Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Getting the Scale Right

Last night's String and Piano Chamber Music recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music confirmed my thoughts from Monday about "recital scale." The major work on the program was the C Minor piano quartet, Opus 60, of Johannes Brahms. I had heard Joel Krosnick coach the Andante movement of this quartet when he visited for his Master Class; and I really wanted to hear it in its entirety, since I had not heard a "live" performance since 1983, during a series of concerts at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan that covered all of Brahms' chamber music for piano and strings. Brahms was very clear about this being a highly emotional work; and Krosnick invoked the adjective "heartbreaking" for the cello solo that begins the Andante.

However, all of that emotion is not a matter of unbridled wailing. There were certainly fortissimo moments last night, but they were all the stronger in a context where loudness was strictly modulated to achieve the highest intensity. Furthermore, Brahms put so much into the piano part that it comes close to being a piano concerto for "very small orchestra," which makes the proper balancing of the four quartet voices particularly critical. The result was a striking opposition to the approach I had experienced in Heidi Melton's vocal recital. In this one piece of chamber music Brahms may have made his most "operatic" gestures; but he made them at "chamber" scale. The Conservatory students performing this piece seem to have put in the necessary effort to comprehend how those gestures should be delivered at the requisite scale; and the result was far more exciting than anything I heard on Sunday, including Richard Strauss' "Frülingsfeier," which posed the same problem of operatic gesture at chamber scale.

The program opening on an even smaller scale with Maurice Ravel's sonata for violin and cello. Ravel is usually best appreciated for his sonorities (and justifiably so); and this work experiments with such sonorities in its two instruments. both as individual voices and as blends of coloration. On the other hand Ravel is only seldom known for his wit, even though his G major piano concerto opens with a slapstick. The experiments in this sonata are clearly playful ones, which was a clever rhetorical move on Ravel's part. For his contemporaries many of the sounds were likely to have been perceived as bizarre, so he had the foresight to provide a spoonful of sugar to make the weirdness go down. He also kept his movements relatively brief, but each was still a minor gem in its construction.

The remaining work on the program provided me with a second opportunity (twice in one month) to hear Ernő von Dohnányi's Opus 10 Serenade for string trio. As I had previously observed, this is also a work of relatively brief gems. It is nowhere near as experimental as the Ravel sonata, but it displays the same appreciation of wit. Thus, the first half of last night's program began on the light side, so after the intermission we were settled in enough to deal with the emotional wallop of Brahms' venture into the darkness!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Elitism, Exclusion, and the Fallacy of Community

Some interesting conundrums continue to boil up in the stew the media have cooked over the charge of elitism leveled against Barack Obama. Given that one of his messages has been that of uniting groups with many different interests and values under a single "umbrella," under which they can discuss their differences as well as their agreements, an accusation of elitism is tantamount to an accusation of hypocrisy. Thus, as I had previously speculated, this attack may have been concerned more with finding and piercing Obama's most critical point of vulnerability than with weighing the many issues relevant to deliberating over who would make the best successor to the Oval Office. My reasoning is simple enough: The American electorate may not fully grasp all the intricacies associated with the rights and duties of the Executive branch of their government, but they know hypocrisy when it bites them. If they are convinced that, for all of his "audacity of hope," he is as hypocritical as any other politician, then there is a strong chance that they will turn away from him.

Unfortunately for Obama there may be a paradox behind his "umbrella" vision; and that paradox involves a fallacious conception of the concept of community. I last discussed this problem with respect to the legal qualifications for Swiss citizenship at a time when the Swiss People's Party was running an electoral campaign that most would describe as discriminatory. Without trying to defend the Swiss People Party, I discovered that trying to get to the heart of the nature of community led to some rather troubled waters:

The position I have previously endorsed is that community is the expression of "self" across a group. This, of course, is the old rabbinical trick of answering one question ("What is community?") with another question ("What is self?"); but, even if we hold any detailed account of that second question in abeyance, we must still recognize that one cannot had a sense of "self" without a sense of "other." Thus, when a community is deciding on whether or not a "new applicant" should be a member, they are basically ruling on the "otherness" of that applicant. If that "otherness" is recognized by the community as a whole as being too "alien," then membership is denied; and, by the very criteria that constitute the nature of community, this is probably as it should be.

