Pop, jazz and rap

Shonen Knife

Date: August 20, 2010
Location: Mao Live House, Beijing.

In Beijing for the very first time since its founding 30 years ago, Shonen Knife, the cheery Japanese punker, delivered lots of love to a rapturous audience eager to return the same. The all-girl punk band has a worldwide following, having traveled across the globe and converted thousands of fans with their jolly good music and sunshine lyrics, most of which were in English. Along the way, they retired four members, added two, and somehow managed to hold onto Naoko Yamano, Shonen’s only remaining founder, who at 49 (going on 50) would be old enough to be her two sidekicks’ mother but carried the kind of sweet smile that reminded oneself of one’s high-school girlfriend. And the indispensable Ms. Yamano can rock: she led much of the singing, played the melodic lines on the guitar, and jumped/swung/hopped like any disobedient rocker would. Shonen’s melodic and rhythmic signatures were a confluence of The Beach Boys and the Ramones, with a tinge of pentatonic shade to mark their country of origin. Their lyrics could have been written by The Beach Boys for the Sesame Street: in “Gyoza”, they sang about taste…“Spiced minced pork wrapped in a small pancake / Steamed or fried tastes so good…”; or in “Sushi Bar”…“Ooo, colorful art of the food / It’s a beautiful Japanese meal…” For the encores, they went for “Top of the World”, their contributing cover of the classic by The Carpenters, and “Perfect Freedom”, a vibrant, upbeat number in their new album.

Members of the Shonen Knife: Ritsuko Taneda, Naoko Yamano, Emi Morimoto.

Chamber music and recital

Garrick Ohlsson: Chopin Recital

Garrick Ohlsson in Beijing.

Date: July 11, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Garrick Ohlsson came to Beijing as part of the NCPA’s Chopin anniversary series, following the acclaimed act of Li Yundi and before the likes of Maurizio Pollini and Vladimir Ashkenazy arrive in autumn.

Ohlsson’s program began with Impromptu #2 (Op. 36), the outset of which felt somewhat tentative, if only because a good handful of the audience was still scrambling to get to their seats. After igniting his gears with a series of rolling arpeggios, Ohlsson warmed up and found his comfort zone with Ballade #3 (Op. 47), especially in the mezza voce sections, in which Ohlsson’s robust, spiraling virtuosity was in full display. Fantasie Op. 49 came next, but only after sustained delays due to continued movement by latecomers to their respective seats. The Fantasie, well known for its mystic and unpredictable textures, was rendered with the kind of mystique and charm akin to a lethargic landscape in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The program then proceeded with three Mazurkas (Op. 7-2, 7-3, 30-4). In Op. 7-3, Ohlsson controlled pace with temperament, yielding a flow that felt and tasted like warm, sweet milk. After the Mazurkas, many audience members proceeded to applaud — only then to be signaled by Ohlsson that he would wish to continue into Scherzo No. 3 without interruption. That was a curious choice by Ohlsson as there was very little overlap, in terms of themes and sequences, between the last Mazurka and the Scherzo; the only link between the two pieces, as it seemed to me, was the identical key signature. The choice seemed to have robbed the Scherzo of an independent, prepared entrance, which in my opinion offered the necessary deference to the highly-recognized and celebrated intro to the piece. That said, Ohlsson proceeded with dazzle, going through the difficult passages with apparent ease while meandering through the more lyrical passages with restraint and control.

After intermission, Ohlsson labored through 24 Preludes (Op. 28) just under 40 minutes. His timekeeping was impeccable, never straying far from the composer’s scored intent. His presto had plenty of energy, with a kind of progressiveness that was aggressive but never enraging. Ohlsson cultivated a feisty and playful final molto allegro, and later juxtaposed it with a final largo that was weighty and circumspect.

Ohlsson finished the evening with two encores: Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64-2, and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op. 3-2. The waltz came with quite a bit of mannerism, with a ranging tempi and added staccatos. Against the backdrop of the waltz, his Rachmaninoff oozed the monumental weight of a historic drama and that of an ultimate judgment — as if also foretelling the conclusion to World Cup 2010.


NCPA/Lü: Elixir of Love

Date: June 26, 2010
Conductor: Lü Jia
Director: Franco Ripa di Meana
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Production imagery, Elixir of Love.

