Anne-Sophie Mutter is.

On Saturday, I attended the sold-out Boston Symphony Orchestra and heard legendary violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter perform Dvorak’s violin concerto and romance for violin and orchestra. I will be the first to admit that this repertoire is not my preferred listening– but keeping this in mind, I took along the score so I could be at least intellectually engaged.


I was completely floored. Her technique is astounding and yet, it never goes over our heads, and she pays prodigious attention to the phrasing, to the music. Usually I would do some kind of review, but Mutter really is as intense and phenomenal as one could imagine, or fail to imagine. The BSO was tightly oiled and fluid, like always.

Most importantly, Mutter personally spoke to everyone when signing CDs, even though there must have been over 100 people in line for her signature, and she had performances two nights before where she also signed CDs. I have attended BSO concerts– Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang in particular, both classical music superstars– where the soloists did not even bother doing CD signing. Mutter is as big a superstar as either, and she certainly does not need to sign CDs to sell them in mass droves (case in point: she just released a 40-CD collection of her past 30 years; there must be a substantial market for this kind of excessive stuff). In addition, I have been to other CD signings, like Emerson String Quartet and Li Yundi, in which they merely sign and grunt on. I definitely understand the musicians are tired after playing concerts and do not expect much, which is why I am so pleasantly surprised that Mutter seemed full of energy and smiles, even having the usher take photos of her signing CDs. 

Heart hammering away, I did speak briefly with Mutter, and I babbled how my favorite recording of hers was Tzigane. Her eyebrows knitted together and told me that she would be playing it in a concert cycle in 2016 in the United States, and I told her I’d see her there. Fingers crossed Tzigane is with a full orchestra and not piano accompaniment. But heck, she is Sophie-Anne Mutter– she can snap her fingers and any orchestra will come running. Mutter has the rare ability to appeal to a wide audience and critics alike, increasingly difficult in a “everyone-is-a-critic” world.


[kpop/rant] Henry and Lindsey Stirling’s unfortunate violin skills

Wielding both the piano and violin, Henry is the boy genius from kpop machine, S.M. Entertainment. Lindsey Stirling is the YouTube violinist best known for her dubstep arrangements. They are both wildly famous and successful in their own ways, and in no way do I think their success is undeserved.

Yet, I can’t watch their recent videos without gagging. To put it bluntly, Henry and Lindsey sometimes seem to be playing a saw rather than a violin. It whines and it screeches, and no, those are not the whines and screeches of emotion, they are the deviations of a violinist that has not yet learned how to control the intonation and tone. Every fingering they produce is slightly different every time, and so their tones may vary wildly. The mark of a good string instrumentalist: every time they play a note, it is the same exact position.

Honestly, I have never listened to Henry’s violin seriously– I watched his gimmicks strumming the violin on variety show and came away slightly amused (not exactly new at that point). Also, I knew he had gone to Berklee, so I was expecting at least the lower rung of conservatory level (my first mistake, Berklee’s not a conservatory). Therefore, watching him do a piano and violin version of Trap, I was so shocked. Moreover, he laced the video with needlessly technical runs that he did not even do well. It is a mistake to assume that the easiest pieces are the easy to play. No, they are not. You have much less chances to mess up, and if you do, it has a much larger effect. The mark of a good musician is not by how difficult their pieces are, but how much attention they pay to the details and if that attention to detail actually translates through.

I like Lindsey herself because she is good-natured and genuinely wants to bring violin out of the stodgy classical realm. Yet, compared with The Piano Guys (the cellist is amazing, I’d pay to see him play a concerto any day), her violin skills are below par, which is terrifying considering it is all pre-recorded and yet she cannot sound on-key at least 95% of the time. Sometimes I cannot believe that there are some people who make their living off of playing instruments cannot play it at good amateur level, much less professional, or god help us, conservatory level.