Nevertheless, all this academic scare-quoting of everyday nouns like "community," "self," and "other" does not refute the assertion that this approach to determining community membership is, by its very nature, discriminatory. If you cannot have self without other, you cannot have community without exclusion; and exclusion is just a synonym for discrimination.

In other words that "umbrella" is a myth; and, while many might still invoke it as a "fiction of convenience," when we start to tease out all of the underlying social issues, the inconveniences may well outweigh the conveniences.

After writing this I found myself reflecting on the extent to which I engage of "rhetoric of exclusion" in my writing, particularly on this blog. Consider some of the "exclusionary gestures" a reader of yesterday's post would encounter:

  • At the most general level, anyone not interested in vocal recitals is likely to feel excluded.
  • However, the reference to Jane Austen is probably even more exclusionary.
    • Some will be put off by the tacit assumption that they recognize the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.
    • Those who recognize it may be put off by finding it to be cliché and/or passé.
    • Others may take it as a red herring that distracts from more substantive observations about music and its performance.
  • Many readers may be put off by analytical speculation on why recitals are different from opera performance.

Nevertheless, I suspect that all readers, even if intuitively, have a "feel" for this rhetoric of exclusion: There is so much to read that we use any cues we can to indicate whether we should be spending any more time on a particular text.

Perhaps a better way to attack the charge of elitism is to accept it. After all, the very principle of a representative government (as opposed to an inclusive one on the model of a town meeting) presumes that "the masses" will be represented by an "elite." This is entirely acceptable if everyone has a hand in choosing those representatives, which is why so much attention has gone into providing every American citizen with an effective electoral process. From this point of view, electoral decisions can be made on the basis of who is likely to be best represented by which candidate. My wife likes to tell the story of the early days of choosing delegates for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For most government business local communities would tend to send one of their "distinguished elders" as a representative; but, if the debate was about taxes, they would prefer to send a farmer who had to worry about the day-to-day economics of living off of his plot of land. It is no longer practical for us to change our representatives depending on the subject of debate, but this example demonstrates our cultural history of taking representation seriously. Karl Rove recognized this and knew how to convince enough of the electorate that they would best be represented by our current President. If we are to judge by the polls, most of that electorate is no longer convinced, which this means that they will be much harder to convince by any candidate in November. The worst that can happen is that, under the control of highly unrepresentative special interests, the mass media will disenchant the electorate to the point that they will feel that no candidate can possibly serve as an effective representative. This will continue our trend of poor voter turnout and probably leave us with a new Administration as disappointing as the current one (if not more so). It should also leave those inclined to conspiracy theories to wonder whether the mass media have been deliberately churning up the "teapot tempest" of elitism to achieve that disenchantment and thus strengthen their own hands as "players" in a political process dominated by "power-elite capitalism."

Monday, April 28, 2008

A "Debut Recital"

Having seen Sheri Greenawald, Director of the San Francisco Opera Center, "in action" giving a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I suspect she would forgive (if not sympathize with) me for beginning by shamelessly ripping off Jane Austen: It is "a truth universally acknowledged" that any aspiring vocalist (not to mention the seasoned ones) "must be in want of" good recital opportunities. As she explained after yesterday's intermission at Temple Emanu-El, the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series is run (under the auspices of the San Francisco Opera Center) to serve that truth. From my own point of view, this series is particularly important because, where matters of performance are concerned, a vocal recital is a significantly different beast from an opera; and any vocalist serious about making a career must be prepared to excel in both environments.

The difference between the two has less to do with repertoire than with scale. A recital does not belong in the "grand" space of today's large opera houses. If it has been set there, then the motives have more to do with selling lots of tickets than serving the music on the program. The recital is the "moral equivalent" of chamber music for vocalists. In the absence of the proper "chamber," neither music nor performer is well served. The best vocal recitals I can remember were experienced at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, and Greenawald is fortunate that Temple Emanu-El has an auditorium on a comparable scale. All this should be taken as a preface to considering the recital that soprano Heidi Melton gave yesterday afternoon with John Parr as her accompanist.

Melton is a current Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, and she has already made much of her tenure in that position. Most importantly she had the privilege of creating the role of Mary Todd Lincoln last fall in Appomattox, which meant, among other things, that hers was one of the first (and last) voices we heard in this still-memorable premiere. She has also sung the role of Marianne, Sophie's duenna, whom we hear only briefly in the second act of Rosenkavalier but whom we hear negotiating those breathless passages that Richard Strauss composed so well as the two of them anticipate the rose-bearer's arrival; and, during that same spring season she sang the disembodied voice of Diane, who resolves all the plot tensions in Iphigénie en Tauride. (Given the way I felt about the staging of this opera, being disembodied may have had some advantages.) All of these roles demand a strong and clear voice that can establish a well-defined presence in a space like the War Memorial Opera House; and Melton did not fall short in any of them.

However, the reason for my extended preface is that the Temple Emanu-El auditorium is a far cry from the War Memorial Opera House. Having established her "street creds" at the latter, Melton still has a bit more to do with the former. Thus, to stick with the music of Strauss, for all the Sturm und Drang in "Frülingsfeier" (both Strauss' music and the text itself by Heinrich Heine), this is not the final scene from Salome; and its performance requires a more attenuated intensity to deliver the right impact in a chamber setting. Similarly, Melton did not seem to find the right level of intimacy for a Strauss setting as sensitive as "Meinem Kinde," even though I fully believed her introductory remarks about how much this song meant to her at a personal level.

To be fair, Melton set herself some serious challenges in selecting her program. Wrestling with Arne Garborg's Norwegian texts for Edvard Grieg's Haugtussa ("Mountain Maid") song cycle without also having to take on questions of how to approach Grieg at all (which I had been struggling with, in my own modest ways, about a year ago). Particularly in light of the specific texts, it is no easy matter to get beyond Michael Flanders' old "more sherbet than Schubert" quip and tap into the "cultural bedrock" of this music (the motivation behind Robert Mann's advice about understanding a composer by understanding his folk music). As I had written, the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer eventually helped me find that bedrock; and it would not surprise me to learn that Melton may still be prospecting.

Similarly, the Grieg was preceded by beginning the program by skating onto thin ice (an appropriate metaphor for Grieg's Norwegian influence). Johann Sebastian Bach was listed as the composer; but, on the basis of current scholarship, this was true of only the third of the songs performed, "Dir, dir, Jehova, will ich singen." The second, "Bist du bei mir," was by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel; and both of these songs are included in the 1725 Klavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. The first, "Komt, Seelen, dieser Tag," like the third, is from a Pietist hymnal edited by George Christian Schemelli; however, in this case current thinking is that Bach took his melody from some other source, rather than composing his own. The Pietistic movement in German Protestantism involved a very personal and expressive declaration of faith. Putting aside the question of how appropriate this was for the auditorium of a synagogue, they provide a good example of that lack of "attenuated intensity," since, however overtly expressive these hymns may be, their level of expression is definitely not that of the nineteenth-century opera house!

Melton was much more in her comfort zone after the intermission, with art songs by Johannes Brahms and Strauss, as well as a "cabaret assortment," which included Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill, and Benjamin Britten. The Britten, set to a text by Wystan Hugh Auden, was probably the most effective, particularly with a concluding gesture of staging that involved accompanist Parr. I have a personal affection for Weill's setting of Bertolt Brecht's "Barbarasong," composed for Die Dreigroschenoper, since it provides such a sharp-edged reflection on just-say-no morality. Still, that edge requires scrupulous dramatic attention to each successive delivery of "Nein" in the text that I felt was missing in this particular performance.

