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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“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.


My problems with Mahler’s symphonies are that they are too short and that they can’t be played perpetually – the concerts always have an end, or I always have to stop my IPod, take off my earbuds and do something else. Every time Mahler’s symphonies were played, Toronto Symphony Orchestra would quote him in the program notes: “ The symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Whether his symphonies do contain “everything” is open to debate. In any case, Mahler’s world is a world I don’t mind living in. If Beethoven’s symphonies always require ultimate attentiveness, Mahler’s (with the exception of “Resurrection”) invite you to walk with him in  the mountains of Austria. All the climaxes, like those peaks, are already at sight in the very beginning – you will go with him to the tops, or even go further to the cloudy sky, but you always know you will be there, eventually. Mahler dissolves human dramas in the quivering of cosmos (drama-wise, his symphonies are shorter than Schubert’s Der Erlkönig) – you will have enough time facing the world in all the solitude you need.

So, listening to Mahler’s symphonies is not a social affair despite the fact that they always require a huge orchestra and sometimes many soloists in performance. The conductor Peter Oundjian made the mistake to introduce the Symphony No. 7 before April 29’s concert. He talked about how cheerful this music was, which I believe created unrealistic expectations among some audience members. In the end, the concert produced the third largest early withdrawal in recent memory (the largest was Messian’s Turangalila; the second was Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s performance of  Iris dévoilée by Chen Qigang, a student of Messian).  Some people may find Mahler’s grotesqueness-tinted lyricism unnerving. They should have waited till the end.