Archive for July, 2010


Inspirational teachers

Searching the internet for something else, I stumbled across some chatter concerning my old organ teacher, Michael Austin. Someone somewhere had a vague recollection of an old LP he had recorded on Birmingham Town Hall and wondered what had ever become of him. A few people had responded with comments which ranged from trying to remember what was on the LP to what had happened to Michael Austin. I had wanted to add my tuppen’orth (as the phrase used to be) but to add your comments you had to register and divulge all that personal information which I avoid giving out over the internet like the plague. But it did set me thinking about the debt I owe to him. I suppose every musician who has been, in some way or another, successful can point to specific people without whose influence his career would certainly not have developed as it had, and I can point to five. I hope it will serve to remind all teachers and performers just how far their influence can extend, and, ergo, how important it is to remember this at every stage.
Michael Austin himself – now resident in Denmark so I learn (and, for the benefit of those who wondered about the LP, I have that and several others of his in my collection, so if you want to know what’s on it, the answer is available here!) – was the first really influential organ teacher I had. He was then organist at Wimborne Minster, a fine church a little to the northwest of Poole in Dorset, and my parents chose him for my teacher and paid for me to have a lesson with him every month. I used to travel by train from my home in Farnham to Wimborne; sad to think now that that railway line, curving through the lovely north Hampshire countryside between Farnham and Winchester, has gone (although part of it is preserved as a steam railway) and that the trip, if attempted by train today, would need a lengthy detour into the London suburbs before retracing its steps westwards; it would take a couple of hours longer, and cost a few hundred percent more, I’m sure, but such is the strange fate of Britain’s railways. As often as not Michael never turned up – he was always in the midst of some personal (ie love-related) crisis (and in those days organists usually got into trouble for affairs with members of the opposite sex – Ah! how things have changed! It’s almost a badge of honour to flaunt your same-sex preferences in the artistic world these days) – and a note on the organ was all that my lesson involved. When he did turn up it was magic, even if his teaching methods might have been mistaken by less enlightened parents than mine for simple laziness. I learnt just two major pieces with him – Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F (BWV540) and César Franck’s Third Chorale – but it’s testament to his teaching that they are still at the forefront of my repertoire. I remember vividly every lesson on these, and the guidance he gave affected my entire musical outlook. In particular there was this priceless piece of advice when he decided we were going to do the Franck. I was told to go away and immerse myself in every bit of César Franck’s music I could lay my hands on. He told me to listen to the Symphony, the Symphonic Variations, the Violin Sonata, the piano pieces, almost everything except the organ music. Then, and only then, I was to turn up for my next lesson not, mind you, having even looked at the Third Chorale, but with an innate sense of Franck’s style and idiom. When that lesson came, I found that it all made supreme sense and I learnt the piece in a matter of days. I have followed that advice with almost every major composer I’ve performed since then and an intriguing by-product of this method is that I can instantly recognise almost any composer, even if I’ve never heard the specific piece before. Would that more teachers encouraged this; that would prevent those hideous attempts at diploma performances I and my colleagues hear as a matter of course, when students clearly have no idea what the composer is trying to say through their music.
It was while I was still a student of Michael Austin that my oldest and dearest friend, Peter Almond, himself a devoted organist (our friendship goes back a little over 40 years), started having lessons in Blackheath with Robert Munns. His was once a very familiar name to organists – he still is highly regarded in Malaysia where his charismatic teaching has inspired generations of students – and is still active on the recital front despite suffering a stroke some years back. Peter and I used to swap organ teacher stories, Peter usually appalled by Michael Austin’s seemingly laid-back approach to giving instruction which contrasted with Munns’s methodical and thorough approach. He persuaded me to attend one of Munnsie’s recitals at the Festival Hall in London, and it was there that I had one of the most revelatory organ experiences of my life. Munns, who commissioned some of the finest works for the organ of our time (and continues to do so – he commissioned the first-ever organ work by a Malaysian composer when Vivienne Chua wrote Journeys for him in 2002) performed Et Resurrexit by Kenneth Leighton. I was beside myself with awe at this fantastic music and, more than that, Munnsie’s absolutely spell-binding performance. I’d heard the work before (and since), but it never had struck me how much an interpretation could affect the result. Munnsy may not ever have been the world’s greatest organist, but he had his moments, and this was undoubtedly one of them. I can remember the performance even as I write this, and I recall my breathless excitement. I gabbled some incoherent praise when I met the great man afterwards, little thinking that in the years ahead he would be one of my ABRSM examiner colleagues and a man whose company I enjoyed on extended tours the world over. That concert proved to me the importance of communication in a performance; it’s not enough to play the notes (in fact, as I recall, Munnsie missed out and cocked up a good few of them), you have to have that indefinable gift of communication which only comes when you, yourself, love the music and, perhaps more importantly are, like Munns, as keen on listening to others play as to play himself.

