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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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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Yuja almost tripped over her dress after flying over Prokofiev.

According to the program notes, Wang Yuja had been praised for her “graceful, charismatic stage presence.” Luckily, in her recent Toronto recital, Wang didn’t try to be either graceful or charismatic. She was just being her musically intense self. She bowed vigorously before the performance and then sat down at the piano. Now, the music started: Schubert, Schumann, Scriabin, Prokofiev … during the very brief pauses of those busy piano notes, you might have curiously looked at the pianist’s facial expression, and then you realized, the whole audience of the Koerner Hall might just not be here as well: she played for herself and she enjoyed every bit of it.

That’s probably the most important trait of a truly great modern artist. Perfection is not about charm or beauty: it’s about characters, which Wang Yuja has in abundance under her extraordinary technical mastery. I was not least surprised at the supreme power and coolness in her rendering of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6, but I was stunned by the absolute musicality of her first encore, Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64 No. 2, which was meant to give the audience (and the pianist herself?) a sense of relief after Prokofiev’s nerve-wracking piece. Arthur Kaptainis called the encore “the zenith of the recital”. Indeed.

(Come to think of it, wasn’t Prokofiev trying to hide his Romantic lyricism under layers of mechanical strength? Is modern individuality another disguise of old universal idealism?)

The music stopped. The audience were on their feet again. The pianist stood up, gave another vigorous bow (as if to say: “There you go”) and then rushed towards the backstage. The young lady almost tripped over her very long red dress, but there was a bit genuine smile on her face. Probably now she started to appreciate the audience’s appreciation of her.

Wang Yuja then (10 years ago?):

Yuja Wang now: