August 28, 2008


Challenges: A Memoir of My Life in Opera. By Sarah Caldwell with Rebecca Matlock. Wesleyan University Press. $27.95.

Lang Lang: Playing with Flying Keys. By Lang Lang with Michael French. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      From Offenbach’s Voyage to the Moon to Mozart’s Magic Flute, with much in between, Sarah Caldwell staged operas in Boston for more than 30 years. She also toured the United States with productions and made trips to Germany, Israel, South Africa, China, the Soviet Union and elsewhere. And she contended, throughout her long career as impresario and conductor and more, with lack of funds, intransigent unions, pervasive sexism, and the many needs and demands of major artists from Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland to Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Challenges was put together by Rebecca Matlock, a longtime friend of Caldwell and a member of the Board of Directors of Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston, from taped interviews done during the three-year period before Caldwell died in 2006 at the age of 82. The book will be instructive, if perhaps not particularly enjoyable, for opera lovers, since Caldwell knew the field so well but said so little about it during her lifetime – she rarely granted interviews or sought publicity. Some of her stories show Caldwell managing to overcome the realities of society as it existed during her career: she was the first woman to conduct the Metropolitan Opera and the United States Marine Band. Other tales remain useful for the classical-music sphere today: the infighting, the internal politics, the huge egos, and the constant search for enough money to mount one more production, make one more tour, develop one more new idea, hire one more top-rank singer. The book’s style, unfortunately, can be matter-of-fact to the point of dullness. For example, regarding a planned production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, for which Caldwell wanted to recruit the famed bass Boris Christoff: “I took with me a model of the set that we had used [in a previous staging]. I didn’t want to have any trouble when he came and saw that it was very different from the sets to which he was accustomed. He professed to think it was the most wonderful set he had seen, a very exciting concept, he thought.” The constant parade of simple declarative sentences quickly becomes wearing; Challenges is a challenge to read straight through, although there is much of interest in it when it is taken in small doses.

      The young Chinese pianist Lang Lang (born 1982) is as flamboyant and public a figure as Sarah Caldwell was a private one. It is no surprise that a version of Lang Lang’s biography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, is being offered to young readers as Playing with Flying Keys, because Lang Lang represents a type of celebrity pianism that reaches out to audiences of all ages. Michael French’s adaptation maintains the idea of celebrity hagiography, with a rags-to-riches story arc of a child prodigy to whom music came “as naturally as breathing.” Also in keeping with the form, Playing with Flying Keys contains 16 pages of photographs, ranging from one of seven-year-old Lang Lang practicing in his underwear to ones of him with conductors Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle. There is not much insight into Lang Lang as a person here, although we do learn of his family turmoil, the poverty of his childhood, and his love of Transformers. Readers familiar with classical music will be able to read between the lines. For example, Lang Lang tells conductor Christoph Eschenbach that, given the choice, he would like to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony: “I suddenly remembered how many careers had been galvanized by that brilliant composition – Horowitz’s and Rubinstein’s among them.” But Lang Lang pointedly does not mention that the concerto launched Van Cliburn’s career – an omission that says something about how the Chinese pianist sees himself. However, Playing with Flying Keys is not really intended for a musically sophisticated audience, and that is just as well, since there is some controversy about Lang Lang’s playing – whether there is really much substance behind his pianism, and whether he tends to “phone in” some performances instead of working hard at them. There is no such controversy here: the book contains nothing but uplift, being a story of success on the stage of the world. It is an appealing tale for readers ages nine and up. They will have time to learn the nuances of life, Lang Lang’s as well as their own, later.

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