Then there was Martin Neary – still very much alive and kicking in the US; I meet him occasionally in the UK where his daughter is carving out a career as a brilliant cellist – with whom I went for lessons after Michael Austin fled the wrath (I think) of an irate husband and was never to be seen in England again (I bumped into a relative of his by former-marriage in South Africa once and another one in Norway, so he certainly put it about a bit). Martin was then at Winchester Cathedral (I also owe a debt to his predecessor, Alwyn Surplice, who sat down with me in his house one Saturday afternoon and explained at great length the pros and cons of being a cathedral organist while giving half his attention to the rugby international being shown on his tiny black-and-white television) and I drove down once a week for lessons there, held in the cathedral after evensong on, I think, Thursdays. When I tell people how riveting Martin’s lessons were, they don’t believe me, but I was enthralled by every moment I spent in that dark loft with him. Again I remember learning just two works – Bach’s Trio Sonata No.1 in E flat and Messiaen’s Transports de Joie – but I remember even more the unbounded enthusiasm for music that poured out of Martin at every lesson. We would spend hours on a single note – once famously devoting an entire two-and-a-half hours to the space between the second and third chords that open the Messiaen – and I learnt two important lessons here. One, that any performance worth its salt will have thought out at great length and detail every tiny aspect of the score, from the notes, the registration, the composer’s performance markings, to the rests, the spaces between notes and the speed. And two, that music is fun. Martin’s enthusiasm over the most abstruse musical matters was not only highly infectious, but has remained with me every since. I can discuss two or three bars of a piece ‘til the cows come home; and so could he. If you are that enthusiastic about the minutiae of music, then surely you can convince the world that you have something worthwhile to say.

While at Cardiff, I was asked to take part in a master class with Gillian Weir. I remember that I played Hindemith’s Second Sonata for her, but the only bit of advice I recall from her was to look at photos of Hindemith; “You will see”, said the Great Dame (although she hadn’t been ennobled in those far-off days), “that he always has a smile on his face”. Not quite true, I have learnt, but pretty close; Hindemith, like the Mona Lisa, has a kind of enigmatic smirk which, when you spot it, suddenly makes you realise his music can’t be dull or clinical, but full of subtle humour. Thanks Gillian, you turned me on to Hindemith for life. But the lasting legacy of that master class wasn’t that, but the treatment she gave one of the students before me. Charles Spanner (I bumped into him years later when he was running a music centre somewhere on the south coast of England, I think, doing Trinity exams) had spent far more time than I had ever lavished over my Hindemith Sonata preparing Franck’s Second Chorale for Gillian. For weeks he had bored everyone silly with his questions about various technical aspects and we all had to sit in and suggest to him where his performance could be improved (which, it struck me at the time, rather negated the value of the master class). When he was called up to play you could see the warm glow of self-satisfaction as he prepared to wipe the floor with his polished and accomplished performance. He never played a note. Dame G gracefully stretched out her arm (she reminded me, for some reason, of the Lady of the Lake) and held him poised before the first sombre note. “Why have you chosen those stops?” she asked. And Charles had no answer. He simply had pulled out what had the same name as was on the score, and assumed that was all. Realising this, Dame G proceeded to discuss at inordinate length about registration and choices dependent on different organs and different situations. She called into play her vast knowledge of organs and organ stops and, when that was over, she asked him why he was using those fingers and those feet. In fact, she grilled him by asking “Why?” every time he was about to play. He was duly mortified and we were all consumed with the giggles knowing how much effort he’d put into it, but underneath we learnt a priceless lesson. Always ask “Why?”. I’d love to stop exam candidates and ask “Why?”; Why that speed? Why that dynamic? Why choose that finger? Why play that piece? Why articulate those notes that way? Whenever I’ve done any teaching, I’ve always driven home the point; everything you do in a performance has to be justified. I think that’s priceless advice and it all came when Gillian Weir was talking to somebody else.

