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I taught myself to play the piano but I'm no musician. I taught myself to paint but I'm no artist. I love music and I write to share my feelings but I'm no music critic. What am I?

Perhaps nothing more than a messenger. Throughout my career, I've been a messenger of some sort. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a B.A. degree in Chinese Literature and Chinese History, I made my way into advertising. My timing was perfect because advertising was booming and a lot of international (mainly U.S.) agencies were just starting to compete for strong footholds in Asia. I joined Ogilvy & Mather as a Chinese copywriter and was soon promoted to Creative Group Head and, years later, Creative Director. After 14 years with one agency, I moved on to two more in the following six years, first Ling-McCann-Erickson and then Dentsu Young & Rubicam. Throughout my creative directorship, I have served many international clients. Those included American Express, Levi's Jeans, Nestle, Cadbury, Suchard, Shell, Dupont, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Philips, Sony, BMW, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Canon, Korean Airlines, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, Guinness, Heineken, Martell Cognac and Hennessey X.O. Apart from gaining worldwide exposure and experience, the biggest reward of them all was meeting my wife Teresa in a casting session. It was love at first sight for me and "What? That guy?" for her. Naturally, she was incontrovertibly cast in many more commercials that followed. Three years later, we got married. My daughter Tanya was born seven years later in 1988.

In 1994, the family immigrated to Toronto/Canada, with no cats and no dogs but three pianos - two uprights and a 6-foot grand. (Teresa was a piano teacher). We bought a condominium from a retired chairman of an international agency and the fine gentleman insisted on arranging an interview for me with his Creative Director (CD). So I went. After flipping through my portfolio, the CD made only one comment: "Very good work. But you have no Canadian experience." So much for my international experience. From that day forward, I felt much more gratified to deal with music CDs than ad agency CDs even though some agencies did hire me as freelance writer working on Chinese ads. Before the economic contraction and Asian stock market slump in 2000, I was doing some creative quick fixes for Hong Kong. Taking advantage of the 12-hour time difference, I was able to provide creative solutions overnight.

Hence, my company was named Created Overnight by David (COD). Since I was half retired, I found time to paint seriously. I picked up the First Prize in a local art contest with a pastel portrait of Tanya in a tutu [above right] An oil portrait of Teresa was selected for an annual invitation show by the Varley Gallery [above left]. I did a few commissioned portraits and more invitation shows until I realized that spending $2,000 on frames and selling only one oil landscape for $300 was very bad business. So I stopped. I tried my hands on making musical instrument and crafted a 21-string harp, which I named Tatiana.

I love advertising but I'd still say that's a messenger's job. Even in my best days in Hong Kong when I headed up a department of twenty, thirty people, we were merely conveying messages from our clients to the consumers - except that we were also responsible for packaging them. And that's where the discrepancy of all time came into play: the clients -- being marketing people -- were more concerned with the delivery of the messages and we, the
creative souls, were more engaged with the packaging. Only if we were dedicated enough to win the clients' support might we be able to pick up an award or two. I managed to garner a few along the way. Here's one example for Philips, which won us a Clio, the so-called Oscar of the advertising industry.

My interest in art and music started at a much earlier age. My family was never artistic or musical. I wanted to study both subjects but in those days, art and music were considered "a waste of time", "useless subjects" and "can't earn a living" by my (as well as any) parents. My desire was not strong enough to urge me to run away from home and have my own way. Nevertheless, I began to listen to classical music on the radio when I was twelve. My elder sister was lucky because she was admitted to a Catholic girl's school run by nuns who put a lot of emphasis on music. So she started taking piano lessons. My father owned an eatery but was not making a lot of money so I could appreciate why only my sister had the privilege. Anyhow, I was so intrigued by the piano that I started playing it myself. I had no problems reading piano scores since every note on the page corresponds to a key on the keyboard, just like colouring by numbers.

However, some years later my father bought me a stereo system, which was a JVC all-in-one, with receiver, LP auto-changer, open-reel recorder and a pair of loudspeakers, all bundled up in a wooden console that looked more like a piece
of furniture. I spent hours and hours taping down classical music from the radio. I saved up my lunch money to buy LPs to build up my library. One day in 1987, I thought I knew enough so I started writing classical CD review for magazines. I never stopped since that day. I used to review 12 CDs each month but cut back to six since the economic recession in 2000. As my CD collection grew, so did my piano scores. I grew this insatiable appetite for collecting piano scores whether or not I could manage them. Listening to the music while reading through the score is always mind-opening.

