An extraordinary thing happened in last night’s Bach Collegium Japan concert: an accident. Five minutes into the heat of the opening Brandenburg Concerto No. 5’s first movement Allegro, a loud snap could be heard from the stage amidst the sound of music. One of the strings of Ryo Terakado’s violin was probably broken. He continued to play on the rest of the violin without a glitch. When Maasaki Suzuki, leading the ensemble from his harpsichord, enteredthe frenzy of an IMG_0106extraordinary cadenza, Terakado calmly walked off, adjusted his violin backstage, and retuned at the beginning of the second movement Affettuoso to the approving applause of the audience.

In this age of near perfect technologies and techniques, an accident is indeed extraordinary – and marvelous. Reading great violin teacher Samuel Applebum’s intimate interviews with great string artists The Way They Play, one reads many accidents happening to these greatest of violinists, cellists and violists. Great pianists or singers of the past were also prone to mistakes, which hardly ever happen to young virtuosos today. But it is exactly at the unexpected moments of accidents, we witness true music-making.

       Not only the word “Baroque” refers to the ideal of dynamic opposition in art, it itself is a dynamically oppositional concept. For lazy listeners today who treat “classical music” – which shall be more properly referred to as “modern music” – as background music, “baroque music” might evoke a stylish convention favoring proportion and harmony of the whole. But for an attentive listener, it is exactly the opposite: “baroque” is about individual risk-taking, about improvisation, about an ideal external to music but contingent to immediate concerns of the person. Such is the case particularly to Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, which is considered the origin of solo keyboard concerto with its fanatic ending of the first movement in solo cadenza and with a strong undertone of uncertainty and discordance beautifully accentuated by Bach Collegium Japan.

      The concert also includes Bach’s Oboe d’amore Concerto in A major, BWV 1055R and Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079. It ends with a perfect rendition of one of Bach’ earlier cantatas, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My heart swims in blood), BWV 199 with soprano Joanne Lunn.

Rachmaninov’s obscenely popular Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with an ending. So is Symphony in E of Hans Rott, an obscure composer whose triumph came before his career even began. The youthfully glorious symphony was finished in 1880. On 17 September of the same year, the 22-year-old young man visited Brahms to show his work. Probably out of displeasure over the fact that Rott was a student of Anton Bruckner, Brahms told him that he had no talent whatsoever and should give up music. Within a month, Rott went insane while on a train, claiming Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. He was sent to a mental hospital next year and died of tuberculosis three years later at the age of 25.

Youthful failure also underlies Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but it proceeded it instead of following it. The music came after the 28-year-old composer had his consultation sessions with the psychiatrist Nikolai Dahl, a student of Jean-Martin Charcot, to have his depression brought on by the critical failure of Symphony No. 1 overcome. The brooding resolution appeared in the beginning of the music is no incident – in fact, Rachmaninov wrote the first movement last.

Inner resolve, it is said, is what the young Hans Rott lacks. But this doesn’t change the fact that his Symphony in E is a sublime piece of music. Kant’s concept of the sublime, I’ve heard, is an exuberant sense of narrow escape from death – or failure. In Rott’s case, it is rather a narrow escape from success and life, a brilliantly sunny morning before the eternal darkness. The chronology is reversed, but the transcendence to the other shore is the same. The inner resolve is never lacking: it lives in the music, disregarding personal histories.

The sublime and the inner resolve appear when one is crossing from the muddy daily life to transcendence, and back. Failure in the crossing, in the case of Rott, or near failure, in the case of Rachmaninov, footnote the beauty of this process of individual histories – they subsequently become part of lore, part of myth. So is success, as in the case of Yuja Wang’s dress.

 The young pianist, whose transparent and absolutely aristocratic performance of  Rachmaninov’s easily muddy Piano Concerto No. 2 with the graceful accompaniment of Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Claudio Abbado, appears to be indifferent to audience and critics. From the audience seat last year in her sweeping performance of Rachmaninov 3, it seemed me that she was playing only for herself – her returning to the stage for standing ovation was extremely reluctant. But this is only the appearances, as her often flashy dresses and high heels, her lively responses in interviews, and her consistent tweets (in one deleted entry she angrily responded to a negative music critic’s “inability to perceive”) show: she is listening to the muddy public.

But she agrees with Michael Tilson Thomas’ assessment of her: “You don’t need the public. The public needs you.”