Having laid my critical cards on the table, I should conclude by observing that this was a Debut Recital Series. As I have already observed, Melton set some major challenges for a "first time out" offering; and, had she not selected the composers she did, I might not have been drawn to her recital in the first place. Thus, while she is far from the student performers about whom I wrote on Saturday, hers is still very much a world of the "lifelong learning" I cited in that post. Therefore, I shall continue to follow her progress at the San Francisco Opera at my same level of enthusiastic appreciation and would be only to happy to hear her next recital to take stock of her personal learning experiences.

Irony Comes to Singapore

The following Reuters item, reported by Jan Dahinten and filed last night, caught my attention this morning:

Singapore's government is advertising food stalls that offer S$2 ($1.47) meals to help people in Asia's second-richest country cope with consumer prices at a three-decade high, a newspaper reported on Monday.

The pro-government Straits Times said Singapore's Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan had launched a website ( listing food stalls that tells people "where they can find cheap, tasty food".

"The list will come in handy for Singaporeans who are in the midst of battling rising costs," the newspaper said.

Countries across Asia are grappling with higher food and energy costs and Singapore's inflation accelerated to 6.7 percent March from a year ago to a 26-year high, official data showed last week.

Economists believe inflation is close to peaking after a run-up in the past year and the government predicts that inflation will stay above 6.5 percent for the first half of the year before dipping in the second half.

Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I were living in Singapore, food stalls were one of our favorite elements of the "local culture." They provided one of the best ways to get acquainted with the extraordinary diversity of cuisine in the country at remarkably little expense. Five years later, when I started making regular business trips to Singapore, regardless of what my expense account could cover, I still enjoyed checking out the food stalls, seeking out old favorites and prowling around in search of new ones. (If I was travelling with colleagues, my question, at the end of a working day, was always, "Do you want to eat where the hotel recommends, or do you want to eat where I used to eat?") The problem was that the food stall was turning into an endangered species, and I saw some of my favorite sites being forced to yield their modest but precious real estate to the global powers of Thomas Friedman's "flat world" (meaning, of course, cookie-cutter joints like McDonald's, who built customer bases by powerful advertising campaigns, rather than neighborhood word-of-mouth).

Now that Singapore is feeling the impact of the global food crisis as much as any other nation, the tables seem to be turning (perhaps literally as well as metaphorically). I could not resist checking out the URL in Dahinten's report and was pleased to see that the food stall culture is still alive and well. (I just finished breakfast, and I was still drooling over memories of all of those offerings!) However, the "e" in that URL stands for the east side of the island, where, in spite of some major efforts such as Tampines New City, development may not have been moving quite as rapidly as it did to the west, with the National University and a prodigious assortment of science and industrial parks. That was where we lived, in a district called Holland Village that was practically an expat enclave. It was the sort of place that Tom Friedman could visit after a night in his luxury hotel and convince himself that globalization was alive, well, and thriving in Singapore.

The last time I visited Holland Village, all of my favorite haunts had been displaced. All the fun of the place had been squashed out by "Friedman flattening." It was a great comfort to read that one could still eat well on the cheap to the east in Bedok. Still, it would be nice to hope that, one day, all those global mega-chain eateries will give their real estate back to the hawkers; and the food stall culture will rise again throughout the island!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Return to Haydn

For all the attention I have been paying to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I realize that it has been five months since I have written about a performance of Joseph Haydn's music (as opposed to music that Mozart dedicated to him). Furthermore, while I have recently used this forum to needle San Francisco Chronicle Music Critic Joshua Kosman for being too dismissive of Mozart's portion of a San Francisco Symphony program, this week's program at Davies Symphony Hall was all-Haydn, meaning that there was no one around to upstage the master! This particular program was prepared by guest conductor Bernard Labadie, and he took an interesting approach. The heart of the program was the Mass in Time of War, performed after the intermission; and the first half of the evening prepared us along two unrelated paths. The symphonic path lead through the "Military" theme of the G major Symphony Number 100; and the evening began on the choral path with the "Te Deum for the Empress Marie Therese," which I had not previously heard.

