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Leonard & Avan

April 27, 2009

I’ve been trying for more than a week to think of something original to say about Leonard Cohen’s concert at GM Place on April 19. In every review of the show I’ve glanced at, writers have raved about the 74-year-old’s performance. I completely agree with them – it was a superb, three-hour show, which confirmed Cohen’s status as a national treasure. But that doesn’t make for a very interesting blog post.

Then I thought of something, and it came to me at a completely different type of concert. Through serendipity, we got free fifth row tickets for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s season debut at the Orpheum on April 25. The evening’s main event was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43”, featuring 21-year-old pianist Avan Yu (who looks like he’s about 15). I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to perform something as mind-blowingly difficult as the Rachmaninoff work, but from my prime seat, I could see that Yu had no fear. And thanks to the big screens mounted at either side of the Orpheum stage, I could also see that his fingers were flying.

Yu’s technique is so advanced that he doesn’t have to think about the mechanics of where to place his fingers; he can just focus on bringing out the soul of the music. While marveling at Yu’s technique, I thought of a moment in Cohen’s concert. It came during “Tower of Song”, when he played a keyboard that sounded like a toy instrument. He played a solo that consisted of a very simple, slightly bluesy, slowly played line.

In the time that it took Cohen to play that solo, Yu could have played a zillion notes. But Cohen has his own kind of technique, which informs his singing, songwriting, poetry and piano-playing. It’s a rare technique that combines soul, wisdom, humour, spirituality and humility. So because of that technique, Cohen’s toy solo impressed me as much as Yu’s virtuosity. Both are valid and both made a lasting impression.

Yeah, OK, that wasn’t especially profound. But at least I found a way to link Leonard Cohen and Avan Yu. I bet that’s a first for the blogosphere!

Jian Ghomeshi’s excellent interview with Cohen, who was a tad more cooperative than Billy Bob Thornton:

I could only find one YouTube video of Avan Yu, and despite the poor sound quality, it demonstrates his phenomenal technique:

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