They need each other and that’s when Yuja Wang succeeds, as Mr. Thomas said of her artistry: She will play as a soloist but also as an accompanist when important things are happening in the orchestra. That is an unusual quality for a card-carrying virtuoso.”

Rachmaninov is yet to completely recovered from the reputation of being vulgar and populist: Alex Ross’ superb 2010 book on 20th-century music The Rest is Noise doesn’t even mention his name.

Hans Rott’s Symphony in E remains obscure, although the fire of the music enlightened Gustav Mahler who in his youthful Symphony No. 1 “Titan” paid tribute to his friend by incorporating Rott’s theme.

Mahler famously said that “a symphony must include the whole world”. This titanism is called by Paul Henry Lang as “hysterical” and “often mars his best efforts”. Lang, however, praises the external impression of Mahler’s gigantism could create: it “has something grandiose about it”, only this great impression could not be separated from “performing apparatus” – which is not available by listening to music recording alone. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 needs a great organ, several choirs of children, men and women, an oversized orchestra with multiple solo instruments, along with bells, mandolins, etc.

Yuja Wang was genuinely surprised by her on-stage mini-skirt caused in Los Angeles: Why are they paying so much attention to what I wear? And why do they have rules about what classical musicians should be wearing?

But she is determined: “. I’m just being myself. When I’m 40, I’m not going to wear a short dress, so I might as well do it now!”


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The Ardèche River flows quietly across Pont d’Arc into southern France’s open air and sunshine. Looking at the grand vista, a voice from the famed Chauvet Cave says: “This is just like a Wagner opera.”

The voice belongs to the German filmmaker Werner Herzog who brought his small crew and Teutonic sensibility to the picturesque French country. After all, this documentary about upper-Palaeolithic paintings would be shot deep in cave where loaded meaning of the word “dream” is less likely to evaporate, not unlike those beautifully preserved graffiti from 30,000 years ago.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) is said to be among the first documentaries using the new 3-D technology, of which Herzog is not a fan. “This is an imperative, not a decision.” he explains. 3-D, in fact, is an unnatural way of looking: “3D will always have one major problem, and that is when you look as a human being, normally only one eye looks dominantly at things. The other eye is mostly ignored. And only in specific cases – if somebody approaches you – all of a sudden the brain starts to use both eyes for establishing depth of field and understanding space.”

A sense of fluidity was attempted in this 3-D documentary on the 2-D inanimate cave paintings. But are they really inanimate? Many animals – bison and horses – depicted by primitive “artists” have extra heads and legs, indicating movement. The cave paintings, thus, are the earliest animations. To be more precise, they are the earliest cinema. Herzog must have found his artistic forefathers here.  The caves, cave paintings and the archaeologists are his objects.

“The upper-palaeo men lived in a world of fluidity.” one French archaeologist explains in the film. By “fluidity”, he means “animism”. The material world and human’s immaterial souls are one and the same. The universe, landscape, animals, plants, objects, human bodies and minds are constantly transforming into each other. “We are not homo sapiens – we are homo spiritual.”

As soon as the fluidity stopped for a moment in the human mind, an unbridgeable gap between word and image, sound and silence, order and chaos, contemplation and action, rationality and irrationality… emerges. The awkward contradiction can be found in those bison with eight legs in the moment of fear arrested by tranquility. It can be found in the film itself: a film documenting homo spiritual – not homo sapiens – is too wordy to enwrap us with awe (unlike those by Frederic Wiseman). Is the omnipresent neo-Renaissance music by Ernst Reijseger, which I enjoyed, an anxious attempt to recreate primitive sensibility? Or is it imposing a 19th-century Teutonism to palaeolithic cave dwellers (and us)? At one point in the film, Herzog even traveled “across the valley” from France to Germany to check out the Venus of Hohles Fels. He also had one German experimental archaeologist performed the Star-Spangled Banner tune on a recreated palaeolithic flute. Paintings are still here, but music is what has been lost and forgotten.

I suspect the filmmaker is attracted more to music than to painting. I suspect all good filmmakers are latent musicians. I suspect an attempt at depicting painting is preferrable than an attempt at depicting music. We can extend our taste in visual arts to the primitive ages (the nude female figure in Chauvet Cave resembles a Picasso, Herzog tells us); our taste in music, however, is much more limited. Painting is horizontal; music is vertical. Painting is material; music is vaporous. Painting is edgily; music is edgeless.

