Friday, November 30, 2007

Making a Mess of Mozart

Apparently, this year Kenneth Branagh was not content with making a mess out of both As You Like It and Sleuth. He has now tried his hand with The Magic Flute; and, if the Web site is anything to go by, this may be his biggest disaster of the year. The site itself is an incredibly sloppy piece of work, at least if you enter it from the home page; so I would recommend cutting to the chase and going directly to the page with the trailer. Apparently, the Adobe Flash version is the only one that streams; and I do not recommend waiting for a download. If you cannot view the trailer, you may want to fall back on the text of the review that Tim Robey has provided for the Telegraph:

Plonking Mozart's phantasmagorical opera down in the trenches of the First World War is vintage Branagh - daring but silly.

The Queen of the Night (a scary Lyubov Petrova) makes an arresting entrance on top of a tank, and zips through the night sky during her aria like a witch without a broomstick.

Her enemy Sarastro (the imposing German bass René Pape) runs a field hospital and the Three Ladies wear slutty nurse outfits. This is the good stuff.

The bad stuff has a lot to do with Stephen Fry's English libretto, a series of coy rhyming couplets that pitch camp halfway between WS Gilbert and world's-worst-poet William McGonagall.

Except for the unknown Amy Carson, very sweet and credible as Pamina, Branagh has cast the romantic leads with rising opera stars who sing superbly but fall straight into the old trap of giving stage performances in close-up. Papageno (Benjamin Jay Davis) has never been more annoying.

With James Conlon conducting, this Flute is perfectly in tune - so it's a shame Branagh keeps dropping it in the mud.

It is almost impossible for me to enumerate the ways in which this all aggravates, particularly in light of the excellent Flute that we got to enjoy this season in San Francisco. I also have to wonder why Branagh had to bring in Fry, when W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman had already come up with and extremely thoughtful (not to mention singable) English version. As to what the imagery promises, Robey's text is only the tip of the iceberg, if one is to judge by the trailer.

As You Like It has yet to make it to an American movie house. Anyone on this side of the pond who saw it did so by virtue of HBO. These days we no longer have any good way to watch opera on cable except for the occasional efforts by PBS. Having already seen René Pape with the San Francisco Opera, I would certainly enjoy seeing and hearing him again; but this does not strike me as a good way to do it.

The Dudamel Watch

Having had a successful tour with his own Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel now seems to be making the rounds with American orchestras, building up to his becoming the new Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This week he is the guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic, which Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times has decided to call (in true New York fashion) "the real debut." Those of us in San Francisco will have to wait until March 20 for our "real debut," although, with any luck, XM will broadcast a recording of the New York performance before then.

As a rule, I try to keep my reading confined to reviews, since I have little trust in the authority of those promotional "preview" pieces. Nevertheless, I have as much curiosity about Dudamel as the next music lover; but I tried to keep that curiosity at an objective level. Thus, what interested me the most is the radical difference between the program that Dudamel is preparing in New York and the one he will perform in San Francisco. Wakin's article discussed the rehearsal of two works, the second symphony of Carlos Chávez ("Sinfonia India") and the fifth symphony of Serge Prokofiev. The scheduled program for the San Francisco Symphony concentrates on two other Russians: the first piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff (with soloist Kirill Gerstein) and the complete score for Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet.

Curious as I am about hearing "Firebird" in an orchestral setting (since one cannot really expect a pit orchestra to do justice to the full complexity and subtlety of the music and since it poses the challenge of making the pas d'action scenes "work" without the dancers), I have to confess a partiality for the New York offering. Much of this has to do with the fact that my ears are still ringing from the performance of the Prokofiev symphony that the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic delivered, and I also realize that I have yet to hear a "live" performance of any Chávez. Back when I first got to know John Cage, I remember his talking (in a rather less-than-Buddhist style) about how Columbia Records had decided to set priorities for which contemporary composers they would promote. Cage claimed that they ultimately had to make a choice between Copland and Chávez; and, of course, Copland came out on top. This may just have been Cage taking a jab at American nationalism (just as Ferruccio Busoni had once done in a letter in which he referred to the United States as the "killer of the Indians"); but it was my first exposure to the extent to which the business of music had more to do with filtering than with promoting. Regardless of any bias, I used to value my vinyl recording of the complete set of Chávez symphonies performed by the Dallas Symphony under Eduardo Mata; and I would give anything to hear a good concert performance of any of them.

This is about as far as the objective account can be taken. Wakin interviewed several members of the Philharmonic after the rehearsal he attended, and all of the observations in his article are positive. The next step will be to see what the critics have to say!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Sad Transition

It has been a while since I have written about one of the Noontime Concerts™ at St. Patrick's Church in Wednesday's here in San Francisco. This is not a sign of disappointment with the organization of the series or the nature of the offerings (also presented on alternate Tuesday's at Old St. Mary's Cathedral, our city's first cathedral) but just a consequence of the current demands on my time. I have valued the opportunity for a "Musical Lunch Break," when circumstances allow me to take one; and this was particularly true during the summer, when the two "official" concerts in the Midsummer Mozart Festival were supplemented by a series of concerts under Noontime auspices. What I had not really appreciated was either the legacy or the extent of the institution, as described on the Noontime Concerts™ Web site:

Noontime Concerts are modeled after those developed by Dame Myra Hess, 1890–1965. In the first months of the Second World War, all live music performances ceased in Britain. Dame Hess inaugurated what was to become a remarkable and popular series of lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery, a building then emptied of its treasures for safekeeping during the Blitz. This was exactly what people needed, since the blackouts made it difficult for London’s suburban residents to travel up to town after dark. The audience, which included regular devotees as well as many who had never heard such music before, grew from Hess’s brainchild to replace one kind of art with another.

Noontime Concerts™ is part of an international network of churches, museums and other venues offering a welcome midday respite amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life in the tradition of Dame Hess. New York’s Concerts at One, for example, take place on Mondays in St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway and on Thursdays in Trinity Church on Wall Street at 1:00 p.m. When in New York, call (212) 602-0747 for concert information or check their website, In England, the current London version of Noontime Concerts takes place in the Royal Parish Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which enjoys one of the finest musical reputations in the world. Every Monday, Tuesday and Friday at 1:00 p.m., renowned musicians have an opportunity to perform at this central London venue for a discriminating audience. To find out more about London’s historic midday concert series, see Chicago’s Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts take place at the Chicago Cultural Center in Preston Bradley Hall. Their concert calendar can be found at

Sadly, the "Lunch Break" on January 30 will be the last at St. Patrick's. No "official" explanation has yet been given, either on the Web site or in the recently published Noontime News, in which Board President Robin Wirthlin calls it a "pending dismissal." The good news is that Old St. Mary's will continue to provide a venue for Noontime Concerts™; but, unfortunately, there will now be only four, rather than six, concerts each month. Meanwhile, I have added a link to the Noontime Concerts™ Web site to my "What I Read" list. This should make it easier for those visiting San Francisco to check out the offerings while making their travel plans (as well as compensating for the lack of local coverage provided by San Francisco newspapers).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A Nine-Minute Opera

Having recently written about the rise in opportunities to hear the music of Samuel Barber, I was delighted to see that the San Francisco Conservatory of Music included his A Hand of Bridge in last night's Opera Workshop Scene Recital. As one might guess from the title, there are four characters; and the opera was performed in its entirety. However, I should qualify that last remark by pointing out that the entire opera lasts nine minutes! Rather than giving the characters the abstract names of North, South, East, and West, they are named Geraldine, Sally, Bill, and David, constituting two married couples who seem to meet for bridge every night after work and dinner. The whole piece is a brief experiment in interior monologue, rather in the fashion of Strange Interlude, which I found a bit peculiar because the very notion of an operatic aria is usually a matter of interior monologue. Still, the jazzy sounds reminded me that Barber could have a lighter touch than I had heard in his piano concerto (or than we all know from his "Adagio for Strings"); so it was nice to see yet another institution joining the ranks of those now recognizing a composer largely neglected in his own lifetime.

Autism or Infantilism?