And finally the most succinct bit of advice anyone ever gave me. I can’t quite remember where we were, but I was driving Nicolas Kynaston to an organ recital he was about to give. Chain-smoking in my car – the only person I ever allowed to smoke in my car – he ran out of fags and begged me to stop at a newsagent to buy replacements. I think I may have suggested that he might do better without – I hope not – but he did confide in me that he became cripplingly nervous before any performance and the fags helped. Suddenly I realised that everyone got nervous; I had assumed I was alone. If as inspired a performer as Nicotine Nic got nervous, clearly it was no big deal. From that moment onwards, crippled as I am by nerves before any performance, I console myself with the knowledge that it is part of the territory and is expected of you. I don’t turn to the fags, but the prospect of a healthy imbibation after a performance usually helps steady the nerves long enough to get through.


Mahler Mania

Anniversary years offer an opportunity to focus attention on a composer, look beyond his best-known works and re-evaluate his place in musical history. Some composers have effectively re-emerged from obscurity following a year spent under the bright lights of anniversary celebrations; one thinks of Max Bruch – his 150th anniversary celebrations in 1988 brought much more to light than the ubiquitous violin concerto – and certainly the tercentenary celebrations for Vivaldi in 1978 convinced the world he was more than just The Four Seasons. Others have fared less well; Mozart celebrations in 1990 simply gave us Mozart overkill, while the plethora of anniversaries in 2010 has been, for the most part, a story of opportunities missed. We have had Chopin coming at us from all sides, but always the popular piano works; I have yet to hear the songs or the chamber pieces. So far, too, Schumann celebrations have given us back-to-back symphonies, while those other gems of concert platform, recital stage and choral arena lay undisturbed; although Gramophone is promising us a proper Schumann retrospective in September. And as for poor old Samuel Barber…one can’t help feeling that, had he been born in any other year, we might be expecting some revival of interest in his music rather than watch his centenary year slip by unnoticed.

The focus at the moment is on Mahler. 150 this month and, if that’s not enough, the celebrations will continue into 2011 with the centenary of his death. The trouble is, he didn’t write enough to fill concert programmes for the next few months, so what we are getting is Mahler symphonies and song-cycles coming out of our ears; which isn’t very exciting since Mahler has always been a mainstay of orchestras’ repertoires and barely a week goes by without one or more of his symphonies being performed somewhere in the world. He did write a few other things – there’s a string quartet out there somewhere – and surely an anniversary year is the time to explore those things which possibly don’t warrant an airing in the normal course of events. But I haven’t heard anyone doing these so far. It’s symphonies and song-cycles as far as the eye can see.

And here’s a mere glimpse of this Mahler mania. Just looking through my diary for July I have been asked to attend five performances of his First Symphony ,one of his Second, two of his Third, one of his Sixth, two of his Seventh, one of his Eighth and two of his Ninth. And that doesn’t take into consideration the Mahler discs that have been sent for review or just for my entertainment. Of course, I’m not a card-carrying Mahlerphile – I think I have gone off the Fourth and Fifth symphonies for life – so I’ve turned down all those invitations except three – Mahler 8 in London (mustn’t miss the First Night of the Proms on Friday despite the fact that I have yet to get to grips with this Symphony’s second part), Mahler 3 in Bangkok next Wednesday (simply because it seems so fantastically incongruous), and Mahler 2 in Singapore last night, not only because, of all Mahler symphonies, this, for me, proves an irresistible draw, but also because this promised to be an exceptional occasion; and so it proved to be.

Some months ago Chan Tze Law bent my ear at exceptional length over the Orchestra of the Music Makers, telling me about its membership – young people with an interest in music but no professional aspirations in the main – its organisation – totally self-governing and managing – and its achievements – HSBC’s Youth Excellence Award recipient in 2009. Not only that, he pressed his point home by declaring it attracted the attention of the Singapore President himself, as well as numerous high-ranking politicians. And then he threw in his bombshell. “By the way, they’re performing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in the Esplanade in July”. What? A youth orchestra, an amateur orchestra, tackling one of the pinnacles of the orchestral repertoire? A triumph, surely, of hope over reality. Never one to miss a horrendous debacle (after all I lived in Malaysia for a quarter of a century where the national pastime is wallowing in others’ misfortune, be it a road accident, a house fire or marital difficulties) I put it in my diary. As the date got closer, so Tze Law became every more enthusiastic and I began to think he might be sitting on something a little out of the ordinary. He was.