I sigh and I kick and I rant, but in the end, if people like them, then whatever. People like what they like, and I hope that Henry and Lindsey are only the jumping off points to a richer life in music.

classical music is stuffy? pshaw! classical recs for fans of pop/rock/electro/…

In my experience, people tend to think of classical music as one huge, static genre. Far from it– there is some classical music I love to death, others, meh, not so much. In a lot of ways, classical music can be very similar to the popular music that most people listen to nowadays, but it can be hard to find that particular classical music you click with.

Thus, in alphabetical order, I have listed popular genres and based on the genre, underneath I wrote some suggestions of classical music for you to listen to. Of course, being a pianist, this will be a little heavy on the piano side. If you have any suggestions for me or would like me to add a category, please let me know!

In popular music, country is a genre which can encompass many idomatic sounds of the American region– but true country has a deep soul; nonetheless, it also has levity and is loose and free. Personally, I am in a mature stage of loving American composers, so this corresponding genre of classical music is very dear to my heart. Though to European ears, the American sound may be uncouth and very loud and brassy, but it is so adorable and kitschy it is hard to fight back a smile.
(1) An American in Paris, George Gershwin. A perfect summer piece to dip your toes in.
(2) Rodeo: Hoe Down, Aaron Copland. This. This piece is amazing live. If you ever get a chance to see the Philadelphia Orchestra play this, you must go. In fact, if the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing anything remotely American, just go. They are the best orchestra in the US where American music is concerned.
(3) Piano Concerto in G major, Maurice Ravel. An impressionistic composer, Michelle? Really? Yes. This piece was heavily influenced by jazz, and its presence in this concerto is whimsical and floating and altogether very beautiful.
(4) ‘American’ String Quartet, Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak composing in a field in Iowa. Best idea ever. Also one of the pieces the Emerson String Quartet played when I saw them.
(5) Excursions Suite: no 1, Samuel Barber. Every piece in the suite hearkens to some American idiom. When I listen to the first piece, I think of trains. What do you think?

Dance / Electronic
Unless you get into the really hairy avant-garde in classical music, classical music does not use much electronic elements. However, I am interpreting this genre as ‘upbeat’. Some upbeat pieces you could (theoretically) dance to.
(1) Caprice no. 24 in A minor, op. 1/24, Niccolo Paganini. Probably the most well-known piece in virtuoso violin repertoire.
(2) Concerto for Two Cellos in G minor, RV 531, Vivaldi. Love at first listen.
(3) Moonlight Sonata, Ludwig Beethoven. The third movement is definitely a head-bopping moment.

Easy Listening / New Age
A great genre for some relaxation and contemplation.
(1) Adagio for Strings (choral version), Samuel Barber. One of the seminal pieces of the twentieth century; even DJ Tiesto made a remix.
(2) Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I and II, Johann Sebastian BachGlenn Gould is the go-to pianist for Bach. His interpretations are fantastic to listen to (however, once you start playing Bach, you realize sometimes Gould is a bit crazy at times). Bach is amongst the most cerebral composers I know, and it is a pleasure to play his works, if only to get a mental workout. I also like Maurizio Pollini‘s interpretations.
(3) Dolly Suite, Gabriel Faure. A cute and light set of piano duets (four hands, one piano).

Constantly listening to sad ballads? Want to cry your tears out?
(1) any Frederic Chopin– some choices: Nocturne op. 9 no. 2, Piano Sonata no. 2, Fantasie-Impromptu op. Posthumous, Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. Chopin is mindbogglingly beautiful, but many times, I cannot handle the level of emo and would rather hack away at something aggressive. However, if you are super emo, do some soul-searching in Chopin.
(2) Pour le piano: Prelude, Claude Debussy. I’ve played this before in eighth grade. Why? Because it was emo.
(3) String Quartet in G minor, op. 27, Edvard Grieg. The first movement, Un Poco Andante, Allegro Molto Ed Agitatomight be a little more hardcore emo than you bargained for, but you cannot deny the entrance as one of emo anguish. If you like heavy metal, definitely grab onto this.