Another Teutonic filmmaker (albeit Russian) Alexander Sokurov whose sensibility travels between music and paintings once said that he wanted to create an edgeless feel in his films. His Russian Ark, a 96-minute non-stop one-take, is a 96-minute “vertical” walk across the gigantic Hermitage Museum. In fact, it succeeded in three-dimensionality without using 3-D technology.

Sokurov’s museum film successfully advocated a historical holism with its use of quirky details.  For audience, one of the greatest difficulties in understanding this film is not its lack of linear narrative, its incoherent dialogues (people are often murmuring in the film), and its lavish attention paid to objects, but to recognize who’s who and what’s what. Most of the historical characters – Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II – was not explicitly pointed out. There is one figure often appeared suspiciously behind the Frenchman on the margin of the screen. He was never explained or developed, but people who are familiar with Russian history know that in the 19th-century, foreigners were often spied on by government agents. The dinner of the Nicholas II with his family looks tranquil and mundane to an innocent spectator, but the experience of the scene will be enhanced if one knows that this was the last dinner before he and his family were captured and executed by the revolutionaries – the actual seizure of the palace, however, is not shown in the film.

The words and messages in Caves of Forgotten Dreams (in essence another “museum film”) are loud and clear, too loud and clear. Fortunately, we are not entirely deprived of quirkiness. I’m not too sure about the albino crocodiles in end of the film – it’s too self-consciously metaphoric to be of interest, but we do have this young French archaeologist who was an acrobat specializing in monocycle and juggling before coming to Chauvet Cave. The 21-century, after all, continues a tradition of disorderly beauty occurred long before the palaeolithic graffiti artists walked into the dark cave.

 The cave museum (Chauvet Cave of Ardèche, France):

The palace museum (Hermitage of St. Petersburg):

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I would otherwise not have attended the Munk Debate on China, for any talk on this subject had to be empty and ritualistic, but the venue of the event intrigued me: Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s home turf. I walked into the hall with the anticipation of attending another concert, and it was another concert all right.

The soloists were British historian Niall Ferguson, Chinese government advisor “David” Li Daokui, Time Magazine’s Fareed Zakaria, and last but not least, Henry Kissinger.

What they had to debate was immaterial. The two sides of pro and con never had any chance of contradicting each other in a meaningful way for the simple reason that the question (“If the 21st Century Will Belong to China?) was entirely devoid of substance. There wasn’t any attempt to define the phrase “belong to” (or “dominance”) except for in a brief moment the prominent guest speaker Dambisa Moyo raised the issue in her question about China’s possible transition from soft power to hard power.

How they debated was more interesting, musically speaking. This was a battle of national accents in English: Kissinger was heavy with his vintage German accent, and his political idealism, be it real or realpolitik, belonged to another time altogether. Zakaria with his Indian accent and wit was often sly, but at times genuine and convincing. Ferguson’s Scottish accent accentuated his theatricality: he loved to entertain the audience with gestures, drama and big history. Despite his admirable composure, Li Daokui’s Chinese accent and his youthful voice betrayed an anxious desire to be known to the world and the inability to do so, a fate all Chinese share with their country, a country that is at the same time old and young. This quartet performed beautifully on the instrument of English language. The audience seemed to have enjoyed it. What they enjoyed, I believe, was the smallness of all those accented details rather than big talks or big ideas.

Just a week before, in the same venue, pianist Yuja Wang delivered an intellectually and emotionally overwhelming Rachmaninoff 3rd with ultimate clarity, coolness, composure, articulation, poetry and power. The audience were awe-struck – the five-second silence before the eruption of volcanic applause and ovation was other-worldly. I heard an old lady behind me heaving a long sigh: “This … this was exceptional!”. Later, a young woman walking out of the concert hall commented that she had never witnessed such response from the TSO audience – and they gave standing ovations quite readily. The audience that night tried very hard, with their applause, to match the poetry and vision Miss Wang brought them. Some of them joined the young pianist in her charming small talks during the intermission.

Yuja Wang’s performance, however, offended the critical establishment who love their Rachmaninoff soppy (John Terauds of Toronto Star was the only critic who gave a positive review) . Universally, critics failed to realize that what they heard from Yuja Wang was a 20th-century Rachmaninoff, a real contemporary of Prokovieff, not a 19th-century Rachmaninoff who made big statements with torrents of tears and assumed emotions. Emotionalism was not emotion. Real emotions, real ideas, and real idealism could only be conveyed by presenting facts with a personal touch of poetry. It could never been re-enacted by mannerism, however impressive the gestures might look.