While I enjoy Andrew Keen's writing and admire him for entertaining the proposition that "the Internet is killing our culture," my own interests have led me to explore a malady of greater depth and breadth. Yesterday I suggested that a more critical question was whether or not we were become a culture, not of amateurism, but of autism. During the summer I pursued another perspective, that of the infantilism of our culture, manifested by symptoms such as our adoption of a lifestyle best depicted by the Eloi of H. G. Wells' Time Machine or our passionate and unreflective embrace of what I called "Secular Messianism." The proposition that we are turning into a nation of Eloi was reinforced today by an article for SPIEGEL ONLINE by Frank Hornig, published under the header "Oursourcing your Personal Life." Hornig has tried to assess the scope of the impact that outsourcing (still, as a rule, to a call center in India) has had on our day-to-day activities. Here is the lead to his story:

When asked to describe his new life, Michael Levy goes into rhapsodies. "You become lazy," he says. "It's just wonderful."

Up until this summer, the 42-year-old led a normal middle-class life in New York, working as a lawyer for the Department of Justice. Lately, though, he's had an entire staff at his disposal, who take care of his personal life around the clock.

Take, for example, a recent situation in Las Vegas, where Levy was holding his bachelor party. Sitting at the poker table with friends, he didn't feel like discussing the room arrangements personally with the hotel reception. "Please call and tell them to put an extra bed in room 21057," he instructed his assistant by e-mail via his Blackberry. Personal secretaries also arranged bridal shop appointments for Levy's fiancée before the wedding, and organized tuxedo rental for the guests.

Hornig's basic thesis is that the technology behind outsourcing to an Indian call center now makes it possible for middle-class Americans to have a servant class at their disposal. Furthermore, that servant class comes at an affordable rate: $29 per month for Levy. Presumably, even if his feelings about our President have changed, Tom Friedman is still holding up stories like this as examples of the virtues of globalization; but, from my own point of view, the real punch line is in that first quote from Levy himself. Wells' Eloi were peaceful and physically attractive; but they were also lazy, because, by their very nature, they did not have to do anything. Put another way, if the Catholics are currently down on Philip Pullman for attacking their institution, Wells did nothing less than deconstruct the Garden of Eden into a sociopathic breeding ground; and Hornig has turned this into a one-two punch by demonstrating that the American middle class (if not the middle class of the industrialized world) has embraced that sociopathy with all of its passion.

For Wells probably the greater tragedy of the Eloi was not that they were lazy but that they were unreflective. The underlying cause is still the same. If one does not have to act out of necessity, one hardly needs to act at all; and, if one does not act, one does not have to anticipate the consequences of one's actions. There is that word again. Through our inability to reflect on consequences (or, for that matter, to even recognize that consequences exist and require reflection), we have become a culture that "can't solve our problems any more;" and we react by turning even the slightest of our problems over to an Indian call center. As a result, we are as "mindless and ineffectual" as the Eloi; and we are in it so deep that we can no longer see what we have become. Perhaps this is the "whimper" to which the world will succumb, at least according to the "gospel" of the "Reverend" T. S. Eliot.

Any Point of Agreement is Better than None at All

Many of the Arab leaders invited to the Annapolis conference voice a common reaction, which was that they did not want to be part of a hollow ceremony. The fact that they got a hollow ceremony, however, may not be that catastrophic, simply because the United States had little credibility left to lose in their eyes. More interesting, however, is the unity of understanding shared by both Israeli and Arab newspapers in their disappointment with the results of the meeting (as reported today by Ulrike Putz at SPIEGEL ONLINE). This opens the door to a "modest proposal" that would probably not go down well with the power elite but might still be worth a try. Perhaps we should recall the wisdom of Georges Clemenceau ("La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.") and recognize that peace in the Middle East is too serious to be entrusted to political leaders. As an alternative, one might propose a conversation among reporters and columnists, who, in the spirit of Mr. Dooley, are in the best position to represent all those voiceless people stuck with living in the mess that the political leaders have created. The level of discourse may not necessarily always exhibit the civility of diplomatic ceremony, but it would not be hard for the conversation to achieve a far higher level of substance! If there is actually a point of agreement out there, we should be encouraging it as a point of departure, rather than deluding ourselves about any promises that were delivered "according to script" at the conclusion of the Annapolis event.

A(nother?) Vindication for Andrew Keen

Some readers may recall that back in July I reported on a Book TV broadcast of a "debate" (scare quotes intentionally added) over Andrew Keen's book, The Cult of the Amateur, that was held on June 6 at the Strand Bookstore in New York. The scare quotes have to do with the high level of speciousness in the arguments posed to refute Keen's claims around the theme of his book, that "the Internet is killing our culture." One of the attempted refutations came from Jeff Howell of Wired (who was supposed to be moderating the discussion), who waxed long and eloquent (This is "moderating?") over the "long tail effect." Keen's basic response was that, indeed, anyone (including all of the "amateurs" that occupy his book) out on the long tail could be "discovered" to the benefit of others; but he was skeptical that anyone could make money by being discoverable.

Keen's skepticism has now been confirmed with more specific data and analysis posted by Gordon Haff on his Pervasive Datacenter blog for CNET. The bottom line of his argument is that money is made on the long tail, rather than in it. Put another way, Amazon can (and probably does) make a healthy share of their revenue by aggregating a vast number of books, each of which is known to have very little appeal, and handling the sale of all of them. Any author of any of those books, however, is not going to earn enough for a loaf of bread off of the increased sales (s)he gets by virtue of being in the Amazon catalog.

This is really not a particularly profound insight. Back in my student days at MIT, we would have called it "intuitively obvious to the most casual observer." Nevertheless, it serves to reinforce why I keep invoking the Kool-Aid metaphor when I try to take on the deleterious consequences of technology evangelism. The problem is that such evangelism, not unlike most religious evangelism, so clouds our perceptions and judgments that we can no longer "casually observe" the world around us and arrive at even the most "intuitively obvious" conclusions. If they can ever get that Kool-Aid out of their system, would-be content providers should pay more attention to the wisdom of Lennie Tristano (originally formulated for his jazz students): If you really want to make a serious effort in providing the Internet with content that can be valuable to others, make sure you can support yourself with a day job!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Positive Chutzpah from Iran (of all Places)

Can it really be that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has never received a Chutzpah of the Week award? Checking my records, I was a bit surprised to discover that this is the case, particularly since he is now in the running for one with a positive connotation. Here are the grounds for the award, as reported in The Guardian by Robert Tait:

Having failed to win a response with an 18-page letter to President George Bush or to a request to visit the site of the September 11 2001 attack on New York, Ahmadinejad has offered himself as an observer in next year's presidential election.

This has got to be the best application of sauce-for-the-goose logic that I have encountered in some time. Needless to say, in the wake of our last two Presidential elections, there have been no end of jokes about a need for observers; but this one appears to be the real deal. My guess is that Ahmadinejad will be dismissed as he always has been; but, whatever his cultural biases may be, it is nice to see that he has a good intuitive grasp of the true nature of chutzpah!

The Laptop that Cried "Wolf"

In my last speculation about how future generations may socialize, I did not say anything about how those generations might be influenced by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement. Now that the laptop (called the XO) is finally being manufactured and distributed, the movement is getting a fair share of media coverage. Today's BBC News featured an interview with Walter Bender, one of the leaders of this movement, who is already apologizing for why it is not already an overnight success. From Bender's point of view, it is all the fault of politicians who, in the words of BBC reporter Jonathan Fildes, "were unwilling to commit because 'change equals risk'."

In Fildes' account the other side of the story comes from Nigeria:

In an interview with the BBC, Nigeria's education minister questioned the need for laptops in poorly equipped schools.

Dr Igwe Aja-Nwachuku said: "What is the essence of introducing One Laptop per Child when they don't have seats to sit down and learn; when they don't have uniforms to go to school in, where they don't have facilities?"

"We are more interested in laying a very solid foundation for quality education which will be efficient, effective, accessible and affordable."

The previous government of Nigeria had committed to buying one million laptops.

Dr Aja-Nwachuku said he was now assessing OLPC alongside other schemes from Microsoft and Intel.

"We are asking whether this is the most critical thing to drive education."

Last week a similar argument was posed to Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, when he was interviewed on PBS NewsHour. Negroponte blithely responded that having one of his laptops would be like having a teacher "24/7." I relayed this comment to my wife, who teaches middle school at an independent school; and she took that remark as an insult from someone who knows nothing about teaching in lower-education classrooms. My guess is that just about any teacher in the United States, if not the world, would agree with her, no matter how strenuous their particular classroom conditions may be.

What Negroponte seems to have overlooked is that an educational experience is as much about socialization as it is about "knowledge acquisition," a principle that been with us ever since it was documented by Plato. The alternative is that Negroponte did not overlook the principle and is simply assuming that socialization can take place through the laptop and on a scale far wider than any classroom could provide. If that is the case, then we probably ought to lock him in a room with Cory Doctorow and see which of them emerges intact. This would probably be a bit unfair, because my guess is that neither of them has put in any "trench time" at a real classroom with real kids (who do not always behave "according to plan"). Still my personal bias would be with Doctorow, just because he seems to have a better grasp of the concept of "consequences" and engages that concept in his evaluative methods!

It's About more than Advertising

Cory Doctorow has that admirable blend of logic and rhetoric that we used to take for granted in the writings of old-school columnists but is regarded today by all too many readers and publishers as pathetically old-fashioned. Thus, if for no other reason than a need to revive the quality reading habits that such old-school columnists could cultivate, the column he wrote yesterday for InformationWeek deserves attention. In many ways it is a follow-up to Friday's report by Anick Jesdanun and Rachel Metz of the Associated Press about Facebook's latest marketing strategy; but this is just the tip of Doctorow's iceberg. The entire iceberg involves a meticulous deconstruction of not only Facebook but also the broader concept of computer-based social networks, which builds up to the climactic conclusion that, when all the glitz is stripped away, these technologies are fundamentally antisocial.

From a rhetorical point of view, Doctorow has engaged one of the more popular genres among today's readers, the rant. Here is an example of the persiflage he engages to get the reader's attention:

Facebook is no paragon of virtue. It bears the hallmarks of the kind of pump-and-dump service that sees us as sticky, monetizable eyeballs in need of pimping. The clue is in the steady stream of emails you get from Facebook: "So-and-so has sent you a message." Yeah, what is it? Facebook isn't telling -- you have to visit Facebook to find out, generate a banner impression, and read and write your messages using the halt-and-lame Facebook interface, which lags even end-of-lifed email clients like Eudora for composing, reading, filtering, archiving and searching. Emails from Facebook aren't helpful messages, they're eyeball bait, intended to send you off to the Facebook site, only to discover that Fred wrote "Hi again!" on your "wall." Like other "social" apps (cough eVite cough), Facebook has all the social graces of a nose-picking, hyperactive six-year-old, standing at the threshold of your attention and chanting, "I know something, I know something, I know something, won't tell you what it is!"

However, once he has that attention, he then homes in on his true goal, which is to question whether or not any of this social networking technologies have any serious or lasting value:

The debate about redeeming Facebook starts from the assumption that Facebook is snowballing toward critical mass, the point at which it begins to define "the Internet" for a large slice of the world's netizens, growing steadily every day. But I think that this is far from a sure thing. Sure, networks generally follow Metcalfe's Law: "the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system." This law is best understood through the analogy of the fax machine: a world with one fax machine has no use for faxes, but every time you add a fax, you square the number of possible send/receive combinations (Alice can fax Bob or Carol or Don; Bob can fax Alice, Carol and Don; Carol can fax Alice, Bob and Don, etc).

But Metcalfe's law presumes that creating more communications pathways increases the value of the system, and that's not always true (see Brook's Law: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later").

Having watched the rise and fall of SixDegrees, Friendster, and the many other proto-hominids that make up the evolutionary chain leading to Facebook, MySpace, et al, I'm inclined to think that these systems are subject to a Brook's-law parallel: "Adding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance." Perhaps we can call this "boyd's Law" for danah boyd, the social scientist who has studied many of these networks from the inside as a keen-eyed net-anthropologist and who has described the many ways in which social software does violence to sociability in a series of sharp papers.

He then offers an illustration:

Here's one of boyd's examples, a true story: a young woman, an elementary school teacher, joins Friendster after some of her Burning Man buddies send her an invite. All is well until her students sign up and notice that all the friends in her profile are sunburnt, drug-addled techno-pagans whose own profiles are adorned with digital photos of their painted genitals flapping over the Playa. The teacher inveigles her friends to clean up their profiles, and all is well again until her boss, the school principal, signs up to the service and demands to be added to her friends list. The fact that she doesn't like her boss doesn't really matter: in the social world of Friendster and its progeny, it's perfectly valid to demand to be "friended" in an explicit fashion that most of us left behind in the fourth grade. Now that her boss is on her friends list, our teacher-friend's buddies naturally assume that she is one of the tribe and begin to send her lascivious Friendster-grams, inviting her to all sorts of dirty funtimes.

There is nothing new about such horror stories. We have heard more than enough of them, if not experienced any of them directly. The point of the illustration, however, is to demonstrate that the way in which we "network" in the real social world is a far cry from what technologies such as Facebook enable. Doctorow captures this nicely:

In the real world, we don't articulate our social networks.

Put more bluntly, a social network in the real world is not a database of links, no matter how much metadata you try to hang on to those links. Indeed, the ways in which we "link" in the real-world processes of socialization are far too fluid and context-dependent to ever be shoehorned into the simplistic technology of a database, no matter how large and complex the contents may be. For Doctorow this refutes his aforementioned proposition that Facebook will "define 'the Internet' for a large slice of the world's netizens;" but there can also be a more pessimistic reading, best explained by way of an analogy.

As an undergraduate I was fascinated by the question of whether or not a computer could compose music as well as a "real" composer. In one of my term papers, I came to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely that a computer would produce a composition that was up to the standards being taught and practiced in the middle of the twentieth century. However, I also suggested that the standards of a later age could well change, meaning that future audiences might derive more satisfaction from what a computer could compose than from any of the "outmoded" works of a Bach or a Beethoven. In a similar way Doctorow has not taken into account that socialization is what we perceive it to be. Thus, a future generation may actually "articulate" their social networks, even if we do not. From our point of view, such a generation would seem impoverished, if not pathological, perhaps along the lines of autistic symptoms. However, to that generation our point of view would be external and therefore of little significance. Thus, my pessimistic reading is that Facebook may well be inventing the future of socialization, whether we want it to or not!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sex in Another City

Critical as I have been about Wikipedia, I think that anyone planning to see the final performance of La Rondine at the San Francisco Opera this Thursday will probably benefit from the back-story on the Wikipedia page for that opera:

In October 1913, the directors of Vienna's Carltheater asked Puccini to compose an operetta. After confirming that it could take the form of a through-composed comic opera "like Rosenkavalier but more amusing and more organic," he agreed. For two years, the work proceeded slowly. Because of the outbreak of World War I, the contract was revised, the Viennese management released its rights to the opera’s première, and the neutral territory of Monte Carlo was selected for the opening.

In Italy Puccini tried to sell the rights to his editor Giulio Ricordi but he refused to buy them. Ricordi's rival, Sonzogno, did not think twice when he got the chance to finally get the rights to an opera by Italy's most famous living composer, but despite the artistic value of the score, La rondine was, through the years, one of Puccini's least successful operas.

La rondine shares some resemblance to Verdi's La traviata and one critic called it "the poor man's La traviata".

The Traviata connection is definitely there in this story of a demi-mondaine and the young man smitten by here; but the Rosenkavalier connection is also there since, ultimately, this is an opera about letting go, rather than dying, of love. By all rights La Bohème should be added to the mix, except that this time the focus is on "how the other half lives." I suppose the Carltheater management figured that Rosenkavalier was not playing well with the masses, but Puccini did not exactly have a reputation for comic opera when they approached him. As to whether or not he could be "organic," my personal feeling is that he hit his peak on that score with Tosca, after which it ceased to occupy him as a priority.

So "one of Puccini's least successful operas" has come to San Francisco by way of Covent Garden and the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, most likely as a vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu, who recorded it with her husband, Roberto Alagna, in 1997. Comparisons to other operas aside, the best way to treat this may be as an extended (to two-and-a-quarter hours) episode of Sex in the City (just as I have always felt that Art was, more than anything else, a ninety-minute episode of Seinfeld, whatever the cultural background of its author may have been). That extension is definitely longer than anything Candace Bushnell could sustain; and I rather wish that conductor Ion Marin had brought a better sense of pace to the timing of the three acts, more along the lines of what Massimo Zanetti had brought to Macbeth. San Francisco had to wait for quite some time for Gheorghiu to grace us with her presence. I just wish that, for all that waiting, we could have enjoyed something more "organic," as the Carltheater management put it.

