10 July 2011

The Rise and Fall of Asian Musicians

Sweet Sarah Chang
loving her violin

Asian artists pop up in the classical music scene like poppies in a field of wheat (not, perhaps, the best analogy in an area where wheat is not grown in any large measure and where poppies are seen, in some quarters, as a cash crop rather than as a weed, but hopefully you get my drift). We have had Vanessa Mae, Sarah Chang, Lang Lang, and a whole host of others appearing on the world's stage at an age when most children would still be learning to read. There seems an endless supply of child prodigies coming out of China and other countries in the region, and the world's audiences ooh and aah like mad at the sight of all these delightful oriental children displaying jaw-dropping virtuosity in an art form traditionally seen as the reserve of mature westerners. Serious commentators talk about the Chinese taking over the concert platform and about the future of Classical Music as being in Asia.

I certainly wouldn't disagree. The brilliance with which some of these young musicians tackle the most daunting repertoire is simply astonishing, and there are very few orchestras in the world which don't boast an Asian player or two. Certainly in Chinese communities, Western Classical Music is seen as a potentially lucrative career, and some parents, at the first sign of musical inclination (often earlier), force their children to devote their studies wholly towards a career as a concert pianist or violinist, much as others might encourage their children to seek careers in law, medicine, finance or people smuggling.

Unquestionably the musical world has benefitted hugely from the injection of Asian talent on to the world's stage. Seiji Ozawa, Zubin Mehta, Kyung-Wha Chung, Mitsuko Uchida, Sumi Jo and many others have risen to the peak of their profession and are very much living legends. But will the same hold true when today's young generation of Asian artists reach not so much old age as full maturity?

For my Malaysian Readers - this is, apparently, what
Lang Lang looks like when he's playing the piano
The worrying thing is just how many of these young artists have already started to decline. Mention Lang Lang to many Malaysian concert-goers and the only reason they won't riot on the streets is because they don't want to run the risk of coming up against the dreaded FRU and their chemically-charged water cannon and tear gas canisters; his frequent snubs to them, cancelling concerts willy nilly when something better turned up, has left them wondering whether that young man has any musical scruples left in his soul. Look at the wide range of products he advertises and his frequent "pop-star" image-boosting appearances and you cannot but sympathise with the Malaysians.

Nowdays Sarah Change seems
almost embarrassed to be seen
with a violin
Audiences in Hong Kong and Singapore are more willing to turn a blind eye to such foibles and cheer wildly at the merest glimpse of an Asian face on stage. But the more musically savvy have voiced their concerns about the appalling noises Sarah Chang was making during her recent concerts in both cities and wondering whether she's still got it in her to play the violin, or whether she's just riding on her image as the Sexy Young Thing of Classical Music.

And look at the sad story of Vanessa Mae, promoted well ahead of her time and whose career as a serious musician all but came to an end when she decided to stand in the sea and play her violin for a record cover. She might not have won the top prize in a Wet Tee Shirt competition, but she was certainly highly placed in the soggy violinist category.

Where's my violin? Did I tuck it under my vest?

Whether it's Vanessa Mae flashing her boobs under translucent silk, Sarah Chang showing her leg in a high-slit cheongsam or Lang Lang promoting metrosexuality, what all these players have in common is a willingness to promote image above artistic integrity.

No. It's not there.
 This has in no way diminished their popular appeal, and all of them can draw in huge crowds of adoring fans and correspondingly massive financial rewards. It's this kind of thing which is fuelling the fervour amongst some less scrupulous Chinese parents to push their children into the Classical Music arena. And who's to say whether, faced with the opportunity to earn vast sums in promotion on the back of an extraordinary musical talent (which nobody should deny all these players possess), we might not all go down such a road? Am I not in danger of criticising these musicians out of envy rather than high-flown artistic ideals? But my very real worry is that when so early in their careers (unlike in sport, musical careers usually last decades) they fall into the clutches of publicists, PR men and advertising agencies, these musicians are sacrificing any hope of ever standing alongside the Living Legends of our time. As musicians they may never reach full maturity. 

