Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons

Chopin Piano Concerto in DC; Chopin Nocturnes and Études in Seattle

March 17, 2022

By S.E. Barcus

Over the past two months, I had the chance to check out pianist Jan Lisiecki, a relatively young man (about to turn 27) who is marketed as pretty hot stuff.  He is Polish-Canadian, and his claim to fame started when Poland recognized him as something special, awarding him as a young teen to play both Chopin piano concertos, both of which were recorded and released, which immediately led to Deutsche Grammophon sucking him up with a recording contract like the behemoth Yankees stealing up the best ball-players.  And all of that happened by the time he was 15.  I mean, I know classical music is obsessed with child prodigies more than any other artform, but … JFC.  15?!

So … I checked him out.  Twice.  Once in Washington State this past January 25, when he played a plethora of Chopin Études and Nocturnes, and again last night in Washington DC, when he performed what seems to be his calling card piece with the National Symphony Orchestra, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. 

I’m not privy to the inner working of the classical music business, but one cannot help but cynically think – “Polish-ancestry.  Check.  Seeming to corner the Polish-composer Chopin’s market (as if a “Polish” sensibility is inherited somehow).  Check.  Sprinkle in some of that “best pianist to come out of Canada since Glenn Gould” schtick for good measure.  Check.  In a good-looking young man who can definitely play the keys. Check.”  It all seems a little … “markety”.  It seems he very very very often plays Chopin.  Like, almost every single performance he gives.  At least in the recent past and upcoming European performances (with some Prokofiev thrown in here  — and Denver/Colorado Orchestra seems to get a special treat with some Grieg).  But overall … mostly Chopin.

Lisiecki at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, January 25

Lisiecki says in one of his online interviews that he’s being pretty adventurous by ‘forcing’ his record company to let him do some Mendelssohn, something not as frequently played.  For this young man, this is his “bad-ass rebellion”.  And to be sure, that’s cool that we got the 20th version of some Mendelssohn rather than the 500th version of whatever Chopin they wanted him to do again.  But….   I witnessed so much talent here.  And being older, I am hopeful that the young man will realize his power with every passing day, and demand not only Felix, but perhaps continue on his current path into the 20th century with the likes of Prokofiev.  (I hope neither he nor the Europeans change these performances due to the war, as some have done, in “freedom fries” fashion.  Good Russian people should not be vilified, but supported; supported in their own efforts to overthrow their despot.  Besides which … Prokofiev is amazing!)  I am hopeful in my lifetime I will be able to buy a recording of Lisiecki playing Ligeti.  (Hey!  That has a nice consonance ring to it!  Are you hearing me, Deutsche Grammophon?!)

All that said, when you see and hear him for yourself, it is apparent that Lisiecki is quite obviously his own person now.   Perhaps his sensibility truly is one similar to that found in the 19th century, and that’s what he’ll play the rest of his life.  He has described the joys of being a pianist due to the nearly-infinite quantity of literature available.  With hundreds of years to select from, one could easily spend one’s lifetime in just one century and still be as happy as a clam, still re-discover jewels and gems and pearls a-plenty.  So … you do you, Lisiecki.

SEATTLE

Lisiecki said, in the program for his night at Benaroya Hall, that he organized his Études and Nocturnes by a progression in keys, which is odd, given they initially progress to the next piece by moving a third down or a 5th up, but then after intermission mostly a 4th up with even some 2nds thrown in….  I’m sure the goal, like any composer doing some book of Preludes or something (or some rock album figuring out its ”track list”), was for a nice variety that would flow seamlessly.  Given the performer of another’s work does not compose the piece, I get the feeling pianists enjoy this curatorial sort of work, which considers the emotional ebbs and flows of an evening as carefully as a composer does within each piece.  It must be a creative and fun aspect of “their job”. 

Lisiecki wanted an evening that gave the impression of “poems in a book”, and I think he succeeded.  Although, perhaps more like “entries in a diary”, for me, given Chopin is so emotionally wrought that it feels almost too private and intense than the more-often artistic façade of a poem.  Which, of course, is why Chopin is to this day – without hyperbole — one of the greatest composers in all of human history, especially in regards to writing for the piano. 

To hear Nocturnes at night is dangerous.  They are so quiet and peaceful at times that if you didn’t get much sleep the night prior, or had too much booze before the show or during intermission, you might just be lulled to sleep.  (Don’t be that guy snoring at a performance!)  For myself, the Nocturnes instantly transport me to someone’s living room in Paris, with all hipsters quietly surrounding the piano like 19th century goth kids, as Chopin wows them with his virtuosity and sensitivity, somehow hypnotizing everyone into a calm and pensive night, altogether, often with that happy-sad sense of melancholy. 

Frédéric Chopin

Whenever Lisiecki hits the sweet spot, the tender moments, his body stiffens, and he sits straight up as if he were having tea with the Queen (which — holy shit — he actually did once?!).  If I were to interview the lad, I’d ask him if this posture does not somehow subconsciously help his performance with these delicate spots.  With the pianissimo.  Does it relax the arms, to really focus on the hands for those quietest moments, which are, after-all, the hardest to control and vary and play well?  Or does the posture somehow mentally transport him to a place where everything is dainty and refined, and so such feelings just naturally exit the hands due to this corporeal trick? I dunno, but he returns to that posture several times, and in DC as well, when proper delicacy is required. 

Performatively, I also like the way Lisiecki nods and bobs his head around while he’s playing.  Keeps things interesting for the spectator, expresses visually what is often aurally coming your way, as well.

The Études always seem as difficult to me as a Bach 5-voice fugue when I hear them, mixed in with virtuoso passages meant to wow and amaze (and terrify, if you are a performer, yourself).  Here, too, Lisiecki doesn’t disappoint.  For these pieces, when they really get rolling, his style is to stand slightly off the chair and literally lean over the keys, attacking them with downward thrusts of his arms, likely getting more force this way.  (Again, he does this several times in DC, as well.)  It’s not a personal little stool he’s on, and he’s not humming along with the music (as far as I can tell), but something about this performative technique was quirky. A technique that was odd, and might be frowned upon as something that might distract our attention, and thus avoided.  And it was with this impression — the feeling that the kid (er, young man) doesn’t seem to care what he looks like as long as he’s going about his job and business of playing this piece as well as he can, his way, even if it’s a little “weird” — that he reminded me at those moments of his fellow Canadian and genius, Glenn Gould. Quirky and unique and not giving a damn … and being really, really good.

