[review-in-haikus] Taemin’s debut, Ace

In the spirit of being lazy creative, Taemin’s debut album, Ace, will be entirely reviewed in haikus.

ace

1. Ace

Falsetto breathy
Too many nosebleeds from dance
Strangely his style

2. Danger

Hair so moppy mess
Beats good, voice over-processed
In lives warble heard

3. Experience

Sounds stupid at first
Cheap excuse for a dance break
Vocals passable

4. Pretty Boy

Another stupid
At least Taemin doesn’t rap
Stretched voice too throaty

5. Wicked 

Too much brass, doo-wop!
Non-compelling, non-subtle
Not Taemin’s style

6. Play Me

Ace’s bland brother 
Falsetto: breathy weakness
I prefer Reynah

[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.

[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).

SHINee-Misconceptions-part-3

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.

[review/kpop] ToHeart’s 1st Mini Album

This is sort of, kind of, most likely, the worst duo project I’ve heard since Eunhyuk and Donghae’s album RIDE ME. INFINITE’s Woohyun and SHINee’s Key, though they are great friends in real life and have great chemistry in the music videos, their singing and rapping do not mesh well. They do not complement each other: they neither lessen each other’s weaknesses nor strengthen each other’s specialties. To be fair, it’s hard to balance with a voice like Key’s. All too obviously, this mini-album fails the balancing act and even raises the question, did they even attempt to create balance?

The production also seems off-quality– I’ve been told that it’s not the usual slew of SM producers backing this, rather from Woollim Entertainment. I’ve never really enjoyed an INFINITE song, and I suspect it may be the unfinished and corny sound that that Woollim tends to favor. Rather than SM’s style of slick pop, Woollim gives off a safe-family vibe.

In this review, I will only be talking about the album and will not review the music videos or the lives, though I may mention them in passing. Be warned, this review is more crass than you would typically read because I couldn’t find much to like about this mini.

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Intro

I can hear it now, the waves of corniness with a big side of unnecessary piano and bass comping in the background. Can I make it through without gagging? $10 on me not being able to make it to the end.

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[review/kpop] S.M. The Ballad’s “Breath”

In 2014, S.M. The Ballad returned to the music scene. In contrast to the unit’s debut, 2014 S.M. The Ballad included women and released in three languages simultaneously (applause please, seriously impressed with S.M. gunning for the entire Asian market and not prioritizing Korea). The interesting upshot of releasing one song in three different languages is that I get to compare and lampoon everyone who is not Jonghyun. Just kidding, of course.

As this is a SHINee-centered blog, I will be primarily focusing on Jonghyun’s contribution to S.M. The Ballad, but I will briefly discuss all of the other singers and singles within this mini-album. I will also discuss the live joint recital videos that SM has posted on its YouTube channel.

breathe

Breath

SHINee’s Jonghyun and SNSD’s Taeyeon sing the Korean version, and their success is ambiguous. First of all, Breath by itself is not a memorable ballad, just another sappy mix of a piano motive, synthetic strings and teardrop beats. Both Jonghyun and Taeyeon, while sounding controlled, are at times tight and thin-sounding; as Bilbo Baggins describes, it feels like “butter scraped over too much bread.” In the beginning, Taeyeon does have some beautiful moments in her lower register, but her octave duets with Jonghyun feel uncomfortable, sharp while Jonghyun is broad and relaxed. I wonder if they are truly singing a duet, or whether they are merely matching times. There is no real interaction between their singing, and no building off each other. Overall, I believe they are mismatched as a pair; in terms of aural match, Taeyeon and Onew would have been better. Overall, Jonghyun and Taeyeon’s version is not lead vocal material.

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Yuja Wang, technical brilliance, but..

Last Saturday, March 29, 2014, I had the good fortune to see Yuja Wang at Boston Symphony Hall play the fiery and technically demanding Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 2. If you are ever going to splash money on going to see a piano concerto, this would be it. Prokofiev no. 2 requires such finger gymnastics that it is spell-bounding to watch– which I did, with as-good-as-you-can-get seat in the orchestra.

Yuja is always very much in control, a fact that you quickly realize after the intense cadenza in the first movement alone. Yet, I feel this became her undoing at times. It was too intensely controlled and for me, this concerto is about veering on the edge and pulling back, reckless and heady at some points. Even though my companion said it was the fastest piano playing she had ever seen, when compared it to Li Yundi’s recording, Yuja played slower. Despite her technical prowess (godliness), sometimes there felt to be something lacking, though being an amateur musician, I confess I cannot point to any specific causes.

There was just one other minor drawback, and again I could not pinpoint exactly what it was– Yuja herself, the piano, or the acoustics. All together, the piano was softer than I expected, and the top register seemed flat and unable to project, which is terrible since Prokofiev requires a steely ring at times, but some upper notes melted into the background instead of ringing. However, Yuja adjusted and especially during her solo parts, she was able to thunder and create an entire orchestra just within the piano. It was incredible.

The third movement was also spot-on, I could see her enjoyment and (ironic?) humor shine through the mass of accents and syncopations. It is easy to play Prokofiev aggressively but hard to add delicacy and lightness. Yuja has remarkably “fleet” fingers, able to draw out incredible subtle nuances, yet still ring clear against the mass of heavy bass notes and strings.

With Sir Andrew Davis, the orchestra itself, must again deserve a round of applause. It never dragged and highlighted some incredibly poignant dissonances I had never heard before and the coloration was fantastic. The orchestra never dragged and kept Yuja in very respectable pace, though I wish they egged her on a bit.