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.

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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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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:

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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.

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Chopin’s performance in public auditorium is said to be “almost inaudible”, likely due to his delicate physicality worsened by tuberculosis. By this standard, Yundi Li’s performance of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with TSO last week was more than adequate. However, to adopt this standard is to make a fundamental mistake, for the gist of Chopin’s life– as well as his music-making – is not their delicacy, but their heroic struggle against it. Delicacy exists in every note of his music, but it takes a real Chopinesque pianist to bring out the heroism. Yundi Li, who was awarded first prize in the 2000 Chopin Competition, didn’t succeed that evening with his hastily “poetic” manner. It was the argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter who brought out power and prowess inherent in Chopin’s music a week before in her performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 with TSO. Incidentally, she happens to be the Second Prize winner after Yundi Li in the very same competition.

I remember vividly that Fliter jumped up from the chair when the music stopped, leaving the stage with her arms thrown in the air, like an Olympic athlete. When the audience gave a heart-warming applause, she came back and hugged Peter Oudjian with such strength that almost choked him. Her happiness was apparent. Probably there is a contingent explanation to Fliter’s exuberance: just before the concert, Fliter caught a cold and had to cancel two recitals in the States. You would never guess it from this performance with her feet tapping the floor during Chopin’s most animated passages as if She was dancing with Chopin with her hands and feet together. This was real Chopin through and through. And this was after a struggle with illness, with physical weakness.

There is also a bodily explanation for Yundi Li’s precariousness: he was a lot thinner than last time when he played Prokovief’s Piano Concerto No. 2 brilliantly with TSO. Then, his poetry was so deeply rooted in his strength that the audience could physically feel it. Not this time unfortunately. But why is he so thin? This is totally my guess: he was probably forced by his recording company and agent to get rid of his extra body weight accumulated naturally with age and maturity, to keep his boyish – or rather, perceived androgyn looking. This possibility is not low considering they would care to use the gimmick of changing his name to YUNDI (yes, capitalized).

I say perceived androgyn because Yundi Li is definitely not effeminate. I’ve heard him talking in person: this is a quiet, a bit shy, but genuine young man, “provincial” in a very positive way, as this Wall Street Journal article beautifully conveyed. However, those who were brought up in a more-or-less hideous contemporary culture in the West, which tends to explain masculinity in a peculiar way, would not understand and appreciate it, as this article proves. And this culture would not understand that the beauty of Chopin’s music lies not in its salon delicacy, put its heroic passion that is ultimately personal and universal.

(Fliter is not as thin as seen in this video shot 8 years ago during the Chopin Competition. She has since blossomed into a even more beautiful woman in her 30s)

(Yundi Li tries to stay young, but this is his truly youthful and sparkling performance in the same competition)

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Until this month, I never understood why people drink wine during the intermission of a concert. Why do people need more drugs when music itself is intoxicating enough?

Well, as it turns out, wine in the gallery is a great help to the atmosphere in the  auditorium. I firmly believe that the lack of alcohol was responsible for the subdued response to a superb TSO concert. May 8th’s performance of Mozart Violin Concerto No.3 with the soloist Stephan Jackiw was followed by  Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 under Andrew Davis. The Mozart seems to be an easy piece, but one needs a  touch of genius, as the young Jackiw has, to carry out its supreme subtly with both precision and spontaneity. The Elgar piece is hardly subtle, but it is uplifting in a very English way. Considering Toronto is an essentially English town, the indifference of the audience that night is even more puzzling.

The only explanation I can think of is that this was a so-called “casual concert” so there was no intermission, no chit-chatting, and no wine. Despite being highly formalized, music, or “classical music”, like many other forms of culture, is still very much connected to the physical needs of the people who listen to them. In other words, there’s a strong physical dimension to how music is accepted by the audience, not unlike rock-n-roll. At the same time, music is capable of triggering strong physical responses like no other.

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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.

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Helmuth Rilling conducts Bach's Mass in B minor

Is it sermon or music? Is it liturgy or performance? Is it about faith or enjoyment? These are rather important questions concerning J.S. Bach’s music in particular and music (or “classical music”) in general. The different wording of the two opposite reviews of this week’s TSO performance of Mass in B minor more or less confirms my suspicion that the lasting confrontation between ideology and aesthetics is still going on. Toronto Star’s John Terauds, whose blog  is one of the best on the net, was disappointedbecause the performance under Helmuth Rilling failed to “soar in grandeur, glimmers with light and dances with complex counterpoints”. He also accuses the soloists of being “stiff”. On the other hand, the Globe and Mail’s Ken Winters – a very philosophical music critic – claims that “the musical glory of the Christian world came nearly completely to life at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night”.

For me, I simply enjoyed the concert in the simplest way. It was not a transcendental experience for me, and it didn’t make me quiver and sweat like some concerts did. It was more like a good Jazz concert full of lively energy, and the variety of musical temperament made the two-plus hours look rather short. I smiled at choir members bobbing their heads back and forth with enthusiasm, the baritone Andrew Forster-Williams walking back to his seat in beautifully dignified stride, and the three handsome trumpeters blowing their faces to complete redness. When the concert finished, I smiled at two fellow chaps in full leather gears (one was completed with a leather cap, the other with red hanky in butt pocket) passing me with lingering excitement into the city lights.

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