All of these pieces are undoubtedly well-known to everyone, we’ve heard them a million times.  But if he is getting tired of these pieces, now that he has played them over and over (he says in an interview that he likes to practice as little as possible, just enough to be able to execute, but no more, so as to keep music as fresh as possible), it does not show itself.  The night was wonderful at expressing the famous composer’s works.

Lisiecki does have more rubato than I think I’ve heard on various recordings.  Perhaps it is his true personal feelings coming through, or perhaps it is that tendency for performers to want to make their unique mark on a piece that you otherwise cannot quite modify or control.  Or both.  But it was noticeable.  And it was fine.  It was beautiful.  Domo arigato.  Mr. Rubato.

The last piece in Seattle was the biggest crowd-pleaser, the Revolutionary Étude, and he performed it with great passion, ending the night with a standing ovation and a curtain call.  But no encore.  (Insert sad-face emoji here.)  Of course, the Revolutionary Étude is often other pianists’ encore, so … we’re good. 

DC

I wondered if, given my sense in Seattle that Lisiecki’s tendency was to dramatically vary his tempi, I wondered, would the orchestra and he stay together?  Would Conductor Thomas Wilkins keep them together, or would Mr. Lisiecki perhaps stray off into his own thoughts and tempi?  He exploited rubato in his solo parts, but yes, they seemed to stay together very well, otherwise.  At times, maybe, things seemed to get too fast?  And Conductor Wilkins would turn to Lisiecki with bigger gestures (hard to get a pianist’s attention as they are playing difficult passages), which seemed to settle things down.  If this was truly the case, it was hardly noticeable, given most of the time the piece seemed to flow as effortlessly and near-perfectly as any recording, with only a few wrong notes here and there.  But to be fair, whatever transpired between conductor and soloist, the music sounded great, and shortly after any look of consternation – as well as after each movement, during the pause – Wilkins never failed to turn to Lisiecki with a literal subtle wink of the left eye, communicating either “atta boy” or “damn, are we not knocking this out of the park, or what?!”

For not writing much music other than for the piano, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 sure does have a long orchestral opening – 3 to 4 minutes — before the piano rears its beautiful head. One almost forgets there’s a piano up there, at all, until that first E minor chord crashes on top of you, fortissimo, in your face.  Lisiecki almost seemed to slightly jump the gun with it, which I liked.  If one knows it’s coming, as the strings slowly fade away, the quicker that attack, the better the effect, I think.

There are then several minutes of more virtuoso passages, that were probably designed to showcase the young composer as he bid farewell to his Poland.  And they are great, with all of their cascading arpeggios and little waterfalls essentially based around the third interval, whether modified as a 6th or 10th.  (My own preference, of course, but … when his solo parts are over, especially the more extravagant show-offy ones, and the orchestra picks up the music again, I believe the jazz culture does it better.  We should be able to acknowledge and applaud sections by soloists who just completed an outstanding passage.  I have lost too many arguments to classical folks about this opinion to know that this behavior will never happen in classical music culture – or at least, if it did, that that person would be kicked out tout de suite if they ever acted on the impulse!)

But somewhere around the 8th minute or so of the 1st movement is when the piece gets its “dolce” back, becomes more lyrical, beautiful, “sublime” – all of the things that come to mind when one hears the word “Chopin”.  Of course, great composers have a mastery of all emotional expression, and Chopin is no different.  Just in this first movement, every expression seems represented at one time or another.  The first movement then ends as if Forman’s Salieri were with us, “end it with a bang, so they know it’s done”.  I would’ve preferred the “whimper” sort of ending, with tenderness, thank you T.S. Eliot.  Perhaps I am influenced this particular month by the current war?

But, of course, Chopin knows best.  A whimper wouldn’t have segued into nor contrasted with the 2nd movement nearly as well.  The second movement, the Romanze, is like a lullaby.  Chopin said it was dedicated to the tenderness one feels, being in a familiar place with 1000 sweet memories. Hearing this in DC, where I was born, and where I was visiting all of my old haunts, and knowing that Chopin had intended this for the movement, made a special impression on me.  Music is, of course, an abstract artform, but if we bring to it all of the contextual features, its history, and if the composer is a genius for whatever “programmatic” story he wants to tell, and we are still yet within their cultural milieu enough to overcome the passage of time or space, and understand the composer’s intended symbolism – music then can be moving and meaningful beyond just what sound frequencies are known to provoke in the deeply-rooted non-dominant hemispheric musical/emotional centers of our brains.  Music has the power to stir things in the consciousness – memories, images, feelings – that other artforms just cannot match.  Which is why it is so powerful and beloved, of course.

At some point, as he plays, Lisiecki’s hands seem really big to me, at least from the audience.  Like he’s a puppy and still growing, with giant paws.  (They are most definitely not Trump’s hands….)  This would seem to be physically perfect for the piano. I might ask how such a young man can possibly have and convey such a wide range of emotion, with relatively few experiences?  But then, Chopin WROTE the damn thing when he was just 20!  Which should make us sit down, take a breath, and realize … it is hopeless for us!  (Of course, Lisiecki first played the piece for that Warsaw festival when he was … what? … 14?!  ….  We are doomed.)

One of the more memorable performative gestures was a swooshing of Lisiecki’s trunk to the left, at the end of a solo section, almost flipping his short hair back, as if literally “throwing it back” to the conductor and orchestra.  I loved it.  (It was probably here that I wanted to applaud, like at a jazz show.)

Roger Daltrey as Liszt, from Lisztomania

The third movement is much more lively, filled with dances and grand-sounding marches, filled again with more of the ”look at me” virtuoso stuff one expected from a piano concerto back then, more arms than hands, swinging around both ends of the compass almost perfunctorily.  This isn’t what I come to Chopin for – I prefer the Nocturnes, for the sublime, which again Lisiecki did equally well in Seattle, of course.  But if you wants tha glitz – the concerto gives you the Liberace-schtick better than anyone, as well. (Except for maybe that true “Liberace of the Romantics”, Liszt.)  And if you wants bouncy-fun country dances, that’s in this 3rd movement in spades. 

