a typical Chinese boast. I doubt that the orchestra members or the conductor was thinking of purposefully playing in this fashion, but Symphony no. 8 came across as such. I do think that musicians have the right to interpret, but they also must consider the composer and their background and vision.

In the third movement, the NCPA finally relaxed and produced a beautiful cohesion, which I believe was helped by the melancholy melodic line with plenty of major and minor thirds– in Five Elements, the NCPA handled atonalism well, and as expected, handled the Bohemian harmonic nuances well. I was particularly drawn the fine colorations and expression by the lead oboist.

Finally, the NCPA played two encores, the first Antonin Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No. 3 and the second, Liang Xiao’s What a Wonderful Night. Again, I felt that the NCPA let it r-r-r-rip during the Dvorák, but this time, for some reason, they felt like they were actually enjoying themselves, keeping a breathless pace. What a Wonderful Night, another piece based on Chinese musical idiom, continued to highlight NCPA’s comfort with the weird things that are out of the Western tonal tradition, with beautiful subtle color changes laced throughout, the string players reverently plucking in an imitation of the guzheng and other traditional plucked Chinese instruments.

Reflecting on the concert afterwards, I wished the concerto could have been something like the Yellow River Piano Concerto or something markedly modern composed after the 1960s, but of course, a Ravel piano concerto will tend to draw more concert-goers than the Barber. This would have played to the NCPA’s strengths much more, though it would not have solved their problems as an orchestra. All told, the NCPA has the necessary ingredients to become a good orchestra, but this alone is not sufficient– it needs more guidance and coaxing in tightening and shaping its sound and movement.

inadvertently athleisure-ly

Catching up on my Economist backlog, I read an interesting article on how the sales of jeans have been going down, partly due the fact that women are now embracing athleisure– wearing athletic clothing as leisure wear, even if they have no intention to work out. I was surprised there was an actual term for this movement as that meant I was an unwitting disciple.

In college, I had gone through three distinct phases of dressing. First the awkward I’m-still-wearing-Aeropostale-and-actual-colors-i.e.-wardrobe-from-high-school-that-I-put-together-from-copying-others lasted me for a year until I discovered Zara. Then I spent the next two years looking sharp in blazers and skinny pants. My last year I gave up caring and wore athletic wear pretty much every day; on the off days, I would don a pair of Uniqlo skinny pants and a hoodie. Even now, I am wearing running tights despite the fact I have no intention of exercising.

What changed? I suspect the things that changed for me changed for most of the women in the athleisure lifestyle. First, it is trendy to work out, to be healthy, to down that chia drink with gusto! As such, it is socially acceptable for a woman to walk down the street in tight athletic wear and sneakers without being looked down upon as a mess. She is taking care of her body and she looks great without her makeup on, right? Ah, she’s going into Whole Foods now, her life must be so great. Celebrating the body of woman like the temple it is.

I used to wear athletic clothing only when exercising, too. But after exercising, I realized something: that exercise clothes are comfortable. Sounds stupid, but yes, good exercise clothes are constructed in a way that makes moving very easily and will constrain all of those fat pockets if so needed. Generous amounts of clingy and stretchy fabrics makes it so that sizes fit well even slightly too large or too small. So, two points for exercise clothes: they are comfortable and more universally flattering.

As for styles, shapes, and colors, exercise clothes tend to have less choices and gravitate towards being color-blocked and simple. As someone whose choice of store for real clothes is increasingly now Uniqlo, having a limited set of basics is incredibly appealing. Everything mostly matches and doesn’t have the frills or frightening patterns that regular clothes can have. I do appreciate regular clothes and the people who have the mindset to wear them, but the hassle of choosing them as a set and wearing them is sometimes too much for me. If I wear a patterned dress, I need to be in the pattern mindset, by golly, before I can wear it. Most of the time I’m not in the mood to be orange and blue birds nor Victorian lace. Most of the time I want to be nondescript and low-maintenance, which usually means color-blocked, dark and comfortable.