Yuja Wang, of course, doesn’t have to be frustrated with critical establishment’s inability to perceive, as she was in one of her deleted tweets. In fact, passionate negativity is often more helpful than half-hearted praise. David Hurwitz, who despises Yuja Wang’s wonderfully arsitocratic recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 with Claudio Abbado, actually led to my discovery of Roger Norrington’s recording of Mahler Symphony No. 1, a lean performance without rubato and mannerism yet ultimately intimate, moving and exuberant. Mr. Hurwitz hates Norrington’s approach for good reasons, good reasons I understand.

Paul Henry Lang, in his Music in Western Civilization (1969), said of Mahler : “It is sad, however, to be compelled to admit, in the face of the deployment and adroit handling of such forces, if such unsparing energy, inexorable will, and intellectual effort, that the only great thing in these creations is the intention, that as a matter of fact the composer of these gigantic works was at the bottom of his heart a lyricist … but otherwise there was no soil under his feet … his smile is lifeless, his irony bitter, and his humor forced.”

The New Yorker ’s Alex Ross in his most enjoyable book on the 20th-century music The Rest Is Noise (2007) didn’t talked about Rachmaninoff in any significant way except for on page 484 he mentioned that John Cage and Morton Feldman walked out of a 1950 Carnegie Hall concert because they “wanted to avoid hearing Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, which ended the program”.

Yet now it is probably the time to look at the old in new light. Mahler’s assumed gigantism doesn’t contradict his lyric smallness. Rachmaninoff’s perceived emotionalism hides his modernity. Behind China’s long history and enormity, there is a bouncing and vivacious youth who doesn’t care much about who is talking behind him.

Of small: Tarkovsky’s little violinist

Of big: Tarkovsky’s Bachian universe:

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The dilemma was if or not to acknowledge my distinguished neighbor, to tell her that she was one of the greatest artists of our age; that I had been listening to her for years; that her recital in my remote hometown S some 15 years ago was the first piano recital I attended ; that it was probably also the starting point of my career as a lone concert-goer; that her art was part of my spiritual life, thus part of me.

In the end, I didn’t say anything. When I came back from the intermission, having to squeeze past her to my seat, I merely mumbled “excuse me”.  But in a brief two-second eye contact, there was this moment of “I know you know I know”. Later I had those questions in my conscience: “Did she expect me to acknowledge her openly? Was she relieved when I didn’t?”

The artist in question is the great pianist Angela Hewitt. She sat almost next to me in last week Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Finland-themed concert with cellist Anssi Kartunnen, soprano Karita Mattila and conductor Hannu Lintu who brought out the best of the orchestra.

Art, if anything, allows artists and their audience share intense personal feelings together. This is especially true between musicians and listeners in a live concert. But this personal communication, generally speaking, is confined to the sound of music flowing from the stage to the auditorium. Visual elements are restricted to the performance itself and concert etiquette. The only performance the audience participate, in most cases, is the applause and bravoing, an art in itself. As a rule, there is no verbal communication between musicians and audience on a personal level, unlike standing comedy.

But I couldn’t help observing Ms. Hewitt from time to time, especially during the performance of Ravel’s La valse: she tapped her fingers; when the music stopped, she gave a warm standing ovation to Mr. Lintu’s superb music-making. It was touching to see a great artist generously appreciating another as an anonymous audience member. When the applause subsided, Ms. Hewitt quickly disappeared into the exiting crowds.

Deep personal connections are often established impersonally. Art is a vehicle to solve individuals’ ambivalent desires to be known and to stay unknown. Art is the common ground of the public and the private. Art is the gateway between the sacred and the profane.


When Viktoria Mullova triumphantly but calmly finished the last note of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major in unison with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado, you can hear on the Polygram recording the response of a Tokyo audience in 1992: enthusiastic, but polite. This is not altogether different from Yo-Yo Ma’s observation of the English audience: “The English are very auditory and they applaud less, but you can feel the warmth.” (Ulla Colgrass, For the Love of Music)

Visually speaking, Toronto audience’s response to the same work last week was a lot warmer than the Japanese: the ovation for the soloist Vadim Gluzman was boisterous and long-lasting, in contrast to the critic John Terauds’ cool review in which he praises the conductor Klas for his “depth and warmth” but deplores Gluzman for his coldness: “ there is nothing in his music-making that engages the heart.”