On Asking the Right Questions about Communities

I was a senior in high school the year that Lord of the Flies came out in paperback, and I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who decided that our class should include the book in its curriculum for the year. Before we began she read us a long and tedious essay that William Golding had published, most of which had almost no impact on any of us. However, Golding did end the essay on an intriguing note. I cannot remember the exact words; but, invoking Pontius Pilate, Golding wrote something like, "The fool ends a discussion by asking, 'What is truth?' The wise man uses the question to begin the discussion."

In retrospect this is just the sort of thing that appeals to a high school mind that grasps slogans more readily than concepts and theories. (Lord knows, there are enough of those slogans in Lord of the Flies!) Nevertheless, the underlying principle reminds me of just what it is that aggravates me so much in all of that Web 2.0 evangelism, particularly when the sloganeering turns to communities. That aggravation lies in the overwhelming flood of text, whether within the authoritarian disguise of a book cover or in the unedited blogosphere where confusion can be paraded as a virtue, that purports to deliver "answers" about the nature of communities and how that nature is thriving in the world the Internet has made. By Golding's principle the authors of these texts are all fools, because few, if any, discussions are being held based on first trying to identify the right questions to ask about the impact of current technology on the nature of communities. This was driven home to me when I received a belated comment, from Kai-Uwe Hellman, to a post I wrote back in August in which I tried to lay out the basic principles of interaction rituals. Hellman shares my frustration with the high level of confusion within the "communicative traffic" (his phrase) about communities; and he wants to ask why that level of confusion is so high and, in a related vein, why there should be so much hype (his word choice) over a concept that is so poorly understood in the first place. He also wishes to ask about the validity of one of the fundamental propositions posed by Ferdinand Tönnies, that the very sense of community will be inevitably lost with the expansion of the modern market society (which I happen to see as the "manifest destiny" of the Internet). From this stance he does not see Erving Goffman as a key participant in the discussion, since interaction rituals have more to do with maintaining and sustaining communities but may not figure in their potential demise.

Honoring Golding's principle, I would like to add to this discussion without suggesting that it will be concluded with any answers. Regarding the Tönnies thesis, I have to confess that I shall have to do more reading before delving into his argument structure. Nevertheless, I should note here that I find it interesting (if not logically indicative) that Robert Putnam's "bowling alone" study of the decline of "social capital" in the United States, best known from his 2001 book but introduced in an essay written in 1995, seems to have fallen off the radar of public attention. Putnam did Golding one better: He began by collecting data. The data collection process was probably motivated by questions, probably along the lines of those inspired by Tönnies; but Putnam could then use the data to pose more specific questions. His effort to start a discussion was a noble one, but his voice has now been drowned out by the chaos of all those technology evangelists.

This raises Hellman's more serious questions about the investment of so much "communicative traffic" that does little more than advertise the confusion of the "traffickers?" Those last scare quotes may contain the seed of an answer that needs to be further cultivated, since I deliberately chose a noun whose primary connotation involves marketing narcotics and other illegal substances. It may well be that the behavior that Hellman is examining is a product of a "doubled-edged sword of addiction." One edge involves the addictive nature of Internet usage itself; and the other is that consumerism, in any setting, is also addictive. To the extent that addiction impedes judgment, we often encounter addicts who bubble over with the surface appearances of creative insights; but, when those insights are examined in the harsh light of sobriety, they are rife with fallacies and misperceptions. This is why the Kool-Aid now associated with Jonestown has become such a popular metaphor, since it captures so perfectly how destructive (even to the self) such thinking can be. In other words those who try to cultivate discussion around serious questions are impeded by those who traffic in confusion as a consequence of their addictions. Thus, the loss of community that Tönnies feared may emerge as a side-effect of a broader problem concerned with the loss of communication (which, in turn, would probably reflect back on Max Weber's concerns about the loss of meaning).

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Between Two Nimrods

I am not sure who tried to turn "nimrod" into a derogatory common noun; but I take some comfort from the fact that the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary does not recognize that definition. It rather pollutes a proper appreciation of both the composition and the performance of Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations;" and I think too highly of Elgar to ignore such slights to his memory. In that context I find myself reflecting on how Yuri Temirkanov's selection of the ninth of these variations (whose "enigmatic" title is "Nimrod") as an encore had me look back upon my previous experience of hearing this work in concert (in its entirety) and forward to last night's performance by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. Not counting my having seen Frederick Ashton's choreographic interpretation of this music, that previous experience was the first time I had heard a "live" performance; and at that performance Norman del Mar led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra when they were performing at the Purchase campus of the State University of New York a little over two decades ago. Until I heard Elgar's first symphony for the first time, I had associated the composer with the jingoistic sentimentality of his "Pomp and Circumstance" marches; but I heard in that symphony the same kind of emotional depth that I had previously found only in the music of Gustav Mahler. Thus, I was not surprised to learn, initially through Ashton's choreography, about the depressive nature of Elgar's character. I suppose there are still those who find all this excessive sentimental indulgence, just as Harold Schoenberg could never get beyond calling Mahler a "cry-baby." Del Mar, on the other hand, conducted this music as a highly personal examination of Elgar's self in the setting of those who meant the most to him. The "decoding" of the title of the ninth variation refers to August Jaeger (whose name means "hunter" in German, as Nimrod was the "mighty hunter" in Genesis), who was second only to Elgar's wife in sustaining him through many of the worst of his depressions. The variation is a pivotal point in the whole set, and del Mar knew exactly how to make it function in that role, only to surface again in the triumphant finale of the concluding variation.

By selecting this variation as an encore, Temirkanov detached it from its context. Only those of us with a strong sense of the entire cycle could appreciate that he understood the shadings of tone and orchestration through which Elgar could reflect back on his personal agonies and those who tried to make them more endurable. Neither Temirkanov nor his Saint Petersburg Philharmonic could claim a "native" understanding of Elgar's cultural context the way del Mar could with his ensemble; but the Russians knew how to let the music speak for itself. The result, for me at least, was the reminder of a performance to come and the opportunity to hear the full set of variations in their entirety.

As an American, Slatkin had no more claim to the British mentality than Temirkanov did; but he, too, knew how to let the music speak for itself. He found his own voice most notably in a surging approach to crescendos that I had not recalled in del Mar's interpretation (which, admittedly, was some time ago). This was most evident in the finale, which is very much a bursting forth from the shadows of depression into a blazing light. It demands a might sound from the orchestra, which does not deteriorate into reckless blaring. With all of their Mahler experience, the San Francisco Symphony knows how to do this; and they could provide Slatkin with just the right shaping that his interpretation required. This was also true of the entire cycle, which, from the point of view of the respective lengths of the variations, is not as neatly balanced as most variation sets are. Like del Mar, Slatkin knew how the pace the work in the large, treating the brief and impulsive variations, such as the bulldog antics of the eleventh, with a mercurial spontaneity while letting the more expansive variations, such as "Nimrod," "expand" to fill the requisite "emotional space." Ultimately, this performance was a reminder that this work is not performed frequently enough; but I was glad to see that we have conductors from both Russia and the United States who can do as much justice to this work as the British have done.

On the other hand Slatkin also has the advantage of excelling in American music, including works that also do not receive enough performances. This was evident in his performance of Samuel Barber's piano concerto with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. This is also a work of grand sounds, but there is nothing British about Barber's grandeur. His talent for sharp bright orchestral colors is matched by an aggressive approach to counter-rhythms at the keyboard. As The New York Times recently observed when Vanessa was revived at New York City Opera, Barber was dismissed as excessively sentimental in his own time due to his rejection of all the more cerebral experiments taking place, particularly around the serial approach to composition. It is only now that we have put that ideology at a safe distance that we can begin to appreciate the virtues of the voice he found for himself. Both Slatkin and Ohlsson had no shortage of that appreciation; and, while many of the melodic and contrapuntal contortions were not easy for the "newcomer" ear to follow, their performance left me (at least) with a desire to hear more of this work. In other words they both exercised the virtues of concert programming to the best of their abilities.