I do think that athleisure is not simply a style, but it a strong lifestyle statement– I don’t care what people think of me if they see me in exercise clothes all the time (and by extension, how well/poorly toned my bottom is) because ultimately, I want to be comfortable. The same can be said of regular clothes, of course, but wearing mainstream regular clothes mostly does not have a negative connotations of being a slob or a wannabe. I like athletic wear and if I am a slob or exercise-wannabe to some, then whatever. I will work hard to please those that are in my purview, but for those who I may see once in a fleeting lifetime.. excuse me while I go put on my running tights.

alone

I still remember in high school, where I used to be bone-crushingly embarrassed when I was alone– sitting alone in the bus, working alone in a group project, spending lunch eating quietly by myself. I hated it. Everyone moved in cliques and I was so jealous that I never seemed to belong to any. I had a few friends here and there, but that was it.

In college, I still felt the same at first, but something was slowly changing. By my senior year, I openly joked to my friends about being a hermit and suddenly, being alone was a relief. After I’ve graduated college, these feelings only have intensified. I turned down an invitation to hang out, saying vaguely “I am busy this weekend.” If I was telling the whole truth, it should have read, “I am busy doing nothing this weekend.” In fact, if I am not that lazy, I will go out to dinner by myself at a sit-down restaurant– not a fast-food restaurant. I like eating alone, too.

Two weeks ago, one of my friends visited me. In outward appearance, we appear to have the same opinions, but we reach them in very different manners, so we often disagree. We also perceive things in markedly different manners, so we both misunderstand and offend each other, not infrequently, as well. We sat in front of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the Reflecting Pool late at night, just talking about our personalities and somehow tears started to stream down my face. I willed myself not to sob, just let the tears run, and I fell silent from the effort, and I started to reflect.

No one knows the full Michelle, no one will probably ever know the full me.

While I was reflecting on my personality, my friend kept interrupting me and asking me about my life, like how I liked DC and what about my job, etc. I remained stoically silent for a few moments before asking him more than a few times, “Are you uncomfortable with silence?”

In one of my semesters at college, I took a political science course, in which the professor would not force others to speak, but would let the conversation naturally lapse to silence at times. One of the students eventually asked him about it, and he gave a small smile and said as he was raised by a Quaker community, silence was natural to him. It was comfortable for him.

While talking with my friend late at night, I remembered that again. I remembered the sense of wonder and respect for my professor and his ability to savor the silence, to use it to think and not to worry about what others were thinking. I also remembered the deep sense of self I had developed at college, and I realized that I am who I am, and I’ve since accepted it. I don’t like large groups, I can’t go out for more than a few hours without getting tired, I like eating alone, and I like laughing in empty rooms. I like being alone.

I don’t care if no one ever knows the full Michelle. Having my friends’ and family’s support is enough even if they don’t know all the worries and challenges I am facing. Maybe someday I can find someone who I can share all of my feelings with, all the darkness, all the light, and everything in between. Maybe not. All I know for now is that– I like being alone; I am alone.

[musings] using big words

In high school, I was actively encouraged to not use words like salient, salacious, or salubrious. They got in the way of the what I wanted to communicate, the teacher explained. She told me to stop using the thesaurus.

I never used the thesaurus– okay, maybe for words like “good”, but who doesn’t? Everything, for the most part, is natural and spontaneous. People find that when conversing with me in a long conversation, I pause once in a while to find the most exact word, like salient, salacious, or salubrious. I am looking for an exact word, not the most fancy version. If saying healthy will suffice, I will say healthy instead of salubrious. If you are staying in a cottage by the sea to recover from gout, by Jove I will say that your situation is salubrious. Words don’t just carry their definitions, they also carry their connotations. “Annoyed” and “irritated” are listed as synonyms of each other quite often, but most native speakers would agree that they are distinct moods. As it is with “healthy” and “salubrious”.

When I started writing papers at college, I found that I could throw all of this “you can’t use big words” suppression out the window. Professors simply don’t care for the most part– English professors mostly just care if you use it in the appropriate situation. In my professional life as well, I am privileged to be part of a deeply academic atmosphere, highly educated and precise. What was thought to be weird previously, is the norm now.

[review] SHINee, Misconceptions of Us

Misconceptions of Us is a repackaged album with two new songs, Selene 6.23 and Better Off. I have previously reviewed Misconceptions of You (Dream Girl) and Misconceptions of Me (Why So Serious).

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Selene 6.23

Yiruma, a famous Korean pop pianist, composed Selene‘s instrumental. A bit about what I think about Yiruma: he’s not a classical pianist or composer, despite some people insisting on labeling him that way. He may play as well as a classical pianist but for me, Yiruma is the kind of music you’ll hear in the elevator five years down the road. It’s tired and true, and while it may be popular in the short run, it’s nothing new– and so it is with his instrumental for Selene 6.23. Some swelling strings and a spare piano melody; if the song is going to be any good, it has to come from SHINee.