Why do we perform and experience old works that have been recorded a hundred times?  Even if Lisiecki or any performer were the greatest of all time, no matter how they adjusted a work to suit their own expressive needs as an artist themselves, overall, mostly the same emotions and expressions are communicated if they’re following the composers wishes, i.e. notes and tempo and expressive markings. So, we’re here to experience, what?  Skill – “look what I can do?”  Look, human beings still got it, in 2022?  We’re still cultured? We care about our history? Is it so we can experience the work together, as a community?  Is it nostalgia, and thus no wonder classical music gets the bad rap for being the artform for the older and more conservative audience?  Obviously, it is probably all these things and much more. (And there are undoubtedly several PhD theses on the topic from musicologists, so I’ll stop now!).

They might be marketing Lisiecki as the master of Chopin because he’s Polish, or the next Glenn Gould, or whatever.  But, hearing him in interviews, and reading about the guy, I’m not sure Lisiecki is that Machiavellian.  My guess is it is more the agents or the companies that want to sell him.  And you know what?  Cynicism aside, more power to them, given how tiny and fragile our classical music world is, at least in America.  Whatever works – more power to you.  Go out there and get more people coming back to the symphony halls, you Madison Avenue whiz-kids!  Get busy!  And I am most pleased to announce that whatever the hype, when you see and hear the fellow, you won’t be disappointed.  He is professional, embodies the music, performs it as well as anyone.  So, do – do – do, do – do believe the hype.

(Be careful though, Lisiecki!  The lady next to me was disappointed that, after your three curtain calls, you did not give us an encore.  “I saw Lang Lang here at the Kennedy Center, and he came out and gave us an encore….”  It’s a tough business, man!  Find yourself some of those Yuja Wang show-stoppers!  In DC, the civil servants are restless!) 

As in Seattle, he has played this concerto so many times, so he risks “being a caricature of himself”, as he has worried publicly.  That he might, himself, become bored with a work, and thus play it without feeling.  “Calling it in.”  If he was, we didn’t get that sense.  The performance was excellent.  He seems to play the Romantics very well.  I do think his own soul might just be that schmalzy? 

But not to be flippant — he also does the work.  He’s professional.  He hits the notes, conveys the emotions, expertly varies the tempo and dynamics (including those pp moments, in a sense, the most difficult sections) in a confident and – yes – already very “experienced” manner (at 26!).  Have no fear — you pays your money, you will gets your product.  Close your eyes, and the performance is as good as any recording that needed 30 takes.  And it is live, and in front of you, surrounded by your community, sharing in the sublime.  These were good nights.  Lisiecki deserves the title of “professional”.

NSO

Let’s give the National Symphony Orchestra their due for the works they did the rest of their night.

They were led this St. Patrick’s Day by the seemingly-pleasant-but-strict, Conductor Thomas Wilkins, who comes out punctually (I was warned by the event staff to get to my seat – they start right on time!).  He makes little fanfare, climbs the podium, and jumps right into the music.  He conducts with very small gestures, more subtle ticks of the baton, only slightly leaning in here or there to various sections of the orchestra.  (To my joy and surprise, at the end of the evening, this stern-seeming man had a giant boyish smile on his face and even fist-bumped people in the first row – so … you know what they say about the covers of books….)

Marine helicopters roaring by Kennedy Center patio, March 17.

People are posting on social media about various symphonies around the world opening with the Ukrainian national anthem.  Here, in DC, while the war drums are pounding loudly, with military helicopters literally freaking me out as they roared over the Kennedy Center’s patio … no such thing.  The night began with a somewhat cheesy Romantic-era piece, Franz von Suppé’s Die schöne Galathée, the Overture.  Suppé was forced to compete with Offenbach and his Can Can, and the opera buffa sensibility shined.  It starts ceremonial/militaristic, pomp-and-circumstance-like, like a John Philip Sousa passage (I guess apropos for a National Orchestra), and definitely wakes you up to start the night.  There are sweet moments, as well, not to mention some very Austrian um-pah-pah’s here and there, so overall, it was a fine divertissement.

The second half of the night in DC, after the concerto and intermission, featured the 20th century German composer, Paul Hindemith, and his Mathis der Maler Symphony.  (On March 17, tonight was nothing but Austrian and Polish and German? So, to honor the day on my own, I felt obliged to have an Irish whiskey at intermission….)  (And no, I wasn’t the guy snoring!)  Hindemith was an alternative to the Stravinsky version of a neoclassicist, and Baroque forms sneak in here and there, but he was still open and searching, promoting the music of Webern and Schoenberg when he led festivals in the 1920s. 

Conductor Wilkins and the National Symphony Orchestra, March 17

The symphony is based on his opera of the same name, about a painter living in a time of warfare between Catholic and Lutheran, and what it meant to be an artist making sense of his profession in a time of conflict, which Hindemith himself was doing in the 1930’s, with the Nazis on the rise, and he, negotiating how far he could go with his art, while keeping a careful eye on whether or not the racist pieces of shit might actually continue to rise in power, especially keeping in mind his wife was Jewish….  (Artists in Russia who have recently fled to Finland and Armenia, or artists in America in the age of Trump, couldn’t possibly relate to such a theme, could they?!) Hindemith himself had to flee Germany in 1938, to Switzerland.  Perhaps the current global nationalist creepiness is why the artists of the NSO chose to perform this piece…?

This piece opens with what a modern audience might recognize coincidentally as Danny Elfman’s Batman theme (of course that would be the other way around!), but in this case quickly evolves into a cheerful three angels German folk music theme (that actually comes near the end of the associated opera), and from there, a bantering off and on of those angels with atypical tonal themes, starting with flutes, bouncing around the sections of the orchestra for most of the movement, at one point with fugal-like elements in the strings about halfway through.  The third movement has a lot of drums in the beginning, and lots of colors at the end, until the finale, which sounds to me like it was ripped right out of Pictures at an Exhibition. I wasn’t as familiar with this work, and am thankful to the NSO’s musicians and Conductor Wilkins, for this great performance and well-done, enjoyable evening, overall.