With all of those large sounds, Slatkin also made the judicious choice of beginning with the smaller scale of a Haydn symphony, Number 67 in F major. Haydn is, of course, known for the sense of wit that he could bring to his compositions; and in this symphony he is at the top of his game. Slatkin, in turn, found just the right lightness of touch to allow each of Haydn's almost throw-away gestures prod the ear into the recognition that this was not just another symphony. Particularly amusing was his decision to render the trio of the Menuetto movement as a duet for the leaders of the first and second violin sections. Since this was a mini-excursion into chamber music, Slatkin just stood there, watching attentively, while Alexander Barantschik and Dan Nobuhiko Smiley took the spotlight. Then, after starting the orchestra on the da capo, Slatkin took a few bills from his pocket and offered them each a "fee" for their service, which fit in nicely with the good humor of the event, even if it did not fit the customs of Haydn's time. The audience "got" the spirit of the joke and acknowledge it by applauding after the movement had finished.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is the Electoral Process in Crisis?

Today's news from Moscow, pulled from the wire services first (once again) by Al Jazeera English, reminds us that the electoral crisis in Russia is as great as it is in Pakistan. The two situations are unpleasantly parallel: Groups opposed to the administration in power try to organize protests over the fairness (or lack thereof) of the electoral process and are stopped in their tracks by the exercise of brute force. The only thing more unpleasant is the extent to which our own President has declared the leaders of these two countries to be his "soul-mates." If our President is sincere in this particular "declaration from the heart," one has to wonder where the affinity lies. Is the Bush administration observing (if not using) Pakistan and Russia as "laboratories" for testing hypotheses concerned with how administrative authority can control the electoral process? Considering the disarray in the activities leading up to the selection of a candidate from the Democratic party, the investigation of such hypotheses may be unnecessary. On the other hand, if one takes approval ratings into account, the current power structure is going to need more than yet another close-call decision resulting from a confused and frustrated electorate. They are going to need a slam-dunk, which seems as unlikely as ever in a country that continues to be so ideologically divided (possibly as a consequence of the machinations of that current power structure). The hypothesis that "the rest of us" should be exploring is whether or not our administration will play a state-of-emergency card not unlike the one recently played in Pakistan. At the very least this is a time when the other two branches of our government should own up to the extent to which our separation-of-powers principles have been so severely strained and exercise the full extent of their respective authorities to right the balance before that balance is knocked off of its pedestal!

Meanwhile, a report filed by Enrique Andres Pretel for Reuters indicates that at least one of our President's nemeses may be facing a similar situation:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has lost his lead eight days before a referendum on ending his term limit, an independent pollster said on Saturday, in a swing in voter sentiment against the Cuba ally.

Forty-nine percent of likely voters oppose Chavez's proposed raft of constitutional changes to expand his powers, compared with 39 percent in favor, a survey by respected pollster Datanalisis showed.

Just weeks ago, Chavez had a 10-point lead for his proposed changes in the OPEC nation that must be approved in a referendum, the polling company said.

The setting for this particularly story, however, is different from those in Russia and Pakistan. It may well be that Venezuelans are cultivating a new "sense of self" in the global arena, due as much to a cultural identity being promoted by Gustavo Dudamel as to the economic impact of their oil resources. That sense of self is also a sense of respect, which may have been strained by the sort of public face that Chavez presented, not only in his confrontation with the King of Spain but also in his behavior at the recent OPEC summit. On the other hand Luis Vicente Leon, who runs Datanalisis, is cautioning us all to remember that Chavez still controls powerful political machinery; so his referendum could still pass with the sort of slam-dunk which our own administration so covets. Nevertheless, the poll results give us an appreciation for the global scope of the values upon which our own country was founded and should remind us that those values can no longer be confined to our own (idiosyncratic or ideological?) national perspective.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The True Colors of Facebook

Hopefully, anyone still entertaining serious thoughts about a role for Facebook in an enterprise software suite has been tracking (pun intended) the consequences of the latest marketing strategy implemented by the social networking company. Here is some background leading up to the current state of play as reported by Anick Jesdanun and Rachel Metz of the Associated Press:

Facebook has long prided itself on guarding its users' privacy, but the walls have gradually lowered. In 2006, a "news feeds" feature allowing users to track changes friends make to profiles backfired when many users denounced it as stalking and threatened protests. Facebook quickly apologized and agreed to let users turn off the feature.

The new program lets companies tap ongoing conversations by alerting users about friends' activities through the feeds. About 40 Web sites have decided to embed a free tool from Facebook, known as a Beacon, to enable the marketing feeds.

This has led to the following conditions:

Some users of the online hangout Facebook are complaining that its two-week-old marketing program is publicizing their purchases for friends to see.

Those users say they never noticed a small box that appears on a corner of their Web browsers following transactions at Fandango, Overstock and other online retailers. The box alerts users that information is about to be shared with Facebook unless they click on "No Thanks." It disappears after about 20 seconds, after which consent is assumed.

Users are given a second notice the next time they log on to Facebook, but they can easily miss it if they quickly click away to visit a friend's page or check e-mail.

In other words users can opt out of this marketing system, but they have to be very alert to do so. Furthermore, as the AP team noted, they can only do this on a site-by-site basis. This is likely to lead to an "arms race" among the commercial sites over who can come up with the most clever ways of concealing the "No Thanks" box without overtly eliminating it.

In attempting to identify just who is responsible for this current state of affairs, the AP reporters ran into what has become the usual "nobody's fault" syndrome. In this particular case Fandango referred them to Facebook, which defended its strategy emphasizing that it was through advertising that they could offer their service free of charge. Thus, the only real result has been a well-written report about how a new sector of the Internet population is learning about consequences.

All this leads me to wonder just where JP Rangaswami is over at confused of calcutta when it comes to the consequences of deploying Facebook in an enterprise setting. I have already take issue with one of the longer poles in his tent:

Facebook is not a “social networking” site. It is a community of communities. Now this is potentially of immense value in an enterprise, if we use it sensibly.

At the time he made this claim, I focused my attention of how specious his reasoning about communities was. Now we see that, whatever his logic may have been, Facebook, itself, really does not care. Facebook is a business, like any other, which means that their highest (only?) priority is revenue. They see this as an opportunity to beef up their revenue, provided they get a few bugs out of the system. Unfortunately, in an enterprise setting, those bugs are likely to reveal more than buying preferences; they are a new source of data that can be mined for espionage intelligence, opening a fault line on the playing field where competitive advantages are determined. In other words it was not just the JP fumbled the basic ontological nature of communities but that, in his fumble, he neglected to account for the extent to which different communities may compete with each other.

This has been a sobering experience for me. I used to read confused of calcutta because it prompted me to new ways of thinking about the role of the social world in enterprise operations, particularly when technology is involved in those operations. Now I am beginning to read it as just another blog, where the gut-level faith of the author can soar blithely above the hard evidence of reason. I have grown tired of that game and no longer wish to play it. Using such sites as a venue for trying to move enterprise software to a better place is a losing battle. These days I feel it is more important to dispense with the Kool-Aid of technology evangelism and track the news for the sake of issuing "early warnings" to defend against the next forays that those enterprises will make in trying to run our lives!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Russian Sound?

The sound of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic continues to ring in my ears, even while my wife and I have escaped to the splendid isolation (sort of) of Fort Bragg for one of our "beer runs." (The town has an impressively imaginative brewery.) I already mentioned the way in which Yuri Temirkanov "worked" the low strings in his approach to the Beethoven violin concerto. I realize that he also did not neglect them when conducting Mozart, and in the Prokofiev fifth they were reinforced by low brass resources that were not available to Mozart and Beethoven. Considering this alongside the tradition of the sound of a Russian bass voice makes me wonder whether or not there is some "natural affinity" for the lower register in Russian tradition. On further reflection, however, I realize that one could probably come up with as many counter-examples as examples. I remember the particularly high strings in the Shostakovich fifth, whose very tension always seems to derive from the effort to reach up yet another semitone. Thus, it may not be anything characteristically Russian as much as a "Temirkanov sound," which exhibits a palette of colors decidedly different from those of Valery Gergiev, the only other Russian conductor to whom I have listened with more than passing attention.