This song is a little different than usual SHINee songs as each individual singer sings more lines at one time– e.g., we do not hear Taemin come in until the second chorus. The chorus is sung by individual voices– mostly Key, Onew, Jonghyun– without a blended “voice” as we usually hear on lead singles. It’s actually quite nice, you can really focus on each singer.

Both Minho and Key were better than they usually are. Minho still sounds carefully controlled but alas is no longer a frog; his voice color more or less blends in with SHINee but you can still tell he is uncomfortably holding himself in a higher register. His voice, for the most part, still sounds from the throat and floats through the head. It makes zero sense that they gave him the high parts of the song when he could just have taken a part from Onew or Taemin; Onew and Taemin would be able to handle the higher register just fine.

At times Key has a problem with ending his phrases– they’re abrupt and without any vibrato, so sometimes it sounds like you’re in front of a warm, crackling fireplace and then you are thrust in the cold. It’s still a problem in Selene 6.23. However, he surprised me in the second chorus, as he starts quite low and sounds eerily like Onew in his breathing, delivery and control (1.53s). I am divided about Key– sometimes he shows pockets of brilliance and then reverts to his bad habits; he’s been like this since debut, even more so lately. It’s like he cared a lot about his singing at debut but has been lax about it in the last few years. It’s troubling.

Jonghyun and Onew kill it, of course, when they trade back and forth and double up in the chorus, it is evident that they are the vocal souls of SHINee. It’s been a while since I have heard their voices so together on a recording– and only them two, explicitly. Selene 6.23 just confirms that their voices blend incredibly well; Onew’s voice especially, has aged well.

Taemin was a weak presence on this album as a whole and while his parts were non-offensive for Selene 6.23 and Better Off, that is all they were. Neither special nor bad. It sometimes puzzles me to see Taemin as a solo artist now because his presence on a SHINee song can sometimes even be less than Key, despite having more lines.

Better Off

Like Selene 6.23Better Off is an inoffensive mid-tempo ballad. Check out Reynah’s piano arrangement instead.

Key, two thumbs down.

Business as usual.

being in control

This will be a short and spontaneous post. I met someone new today and she sincerely complimented me profusely on how in control I seemed of my own life. I was disconcerted because it echoed what a lot of people tell me when they first meet me– that I’m incredibly well-rounded, have great sense of organization and can seem to juggle a lot of things simultaneously while also striving for (and accomplishing) great results. I can also sincerely say that I never fish for compliments; hence my disconcertedness every time.

To me, I guess these things are second nature and I’ve always had a great appreciation for being well-balanced. Where this sentiment came from, I have no idea. It is certainly not from my quite staid Asian family, which predictably values the pragmatic over the philosophic. Yet, someone I turned out that way and I’ve strived to make my education and pursuits come full circle. I have a finger in every pie, and in every major discipline, I at least know the basics.

Everyone is different and we all imbibe knowledge in different ways; I just want to share some of the ways that I’ve used to become an apparently “in control” person. Honestly, I feel inside I’m a mess and a jumble, but to many I seem like a role model.

Read the news. There’s really no way around this. Of course one may focus on the news that one finds interesting but one must stay up to date in the news. It takes years to build up extensive background knowledge from the news, but it is quite worth it.

Something sounds interesting? Follow up on it. Meet others who are interested in it. Read a book on it, etc. For college students: don’t try to load up classes on one field. English major? Take a math class. Computer science major? Take an art history course.

Time management isn’t something you necessarily have or you can acquire really quickly. It’s about developing and learning about how you work best under time constraints and eventually developing a system that you can rely on. Studying, too.

I’ve always been a big proponent of having both quantitative and qualitative activities in my life. For example, no matter how many math or economics course I was taking, I was always playing music, whether in lesson or a chamber music group. I think it’s important to pursue your passions in both sides even if you are particularly bad at one side (I’m a subpar musician but I stick it out anyway). Music has been a huge part of my life and a big coping and relaxing mechanism over the years. Catharsis in music is wildly different than the satisfaction from a problem set or program well done. Silo-ing ourselves off to only feel one kind of satisfaction? Sounds like a very hollow existence.