I’ll say this about these two nights.  Between Washington State and Washington DC, there is a continent.  The former has a season-ticket-holding crowd that attends in sweaters and jeans (“come as you are”…), while the Kennedy Center crowd was much more dressy, and much older, in general, as well, as if JFK himself might be in the upper balcony tonight.  But at the end of both nights, there was warm and sincere applause, a shared experience of a young, living performer who reincarnated the ghost of Chopin for us, as he seems to be doing throughout the world.  As a borderline Gen Z’er, this is Lisiecki’s time, and there is now no doubt that Chopin, for whatever reason – whether marketing or talent or ancestry or otherwise – has become his responsibility.  He owns Chopin.  … And frankly, that’s a big fucking terrifying responsibility, so I really feel for this guy.  But … he’s meeting the moment.  He’s doing it really well, and we should be thankful we have moments like the ones he gave us these two nights.  I truly believe that all of the Northwest Bro-mazons, and all of the DeCeit policy-wonks, the folks on both coasts, were, for these two nights anyway, amazed and transported by a Lisiecki séance.

Copyright 3-18-2022, S.E. Barcus

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Jan Lisiecki, A Tale of Two Washingtons

Music in Time, Spoleto Review 2001

2001 Archives.

A review of some amazing days of contemporary classical music, curated by John Kennedy, with superb work by pianist Sarah Cahill, including playing a world premiere by Kui Dong.

(Photo credit — hinnk — of Ms. Cahill performing at Berkeley Art Museum.)

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Music in Time, Spoleto Review 2001

Music in Time, Spoleto’s Contemporary Classical Music Showcase, a Preview

2001 Archives

My interview with John Kennedy. Every Spoleto, I was most reliably excited by Kennedy’s curated contemporary classical music series. For this year, 2001, we got to hear music by Ruth Crawford Seeger, in honor of her centennial, including Nine Preludes for Piano, Music for Small Orchestra, and Three Songs, as well as some of her own folk music (before her son Pete took off with the form…!). I was so blown away by Sarah Cahill‘s piano playing the Nine Preludes, that I bought her CD — and still have it! … And I don’t have a CD player anymore! 😦

Sarah Cahill was also the pianist for pieces by Hyo-shin Na (Variations for Piano), Mamoru Fujieda (Patterns of Plants), Evan Ziporyn (Pondok), and Kui Dong (Earth, Water, Wood, Metal, Fire).

This festival year also included music by Giya Kancheli (Exil) and Philip Glass (One Plus One, Head On, Piece in the Shape of a Square, Two Pages, and Company).

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Music in Time, Spoleto’s Contemporary Classical Music Showcase, a Preview

John Adams and the Noir of January 6

Composer John Adams Conducts his Coming-Coup-Collage for the Seattle Symphony

By S.E. Barcus

January 6, 2022

John Adams with the Seattle Symphony, January 6, 2022.

“Don’t know what it is, Adams’ interest in private eyes, but there are two pieces on the program tonight that reference them. These films about a gritty anti-hero, trying to solve a crime, but also doing anything it takes to solve that crime.  You hear that sense of threat in the piece; a very unsettling sort of mood….”

              –Dr. Anne Searcy in the pre-concert lecture.


Ah!  Going back to live performances, an acceptable risk for myself (with everyone vaccinated and masked, anyway!).  One sits and relaxes, listening once more to the crazed chaotic cacophonic tone cluster of the artists practicing and tuning simultaneously, playing that universal “opening piece” of any symphony (or of Sgt. Pepper’s, thank you George Martin…). Then out comes concertmaster Noah Geller, an excellent violinist (and a very tall fellow, with an aura of some kind of jovial, good-looking Hogarth, bringing an aura of friendliness to the Seattle Symphony, such as when he fist-bumped the pianist, Jeremy Denk, tonight in the Devil piece…).

Then quiet.  Then out comes John Adams himself, guest conductor of his own works tonight, with his stark white hair, thin stature, reminiscent of the Jeff-Bezos-like villain in the recent movie, Don’t Look Up (although with a normal voice). Much deserved applause was given for this American icon.

He came here, during this plague, with looming precarious national elections, to Seattle.  What would he choose to conduct; what would tie tonight’s program together?  Surely, he knew he was coming on January 6, the first anniversary of the fascist insurrection that attempted to overthrow our democratic government, a trial run by the American brown shirts/red caps?  Why did he choose — besides the ubiquitous crowd-pleasing opener of Fast Machine, and the new-ish devilish piano concerto he’s still promoting — why did he choose to highlight City Noir, of ALL the countless wonderful pieces he has composed over his long, eclectic, and amazing career?  I believe the two quotes, at the top and bottom of this article, answer that question.   And with a name like “John Adams,” after all, it is no wonder he seems to be a (true) patriot.  

And also no wonder that he was born and raised in New England.  His parents were musicians, and his father knew Charles Ives, after all (or so his earlier piece claims!).  He was forced to study and adhere to 12-tone serialism like everyone else in his generation, but after graduation, he blew his mind out in a book — John Cage’s, Silence, to be exact, and moved to California to join forces with the minimalists.  

Adams is often not afraid to give evocative titles that embrace programme music, never hiding what his own feelings and intentions are, as so many Derrida-dada-dada postmodernists often did/do, concealing their own works’ intentions with curtains of “it means whatever you want it to mean” bullshit (if their works “meant” anything to them, at all!).  Adams is a purposeful and transparent Artist, which I admire.

In California, he helped bring us the style of “post-minimalism”, sharing the postmodernist idea of pastiche, pouring into the rhythmic, driving blender of his own “minimalism” whatever was appropriate, whether older Romanticism forms or jazz music.  And also, all with that postmodernist “kitsch” sensibility, seen perhaps more often in the Art and Theater realms.  John Adams shares that playful sensibility that California has often so wonderfully given our world, from Henry Cowell to John Cage to Frank Zappa … to John Adams.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)

Great way to start any concert.  A spicy musical appetizer, gets the juices flowing.  A “thrilling … white knuckle ride”, as Adams has described it.

The piece starts with a fast pulse from the simplest instrument in the orchestra, the woodblock, which never stops until the end.  Not sure who you were, oh dearest woodblocker in the back (either Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, I presume, from the program’s listing of percussion players), but I wish you could’ve been up front and center, like a soloist, beating away on it for us like a Will Ferrell, belly hanging out, dancing and beating away on that little block with joyous sexy confidence!  … Guess what?!  I got a fever … and the only prescription … is more woodblock! 