Not surprising: In 2009 Terauds delivered a similar verdict to the Cleveland Orchestra after their towering performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 under Franz Welser-Möst in Roy Thomson Hall. Key to his criticism was again an assumed lack of spontaneity and humanity. But what is humanity? what is the human touch we are looking for? What is spontaneity? Is spontaneous response to a canonic work possible?

Those are the questions for today’s audience, and those are the questions for Brahms. Here I would like to quote in length Paul Henry Lang’s observation of the composer (Music in Western Civilization):

“The great art attained by Brahms makes his works classically poised, but one feels that this calm and poise hide something, a tragic philosophy, a developed world of pessimism and resignation. His soul was sick, but he discovered the illness and tried to combat it with discipline, for his illness was the romantic ill, the overflowing richness of the romantic soul. Therefore he tried to limit it, bind it, balance it with art and study. The struggle was profound and the relapses frequent … what had been impossible to achieve spontaneously – order in the feverish world … could be done by applying the brakes of art, and that Brahms set out to learn how to manipulate them … he learned also that the taming of the imagination demands compromises and sacrifices.”

“This explains Brahms’s extraordinary sense for the past, which, like his noble sensibility, is an aristocratic trait … Such an infinitely sensitive and complicated soul does not give immediate impressions but nourishes itself from memories discreetly veiled, therefore his art is less lyric and dramatic than epic. At the bottom of this epic poetry there is a secret but undeniable subjectivity, yet its appearance seems objective. His sensibility enables him to perceive the finest in the past, and, in the fact of his antagonism toward the present, his solicitude to render these impressions faithfully is unlimited.”

“This conscientiousness was Brahms’s tragedy, the tragedy of all sensitive, aristocratic souls devoted to tradition. [But] moral conscientiousness is not always a virtue; most often it is inborn as one of the characteristics of the honest bourgeois spirit … Not so with Brahms … This is at the basis of that extraordinary sensitiveness which made Brahms’s life the life of Hamlet, made him hesitant and chaste … , for he whom every seemingly innocent action may become the source of new regrets shuts himself in and shuns action … he endeavors to live a blameless life, a life that can remain blameless only if others are not intimately involved in it.”

This brings us to Fou Lei’s observation of the English people: “ Their so-called inhibition in fact indicates the depth and strength of their passionate nature: if not restrained, it will easily burst out and overflow, just as uncontrollable as those of Shakespearean characters.” (Letters to Fou Ts’ong: June 26, 1961)

The deep love for humanity is sometimes represented by a desire to get away from them. The warmth of heart is sometimes embodied in coldness, and spontaneity in discipline. The serene, solemn, and silent universe contains numerous brusque, vulgar and noisy miniatures, if one observes carefully. The sense of beauty, however, always comes at a sudden, to the beholders’ surprise.

Mullova plays the finale of the Brahms concerto with Berliner Philharmoniker under Abbado in Tokyo (1992):

In front of Tafelmusik’s Ivars Taurins, I’m a criminal. Not that I have the luck to know him personally or professionally, but I was the culprit who was so eager to applaud in the end of one of the greatest performances of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor a few years ago that I had the ending silence Mr. Taurins so solemnly held with his still batons shortened. That performance of this unfinished masterpiece transcendentally finished with a repetition of the opening Kyrie.

Bach’s Mass in B minor Tafelmusik performed this Friday opens and ends with similar expansive solemnity and calmness, although the final moments of chorus (in particular the sopranos), timpani and trumpets are not without euphoria. The concert was deliberately paced for a period performance, but the exuberance easily came when it was called for. The conducting of Mr. Taurins, as usual, was a feast on its own. One of the great aspects of musician as a profession, is their privilege, when intelligently applied, of expressing their deepest personal feelings publicly without being improper.

So how about the audience? The next evening I attended TSO’s concert of Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 4 with Garrick Ohlsson) and Tchaikovsky (Manfred Symphony). The audience were responsive to the point that they applauded after almost every single movement, including the slow ones. This invites smiles from connoisseurs and snobs, but the fact remains that the “no applause between movements” rule was invented relatively recently. Applause between movements was probably even expected in Beethoven and Tchaikovsky’s times, as Alex Ross of the New Yorker discusses in details here.