My concerns are fired by the arrival on my desk of the début concerto recording of yet another of these brilliant Chinese pianist prodigies, Yuja Wang. True, at 25 she's hardly a genuine wunderkind, but there's still a long way to go to develop her real musical persona. The disc, Rachmaninov's Second Concerto and the Paganini Rhapsody is pretty impressive, and she's lucky to be paired with Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. For me it's not the last word in Rachmaninov performances, but its place in the shortlist of this year's Gramophone Awards is thoroughly deserved.

Look - I'm Russian!!!
  The worrying thing is the path she's allowed her PR people to take her down. For a start we get the most utterly inane interview in the disc's booklet. One suspects poor Jessica Duchen, who prepared the notes, had her work cut out to make Ms Wang's utterances sound even vaguely coherent. When we learn that "I really like to grasp the flow of the Russian soul through Russian literature", we wonder whether it was Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Solzhenitsyn who helped her gain special insight into the Paganini Rhapsody. As for her interpretation of the Concerto, her main concern appears to have been "cutting through the texture in order to be heard". Considering she had not only a masterly conductor - and a whole team of engineers - to help with balance issues, but also was playing against hardly the most heavy and unsubtle orchestra in the world (not for nothing do they retain the word Chamber in their name), one wonders why she was so taken up with this matter. "In the Second Piano Concerto the big challenge is projecting myself".

As if banging the piano like mad isn't enough to make sure what she seems to consider as the work's manifest weakness ("the piano is almost an accompaniment to the orchestra", she wails) is overcome and that she is always there at the front of our aural consciousness (to be fair, the performance is infinitely more subtle than her words would lead us to expect) her PR people have ensured that the visual images are memorable. So while poor old Claudio gets a couple of action shots looking serious and intense, Yuja Wang has been dressed up as a kind of latter-day Tsarina complete with furry hat and billowing fur coat (proof, if needed, that this is Russian music – let's forget that the Rhapsody was really American).

And to add insult to injury, to achieve the ultimate in ghastly farce and, possibly, to hammer the first nail into the coffin of Yuja Wang's respectability as a serious classical musician, she's been taken down to a beach to be photographed playing the piano. It might be a beach beside the Black Sea, although it looks for all the world as if it's on the outskirts of the Shenzhen industrial zone, but wherever it is, while she battles to pretend she's playing some hideous grand piano of mainland Chinese manufacture, the wind blows her music away and with it, possibly, her artistic future. If there's money to be made looking silly with a piano, why bother to play it seriously?


  1. If the soloists at this year's HW Proms seasaon wore clothes that revealing, it'd at least bring pleasure to any aurally challenged straight men! P

  2. I agree with a lot that you say in this entry but in defense of Yuja Wang, perhaps in 'projecting herself' she is not referring to playing loudly but rather placing her stamp on an interpretation in a work that doesn't give you many opportunities to do something 'unique' or 'personal'. She's right in saying that the piano is accompanying the orchestra because in so many places the writing is symphonic with the piano just filling in the gaps (the best example perhaps being the main theme of the first movement, in both the exposition and the recap).

  3. You go to a concert to watch the show. If that wasn't the case, you would just listen to it on CD or an iPod. Was Yuja Wang twerking on her piano? No. Give her a break.

  4. Yuja Wang has it all. She IS a great pianist, and she also looks great. Is that a crime?

  5. So Yuja Wang looks good in the eyes of western men. So what? Give us a break - Dr Marc is spot on - white males are promoting asian female musicians on sex because they only see us asian girls as sex objects. Yuja Wang is demeaning to all asian female musicians by giving these sad cases their eye candy. You guys should bee ashamed.

  6. sexist and racist post. delete your blog. delete your life.

    1. You poor, sad sod. How can you live without a sense of humor? Get a life. Zack P

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