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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/13/19

Yuja's Belly Button

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Message Al Hirschfield
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I grew up in the 60s. This was the time of the "British Invasion", and I guess there are probably fewer and fewer people still around who can say that they remember when the Beatles' "She Loves You" first appeared on the radio. It may now be impossible to explain to young people just how different the world was back then, and the role the Beatles played in changing it. When I'm asked to try, the best I can do is make some feeble attempt such as: it was actually against FCC rules to say the word "pregnant" over the airways, Coca Cola would never have even dreamt of mentioning its competitors in an ad, and "College Professor" was, invariably, named as the most respected profession. But, in actuality, I think it's probably a lost cause.

And, a very clever fellow I once knew said that it would be impossible for my generation to understand what Frank Sinatra meant to his generation.

So it goes...

In any event, the change I think had a lot to do with what back then was regarded as "progress" (as in progressive"). The cultural elites were quite sure that we had been making some kind of "progress" right from the moment we stepped out of the primordial slime, up to when the Enlightenment virtues of Freedom, Equality, Reason, etc seemed to have established a firm foothold within the March of Nations.

This may seem somewhat naive now to some. The cynical, of course, always knew things could never really change, human nature being what it is. And, in any event, life was ultimately about the pursuit of happiness, which generally means a nice car, house and some sweet vacations.

The above is pretty much stated as thus (without the particulars) in the Declaration of Independence (or were we really expected to think they were referring to the reading of Shakespeare and regularly performing community service?).

Well, yeah, yeah, yeah: the Beatles went a long way towards changing all that. One could spend any number of volumes trying to explain this (and countless already have), but your prayers have been answered and I will spare you that. I will commit nonetheless perhaps the ultimate absurdity and try and sum up at least part of the cultural shift accomplished by the Fab Four in one word: Fun. Yes, the Middle Ages were officially over, and science could be left to the eggheads. Let's party!

Don't get me wrong, I was as smitten by John, Paul, George and WhatsHisName as anyone. My sister once said that she once saw John Lennon walking down 5th Avenue in New York and had the feeling that her entire childhood had just passed before her. I knew exactly what she meant.

So what does all have to do with "Yuja"? What is a "Yuja", anyway?

For those of you who don't know, she is one the most controversial, and respected, classical piano prodigies of her generation (she's now 32). She's controversial because of the "nontraditional" attire which she wears onstage (i.e she is very hot). She's respected because she's been performing since a tot, and made her European debut playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich at the age of 16. What catapulted her to "superstar status" was when the legendary conductor Claudio Abbado asked her to open one of the major international music festivals with him after hearing her play for 5 minutes at a birthday party (she was only 21 at the time).

I don't know how I came across Yuja. I think I probably noticed her while looking for something on Youtube. I have since watched a number of documentaries about her (Janet Malcolm wrote a profile of her for the "New Yorker" magazine in 2016: Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance). Yuja has inspired something akin to awe in me not just because of extraordinary musicianship (Ms. Malcolm spoke of her as equals with none other than Murray Perahia) but the effortlessness with which she seems to integrate the classical tradition with a full-tilt Generation X (or is it "Z"?) existence: complete with addiction to modern technology, and the putting of Radiohead, Rhianna and Black Eyed Peas on an aesthetic par with Prokoviev.

So what does this have to do with the Beatles? I guess I should have written this when I had completely figured that out (please don't be shy to speak up if you have some thoughts). But, somehow she gives me a lot of hope. Her ability to be so transcendentally well-adjusted, while living what I would imagine to be one of the most demanding existences imaginable; that of a very young, international classical pianist.

Perhaps she's simply one of the still underappreciated archetypes of a New Age, one that successfully synthesizes all that's come before, with this very fractured, disjointed present which we currently inhabit.

I'll just share two (or three...) of my favorite documentaries of Yuja with you:

This is the first one I saw. It's really a wonderful peek inside her daily life while preparing to perform at Carnegie Hall:

Yuja Wang: The Documentary

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A rapidly aging boy from NJ, with a somewhat radical political bent, who, after quite some time, seems to finally (in the truest sense of the word) be getting it together... Om Sai Ram

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