All this reminds me of the recent appearance of a new translation of War and Peace. We seem to be in the midst of a major reexamination of the role of the Russian language in Russian literature. Those of us who do not know Russian have had to rely almost entirely on the impressively prodigious efforts of Constance Garnett and those who followed in her path, providing us with no end of fascinating plots rendered pretty much in the language of Victorian novels. The new translation is the collaborative work of two experts in the composition of text, one in English (Richard Pevear) and the other in Russian (Larissa Volokhonsky). Through their own prodigious efforts, this team has finally brought us the understanding that Tolstoy, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and all the others did not speak in the common "voice" that Garnett had fashioned for them.

Similarly, Gergiev and Temirkanov do not speak in a common voice, any more than, to use my previous example, Wilhelm Furtwängler spoke in the same voice as Arturo Toscanini. The good news is that live performances are as diverse as they ever were, and we have much to gain from them. The bad news is that recording technology often tends to smooth over those differences, particularly when they involve control of dynamics and sound color. Thus, in an age in which touring becomes both more difficult and more expensive, it is unfortunately that fewer and fewer parts of the world can appreciate all the diversity now available to us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Focusing the Chutzpah

I just saw that the D-Day blog has its own post about the target of this week's Chutzpah award. What I found interesting, however, was that this account was a follow-up to an earlier post that may indicate a pattern of economic skullduggery at the expense of our armed forces. Here is the topic of the prior post:

The Bush administration is threatening that it will issue furlough notices to up to 150,000 civilian workers at military bases in mid-December if Congress does not approve unrestricted Iraq funding immediately. As part of this campaign, the Pentagon is distributing a document warning that the Army may cease to function if it does not receive the funds now. (View the document here.)

Perhaps I was too generous in the breadth of the award. Rather than distribute it over the entire Executive Branch, why not just aim it directly at the Commander in Chief, who seems to have decided that nothing, whether it is respect for our troops or recognition of their support structure, will stand in the way of his getting what he wants. In other words our President seems to have discovered how effective hostage-taking can be as an act of terrorism; so he has decided to apply terrorist strategies to get the Congress to submit to his will. For those keeping score this would put our President's "Chutzpah Count" up to five (and it seems like only yesterday that a friend asked me over drinks why I had not yet given Bush any awards)!

When it Ceases to be Chutzpah

I received a comment about this week's Chutzpah of the Week award, which demonstrated that the case I had cited occurs in other countries and other bureaucratic settings. Actually, I had been thinking about this (but still in a military setting) last night, when I was reading Robert Stone's review of Tom Bissell's new book, The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, in The New York Review. The heart of this book is about a trip that the author made with his father, who had served as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam and was wounded there, to return to visit Vietnam. Stone's review is highly favorable, but I was particularly struck by his own sense of priorities:

The most successful combination of the book's several elements—and the most harrowing—is the section that records both Bissells' visit to the hamlet of Tu Cong, notoriously misidentified by the US Army as My Lai, in Quang Ngai province. As "My Lai" it because and remains one of the famous atrocities of war and "an ethical catastrophe," in Tom Bissell's words, for the United States.

For those unfamiliar with this incident, the heart of the catastrophe involved at least a hundred children under the age of five dying under fire from our troops. I suspect the reason Stone put such a high value on this part of the book is because of what the elder Bissell told his son, "What you don't understand is that things like My Lai happened all the time on a much smaller scale." This, for me, had far more impact than any of the reflections, however sincere they may have been, of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, simply because the elder Bissell was there on the ground, while McNamara was safe in his office dealing with the "fire" of nothing more than complex analytical reports. So it is that, while I would never accuse anyone living under fire (or threat of fire) of chutzpah, those conditions make the chutzpah of the bureaucrats who manipulate their fates all the more in need of recognition.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Military Chutzpah

George Bernard Shaw gave the best line of The Devil's Disciple to General Burgoyne: "The British soldier can stand up to anything … except the British War Office." Early in the week as it may be, the Executive Branch of our government has, once again, earned a Chutzpah of the Week award by demonstrating that they can be an even greater threat to our troops than the British War Office was in Shaw's play. The evidence can be found on Steve Benen's Carpetbagger Report site:

When Jordan Fox was serving in Iraq, his mother helped organize Operation Pittsburgh Pride, which sends thousands of care packages to U.S. troops from his hometown, which prompted a personal “thank you” from the White House. When Fox was seriously injured in Iraq, the president sent what appeared to be personal note, expressing his concerns to the Fox family.

But more recently, Fox received a different piece of correspondence from the Bush administration.

The U.S. Military is demanding that thousands of wounded service personnel give back signing bonuses because they are unable to serve out their commitments.

To get people to sign up, the military gives enlistment bonuses up to $30,000 in some cases.

Now men and women who have lost arms, legs, eyesight, hearing and can no longer serve are being ordered to pay some of that money back.

I watched the report from the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, and I kept thinking, “This can’t be right.” Apparently, it is.

In Jordan Fox’s case, he was seriously injured when a roadside bomb blew up his vehicle, causing back injuries and blindness in his right eye. He was sent home, unable to complete the final three months of his military commitment.

Last week, the Pentagon sent him a bill: Fox owed the government nearly $3,000 of his signing bonus.

It is almost disrespectful to a soldier like Fox to make a joke out of what has happened to him, but that just means that there is nothing funny about a Department of Defense whose greatest accomplishment in the current administration may have been the discover of how to add insult to injury. We should remember that this is the same Department of Defense that has sent our troops over to Iraq with inadequate resources and then tended the wounded with inadequate medical care. This is chutzpah of the highest order, and it is a story that deserves to be told to all with ears to hear. The general public may not be interested in the intricacies of how our government makes its decisions, but they know when they are being played for suckers.

A Russian Experience

I first began thinking seriously about the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic after reading Anthony Tommasini's glowing account of their performance at Carnegie Hall on October 30. From his very first paragraph it was clear that what Tommasini had enjoyed the most was the uniqueness of the experience:
Classical music is supposedly in a period when national traditions and performance styles are losing their distinctions in an increasingly homogenized musical world. Don’t tell that to the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov and the players of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
The program he described began with the overture to Le Nozze di Figaro, following by Beethoven's violin concerto with German soloist Julia Fischer. Only after the intermission did Temirkanov venture into Russian territory with Sergei Prokofiev's fifth symphony. Here is Tommasini's summary of the non-Russian portion:
Whatever the case, I have never heard a performance of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” Overture quite like this one. The tempo was superfast, the energy nonstop. The way the violins played the quiet, scurrying opening, the 16th-notes were so hushed and blurred, the theme came across as a slightly ominous rumble. In this context the sudden bursts of fortissimo exuberance were almost shocking.

In Beethoven’s Violin Concerto the soloist was Julia Fischer, a brilliant, musically insightful young German violinist. You might have thought that bringing a German artist into the mix would have diminished the Russian-ness of the performance. But Ms. Fischer entered completely into the spirit of Mr. Temirkanov’s approach.
It is very rare these days that a review leaves me feeling as if I had missed out on something important; but, when I realized that this same program was scheduled for performance at Davies Symphony Hall last night, I knew I had to hear it. It took a bit to persuade my wife, since it was a "school night;" but I managed to prevail. I can now state that I have absolutely no regrets about my spontaneous decision.

What Tommasini failed to mention was Temirkanov himself. He strikes a commanding figure with a strong theatrical sense of presence that recalls Leopold Stokowski. Like Stokowski, he conducts without a baton but with his entire body. However, once the music starts, his appearance is far from intimidating, as his body language delves into all of the intimate details that support the notes themselves. Some might see this as egocentric display, recalling the most irritating antics of Leonard Bernstein; but the attention of the orchestra is so fixed on him that one has to recognize this as an authentic communicative bond. The proof of the pudding, of course, is the performance of the music itself and the way in which one feels one is listening to old friends for the very first time.

Tommasini was certainly right about the energy in the Mozart, although I would not call the ensemble playing blurred. However, to draw upon an old New Yorker profile of Zubin Mehta, Temirkanov tends to deliver the "vroom" style of Wilhelm Furtwängler, rather than the "pah!" style of Arturo Toscanini. This means that the clarity is not as sharp as cut glass, but it is far from blurred. It certainly did not jeopardize the spirit of the music, which, of course, is set by the context of the entire opera.

