07 March 2012

Butterfly Lovers Piano Concerto

When a concert review for the Straits Times appeared with the word piano inserted before the final word in the title Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto, a great amount of comment ensued.  The phone rang first of all at 6.30 in the morning on the day the review appeared and it continued relentlessly for the next 24 hours.  Comments were made to me in person and on this blog, many accompanied by a surprising level of venom.  It seemed that, despite the fact this was a simple typographic error, many regarded it as a deliberate slight on a bastion of Chinese music.  Never mind the old cliché that “music is the international language”; I was accused of “not understanding” Chinese music, of dismissing Chinese culture and, even, of being an “arrogant colonialist”.

Reading the review again, with its one erroneous insertion but its frequent mention of the violin soloist, I am amazed just what offence it caused.  Any critic is bound to cause offence from time to time – it’s part and parcel of the job – and to be told you don’t know what you’re talking about and don’t understand the music, is pretty commonplace.  However, to imply, as my vociferous correspondents did, that I could not understand or appreciate Chinese music because I am not Chinese is utterly extraordinary. 

I don’t recall Poles slamming me for not liking Chopin, Hungarians for not liking Liszt or Estonians because I once – and I admit this was a bad misjudgement on my behalf – suggested that Arvo Pärt was “a fraud”.  It appears that if you don’t get every detail of the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto absolutely correct you are anti-Chinese.  What rot!

Now those xenophobes who saw in the use of the word piano a manifestation of my utter musical ignorance, can choke on their chop suey.  An email from Naxos in Hong Kong tells me that the Butterfly Lovers’ Piano Cconcerto has just been released on the Marco Polo label.

Yes, Piano Concerto.  The Butterfly Lovers’ has moved off the violin and on to that most ubiquitous of Chinese instruments, the piano. I can’t wait to get hold of a copy and review it.  I am even quite excited at the prospect of attending the Press Preview in Hong Kong next week. 

The trouble is, in my concert review I mentioned that I found the work rather unadventurous and naïve.  This, of course, brought down a Great Wall of Bile on to my head.  What would I feel, someone wrote, if a Chinese critic criticised Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance?  The answer is simple.  I’d feel great pleasure that a Chinese critic was so much in sympathy with my own views on Elgar’s uncomfortably jingoistic music.  How would I react, it was suggested, if someone called The Lark Ascending naïve?  The answer – happy.  I regard it as tedious in the extreme.

Personal likes and dislikes have nothing to do with national pride when it comes to music.  If the Chinese like to regard Butterfly Lovers as the apogee of their musical culture, I can only pity them.  It’s got its charms, I agree, but for me they wear very thin after a couple of airings.  Which is why I can’t wait to get hold of the Butterfly Lovers’ Piano Concerto and get a whole new and refreshing outlook on a work which, for me, has become tired and over-played in its original guise.

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