Closing out this year’s NCPA Opera Festival was Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s opera about a poor peasant falling in love with a beautiful landowner.

Brilliantly crafted by stage director Edoardo Sanchi, the set provided a cheery platform on which Donizetti’s comic elements were realized. Dulcamara’s entrance was faithful to the script, as the comic quack was descended in a keg-like wicker basket – figuratively attached to a painted cardboard balloon, and hung spectacularly in mid air via the stage’s fly system. Props and set pieces moved across the stage in parallel to the proscenium front, and often times without masking. But such nakedness allowed the music to flow while allowing the audience to keep abreast of the changing set. This was especially evident in the Act I sequences in which the drama switched between the peasantry public and Adina’s more privileged abode.

Huang Ying, having previously sung Giannetta at the Met opposite Angela Gheorghiu’s Adina, debuted as Adina, the beautiful landowner with which Nemorino the poor peasant fell in love. Her acting was cute but never corny, as many Adina would tend to be. Vocally, the Chinese soprano held beautiful trills, while her tonal voice beamed with an Italianate brightness and mellowness. Her rendition of Prendi, per me sei libero, was simply sublime, for which she received handily the most enthusiastic audience applause of the evening.

Guan Zhijing, whose fine acting made his Dulcamara quite lovable, also delivered plenty of nice, aggressive vocal lines. Belcore was sung by Yang Xiaoyong, whose strong, powerful voice provided much gravity and anchor weight to the evening’s music. Rounding out the supporting cast was Ma Min, whose Giannetta was cute and mischievous, and whose singing was supple, infused with an adorable, quintessentially bel canto beauty.

Nemorino was sung by Fan Jingma, who sounded nervous during his first big number, Quanto è bella, quanto è cara. His delivery was throaty and weak, and didn’t really pick up substance until, perhaps sensing some urgency, Una furtiva lagrima, which was solid but nevertheless uninspiring. After the famous romanza, his voice was set ablaze, as if the burden of that big aria was finally out of the way, and proceeded to show hints of what I believe to be his real forte – a lirico spinto voice that is more suitable for heavier roles in the repertoire.

Giuseppe di Iorio’s lighting was a highlight of the evening, especially during Nemorino’s big Act II aria, where a melancholic shade of violet purple provided the background to a white light-lid, art deco moon backdrop. That shade of purple slowly turned into a more lively maroon blue, just as Adina began her confession aria, as if breathing life to Nemorino’s deflated ego.

The biggest trouble of the evening remained in the pit. There were multiple times when Lü Jia had a rough time trying to synchronize what was sung on stage and what was played in the pit. In Che vuol dire codesta suonata, the opera’s main chorus number, the conductor was basically scrambling to put together coherence, which was clearly absent as the orchestra was at least a full beat slower than the chorus. Nevertheless, there were pockets of brilliance, including the bassoon solo during Nemorino’s Act II aria, which handed in a solemn, measured rendition that was as delicious as anything I’ve witnessed for that piece of music. There were some fantastic oboe and flute lines, too, but they were small consolations to what sounded like a train wreck from the pit.

Elixir of Love, final scene.

Pop, jazz and rap

DJ Yummy @COCO Banana

Date: June 19, 2010
Location: COCO Banana, Beijing.

DJ Yummy records for Avex and plies her trade as a traveling DJ, anchoring gigs all over Japan and most recently in Beijing, where she manned the boards deep into one sweaty summer night at COCO Banana, Beijing’s premier destination for people watching and excellent parties. With a honeyed smile and a porcelain face, Yummy’s beauty is ethereal and hypnotizing. Yet her looks could be deceptive: her multifaceted digital arsenals could induce fireworks of serious rhythmic damage. The tracks she jockeyed at COCO weren’t exactly declarative, but oozed enough emotional levity to jumpstart the crowd, who seemed smitten as much to her music as to her good looks (as I observed, cameras couldn’t stop flicking at her throughout the night). It was difficult to pinpoint her musical influence, but a casual sampling of her newest Avex output, D.I.S.K., suggested that her music tended to swerve between 80s funk and Ibiza house trends. Nevertheless, it was certain that she relied heavily on a thumping rhythmic bass with thick 80s synthetic fret lines to invite mass bodily movements. Her transitions were clean and measured, though on occasion her build-up sounded dragged – disconnecting, albeit briefly, from floor energy – but always found ways to recover and return the crowd to a jolly good mood.