One could better appreciate Temirkanov's approach in the Beethoven. Yes, Fischer and Temirkanov were definitely of a common mind in how this piece was delivered; but I am not sure that Temirkanov was the dominating force. Fischer is that rare soloist who realizes that soft passages can speak with more impact that loud ones. At critical moments she could drop her dynamic down to a hushed sigh, and Temirkanov was positively awesome in making sure that she was never overwhelmed by the orchestra. This primarily involved bringing his entire violin section down to that same dynamic level, not an easy job but one for which that "authentic communicative bond" served him excellently. Note that I focused on the violin section. Much of the overall sound of the orchestra came from the low strings, who could invest more dynamic in the interest of providing Fischer with a foundation without drowning out her soft subtleties.

This is actually the second time I have had this sort of "first hearing" experience with the Beethoven war-horse. The first was a few seasons ago, when Midori performed it with the San Francisco Symphony under David Effron. Midori teased out new meaning in phrasing the way Fischer discovered it in dynamics. Both soloists benefitted from the solid support of an intelligence conductor leading a first-rate orchestra. My first experience was American; this one was European. If this keeps up, I shall start expecting that every performance will provide a new "first hearing," which would not be such a bad idea!

Regular readers know that I am not one to place Prokofiev in the same company with Mozart and Beethoven. I have called him a "burned-out firebrand" and celebrated his raucous qualities. His fifth symphony gives us more of the raucous, but without the cinematic backup of his Alexander Nevsky music. The Andante and Adagio movements are meditative, but the seem to be meditating more on big sounds than anything else. The scherzo between them seems to have picked up a pop-style cadence and keeps tossing it around the way a dog would a stuffed toy. As is the case with the dog, the novelty wears off before the enthusiasm. The final movement pulls out all the stops for both energy and sound, somewhat like a locomotive pulling a train too fast to control. Needless to say, this was where one could appreciate all the machinery behind Temirkanov's technique as a conductor and the fearlessness of his musicians to follow him anywhere. Tommasini invoked the spirit of Looney Tunes, but there was too much seriousness of purpose for that metaphor to stick. I prefer the locomotive metaphor, because one listens in the fear that the entire ensemble will derail; but Temirkanov's hand is too steady to allow that to happen.

Tommasini did not write anything about encores, but we got two of them in San Francisco. The first was the "Nimrod" variation from Edward Elgar's "Enigma" set; the second was the opening adagio for the Nutcracker pas de deux. In other words there was again a pairing of non-Russian and Russian. Elgar, of course, could be a master of large and grand sounds; and, aside from an occasional bulldog gesture or two, one could hardly accuse him of being raucous. "Nimrod" is both grand and sublime; and Temirkanov understood how to give it just the right sound quality. However, he did exactly the same for Tchaikovsky, whose language was far more limited and whose grandeur had been composed in the service of a pair of highly skilled dancers. He thus displayed that he was perfectly at home in just about any corner of today's repertoire, which is the most important thing that a conductor can be these days.

Is Opera Facing an Ontological Challenge?

It is not often that I get accused of being too nice, but that seems to have occurred in the wake of my efforts to set down my thoughts about the current production of Macbeth at the San Francisco Opera. This morning I read electronic mail from a friend who shares our box with us that accused me of being "WAAAAY too easy on the production." Given that I do not think I stinted on what I called "the down-side of the performance," I decided to reflect on what I wrote and why I wrote it.

Probably the most important thing I have learned from my experiences in criticism (starting with my work in the print media during my graduate student days) is that you have to pick your battles. Personally, I do not think very much of Macbeth as an opera. Yes, he and Piave did not take that many liberties with the dramatic conception; but, as far as I am concerned, there is no comparison between Boito's approach to Othello and Piave's treatment of Macbeth. Boito had a far more comprehensive understanding of both drama in general and Shakespeare in particular; and, as a result, he brought out some of the best in Verdi. Without being too dismissive about the whole thing, Macbeth is much more of an "entertainment" for the Italians (and later the French) of its day; and, from that point of view, I cannot be as provoked by a director who chooses to turn that "entertainment" into a Castro Street Halloween Party than I would be by one who took comparable liberties with Otello!

Then there is another point about my personal context. My wife and I first saw Macbeth at the Met when Peter Hall directed a new production for them. That production could well have gone into the record books as the worst Met production in the Eighties. Hall decided he was going to "fly" the witches, Peter Pan style; and the result was this confused muddle of women trying to sing while hanging on to their broomsticks for dear life. Then he had the idea of having Banquo's seat at the banquet on a platform that could descend below the stage and rise up again. The idea was that, in dark lighting, the seat could drop down and return with a bloody Banquo sitting on it. Not only did the device not work; but Hall insisted on having the image come and go, following the letter of Piave's text. This basically turned Banquo's ghost into a Jack-in-the-box, leading to my only experience of hearing audible titters from a Met audience! So, I have seen far worse things done to this opera than what I saw on Sunday! The fact that I could make it through the whole production without any titters or derisive laughter (like my reaction to the Venusberg ballet in the recent production of Tannhäuser) was a bit of a comfort for me, however small it may have been!

Having said all that, I think there is a broader basis for why this production of Macbeth should have provoked such negative responses; and that perspective can be found in my earlier efforts to write about postmodern approaches to staging opera. Nevertheless, as I tried to make clear, that post was one of "explanation rather than advocacy." Some postmodern approaches turn out to be a colossal waste of everyone's time (on both sides of the curtain); but there are plenty of more traditional productions that turn out to be just as catastrophic.

My feeling is that, when done with a seriousness of purpose and execution, postmodernism can offer an alternative point of view that departs from our conventional ways of thinking about what is being offered. Like most fairy tails, Hansel and Gretel, which I wrote about in the earlier post, is a scary story; but our century has inured us to the images and concepts that frightened our ancestors from earlier centuries. The postmodern production I described in my post tried to restore the disquieting impact of the story; and I was quite happy with how it worked when I saw it, first on the Ovation Channel and then at the San Francisco Opera. Similarly, the Tannhäuser story does not hold up very well against our own way of thinking; so Graham Vick's production explored alternative paths to get us to think more about its underlying themes. Both of these productions had a point of view that could hold my attention. The problem with Macbeth was that its points of view were scattered so far and wide over the map that it really did not have any "real" point of view. I can credit the designers of Hansel and Gretel and Tannhäuser with having given serious reflection to their task; I cannot give comparable credit to David Pountney.

However, there is a deeper question that underlies the decision to take a postmodern approach at all. I suspect that my interest in postmodernism has a lot to do with just where opera stands in our contemporary ontology, so to speak. The earliest operas were primarily about spectacle (as in Aristotle's use of the term in his "Poetics") and were usually little more than an entertaining distraction. Those "roots" were still pretty firmly in place as late as the nineteenth century. Then the twentieth century started to rock the boat, first with new conceptions of what opera should be (probably best realized by Alban Berg) and then with new ways of thinking about old operas. These days, in the face of so many competing "entertaining distractions," the boat is rocking more than ever, which makes things awfully hard for those of us who might want to reflect, rather than be distracted!

On the other hand I know full well that my opinion is not reflected by most of the people who buy tickets to the San Francisco Opera (let alone those who make the biggest donations that keep that "boat," to continue the metaphor, afloat in the first place). It is bad enough that opera does not know what it wants to be these days; worse yet is that it no longer knows how to market itself. So it tries lots of things, just as Roosevelt tried any number of things to get our country out of the Great Depression. A better world for opera is not "just around the corner;" so I do what I can to get something out of each attempt that I encounter!

Monday, November 19, 2007

MACBETH at the San Francisco Opera

I had experimented with some clever titles for this post. However, there is so much controversy surrounding the new production of Macbeth at the San Francisco Opera that I decided that the direct approach was the best one. I had all sorts of early warning before going over to the War Memorial Opera House yesterday afternoon, but I did my best to keep an open mind that would be prepared to receive anything.

So let me start with a few positive observations. I really liked the way in which Massimo Zanetti conducted Verdi. There are a lot of sharp contrasts in Verdi's music, and Zanetti knew how to execute them without blowing them out of proportion. He also knew how to keep things moving, even when all action freezes for the sake of the music. This was his San Francisco Opera debut; and, while Verdi is far from my favorite composer, I would certainly appreciate the opportunity to hear more of his work.