Then come whirling strings, pulsating horns like the horns from Whoville – “fanfare” indeed!  The flutes and piccolos have a very hard screeching section right there in the beginning (likely trying to convey the slipping and sliding on the road?).  As Dr. Searcy told us in the pre-talk, give those musicians in particular a break, that’s a pretty difficult-almost-impossible section!  Beethoven himself couldn’t have been meaner to a group of instrumentalists, demanding such notes!

The music abruptly “changes gears” throughout.  Fast Machine is a fun drive, a Ferrari through Beverly Hills, sharp high-speed turns, at times slowing down to take in a view, beautiful interludes of natural California landscapes or ocean fronts. (Disneyland Los Angeles should have a special event where they let you ride the Americana Cars ride with this piece playing.  That would be awesome.  Maybe a fieldtrip one day for the LA Phil?)

Per Dr. Searcy’s opening lecture, this piece was one of the first pieces ever to use the minimalist technique of incessant repetition to represent machines — a match made in heaven, and something that was done many times since. And it is quite breathless!  (Ah!  “Breathless” – like the film!?  Perhaps that’s how we can fit this into our “noir” theme for the night!)  It is perfectly the programme music of a fast car weaving in and out of high-speed traffic, always nearly skidding out of control….  Fun, yes, but also definitely music that was written by someone who was surely thinking, “I seriously might die tonight.”

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018)

Jeremy Denk, pianist

The quote, taken from Martin Luther, bemoans that bad guys seem to have all the fun.  And the answer to the question, based on the composition, is “yes”. 

I loved the energy of the pianist, Jeremy Denk, as he skipped out in the beginning, as excited as a little kid. Throughout the piece he’s bobbing and jiving while he plays, occasionally looking out to the audience with some Liberace-like subtle smile, periodically tapping his tablet to turn the page, like a jazz drummer smacking a cymbal.  Really wonderful performance.  Dreamy where needed, ferocious when called for.  (I guess he trained at Oberlin and Juilliard and has a memoir coming out about studying the piano, “Every Good Boy Does Fine”.  I’m looking forward to that!)

I also loved this concerto.  And how the symphony only gradually, progressively takes over the piano solo of the beginning. John Adams’ other two concertos are somewhat more traditional going back-and-forth between the piano and orchestra, but not this piece. The piano never really stops.  I don’t know if Adams gave the writer of Seattle Symphony‘s program notes, Christopher DeLaurenti, this quote, or if DeLaurenti wrote it himself, but it encapsulates this piano concerto quite adroitly:

“Inverting the old adage ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’, the pianist plays continuously, with only a few measures of rest throughout the piece”.

In the first movement — in typical kitschy pastichey John Adamsy postmodern fashion — he also references TV music. The main musical motif driving the piece, from the beginning and throughout, is a variation on the theme from Peter Gunn, by Henry Mancini.  Here’s that noir theme for the night coming in again, if we choose to see it. 

The quieter second movement is creepily meandering, but at times sweeter, perhaps more melancholic. Spooky, like walking through a dark cave, or an abandoned dusty (haunted?) house.  Perhaps this sojourn was Jesus in the desert with the devil?

Dr. Searcy noted that the 3rd movement’s dance-like rhythm harkens back to the many bouncy rhythmic pieces of the 19th century that referred to the devil, most famously to the 5th movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath….  Also, harrowing bells abound in the 3rd movement – inverted church bells — another trope of the 19th century for demons.  And filled with tritones, “the devil’s interval”.  Everything creates the scene – from the cello and bass players periodically slapping their strings like the whip of a devil, to the dark farting-burbling-laughing of the trombone (a seeming necessity for any comical devilish piece).

Also, the third movement has just an awesome electric bass guitar riff.  Absolutely funky. Again, not sure of the guy’s name in the back who was playing (come on, program, give us the names!), but he was bobbing and jiving back-and-forth just like Denk.  At times, they were in sync with each other, very groovy, digging it.  Like the woodblocker, I wish he was front and center.  (I hate the rigidity of the, I dunno, “Rimsky-rules for orchestration”.  All these soloists are always hidden in the back where we can’t see them!)

By the end, for myself, similar to Adams’ two other piano concertos, I felt like the piano really seemed more like a percussion instrument. (Oops — yeah yeah, it IS a ”percussion instrument”…. You know what I mean. I mean, like, drums….) It’s mostly blocked chords or broken up blocks as arpeggios.  Not sure what to make of that, but it’s somewhat distinctive for Adams’ piano concertos at this point.

City Noir (2009)

Timothy McAllister, saxaphonist

This is considered a symphonic piece, but really it’s a saxophone/trumpet/vibraphone triple concerto. Should probably throw in the jazz drums, too.  Timothy McAllister, at least, gets props for his saxophone work in the program.  Presumably it was David Gordon on trumpet, but again, the program doesn’t say specifically. And the vibraphone? Or the amazingly groovy jazz drummer? Michael Werner or Matthew Decker, we presume, as (again) the program doesn’t specify. (Isn’t that a shame?)

As Adams says, the music of City Noir recreates the feeling of the noir films, but also of the 1950’s — and there we get the imbuement of jazz entering into the symphony.  Gershwin did it perhaps most famously.  But Adams’ jazz is of the more recent era – the jazz of the 1950s, of Charlie Parker on sax and Miles Davis on trumpet.  McAllister comes right out of the gate with that fast-paced bebop virtuosity.  Just wonderful.

This is cinema-inspired programme music, with not very many repeats, just a constant wandering between movie styles and feelings and, again, “tropes”.  You will get the déjà vu feeling you are in a movie theater, at times, watching many different films, thinking you are recalling snippets of many different composers’ scores.  Halfway through the first movement, there is a definite resemblance to John William’s “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter, for me, at any rate.  (Don’t believe me? Go to minute 7:40 of this YouTube clip with the St. Louis Symphony — and again Timothy McAllister! … Listening to this again — is this whole work a collage of famous film scores? Listen to 4:30 — is that a subtle reference to “Some day my prince will come?”) But then, off in another new direction, perhaps filled with shadows and smoke and dark alleys, or to a Hitchcock film, but then quick cuts to a sultry, sexy femme fatale, shimmering like the glass art of Chihuly that hangs in the Seattle Symphony’s lobby. And even at times, a mysteriousness and creepiness enter, almost Ligeti-like-atmospheres, textural style.  But then back to the jazz, with the groovy drum beats and snares, and saxophonist McAllister standing back up to play and jerk around abruptly, off-rhythmically — soulful but frenetic sounds, like we’re in a night club, somehow.    