Yummy at COCO Banana.

DJ Yummy.

Orchestral music

Phil Orch/Dutoit/Steinbacher: Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky etc.

Date: May 4 and 5, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is no stranger to the Beijing audience. It was the first American orchestra to visit modern China, in 1973, with Eugene Ormandy. The last visit was two years ago, with Christoph Eschenbach. It is now back in the Chinese capital again, only this time without a permanent music director. Charles Dutoit, currently “Chief Conductor” with the Orchestra, is considered temporary and, despite his popularity and good relationships with the players, does not hold the Orchestra’s coveted directorship.

This temporary appointment has not deterred Dutoit from attempting the works most associated with the Philadelphia Sound: Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances in the first evening, and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite and The Rite of Spring in the second.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was the composer’s last composition, and was widely considered to be a summary of his late style, which emphasized the tonal color and character of individual instruments. Dutoit’s rendition was precise and cohesive, and he seemed thoroughly in control despite the piece’s intricate dynamisms and complexities. The Symphonic Dances, dedicated to and premiered by the Orchestra and Ormandy, is considered to be a top-line item in Philadelphia’s repertoire, and here in Beijing this golden age sound was once again lit up and alive.

Also in the first evening’s programme was Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, soloed by Arabella Steinbacher. Steinbacher’s top notes were fiery but insecure at times, and her pitch was in some instances warped, especially in the top range. Her Tchaikovsky was measured, but sometimes felt unnecessarily dragged on. Any violinist playing the piece would look forward to the climactic locomotion of the third movement, but Steinbacher seemed to have lost focus here and there, and sounded as if her agile prowess was the only thing that remained in a soulless figure lacking any emotive sentimentality. Horns in the second movement sounded unnecessarily loud, with its dynamics often overwhelming the exquisite solo lines. While a great majority of the audience gasped and cheered at the end of the piece, I couldn’t help but notice that a few souls left the hall for intermission feeling somewhat less than fully satisfied.

Steinbacher, born to a German father and a Japanese mother, is a beautiful woman, with the kind of mystic, Eurasian facial features and gorgeous, ballerina-like figure that most certainly turn heads wherever she goes. Yet, that beauty was thoroughly betrayed by the alarmingly distracting gown that wrapped around her body. It had these coffee-brown feathers that, when sewn together, looked as if Big Bird jumped into a puddle of mud. And when her body moved with the music, I couldn’t get Big Bird and its fluttering wings off my mind.

The all-Stravinsky evening the next day was quite a rare treat. The Firebird was lively and feisty, with the clear agenda of initially masquerading but slowly unveiling the full glory of Stravinsky’s orchestration. The Rite of Spring moved with a spirited, almost playfully prankish pace, for a good reason: it is one of the Orchestra’s signature pieces, and the one piece that not only was first recorded in the US by Philadelphia with Stokowski, but also became commercially popular after being prominently featured in the classic Disney film, Fantasia, whose orchestral music was, of course, played by the Orchestra.

The crisp virtuosity on display by Dutoit and the Orchestra transported the audience back to this gilded golden age that today’s audience could only sample via recordings. The first evening’s encore, a section from Ravel’s Daphnis, was filled with the sort of tender romanticism that evoked Muti and late-career Ormandy. The presence of octogenarian percussionist — the legendary Alan Abel — was not even formally credited by the printed programme but, at least to me, the most special. It was therefore regrettable that neither of the concerts was sold out, with plenty of seats available in nearly every section of the hall.

Chamber music and recital

Li Yundi: Chopin Recital

Date: May 15, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Li Yundi recital, at the NCPA

Li Yundi recital, at the NCPA.

The Chopin interpreter is an abstract denotation, but Li never shied away from staking his claim on it. His series of Nocturnes, Opp. 9-1, 9-2, 15-2, 27-2 and 48-1 was measured, controlled and expressive. If an immense amount of dexterity was involved, Li did not show it – as if there was no instrument, only an audio output. In Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22, Li offered to expose the two brilliant aspects of Chopin’s body of works by brokering and deftly connecting the first part’s calming serenity with the second part’s fearless intensity.