Also, let me go on record (for a change) agreeing with Joshua Kosman's Chronicle review stating that Thomas Hampson's performance of Macbeth is the high point of the entire affair. I was prepared for this after I heard him participate in the "Insight Panel" that the Opera organized a few evening before the first performance. His comment was that opera, particularly traditional "grand" opera, is not about plot; it is about understanding the nature of the characters who are enmeshed (my word, not his) in the plot. This is what extended arias (and sometimes duets or even larger ensembles) bring to the whole affair. This is not a particularly earthshaking observation. However, the point is that Hampson understands it at the gut-level of his own performance technique; and the way in which he applied it to the character of Macbeth made the entire production worth seeing. This is particularly true in Verdi's most important departure from Shakespeare. Rather than setting the "Tomorrow" monologue, he set an "invented" text by Francesco Maria Piave (as in Rigoletto, Traviata, and many of the other Verdi war-horses), in which Macbeth speculates on how he will be remembered. All this happens before he learns of his wife's death, after which the whole "Tomorrow" speech collapses down to a single line of recitative.

This replacement has interesting dramatic implications. Dispensing with the Aristotelian "arc," Shakespeare puts Macbeth on a direct line of descent, which culminates in that monologue of unfeeling nihilism. Piave (perhaps with input from Verdi or, for all I know, the first baritone to sing Macbeth) decided that, at the end of his line, he should reveal at least a glimmer of humanity; and Hampson was, in many ways, just the right kind of performer, in terms of both voice and stage presence, to work that glimmer for all it was worth. Given the context of the rest of the performance, it was an extremely welcome moment.

This brings me to the down-side of the performance. By all rights Lady Macbeth needs to be as strong as Macbeth, if not, out of a sense of duty to Shakespeare, stronger. Georgina Lukás brought a lot of physical strength to her performance. Unfortunately, it seemed to interfere with her singing on pitch. In the few passages where she was singling along with Hampson, both her pitch and the blend of their voices were fine; and, for the rest of the performance, it sounded as if she could not hear the orchestra. (One of my friends told me not to rule that out as an explanation, claiming that there are a lot of strange things about the Opera House acoustics.) Another explanation may be that the staging conceived by David Pountney and executed by Nicola Raab demanded so much from her that her voice ended up taking a back seat in the overall production values.

Those production values were, indeed, extremely busy; so I would certainly be willing to forgive Lukás for being preoccupied with so many other things. However, to the extent that the resulting production threw in everything but the kitchen sink (such as hula hoops and typewriters), we have the ask the cui bono question: Who benefitted from all of that excess? Many felt that Tannhäuser was excessive without benefit, and I suppose the fact that I ended up writing three extended posts about it entailed some level of excess on my own part. However, Graham Vick chose to throw a new light on an old story; and his new light, at least in my opinion, enhanced the way we think about the old story. Pountney was taking on an "old story" familiar to far more people than the Tannhäuser story; and, while a new light would have a benefit, it was far less clear just what the light was. For my part I am still not sure.

One thing that Pountney seems to have wanted was to have us pay a bit more attention to Fleance, Banquo's son who will begin a new line of Scottish kings. So we see the child squatting on the ground, front and center, during the final chorus during which Malcolm's troops celebrate their victory over Macbeth with a goose-step parade. I suppose this was Pountney's way of saying, "The story doesn't end here. It will not come to closure until Fleance's line begins." However, this did not matter very much to Shakespeare; and I am not sure that it mattered very much to me.

Needless to say, the goose-stepping was but one of many gestures designed to shock without any clear sense of the thoughts intended to be provoked. Consider another one of Verdi's departures from Shakespeare, his decision to delete Lady Macbeth's prayer to be "unsexed" to be better fit for the deeds that are about to ensure. There is a lot of eroticism in the relation between Macbeth and his wife; and, given her dominance in their engagements, there were times when I was wondering if I was watching an operatic setting of Double Indemnity. This would then raise the question of whether or not all of Macbeth's actions are manipulated; and, if so, by whom? My favorite question in any production of Macbeth, whether as play or opera, is whether the witches are agents or observers. In the scene in which Lady Macbeth received the letter from her husband, they are explicitly observers; but this point of view is not sustained with any real strength.

On the other hand Lady Macbeth is but one instance of the "shock of sex." Most of the other instances involve cross-dressing. Verdi may have written with Witches' chorus for female voices, but they shared the stage with men in drag. Similarly, Banquo's assassins are dragged-up to look like B-movie gun molls. Finally, in Macbeth's "dream scene," which takes place after his final meeting with the witches, having collapsed from seeing the future spirits of Banquo's line, his limp body is fitted into a red dress, supposedly to represent his own "ordination" as a Witch. I suppose this is one way to put a point of view on his subsequent aria of how he will be remembered, more as the Devil's agent than as his own man (pun sort of intended); but does the aria really need such a point of view?

Let me mention one last quirk. Upon entering the theater we saw a scene curtain with the image of the lower portion of a clock-face, except that the XII was where the VII usually is. As my wife knows, because I immediately mentioned it to her, my first reaction upon seeing this was "Time is out of joint." Was Pountney playing some sort of a game with us by deliberately cross-referencing another Shakespeare play? If so, then my cui bono question holds. I certainly hope it was not his intention to use the scene curtain to say, "Prepare to be shocked." After all, shock works best when one is not prepared for it!

The End of the Musical Affair

I had to rely on my feed to learn that the Beaux Arts Trio is disbanding. Here is how Matthew Rye put it:

After more than half a century at the forefront of chamber music performance, the Beaux Arts Trio is undertaking its very last season and, in the process, saying farewell to its favourite audiences around the world.

Rye's review dealt with the offering to their "favourite audience" in London at Wigmore Hall, which was a performance of the two Schubert piano trios back-to-back. The reason for the farewell tour was also summarized by Rye:

Yet now Pressler is in his 84th year he understandably needs respite from a great ensemble's punishing touring schedule.

Having heard Menahem Pressler at the San Francisco Conservatory only a month ago, I know that, as a pianist and teacher, he is still going strong; but I can appreciate what Rye wrote about a "punishing touring schedule." Pressler not only needs that respite but also well deserves it.

I would also like to be so bold as to suggest that the time may be right for other reasons. I do not think I had an occasion to hear violinist Daniel Guilet; so my first enduring memory (which happened to include the second of the Schubert trios) of the Beaux Arts took place after Isidore Cohen left the Julliard Quartet to join Pressler and Bernard Greenhouse. There followed any number of efforts to catch their performances wherever I happened to be. I remember them introducing me to the Ives trio on a Sunday afternoon at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I remember when they did the full cycle of Beethoven trios at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Simply put, they played an integral role in shifting my study of music from the art and craft of composition to the art and craft of performance; and the opportunity to see Pressler conduct a master class in my "home town" affirmed that his understanding of the nature of performance is as sharp as it ever was.

Having said all that, I have to confess that I was more than a little disappointed to hear Pressler perform with the "current generation" of the Beaux Arts, violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses. The sense of an intimate conversation was just not there at the concert I attended. I might have attributed this to an inevitable "generation gap." However, that same "generation gap" was present in the performance of the Brahms G major piano quartet at the San Francisco Conservatory; and that conversation, which covers an extremely broad range of "topics," was as intimate as I could have desired. Since all of the other performers (two students and one faculty) were on the other side of the "generation gap," I cannot possibly conclude that Pressler is too old to be playing chamber music with today's crop of musicians.

On the other hand it may also be that this Conservatory is more of a special place than I had realized. On several occasions I have heard them take pride in being the only institution where one can take a major in chamber music. This most recently came up with a visit from Bonnie Hampton, who formed that program and now teaches at Julliard (which does not have a similar offering). I do know that, when I was living in Palo Alto after my return from Singapore (where it was almost impossible to hear chamber music), there were plenty of opportunities to attend chamber music recitals; but most of them did not seem to have that sense of intimacy and commitment that I had recalled from my time around New York and Los Angeles. Now I have the luxury of getting more chamber music than can fit on my plate just by walking a few blocks south on Van Ness Avenue, and I am enjoying every minute of it. Thus, I see the passing of the Beaux Arts trio basically as the passing of a torch; and, from where I sit as I write this, I am confident that this torch will be passing into good hands, thanks, in no small part, to the pedagogical efforts of Menahem Pressler.