The third movement, Boulevard Night, starts out slower, with a sexy Miles Davis/Chet Baker sounding trumpet.  There’s a stillness, a Nighthawks at the Diner feel.  Then the sax galloping in again, eventually evolving into what makes for a nice bookend for the night as the music speeds up on these streets, and turns into the feeling of a fast machine, an intense car chase scene.  With sudden hitting of the brakes.  Silence.  Drums like gun shots.  Then peeling away again, a sax wailing somewhere up high on a fire escape.  The sudden changes of this intentionally dramatic music is very intense.  I wish I could have had popcorn to eat!  Finally, near the end, something menacing, horns repetitively start out quietly but get loud fast, like cars whizzing by. … Similar to Fast Machine – I think we’re probably in for a crash.

“…  With City Noir … I wanted to write a work of symphonic scope that had the feel and dark tonality that we saw in the noir films in that post-war era – late 1940’s, ‘50s, even into the ‘60s.  There was a lot of happy PR around the country that we had won the war and America was great, but I think noir really told a different story about American society – one that I think unfortunately has come home to roost in recent years….”

John Adams, January 6, 2022, words before conducting “City Noir”

Copyright 1-6-22, S.E. Barcus

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John Adams and the Noir of January 6

The Trouble with Trebles

By S.E. Barcus

10-25-2020

I was on the Facebook Composers Group recently, and got into an interesting discussion about staves and clefs and whether or not they could/should be improved upon. 

Hossein Bar proposed we have one clef, the treble clef, for both hands at the piano, for easier learning, and gave this as an example.

I was amazed at the hundred or so comments so vehemently against the idea!  Most talked about how easy it was to learn two clefs, so why bother.  Many just loved the symmetry of the grand staff, with middle C between both staves.  One smart-aleck, Dan Titchener, posted a quite funny YouTube video:

“English would be easier if all vowel sounds were consistent (https://youtu.be/A8zWWp0akUU) but I wouldn’t speak like that, because no one would understand you and it sounds hilarious….”

Now I figured, judging by such a passionate attack on the idea, Hossein was probably on to something.  (I especially loved the violist’s complaint that we should all learn each other’s clefs — said the musician who makes everyone else learn their weirdo alto/viola/C clef!)  Making things more standard, simplifying things – that all seemed like a fair, good, interesting idea. The pound did become the kilogram, and the yard, the meter, after all (in some places…).

Unfortunately, it is, to Dan Titchener’s point, likely impossible to change a language that is so enculturated already, and that is found useful enough by most.  Although — Titchener’s analogy was off – Hossein was not saying the old music keep the dots in the same place and change the pitch.  He proposed standardizing how it is written.  (And as an aside — I’d love it if English standardized the way it was written….  I mean — “through”, “threw”, “thru”… good grief. Poor English-as-second-language adults, who have to learn these vestigial anachronisms!)  In other words, because speaking and singing are the primal first forms of expressing our ideas and feelings (well, ok, gestures probably came before or coincided with these…); and because the written word and musical notes followed much farther along, are much newer, and are not nearly as natural and thus much more prone to error (there are always problems trying to represent what is naturally spoken or sung into some tangible visual thing); then we need to keep the SOUNDS of language and music as they are.  As they are naturally, innately produced by us.  And we should never propose — nor stay so irrationally adhered to — a conformity to any flawed system that is not successfully captururing/representing those sounds.  Which could look like some 1984 New Speak nightmare, forcing our natural expressions into grotesque shapes. The proposed innovation of Hossein, then, does not suggest we mangle the spoken word — or the sounds of music — to fit some Procrustean alphabet or clef, respectively. I think it attempts, instead, to try to create a whole new bed that perhaps fits more and more people sensibly and comfortably into it, people of any/all sizes and abilities, etc….  (All that said, though — the video was frrrreaking HILARIOUS. Really genius….)

Because it is so enculturated, I think Hossein will have to form a cult, a following, and then get lucky and have a great composer write in his proposed manner, and maybe then in a 100 years it will challenge the status quo of the bass and treble clefs.  I still say we should keep challenging our assumptions, however, and appreciate Hossein’s proposal for this reason alone!  I’m sure Romans thought their number-writing system was SOOOOOO much better than that Hindu-Arabic numerical stuff!

The passionate (and at times nasty) criticisms were mainly based on: 1) the futility of overcoming the current system, probably true, see above.  2) The difficulty adapting hundreds of years of music into a new system — although come on, with digital technology we can re-write old music into a new system quickly, just as we can read ancient hieroglyphs today, and have changed Galileo’s original Renaissance units to metric units etc.   Alexandre Kharlamov had the point that, “Technically, Bach used soprano, alto, tenor and bass clefs everywhere, and 3-4 staves for well-tempered clavier. We already reduced it to two-clefs two-staves system for keyboard works and choir reduction. So, it’d be unfair to say that there’s not been any improvement going on lately.”  Which seems a great point.  So perhaps evolution shall continue….

Criticism #3 — people think the current way is already “easy”.  But this is a biased opinion based on what they already know.  Yes, of course, we can all learn two clefs at age 5.  Yes, “All Cows…”, and “Every Good Boy…”, seem to work well enough, and most (pianists, anyway) have now “learned” to play fairly well by sight-reading using this understanding….

But what would be interesting is to get some cognitive scientist, a Jean Piaget child epistemologist type, and have 2 groups of kids –(heck, do it with new-learner adults, too, since we learn language differently when we are young and old) — and have them learn in the two different manners, and see which group learns quicker….  Power it well, lots of people, to avoid bias and for the lazy folks here and there in both groups etc….  If Hossein’s method is objectively shown to bring the joy of learning and playing music to more and more people??? I’m all for it… I’d be willing to re-learn how to read music in a new way, if it brings more people to music.  Written music shouldn’t be some Latin language we keep to our priestly selves, this should be for everyone….