Putting all those noise from impulsive applause and self-applause to rest, you may still find the gold so eloquently shining in the darkness of silence. I just finished Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s 1993 ethnography In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (about the Indonesian Meratus Dayak people). True to the spirit of the so-called postmodernism, the book is overly verbal and unnecessarily self-referential – I felt compelled to detoxify myself by reading Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp afterwards to have a moment of serenity. However, in retrospect, the book is indeed ethnographically and philosophically rich. There are a lot of wisdoms you may not find anywhere else. If only the author had been more restrained in her eagerness! Probably only if anthropologists are not such a lonely group of people!

I would usually be annoyed if my fellow audience keep chit-chatting or rocking their chairs during a performance (so did one 400-pound dude in a TSO concert of Sibelius’ rousing symphonies last year). But during the Friday’s performance, I was absolutely delighted by a neighboring young girl who kept whispering in her ageing father’s ear. The performance of Bach’s mass is clearly a very lively event for her (probably even more so than to many adults there). And I find myself rocking the bench to the rhythm of Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus:

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Ode on Solitude
Alexander Pope 

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

The impression the second rendition gives is probably closer to truth, for Alexander Pope wrote the poem before he was 12 (although I’m not sure if the poet was also a jock).  Child prodigy, it seems, besides a natural talent for technical command, could also possess profundity in thoughts and feelings.

It’s not all that surprising really, considering developmental psychology is regarded by some as microcosm of the evolution of human thoughts. Somehow, we already know all we are about to know. Empiricism is inevitably rooted in its poetic gene. After all, outside the realm of natural sciences and engineering, who would claim with full confidence that we are smarter than the ancients who lived more than 2000 years ago?

There is poetry, and there is prose. There are child prodigies, and there are those who “come to terms” late in their lives. As it happens, Stendhal is said to be ashamed of his youthful attempts to write poetry, and Leo Tolstoy is said to hold contempt for those who wrote poems only because they could not think clearly and who could not do anything more useful.

In the Milos Forman film Amadeus, an adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play about Salieri, Mozart is portrayed as a goofy genius with silly laughs. This  image is probably as false as the senile portrait of Alexander Pope above – you only have to listen to the subtle sadness in his Symphony No. 1, written when he was about 9:

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Nicety denotes distance. It covers indifference. Uncongeniality brings out life. Jarring contemporary music is often emotionally closer to us than the so-called classics: the harsher,  the truer. But not everybody is ready for it, just as not everybody is ready for truth. Most people live in a system of niceties, a system of greatness – greatness, with all its morphological representations in history, arts and ideas, often serves only as signs, pleasant signs, to remind people of keeping distance. Only the happy few can go out into the others, go deep into the history, to find intimacy in the remote, to find contemporaneity in the past, and vice versa.

The first rule of life, is to abandon and ignore niceties.


Pacifica String Quartet (Music Toronto)’s December 9th concert includes:

  • Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 8 in C minor
  • Jennifer Higdon: Voices
  • Schumann: String Quartet No. 1



The concert beginning with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture (1810) ended with Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony (1881). The end of one fin de siècle  transits to the beginning of another. Now we are at the end of the third.

So the concert hall was half empty and the audience were frustrated with impatience. The angular heroics that distinguish both Beethoven and Bruckner are simply too bold if not too ugly for a modern audience.

Especially Bruckner, who is the embodiment of constant battles between neurosis and transcendence – who as a person from the country didn’t always know his place in the city (he is described by some as a nincompoop): at times he looks like a loner inclining towards sudden bursts of openness and extravaganza. At times he seems to be adverse to anything excessive, indulging in yearnings and joys only in the most measured classical formality. Is this ambivalence the symptom or the cause of his neurosis? Or is it how he contains his moral crises?

Beethoven’s music is angular but progressive, as Bruckner’s music is not. Beethoven is self-consciously in the eyes of the storm. Bruckner stood in a field, desperately counting the leaves on a tree. Beethoven heralds Romanticism. Bruckner – and his pupil Gustav Mahler – bid farewell.

Between the Egmont Overture and the Bruckner symphony, Marc-André Hamelin gave a delicate yet rapturous performance of Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11. For inattentive ears, this piece merely sounds pleasant – probably that’s why the audience only gave a muted response to the exhilarating performance, as they did last season to a transcendental performance of a Mozart concerto. Music from the Classical and early Romantic periods, in fact, is far more difficult for modern audience to “get” than any 20th-century or contemporary piece that may sound revolting.  An effective but impractical solution is to program Haydn after Bruckner.