Epic / Soundtrack
I love listening to the Transformers OST and the Bourne trilogy OST, and sometimes having epic music on hand while racing through bus terminals is quite fun (I have no life).
(1) Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, op. 18, Sergei Rachmaninoff. Certainly one of the most recognized openings of all piano concertos.
(2) Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16, Edvard Grieg. Play me that beginning chord anywhere and I can recognize it immediately. This piece is iconic– it was even featured in a Li Yundi Nike commercial!
(3) Transcendental Etude, no. 4, Franz Liszt. Not ashamed to say, I first heard this in Nodame Cantabile. I also discovered that Boris Berezovsky sweats a lot (watch the video).. unsavory..
(4) Cello Concerto, op. 22, Samuel Barber. The beginning, gargle. The cello cadenza, gargle. For this concerto, my bias is Paul Tobias.

Hip Hop / R&B
This is a genre that I listen to infrequently, but nonetheless, a genre with lots of soul. And lots of bass.
(1) Julie-O (special beatbox arrangement), Mark Summers. The original is amazing, as well– as it is played by the composer himself.
(2) Libertango, Astor Piazzolla. If Yo-Yo Ma is playing it, it is automatically gold. No questions asked.
(3) Romeo and Juliet: Dance of the Knights, Sergei Prokofiev. Yes, this definitely has a lot of bass; could fit in the emo section as well.

Basically, the genre for us snobs who like saying, “I listened to them before they became popular.”
(1) Paganini Variations for two pianos, Witold Lutoslawski. Yes, I blather a lot about this piece. But still– people still do not appreciate it enough. It is also rather avant-garde, so you can brag about that too, hipsters.
(2) Tzigane, Maurice Ravel. Everyone who plays an instrument classically has a phase of liking impressionistic composers like Ravel and Debussy. I was in the phase in high school, but now I have thankfully gotten over that. Even those who profess to love Ravel oftentimes have neglected this amazing virtuoso violin piece.
(3) Simple Symphony, op. 4, Benjamin Britten. A twentieth-century composer who does not get enough love at all, even in the classical music lovers’ circles. I would have a listen to his cello concerto as well.

Catchy, catchy, catchy. Hook, hook, hook. Infectious and fun.
(1) ‘Trout’ Piano Quintet in A major, Franz Schubert. Another piece I heard at the Emerson String Quartet concert— the most well-known chamber piece. In China, one of my roommates’ ringtone was this annoying MIDI version of Trout, so boy, was I glad to stop listening to it after I moved out.
(2) Bolero, Maurice Ravel. Yes, this is used in the opening of SNSD’s Paparazzi music video (you can guess a certain someone was frowning). However, Ravel’s Bolero on its own is indescribably beautiful, though it is the same thing over and over again. Pity, Super Junior’s artistic directors should try learning from this piece.
(3) The New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak. The last movement could go under “Epic / Soundtrack” very well, but overall, it is an amazing piece of music, filled with memorable melodies. If you have a chance, listen to the four-hands one-piano version arranged and played by Duo Crommelynck.

Rock / Heavy Metal
For those of who love a good head-banging with strong rhythms. Bitches love Shostakovich! Heh.
(1) String Quartet no. 8 in C minor, op. 110, Dmitri Shostakovich. The allegro molto (second movement) is an absolute thriller. You can never go wrong with the Emerson String Quartet.
(2) Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, op. 67, Dmitri Shostakovich. This trio’s melody was actually based on the previous string quartet’s melody. However, this arrangement is so amazing that it deserves to be mentioned. The allegretto (fourth movement) starts off ‘slow’, but once you reach the climax, grip the seat because you probably will not survive.
(3) Cello Sonata, op. 8, Zoltan Kodaly. I recently got into cello, but I really must listen to more Kodaly. His name is so fun not to.
(4) Firebird Suite, Sergei Prokofiev. The first time I heard this was in sixth grade– our teacher had chosen a snippet of it to be played in our band concert– and I fell in love immediately. Plus, there is this awesome Disney Fantasia movie to go along with it. Fetch me some tissues.