Criticism #4 centered around defense of the current system as “more elegant”, and a system that has already naturally evolved to simplify things.  Yes, the symmetry of the Grand Old Lady Staff (gosh — such a moniker!) looks nice rounded around middle C.  Charles Burns told me:  “The thing about a bass and treble clef working together as a grand staff, is that they “meet up in the middle”. It forms one consistent logic from top to bottom, with a single C ledger line in the middle. When a composer needs to, they use different clefs in either the top or the bottom. But I’ve yet to see a compelling case for changing the default. Honestly, once you get used to it, it’s a pretty easy system to deal with. But hey, if you’re a composer and want to write with a treble and a tenor clef. Go right ahead. I’d imagine you’d get a lot of complaints from your pianists though….  And arguing that the note names should be the same for both staves is just as much an aesthetic argument and the logic of having a grand staff centered around middle C symmetrically though, isn’t it?  I mean, C4 just isn’t the same thing as C2. Octave equivalence is an aesthetic choice. And not one that all composers follow….”

Arguments that I just loved!  (In case you haven’t noticed – the “Composers” group on Facebook is pretty intellectual!  I love it!  You can spend a few hours there debating interesting and thoughtful people, and come out with an article for your blog at the end!  “Leverage” all your social media time, people!)

To Charles, I said, yes, it was indeed partly an aesthetic argument — but also an epistemological one.   Shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not we might be able to make music truly easier to learn, and easier to play, with some new method?  If we could prove that — with the cognitive science experiment, above — what would each of us do with this knowledge, with this evidence?  Honestly?  Probably nothing, at least in our lifetimes, given America still does not use the metric system….

But who cares!  I’m gonna play the game, too, anyway!! Here is my own modification of Hossein’s single clef idea, so as to keep the “satisfying middle C”, and all just by adding a sixth line (AH! A SIXTH LINE?!  IT’S CHANGING EVEN MORE!  MY BRAIN CAN’T HANDLE IT!!!!)  I call it, “The New Trebles”.

New Trebles Clefs

You’ll note that each one encompasses 2 octaves, so there would only be 4 staves needed total (the lowest one would have notes that do not exist on the piano at the lower range — but are useful if you are dealing with electronic music that has no limits etc). Signify each clef with numbers 1 to 4, and you have the whole piano keyboard.  So, a C major scale would look like this:

C major scale on the New Trebles Clefs, through middle C

ORRRRRR……….

How’s about a clef that NEVER NEEDS ACCIDENTALS??!?  (WHAT?!?!?)  A “whole tone clef” aka “augmented clef” aka “12-tone clef” or something?!?!? Every line and space is a half-tone? It, too, can have a “satisfying middle C”.  And each staff would be EXACTLY one octave!

12-Tone Clefs

Now this is aesthetically satisfying. (I see why Schoenberg became entranced by this stuff like some numerologist or something!)  I used “12” for “12-tone clef”.  You’d have 7 octaves so 7 staves.  So, a C major scale, with middle C in the middle of the example, would look like this:

C major scale on the 12-Tone Clefs, through middle C

Now unfortunately, I just wrote out the beginning of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major K. 545, and … it looks ridiculous.  Notes are stretched out way too far apart, and you’d need 4 staves to play the piano.   This method is becoming something more akin to a piano version of guitar tablature….

But maybe the New Trebles will work out?  I’ll scratch out the Mozart and see how it looks and get back to you….

So … that’s it.  Wasn’t that fun?!  How about you share any new staves or clefs you dream up!  I promise I’ll go all OCD on ya and give you feedback!

See ya.

Copyright S.E. Barcus

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The Trouble with Trebles

Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.

Ms. Wang, preparing to take her classic whip-bow.

LA Philharmonic brings back the piano prima donna.

By S.E. Barcus

Perhaps you do not know who “Yuja Wang” is…?  Well, judging by her commanding performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall February 18, 2020, in Los Angeles, along with her confident demeanor and skyrocketing fame over the past decade … I really do not believe that she gives a shit.

As we minions gathered within the sultry wooded panels of Frank Gehry’s beautiful hall, awaiting our Beijing-born diva, I glanced at the program.  Ah, a sensible, linear progression of piano history tonight, from Baroque to mid-19th century, then to a mélange of 20th century pieces to fill the 2nd half of the night.  Nice and reasonable.  Except for that one little issue that Ms. Wang gonna do what Ms. Wang gonna do.

She entered, adorned with one of her usual eye-catching dresses, some goldish sequinned thing, and after one of her “I-acknowledge-that-you-exist”-quick, whipping bows, she sat down, alone on the stark stage, just her and the beautiful Steinway — and we were off!  She started orderly enough, with the 1st piece on the program, a delicate delicate DELICATE little Baldassare Galuppi piece, the Andante from his Sonata No. 5.  With hindsight, it seems tenderness would bookend this night.  If you’re foolish enough to think that Ms. Wang is just all flash and virtuosity, she demonstrated that she can also equal anyone in terms of gentleness, such as with this quiet, precise little piece.

But then, oh dear, the program immediately goes out the window.  As the crashing waves of the second piece — Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic “A Ship on the Ocean” (“Une barque sur l’océan”) — came flooding in, we realized … uh … this ain’t no Bach.  We hath leap-frogged over the Intermission and 19th century entirely!  Wang’s gone rogue!  Wang’s gone rogue!

Now Beethoven might have sneered at this “programmatic” sort of piece by Ravel, but this one is just fabulous.  If you didn’t know the title, you would likely name it the exact same thing, as tumultuous seas interplay with gentle calm waters.  A genius display in terms of showing off what one piano and one performer can produce.  Following was Alban Berg’s “sort-of B minor” atonal Sonata Op. 1 (the only piano piece to which he gave an opus number), where she and Berg manifested as much emotion and technical skill as anything the tonal world ever gave us, just as rocking at times as the Ravel, and just as tender at others as the Galuppi.

Ah! We then returned to Baroque, and J.S. Bach’s C minor Toccata and Fugue.  Simple and clear, like the Galuppi, with a fun and accessible fugue that had none of the monstrous complexities found in later Bach (or Beethoven!).  If only Ms. Wang knew how to play that big opulent organ staring at us in the back part of this concert hall!

But then (a whiplash-inducing back-and-forth!), we were yanked back to the 20th century again – to Scriabin and his Sonata No. 4, with his own back-and-forth between soft and crazed.  Amazingly – (is it just me?)  — somehow this Russian piece at times presages by decades a nascent Gershwin in tonality and style.  She ended the piece pronto / tout de suite / bing-bang-boom.  Did she just completely ignore those last few rests at the end!?   Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.  And neither did we.  That ending produced spontaneous — practically reflexive — rousing applause to end the first half of the night, as a great performer knows how to do.