After a brief intermission and a quick march through a mid-series set of Mazurkas (Op. 33), he moved onto the centerpiece of the evening, Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. In the first movement, his playing style was paraded: skilled but never overtly athletic, in control and never volatile. Li’s rendition of the third movement of Sonata No. 2 op. 35 spoke volumes: the funeral march theme was somber and ponderous, while the Lento interlude was meticulous in its tempi and careful in its phrasing. Li’s touching of the keys was magical: this, being one of my favorite sonatas, was one of the most majestic renditions I have ever heard, easily on par with and quite possibly surpassing the Rubenstein’s, Gilel’s, Zimerman’s, and Kissin’s I grew up to love and adore. Anchoring the programme was Polonaise, Op. 53, where Li’s early attack was a little sloppy, but he quickly recovered to dance to a jubilant finish.

His Mazurka exhibited a level of explicit staccato mannerism that has not previously appeared in any of his recordings, but I can’t be sure whether it was Li’s emerging style or just a fleeting moment of liberty. As encore pieces, he played a melancholic Chinese revolutionary song styled in French impressionism, and then Chopin’s Etude in C minor Op. 10-12. After rounds of rapturous applauses, the audience seemed disappointed that Li chose not to come back for a third encore, though it seemed clear to me that, by that moment, Li’s mental energy seemed drained, most probably through the intensity of the Sonata.

In my opinion, unlike many Chopin interpreters, Li Yundi’s brilliance rests not merely with a white-hot intensity and dazzling virtuosity, but with his sincere deference to the composition. The pounding of keys is merely secondary to an output of tonal richness and sweet phrasing. No amount of words would justify my impression of Li Yundi. Regardless, it would be safe to say that after a night of intense, indefatigable hip hop, Li’s music served as a luxurious, mind-soothing calmative.

Pop, jazz and rap

Fat Joe

Date: May 14, 2010
Location: Vics, Beijing.

Fat Joe in Beijing

Fat Joe in Beijing

In a week where I got highly sought-after tickets to the world premiere of an ancient Kunqu, the premiere of Francesca Zambello’s Carmen at the NCPA, and a rare recital by Li Yundi, I would be insane to believe that I could yet find another ticket that could top those. But I may just have: Fat Joe.

Fat Joe, to those uninitiated, is a top-class American rapper and the CEO/proprietor of Terror Squad, a successful record label. His music has occupied my various MP3 players since 2002, and his album, Elephant in the Room, while not exactly a huge commercial success, is a versatile anthology of hip-hop and one of my favorites. Even though Maria Callas is one of my favorite opera singers and though I have over a hundred of her CDs and DVDs, I can’t even claim to have collected half of her output. But I surely have every single record Fat Joe has ever produced and sung in. That attests to the kind of luvin’ I give to Fat Joe! I consider Fat Joe to be a master lyricist whose tight verses are rhythmically well matched up against fiery beats. In this performance in Beijing, he appeared for about 40 minutes, crisscrossing between older numbers and newer ones. His calling card, Lean Back, was smashingly thrilling and authoritative, and got the most ardent response from his fans, some of whom, standing close to me, were reciting the lyrics in near verbatim without missing a beat. During his performance of What’s Luv, he was visibly in a lovin’ groove, interacting with the house with an affectionate gaze. Between numbers, he showed off his tremendous MC skills by firing up and hustling the crowd. The crowd returned much love, eagerly and frenetically responding to Fat Joe’s calls. When Fat Joe talked about his jailed buddy and frequent collaborator, Lil Wayne, the crowd went nuts, obviously showing much sympathy and love, irrespective of his legal troubles.

Fat Joe’s appearance in Beijing was a rare gem because, according to his tweet, he was in Asia for the very first time in his career. Also, as far as I could remember, Fat Joe has never been a big fan of flying, and would opt for buses over airplanes whenever he tours North America (ok, if not flying, I’d seriously like to find out how he managed to get from NYC to Asia). This week, I did not meet Zambello, nor did I hustle with Stan Kwan. But I shoved aside plenty of fans – many half a decade or more younger than I – to get to the edge of the stage, and high-fived Joey Crack. Whatever Li Yundi does tonight is not going to beat that. Ya digg?

Fat Joe in Beijing

Fat Joe in Beijing.

Fat Joe in Beijing

This is how close I got to him, before high-fiving him.