I came back for a second performance the next evening. I was physically exhausted in a pleasant way from ealier physical activities. My mind was quiet. And Bruckner’s music, this time round, merely remote and strange. And Haydn merely delightful.

Lofty Bruckner:

Little Haydn:


“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you … not only that we might remain in Paradise permanently, but that we may in fact be there permanently, no matter whether we know it here or not.”  – Kafka 

But where is the house for me to stay? Who am I who sits completely quiet and alone and to whom the world is going to offer itself? Mahler tried to answer those questions in his second symphony, “Resurrection”, which was performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the season-opening concert.

The violent opening bars of the first movement are deceiving, so is its C minor key: the symphony is about human Will, but this is not going to be a Beethovenian struggle towards a final triumph – it’s about giving up the struggle, looking instead for transcendence in oneself, a total self. This total self will be realized in the very end, but in the first movement, right after fate’s dramatic presence, in a light and sweet passing, Mahler shows the paradise the self already resides in – it’s visible, but far away behind those Alpine mountains towering into the cloudy skies. Now he leads us on a journey of self-discovery.

Identity is at the core of Mahler’s psyche: “I’m thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, as a Jew throughout the world.” In the following two movements, we have the most delicious reverie in the form of ländler, an Austrian folk dance, followed by Jewish cheekiness in a C minor scherzo. But these two simple folk sentiments are repeated overwhelmed by Germanic sensibilities of logic progression as well a Brahmsian boisterousness, then all of a sudden, the music returns to Mahler’s own individuality in the song Urlicht, which rises to the ultimate plane in the finale.

Why is Mahler so relevant today? He followed Wagner’s steps, but instead of a pan-Germanic ideal, he found cosmopolitanism in the self, and in self cosmopolitanism. Instead of progress and evolution, he found individuality and originality.  Instead of world, he found home. His symphonies require a very large ensemble and often unusually long, but at heart they are intimate and short, just like one of his songs.


 Of all arts, music is one of the most un-symbolic. Of all filmmakers, Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of the most symbolic. Thus, despite the often excess use of music (Bach in Accattone, Vivaldi in Mamma Roma, Mozart in Teorema), his films are ultimately unmusical – they are assemblages of imageries used as visual polemics.

But in a stroke of genius, Pasolini made the best of music in probably any film. Yes, I’m talking about his 1969 picture Medea, which stars Maria Callas in her only non-operatic film role. No, Callas didn’t sing a single line in the film, yet her ferocious silence is supremely musical in itself. More importantly, her natural savageness betrays a kind of raw emotion that gives credibility to the unusual “world music” Pasolini used in the film. 

Now it’s not unusual for contemporary non-Western filmmakers to use Western classical music in their films. Two prominent examples coming to mind is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Boys from Fengkui and Abbas Kiarostami’s Under the Olive Trees. Hou’s film is about country lads seeking new lives in the city. Lots of Vivaldi was used –  I suspect Mamma Roma‘s influence here, considering the thematic proximity. Kiarostami’s film ends with a Cimarosa piece, having our hero’s romantic joy conveyed beautifully. In both films tradition meets modern sensibility. It’s only fit Vivaldi and Cimarosa were used, for classical music, despite the word “classical”,  is in essence modern through and through.

But in Medea Pasolini wanted to create some primitive sensibility. Pre-historical music is not re-creatable, so he opted for traditional music outside Western mainstream. According to Jon Solomon (The Sound of Cinematic Antiquity): “For the rituals in Colchis he selected Tibetan chant for the elders, Persian santur music for general Colchian atmosphere, and Balkan choral music, characterized by a female chorus doubling in two parts a second apart, for the women promoting the growth of new crops with the blood of the young victim of sparagmos, the Greek Dionysiac ritual of dismemberment.” I believe I also heard Japanese traditional music during the screening.

Again, like many aspects of Pasolini’s art, there is only symbolic validity to use “ethnomusic” to convey primitiveness, for those music are only primitive, “raw” and “uninhibited” to Western (or modern) ears. To original listeners, they might well be refined and urban. But Pasolini’s originality is undeniable, so is the effectiveness of the music in the film:

Medea (Callas) oversees ritual dismemberment under Tibetan music