Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lola Astanova

Norman Lebrecht, continuing his commentary on critics, posts on this concert review by Zachary Woolfe in the NYT. Some context: Lola Astanova is an accomplished pianist who manages to overshadow the music she plays with her stage presence which projects "extreme physical abandon" and, on this occasion, "$850,000 in jewels borrowed from Tiffany". Both quotes from the NYT review. This is a trend, of course. Many of the younger pianists on the scene, especially young women, are emphasizing their physicality. My go-to post on this phenomenon is here -- what I call "classical music with a pop sensibility" because pop music has been going in this direction for decades. Here is Lola Astanova in performance:

I think I see what Zachary Woolfe meant by the gestures. At the end she looked as if she was about to jump up and run a marathon, or star in an action film. I don't think Liszt, a spectacular performer himself, would have minded this. How about another composer? Rachmaninoff:

I also think I see what Woolfe means by a "faceless" quality: this is technically very accomplished, but it doesn't seem to have a lot of musical interest. Again, very physical--faceless, but not legless! Let's hear something else. Beethoven:

Somehow that manages to be technically sound but murky and clunky all at the same time. This is more like what it should sound like:

I looked to see if Lola Astanova had any Bach up on YouTube, but I was somewhat relieved not to find any. As fashion model pianists go, she is pretty good, but not terribly interesting musically. I revert to the question I raised in my early post about this: where are the really great musicians who don't project such a flamboyant, sexy image? Honestly, I would rather hear them. Isn't this more about hearing the music than imagining dating the performer?


RG said...

ADULTS ONLY! Well, not quite. More for ADULescenTS.

You have mentioned children's music a few times en passant. You recommend the little tykes hear Back et al. too... But in your judgement, is children's music a real category? Is it essentially to be praised/spurned?

I am thinking of things like

Jon Silpayamanant said...

There was a discussion about the Yuja Wang incident in a blog post by Eric Edberg here: http://ericedberg.wordpress.com/2011/09/26/invisible-vs-visible-music-making/

What's more interesting to me is how our actual ability to hear can be compromised by concert attire:

In a recent article in Psychology of Music published in April 2010 ( http://pom.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/38/2/159 ) Noola Griffiths found that female performers were judged to be most appropriately dressed when wearing traditional concert ‘dress’, and least appropriately dressed when wearing a nightclubbing dress, particularly when playing classical music. Jeans and a top was more appropriately rated when playing jazz or folk. However, Griffiths also found that the performances were rated as less musical when the performers were wearing inappropriate dress. Griffiths concludes that “performers that excel musically may find their physical nature devalued” (p. 174) and “women wishing to project a body-focused image should note that this may have a detrimental effect on perceptions of their musical ability”

and body gesture:

The participants viewed videos featuring four student musicians at the keyboard. Specifically, they watched two renditions of Chopin’s Waltz in A-Flat Major, and two performances of a capriccio by Brahms.

Unbeknownst to them, the soundtracks for the videos were recorded by the same pianist. He was seen in one of the four videos; for the other three, the on-screen performer was actually a body double.

For both the Chopin and Brahms works, one of the “performers” was male, the other female. After watching both renditions, participants rated what they heard using five-point scales to judge the players on such elements as confidence, precision, drama, virtuosity and expressivity.

Despite the fact the soundtracks were identical, “Nearly all participants identified differences between the pairs of video recordings,” the researchers report. Duplicating the results of the 1990 study, the “performances” by the male pianists were perceived as more precise, while the female pianist’s “performance” of Chopin was judged as more dramatic.

How could people with finely honed listening skills be fooled into thinking they were hearing different interpretations?

I used to be annoyed greatly by "excessive" body movements, facial expressions, and [occasionally] attire, but realized that in the grand scheme of things I was being distracted by my preferences. Only now do we have some studies to show us how easily distracting our non-aural senses can be.

Bryan Townsend said...


Lots of children's music out there. As for Bach being children's music, that was actually someone else's comment. Bach certainly wrote teaching music for his children, but it is hardly what we would think of as "children's music". The two and three-part inventions are examples.

One of my favorite examples of children's music is "Yellow Submarine" written by Paul for Ringo to sing.


This doesn't surprise me at all. The way the performer dresses can be very distracting. Music videos for pop music are intentionally this way, of course. If you want to separate the sound from the visual impression, just close your eyes!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

True--dress can be distracting, but I thought the second piece which brought up the issue of simple idiosyncratic body movements as being a big "distractor" was intriguing.

I just wrote a slightly different take on the issue of giving classical music/musicians a "hip" image. I think I need to write a blog about exchange/gift economics, because I think I'm seeing a correlation between a new imaging culture and how economic transactions are being made.

Bryan Townsend said...

Jon, I read the post that you linked to and commented there. I think this is the key quote: "Sadly, I think far too many folks who believe that classical music needs a facelift are adopting a ‘quick fix’ that involves creating a funky, hip, Bohemian image."

You bet! This is a recurring theme here because I'm always pointing out that the most important thing about a musical performance is the musicality of the performance, not the image of the performer. Dress, gestures and other things making for a funky, hip image are at best distractions...

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Yeah, saw that and replied--thanks, Bryan!

I'm all for mannerisms or dress that enhance a performance--especially where it might befully warranted (such as fully staged or even semi-staged operas, musicals and oratorios). But usually the costume becomes as much of the performance (if not more) than not, and that is truly distracting.

I'm certainly not completely sold on such things being a matter of 'stylistic preferences' of a younger crowd. Or at least I see that being used as an excuse for the dress and mannerisms far too often.

Ron Lant said...

I read this blog and comments and all I can say is WOW. Opinions are great, but trying to twist reality to make it somehow fit your view of the world is nuts. Bryan, I'm guessing that you actually didn't attend the concert at Carnegie Hall. And from what I can gather, neither did Norman Lebrecht. If that's the case, you should clearly disclose that information and say, "I actually did not see the concert, but here is what I think about it..." It just so happens that I actually DID attend the concert and my impression of it is 180 degrees opposite from Zachary Wolffe who, it turns out, doesn't even work for the NYT.

And someone here wrote "Adults Only"? Are you people even serious? That's not even being a prude, that's two tomatos short of a salad. She wore two long dresses that showed nothing. Again, "adults only"? Really? You must have been raised in some religious compound and have not seen a single magazine cover over the past 30 years? I've seen pictures on the cover of "Good Housekeeping" that were sexier than what she wore. Yuja Wang plays in a Chinese massage parlor dress that goes up to her vagina and none of you have any issues with that, but Astanova must chip you people so badly that you're even willing to call white - black. Unbelievable.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Ron,

I don't always agree with my commentors! I was pretty clear that I didn't attend that concert--my comments were on performances on YouTube and I put them all in the post so we could see what we were talking about. I've also talked about Yuja Wang and I find Astanova a more interesting pianist.

Thanks for your opinion...