The rant was apparently inspired by a performance of Handel’s Messiah in New York, sung by a Korean-American choir. Camera Lucida writes:
“As the concert progressed, I began to realize a certain ‘prettiness’ in the performance, a lack of force, drive and even drama. I don't think this is simply a cultural phenomenon (as in misunderstanding the Messiah's content, message, meaning, etc…). I think it is a physio/cerebral problem.”
It’s clear that there is a growing number of artists either directly from the Far East or of Asian descent in classical music today. And it’s a phenomenon that raises some interesting questions: Why is this happening? What effect will it have on the musical world?
But unfortunately, our intrepid blogger can only see this trend in bluntly racial terms. According to Camera Lucida, Asians may be genetically disposed towards “memorization” and “fast, scale-like exercises,” but they suffer from “an inability to create synthesized beauty.”
He or she then takes aim at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, complaining that 30 percent of the violinists are Asian. There is no apparent distinction made between people born in the Far East or in Western countries. (Personally, I can vouch for the Canadian-ness of TSO violinist Carol Fujino, who is originally from Hamilton, Ontario. Many years ago, I played in the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra with her, and she was the best young violinist in town.)
Camera Lucida can’t even get facts straight. He or she goes on to misidentify the TSO’s principal violist as a man named “Treng Li,” not a woman named Teng Li. And CL also claims that the TSO’s concertmaster is Asian – which will certainly come as a surprise to the very Caucasian Jonathan Crow, appointed to the position last fall.
As for the absence of Asians in the brass and percussion sections, Camera Lucida proposes that these instruments “might actually be too physically demanding for them.”
So here are a few questions for Camera Lucida. Has it occurred to you that the growing interest in Western classical music in the Far East – even as it seems to be waning in Western countries – might be the best thing that’s happened recently to this music? Aren’t some Western performers (especially amateurs) also capable of giving pretty performances that lack depth? If, while blindfolded, you heard a Chopin polonaise played by two pianists – Yundi Li and Evgeny Kissin – are you quite sure you could tell which was a “Chinese” performance and which was “authentically Slavic”? (Would you bet a million bucks on it?) And even if there is some distinctively “Asian” style of performing classical music, don’t Bach, Beethoven and Brahms belong to everyone?
A few months ago, arts administrator Michael Kaiser wrote an article arguing that wide-scale blogging about the arts would lower standards of criticism. (You can read it here.) At the time, I disagreed, arguing, “Most classical music blogs I’ve seen are written by sincere, devoted and reasonably knowledgeable people.”
It looks like Kaiser just scored a point.
© Colin Eatock 2012