[music] why you should see string quartets live.

Last night, I finally saw the Emerson String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall. Honestly, it was nothing short of magic. I briefly contemplated writing a review (here is the New York Times’ attempt), but there is really nothing to say, besides the obvious fact that they are perfection. It was the first time I had ever seen a string quartet in such a well-engineered space, and as I waited to get my CD signed (first in line, as always) by these four musicians, I thought about why it was so worth it watching a string quartet live.

the Emerson String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall.

1. movement. String quartets consist of two violins, one viola, and one cello. In a well-written string quartet, all instruments feature prominently; the cello will solo for a bit, the violins, and then the viola. They all get their chance in the spotlight, they all get their chance to contribute to harmony. A lot of the fun intricacies of string quartets involve hearing how these instruments interact and interweave with each other. Nonetheless, for a majority of people, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the first violin and second violin, between the violin and viola and even between a well-played cello (nailing those high notes!) and viola. Even for me, I need to read scores to even start thinking about the interplay between the instruments. However, when attending a string quartet concert I do not even need to think, I can just look— I can connect the different sounds immediately to each instrumentalist as their bowing easily gives them away. What is more, I can see the violinist and the cellist exchanging glances, the violist breathing at key moments. I can visualize the piece in a much richer way without having to tediously read the score. Within the group, chamber music is a highly social performance, requiring frequent nonverbal communication; thus, the physical presence of each player is crucial and what makes it so rewarding for audiences to see them live.

2. sound. Most of us do not have the good fortune to live in a house with a private concert hall, or a sound system with acoustics that makes our house sound like a concert hall. Even then, the sound quality from the CD or mp3 might still be lacking. In my experience, the sound generated from live classical music performances have the wonderful quality of filling the room, literally surrounding the audience in a rich expanse of music clouds. I believe this quality is called “echo.” The sound of a cello filling an empty space specially engineered for it cannot be matched– the small and subtle echo the hall gives the cello life beyond the flat recording we usually listen to. Tip: this echo is especially amazing for string instruments in intimate settings, hint, Emerson String Quartet in Alice Tully Hall.

I am already looking to see the Emerson String Quartet again, 2 December 2012 in Jordan Hall. If you are in the Boston area then and are a classical music enthusiast, perhaps we should meet up! Let me know before September passes.

[persona] possibly the most perfect classical music program I have ever seen

Dvorák: String Quartet No. 12 (“American”)
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Schubert: Piano Quintet (“Trout”)

Emerson String Quartet at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, NYC, on Monday, 13 August 2012.

the Emerson String Quartet. image courtesy of NYTimes.

If you happen to be in the area and buy a ticket, you can probably see me, hyperventilating in an orchestra seat. To me, Emerson String Quartet is the golden standard of string quartets. However, its cellist, David Finckel has announced he will be leaving the quartet after the 2012-2013 performance season. I have never seen Emerson in person, so as soon as I saw they were booked for Alice Tully Hall in New York, I was like, no matter what the program, I have got to go.

But as soon as I saw the music program, I think I died a little inside. It is amazing. Antonin Dvorák’s string quartet “American” was composed at around the same time as his New World Symphony and just supremely epic Cello Concerto in B minor, when Dvorák was in residency in the United States. Samuel Barber? Adagio for Strings? You know, the piece DJ Tiesto made a dance track off of? Lastly, Franz Schubert’s “Trout” quintet was one of the first pieces of chamber music I have ever heard, sparking my love for a whole other genre, and it is quite possibly the only piece of Schubert I adore to death (Brendel & Cleveland Quartet recording is brilliant).

Now, to decide if I want to sit in row B or row R. I think I might have to pick row B. Legends, man. Last touring year, man. Three hours of euphoria for $75, man.

Excuse me while I go cry in the corner.