The orchestra of the Music Makers is, by any standards, an exceptional bunch. It plays with the polish and security of a fully professional band, small woodwind intonation problems and occasionally over-enthusiastic brass notwithstanding, and while there were small areas where ensemble might have been tighter, there were very many more areas where ensemble, balance and overall coordination were nigh-on perfect. I don’t recall ever having heard those great percussion crescendos so vividly delivered, the “Last Trump” and the “Nightingale” so potently evoked or, indeed, that one final magnificent chord so sublimely sustained. And as for the off-stage brass and the various players dotted around the hall, that was a moment of pure, unadulterated magic. This was, truly, an epic performance. Huge praise must also go to the combined strengths of the Queensland and Singapore Festival choruses. The altos didn’t really blend, but the tenors and basses were as rich and opulent as any choir I’ve ever heard in this music and, of course, we can’t ignore the amazing work of Chan Tze Law who pushed the work along tirelessly (possibly the first three movements were a little too urgent, the Urlicht came on us much too eagerly and how I wish he had lengthened the break between first and second movements) drawing magnificent and exhilarating climaxes from his superb forces.

Perhaps it would be fairer to side-step the issue of the soloists. Rebecca Chellappah possesses a gloriously fruity contralto, but what language was she singing in? And Jeong Ae Ree gave every impression of having arrived at the wrong hall for the wrong performance of a work she had never encountered before, her look of total bewilderment extending to the final bow when she looked for all the world as if she was expecting to sing some more. But there was one soloist whose work stood out as exceptional. See Ian Ike opened the concert with as ravishing and eloquent account of the Bruch Concerto as I’ve heard for a long time, mercifully expunging memories of a dire attempt at the work by Sarah Chang some months ago. It was rather unfortunate that the Esplanade authorities chose to cut the audiences’ generous applause short by pushing out a promotional advert on their PA system which promptly shut everybody up. Full praise to the audience for resuming their applause and calling See back on stage once this wholly unwelcome interruption was over.

But the evening was all about Mahler and, if I feel I’ve had a surfeit of Mahler by the time the month is out, the performance of The Music Makers Orchestra will live in my memory for many years to come. I doubt that this anniversary year will throw up anything quite so rewarding again and if I ever claim to be “tired of Mahler”, just remind me of The Music Makers Orchestra of Singapore; guaranteed to inspire even the most jaded of critical palettes.


Phantom Organists

A leisurely breakfast, for a change, gave me the chance to read an entire newspaper at the start of the day. I even got to the “Five Things To Do Today”, which I usually notice, if at all, round about 10pm the following evening. No.1 was “attend a free lunchtime solo organ recital” and, as I had over three hours in which to get to the venue mentioned, I suddenly realised the value of taking time in the morning to read the paper. I wasn’t the only avid newspaper reader that day, by the look of things. There must have been a hundred or so folk (mostly, it has to be said, rather younger in years than one expects to find buried in the inner pages of a broadsheet) in attendance; mind you, there were probably plenty of other adverts for the recital – it’s just that I never got round to seeing any of them. I’m afraid I’m like so many people; I wait for concerts to come to me rather than go out and actively search for them.

Anyway, at 1pm we were duly seated and out on to the stage appeared not one, but two figures in black who made their way to the lonely console set up centre stage. I won’t tell you where the recital was – it doesn’t matter – and I won’t tell you who the recitalist was, simply because I’m not so sure myself. As I say, there were two, one who sat down on the stool and the other who danced energetically and distractingly behind, pulling out and pushing in stops, staring at the other for some sign of instruction and, every so often, turning a page backwards or forwards. When this continued even during a short piece for pedal solo, at which point Sedentary Organist merely kept arms out of the way while Athletic Organist carried on pulling out and pushing stops with gay abandon, a person behind me muttered to her friend, “Why are there two of them ?” Why indeed?

So far as I am concerned, when you play a musical instrument – be it the piano, the violin or the organ – you do everything. You play the notes, you adjust the volume, you control the tone and you try to communicate your interpretation of the composer’s intentions to your audience. Yes, sometimes, complex music requires you to use the music and, occasionally, call on the services of a person to turn the pages for you. But otherwise it’s just you and your instrument.