Whenever I discovered a rare piece of music on a CD that I like, I'd search for the score. And I fondly champion these much neglected masterpieces by unjustly overlooked composers: Moreau Gottschalk (who was unashamedly the first American idol who had thousands of female fans and, as legend had it, was praised by Chopin as the Prince of the Piano); Rossini (the famous Italian opera composer who called himself a fifth rank pianist but did compose a lot of wickedly entertaining piano gems titled "Sins of the Old Age"); Anton Rubinstein (the only pianist who was literally envied by Liszt but his mesmerizing Kamennoi-Ostrov and Barcarolles are seldom performed these days); Medtner (who was a contemporary of Rachmaninov and "who composed the best
Russian piano literature" - Rachmaninov's words, not mine); Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla (both you're already familiar with); and the greatest Chinese composer Jiang Wenye (who was born in Taiwan, educated in Japan before Japan invaded China, enjoyed privileges during the Japanese occupancy, was imprisoned for treason in Beijing after the war, tortured during the Cultural Revolution and died of sickness and poverty. Yet his 16 Bagatelles, Op.8 and Sketches of the Old Capital, Op.15-- among other patriotic works -- tell all).

My passion for music infiltrated my advertising work. Through my connections, I was able to bring in clients from the music industries like EMI and Betrue Music - the latter being the distributor for Clear Audio, Dynaudio, JMlab, Restek, Symphonic Line and Burmester at the time. A print campaign for EMI won the London Festival Award and a print campaign for Betrue won the New York Festival Award.

As a reviewer, I must say that reviewing classical music is more rewarding than reviewing audio equipment. Classical music enriches my everyday life. Audio equipment pinches my bank savings. That's why in the past 18 years, I have reviewed 1,500 classical CDs but only less than 10 pieces of audio gear - all of which I ended up buying, including an Estonia Parlour Grand Piano, which I proudly own since arriving in Canada. Its sound quality, in my view, is so much better than the overpriced New York Steinway.

Its mid to lower tones embrace an unspeakable Russian pathos that is naturally in tune with Rachmaninov. (I first discovered Estonia pianos from the historic Ampico rolls recorded by Rachmaninov and realized on a modern Estonia - Decca 425 964-2 and 440 066-2).

As a hobbyist, I cannot avoid the inescapable fate of falling prey to my own preconceptions. One of those is my obsession with subwoofers in pairs. Because of my love for the piano, I insisted on incorporating paired ubwoofers in all my audio systems. Since we moved into our current house three years ago, I now have eight subwoofers in four rooms. How they got into those rooms without my wife threatening with a divorce I shall comfortably leave unanswered.

But to be honest, I never blast them up to full Richter scale like a lot of home theatres do. I only use them to fine-tune the delicate nuances, just a shade to back up the lower resonance and timbre such that piano music comes out effortlessly lifelike. Believe me, subwoofers have to be in pairs for realism and sharp focus, be it piano solo, piano for four hands or (most noticeably) two pianos. Needless to say, any music reproduction, vocal or orchestral, benefits tremendously.

My other preconception is related to vibration and isolation. For a long time, I found most commercially available audio racks lacking. Many years back in Hong Kong, I decided to go whole hog and designed a truly isolated audio rack system. Each platform or shelf stands on its own four feet and spikes, completely isolated from one another and arrayed inside each other like a Chinese puzzle box. I had it custom made from rosewood, spray-painted and baked in white lacquer. Each leg features a screw-mounted JMlab-Focal spike that allows me to adjust leveling.

Some years later, a similar design, albeit made of steel, became commercially available. I read about that in Stereophile around 2001. Unfortunately, I forgot the brand name and don't know whether it's still around. Otherwise, that would be my top choice for an audio rack.

Having said all this, I have one last confession to make. I might not be the kind of Mr. Know-It-All reviewer you've come to expect in the sense that I write from my heart. I don't have enough technical knowledge but I'm learning. I don't have discerning ears but only normal hearing ability. I can't hear what a normal person won't hear. My heart falls for the music too quickly. I am easily satisfied with the humblest equipment. Music is all that matters.

Not too long ago, a friend of mine was perturbed by a perception that his personal audio system could not play back the barrel rolling sound in Britten's children play Noye's Fludde [Decca 436 397-2] as vividly as his friend's LP system. We had just finished listening to the track on his Meridian 508 + McIntosh C2200 + McIntosh MC 2102 + Piega C10 system. I reassured him that it
was one of the best performances of Noye's Fludde that I had ever experienced. I bet him that when Britten wrote this wonderful work, he could not possibly have had any intention that the wooden barrel rolling across the stage must be clearly audible before his music could touch our hearts.

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." That's a very unfair and irresponsible saying knocking the teachers - mind you, we've known many great men and women who did and taught! Allow me to rephrase the saying to kick my own butt. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, criticize." Music columnists and audio reviewers are not experts. They are enthusiasts who share their personal experiences at a certain point in time. They are nothing more than messengers who attempt to convey their own points of view.