I thoroughly enjoyed being in Hong Kong again and reconnecting with my in-laws, though I’m really not enjoying the jetlag right now. No matter how easy traveling there has become, there’s still no way around the fact that Hong Kong is on the opposite side of the planet from New York City and the time difference is a whopping 12 hours. Basically that means you can’t even rely on clocks to re-acclimate, as I remember every time I’m back from Asia and it is, say, 4 o’clock—a.m. or p.m. perfectly flipped. That’s why it feels the weirdest for some reason.
Anyway, as far away as HK is from NYC, in many ways the two cities are strangely similar. Both are overcrowded metropolises with tons of skyscrapers whose paces are largely determined by the financial sector. Both are traffic nightmares, but are luckily navigable via commuter rail systems. Both are becoming impossible places to dine on Friday nights without a reservation. And, as I discovered during this last trip, HK is also a place where you can hear a variety of new music thanks to a series started there by Bright Sheng called The Intimacy of Creativity. It was slightly surreal to have intermission conversations in Hong Kong with Joan Tower and Mark O’Connor—both for them and for me. But if this new composer and performer workshop and concert series, now in its second season, continues to grow, it could one day evolve into an East Asian version of the Gaudeamus Festival. Matt Van Brink, one of the emerging composers invited to participate this year, will provide more details about this program in a report for this site in the coming days.
However, there is something about the concert I attended that I feel compelled to write about here. Although The Intimacy of Creativity is a new music program featuring works by important international guest composers (Tower and O’Connor this year) as well as emerging composers from around the world (this year from Portugal, the U.K., HK, and three from the USA), the concert I attended also featured a piece by…Ludwig van Beethoven, specifically his Opus 11 Piano Trio. It was actually extraordinarily jarring. This is not because I don’t appreciate Beethoven. I just completed listening to two complete sets of his 32 piano sonatas. However, the sound world of 1797 (the year that trio was composed) is a further distance from today than New York is from Hong Kong (215 years to be exact), and the seven pieces composed in our own time which preceded it on the concert did not really prepare my ears for it.
It was a bizarre repertoire role reversal. This is sadly the position that new music finds itself in when one new work is included on a concert that otherwise consists of older pieces. In such situations, the new piece usually feels out of place and, as a result, is often not appreciated by the people attending that concert. While the new music prankster in me somehow enjoyed witnessing Beethoven not belonging, it reminded me of something Michael Gordon said in the very first NewMusicBox cover (then called “In The First Person”) which we published exactly 13 years ago:
There’s a story that Frank Zappa, when he first played in Vienna, got this really known quartet to come out, and he put them all in robes and hoods, and they went out and played a Beethoven string quartet. The audience, you know, sat there for a while and then they started booing, by the time the string quartet was over, the entire audience was throwing things and booing. The quartet bowed and walked off the stage, and then Frank Zappa’s band put on these hoods and took the violins and went back out to take a bow, as if they were the quartet, and the whole audience was sitting there booing and throwing things, and Zappa just pulls off the hood, his whole band pulls off the hoods. . . I think the success of the Kronos Quartet, the success of the Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, and you know, what we’re doing, is basically when someone comes to hear a Bang On A Can concert, they know that they’re going to get weird music. They know they’re not going to get country music. They know they’re not going to get classical music.
For the record, no one in the audience in Hong Kong came anywhere close to booing. And perhaps my feeling that the Beethoven somehow didn’t fit was a minority opinion. But nearly a week later, I’m still thinking about it. I’ve even started listening to all the Beethoven Piano Trios in sequence so I can hear the piece in its own milieu and try to come to terms with it. Since I love both old and new music, I have greatly appreciated programs that combine the two, but perhaps if both are presented there needs to be a more equal balance.