But there’s a school of organists who feel that their job is merely to press the notes up and down, and it’s somebody else’s business to do things like control dynamics and tone colour; when you allow that, you are no longer in sole charge of either your instrument or your interpretation. No wonder that musicians often denigrate organists, believing them to be mechanics rather than musicians. If you believe your job is purely to operate the mechanics of the music, how can you compete with someone who gives you the whole package? I’ve even seen three organists on stage; one to turn the pages, one to operate the stops, and one to play the notes. What kind of musical performance is that? It reeks of Yellow River Concerto – music by committee. And there is a growing tendency for organists on CD to mention their “Registrant”, thereby acknowledging that the performance you hear is not the work of a single performer. Pianists don’t get someone else to operate the pedals; violinists don’t get someone to move the bow across the strings while they devote their energies to wiggling their left hand fingers about, so why do organist believe themselves to be exempt from the decencies of musical performance?

An answer which many will be shouting out by now is that on some organs it is impossible to control the stops without moving your hands away from the keys and thereby interrupting the flow of the music. True. Archaic organs on which either the music intended for them did not require any changes of tone colour or dynamic or where the organ was purely a functional machine for sound creation rather than music-making. If you play an archaic organ, then you have to content yourself with the fact that your repertoire is limited and your interpretive scope restricted. But this lunchtime recital was on a modern organ – one built in the 1980s, I am given to understand. More than that, the programme included Stanford, Hollins, Karg-Elert, all composers whose music demands rather a lot of registration changes. I didn’t know the organ, nor was there any details given of it in the programme leaflets, but if it really was impossible for one person to handle registration changes, why choose such music?

Sadly, misguided organ builders and even more misguided organ consultants, are of the opinion that the organ is, simply, a machine, and while they can happily make use of such modern devices as electricity and plastic–coated wires in the areas which the general public don’t see, it’s more important that an organ looks old and archaic, than it is a credible musical instrument. How many owners of Stradivari violins refuse steel strings, fine-tuners or modern-hair bows? Not many, to my knowledge. Why, then, does an organist believe that the visual integrity of the machine is more important than its musical effectiveness.

More disturbing still are those organists who simply can’t be bothered to play the whole instrument themselves. I never forget a Japanese lady organist coming to Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in KL to perform on the Klais there. It’s bristling with playing aids, and, despite its amazing idiosyncrasies (the result of being designed by day release inmates of a lunatic asylum), it can easily be controlled by a single person. The Japanese lady organist performed her programme from memory but needed me to operate her stops. A lengthy tutorial on the Klais’s weirdities was to no avail; she didn’t sully her manicured hands by touching those vulgar stops, that was my job. So, despite the fact that the entire programme was played form memory, she wrote down in painstaking detail every stop change she wanted – and there was a profusion of them – and I was charged with bustling about pulling, pushing, moving the swell pedals (by means of a foot between her legs) and, ridiculously, actually pressing the buttons under the keys which are so positioned as to be easily accessible to the player. Now, said Japanese lady insisted on playing the mechanical action console upstairs and my duties involved moving frequently from side to side. I am fat – let’s not disguise the fact – and every time I squeezed between her and the back of the organ loft, my stomach inadvertently pushed her forward on to the keys. It disturbed her greatly and clearly put her off her performance (I take the blame – never let it be said that the DFP authorities would ever hire a musician who was not at the peak of their ability) and when I missed a cue, she got very angry indeed. I was very aware that there were two of us in that performance, and if she didn’t like it, she should have gone alone!

My feelings are unequivocal on this matter. If you play the organ, you play it, you don’t pick and choose which bits you want to do and which you want to farm out to your assistants. If you can’t play the instrument, get away from it and take up some other form of teamwork like bank robber, club bouncer, Carlsberg promotion girl, they are always crying out for people who don’t like to go it alone, and that should leave the field open to proper organists who believe that a solo recital should be just that.


30 million to one

Now, here’s a statistic which is worth repeating. Yesterday’s South China Morning Post claimed that “there are 30 million budding Lang Langs in China”. Wow!

Forget the simple fact that there can be no hope of justifying such a preposterous claim nor yet of supporting that figure with anything like evidence, it comes to something when a once respectable newspaper clutters up its column inches with vague supposition which is so utterly baseless that one wonders what state of inebriation the sub-editor was when he leafed through the copy.