If the second half of the night had kept with the program of early 20th century music, I had hoped that – given her M.O. – she might come out adorned in some extraordinarily bizarre costume reminiscent of the Bauhaus Ballet, which was concurrently on exhibit at the Disney Hall, the display designed by Frank Gehry.  But no, her costume change (and with the consciously performative Ms. Wang, that’s what these have become – “costume changes”), was into some crisp white skimpy 80’s dress.  “Stripper-wear,” one previous article has called her attire, shaming classical artists the way they tried to shame the Madonnas of pop culture decades ago.  Perhaps she provokes like this to create a David-Bowie-like aura, a product, a “performer-package”?  Perhaps she does it to sell tickets?  Perhaps she is like some cultural “nouveau riche” — a person raised in a repressive Communist China who woke up a global citizen, with fame and fortune? … Who knows?  But I believe that if Ms. Wang didn’t want to wear sexy clothes, she wouldn’t.  Or, to put it another way, I don’t think she gives a shit.  Because, meanwhile, her audaciousness and coolness are only matched by her being one of the greatest pianists in the world right now, likely the top of her generation.  I mean, my God – look at this ridiculously hipster cool promo?!  Just look at it, and be dismayed!

Ms. Wang don’t care if the building is burning.

In the second half of the night, Ms. Wang started with a few Chopin Mazurkas sandwiched between a few Brahms Intermezzos (or perhaps that’s the other way around?), luxuriously transporting us back to a French salon.   No strangeness of the modern age, no strict Baroque rules.  Just lounging with a couple of mid-19th century masters for a bit.  Perhaps, like me, you saw from the program that we would hear — and be able to compare/contrast — the composers similarly-styled short pieces back-to-back in the same keys.  There would be two A minor pieces, one from each composer.  And then two C# Minor.  And two F major.  (And a C major/E relative minor thrown in for good measure….)   But like the rest of the night, the program turned out to be misleading.  The A minor Brahms Intermezzo was not played at all, as she started right in with the trill and passionate melancholy of the A minor Mazurka instead, followed by the very Chopinesque Brahms Intermezzo in E Minor.  Followed by — just to throw you off again — the C-sharp Mazurka and C-sharp Intermezzo, just as programmed!

She asked that we not applaud between the pieces, but instead take them all in as a whole (like listening to Ms. Wang’s own personal ordering of a book of … I dunno …  Wang/Brahms/Chopin Preludes, or something…?).  For myself, though, it was very hard to not applaud that C-sharp minor Intermezzo, which seemed the most moving piece of this group, at least for me, filled as it was with such an operatic-like pathos.  The last Chopin piece was a pleasant dance, with its nice “surprise” bouncy ending.  Was it the F major as planned?  Of course not.  It was a piece not in the program at all — Op 33 No 4 in B minor.  Completely off script!  I love it!  It was as if Ms. Wang was saying, “if you, the peons in the audience, want to appreciate my work and art, you have to earn it.  You, too, have to work for it.”  (Yes, I had to look up what the piece was – come on, I don’t know all these Mazurkas by heart!)  I think Ms. Wang must have learned a lesson or two after playing Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.  “What is difficult is also good and beautiful.”  For composer, performer, and audience.

I’m not sure it was intentional, but Ms. Wang-as-musical-curator prepared us nicely for the 20th century piece to come….  To have a B minor piece slide into the F major Brahms finale for the section (the gallant and promenading Romance) was creating an augmented 4th tonality.  A tritone.  A “Devil in music,” if you will.  And something loved by Scriabin, and so a perfect tonal-modulation to ready us for her penultimate piece of the night.

She took a quick break, then came back, and – no terse polite bow this time – she practically stormed out – sat down – and immediately attacked the low rumbling fortissimo trill to start Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, even as a few people were still mid-clap!  She was acting, of course – doing performance art, essentially.  She was the arrogant and egomaniacal Scriabin himself, like a method-actor getting into character.  And it worked.  She played the piece perfectly as far as I could tell, angrily pounding out the difficult Rachmaninoff-like chords, careening into the ending with arms outstretched on both sides of the keyboard like a goddam fireworks spectacle!  The audience, needless to say, went absolutely freaking nuts.

BUT!  She was not done.  Finally – at the very end – the most under-appreciated impressionist of them all, the brilliant Catalan composer, Federico Mompou, and his Secreto!  Lullabies are odd.  We know they should be happy and loving, yet they are always grounded by a melancholy.  Ms. Wang’s performance of the Mompou piece had this quality.  Somewhere between that and a sort-of mysticism, and a range in dynamics from p to pp to ppp and hell, I’m sure there was probably even a pppp in there somewhere.  Like the myth that Inuits have 100 words for snow, it’s like she has 100 levels of pianissimo.  After a night that ranged across styles and across centuries, variegated in skill and emotional levels, to end the program with such a brief and precious little jewel?  Very nice.

Not that she was “really” done.  This was Yuja Wang, who has been known to play more encores than you’d hear at a Bruce Springsteen concert.  (She only gave us two, however – I feel somehow we were not worthy…?)  The first encore was the crazed and phenomenal show-piece, Prokofiev’s Toccata, which is like some Bela Bartok “Diary of a Fly” jacked up on ‘roids.  The piece ended with the biggest bang of the night, bringing down the house.

But then, with the absolute true finale, she returned to the melancholy sweetness of the Galuppi or Mompou, leaving us with her often-played-encore, Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, as rendered by Liszt.  All this softness this evening?  I quite liked it, even though she was sending us off with a cruel joke – “you have to leave now, back to the incessant monotony of your spinning wheels.”

In sum — if you haven’t heard of Yuja Wang, or haven’t heard her play, you are missing out.  If she continues this near-perfect ascent as a pianist, she will gobble up more and more stardom until by the time she has achieved Pavarotti status, you will have missed your chance at being in with the cool kids because you knew her beforehand.  So, come on – be a cool kid!  Get to know Yuja!  She da bomb, yo!

Not that she gives a shit what you think….

Copyright 2-20-2020

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Yuja Wang don’t give a shit.