And on the subject of newspaper inanities, take this from yesterday’s Straits Times. (I’m afraid I have to précis as I tore my airline copy up in a fit of temper!); “My sister has just returned from a period working in Africa and says she can no longer settle back home in Singapore as there are too many foreigners here who crowd the streets and trains, take up all the available housing and bump up property prices to a level where we Singaporeans cannot afford to live here”. So, what was her sister doing in Africa in the first place? Of course, all those blackies live in mud huts, so a Singaporean bumping up the prices of African bricks and mortar to a level where locals can’t afford them is all right! What tosh! I don’t know whose mental ineptitude I pity the most, the writer who couldn’t see the sheer idiocy of what she was writing, or the sub-editor, who clearly couldn’t understand it in the first place.

And as for what I heard on the BBC this morning, words would fail me if such a phenomenon was possible. An American “academic” (an oxymoron, if ever there was one) bursting with unsubstantiated facts wrapped up in flowery language suggested that Wikipedia was “the largest collaborative creation in human history”. It may be that the white Americans have never pulled together to achieve anything worthwhile in their history, but what about the millions upon millions of other people from other cultures, who have passed on from generation to generation folk tales, songs and dances (not to mention language itself) adding their own seasoning to it? What, though, is ethnic art and cultural heritage when set beside the power of Wikipedia to make people think they have learnt something, when all they have done is read some imbecile’s self-indulgent plagiarisms given credibility by being available instantly and freely. That self-same “Academic” also suggested that Wikipedia had – and I quote verbatim one of the most imbecilic sentences I think the BBC has ever allowed to be uttered on its wavelengths – given a voice to “two billion people who previously had been locked out of media creation”. Locked out? Too lazy to get off their fat arses and write, more like.

But back to the 30 million Lang Langs. The figure is pure fiction and the mere suggestion that Lang Lang is simply a product of the Chinese state system, easily replicated by anyone with a piano nearby, is so outrageous as to be laughable. I remember a British newspaper years ago saying something similar about David Beckham; that there were x million “potential Beckhams out there”. Well, if there were, they certainly didn’t pursue an interest in football, otherwise how can we explain England’s laughable and wholly deserved World Cup capers? (I gather they lost, but football is such a pastime for the terminally brain-dead that I haven’t even the inclination to check my facts on this one.) Perhaps they have all emulated Beckham in growing designer stubble and injuring themselves. And, to that end, perhaps a “potential Lang Lang” forgets the piano somewhere along the line, and concentrates on the preening and commercial promotions for pointless products.

Let me not, however, in all this ranting and raving, overlook the serious aspect to all this. Lang Lang, for all his weirdness and personal failings, is a phenomenally gifted pianist. That he’s Chinese is pure coincidence; Chopin was Polish, Liszt Hungarian, Rubinstein Russian, yet I don’t see newspapers in those countries suggesting all Poles/Hungarians/Russians are naturally great pianists. The fact is that musical genius knows no national boundaries, and is no respecter of ethnicity. Just because one great genius is Chinese, it doesn’t follow that all Chinese can be great geniuses. Yet there will be parents who read this drivel in newspapers and think, “Ah So! Little Boy play piano real good, he Lang Lang style too” (if newspapers can promote offensive stereotypes, so can I) and then toddle off to the nearest sub-standard teacher and demand they get said child through music exams in double quick time so they can get on to the stage and earn mega-Yuan. It all ends in tears, but worse than that, it ends up giving everybody such a misplaced view of musical genius and performing skill that those who do possess it find their skills undermined.

I attended a performance of Carmina Burana in Hong Kong over the weekend given by the Shanghai Opera Chorus. It was a perfectly acceptable performance, well-rehearsed and competently delivered. But the fact that it was a Chinese choir and a Chinese conductor meant that the Hong Kong audience were leaping to their feet in fits of ecstasy which, as a musical performance, it simply didn’t deserve. This was a further manifestation of a phenomenon I am noticing increasingly in South East Asia; that, because of the ethnicity of the performer, an audience drops its critical sensitivities and worships blindly at the sight of Chinese people doing something well. Lang Lang is greater than that; but the Chinese are in grave danger of putting him on a pedestal for being a successful Chinese man rather than for being a brilliant pianist who is – and here the figure might have some justification – one in 30 million.

July 2010