The first sentence of Kosman's review provides a good point of departure for reflection on this program:

Joseph Haydn's gifts as a musical wit are often the first thing we think of in connection with his music, if only because they put him in such sparse company. Yet he was just as adept at serious business, as Wednesday's spotty but often compelling all-Haydn concert by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall demonstrated.

In the first place, given that neither Mozart nor Ludwig van Beethoven was shy about exercising wit in their respective compositions, Haydn's company may have been sparse but hardly insignificant, particularly since both of these composers were within his sphere of influence (probably in both directions of influence). Secondly, the attempt to pose wit in opposition to seriousness is a rather serious misreading of the very nature of wit in that period that bridges the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wit had less to do with humor and more to do with the inventiveness of looking at the familiar from an unfamiliar point of view, very much in the spirit that Arthur Koestler examined in his Act of Creation. Thus, wit played an instrumental role in laying the groundwork for the French Revolution, which, within Haydn's time-frame, was about as serious a piece of business as one could encounter.

Having said all that, it would still be fair to say that wit is not Haydn's top priority in the Mass in Time of War. The music has a certain predictability to it that is absent in, for example, the symphony that preceded it. Perhaps Haydn felt that too much invention would interfere with the solemnity of the occasion, remembering the challenges that had confronted Palestrina. After all Haydn was probably most inventive during a "Strum und Drang" period that significantly preceded the rise of German Romanticism; but he was only able to push his inventions so far before the officials of the Esterházy Court finally made it clear that they had experienced "enough of that." In 1796, when Haydn composed this work, most of aristocratic Europe must have felt that they had experienced "enough of that" from countries like France; so it would have made sense for Haydn to choose routine over revolution.

However, if there are no bold experiments of composition in this setting of the mass, there are some of the best ensemble sonorities that one can find in the pre-Romantic repertoire. There are few pieces in which the soloists blend so well not only among each other but also with the chorus that one is almost not aware of them as soloists. Labadie understood this in balancing his resources; and his soloists (soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo Kelley O'Connor, tenor John Tessie, and bass-baritone Nathan Berg) all "bought into" his approach. Indeed, the most outstanding "solo voice" may have been the cello solo, accompanying the bass-baritone setting of "Qui tollis," which almost sounds as if it had never found a place in one of Haydn's cello concertos. Michael Grebanier performed this solo almost as if it were an operatic duet with Berg, and the result was particularly effective in reinforcing the overall solemnity of the occasion.

In contrast there was more of a sense of inventiveness in the "Te Deum," which is a slightly later (1800) composition. Indeed, moments of this work sounded a bit like Haydn was revisiting some of the more inventive techniques he had only recently deployed in his Schöpfung oratorio. Also, while the text of the mass often feels secondary to the rhetorical direction of the music, the "Te Deum" music seems to be more strongly guided by the text. As a result the evening began with Haydn's wit in full force.

That force continued into the symphony. It is easy to recognize the good-natured humor with which he deploys extra percussion instruments more likely to be found in a military band. However, it is only the timpani that intrude in the unexpected style of his earlier "Surprise" symphony. Labadie recognized that the "sound effects" were not intended to overwhelm; and he managed them excellently. As a result Haydn's wit revealed itself primarily in the rhetoric of his phrasing and in the interplay of strings and winds. I am not sure why Labadie opted for playing his grace notes "short" (less than any measured amount). For my ears that approach short-changed some of the phrases and the wit that they entailed. However, so many of his other rhetorical approaches to the score worked so well that I should not criticize him for this one decision but think more about why he made it. After all, as I mentioned at the beginning, it has been five months since I have heard "Haydn in the house." What was most important was that he had returned, leaving a bit of regret that he had been away so long!

The Scourge at the Gasoline Pump

The second definition of the noun "scourge" in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is "A person or thing seen as a figure of severe punishment or retributive justice." I first learned the word through a series of lectures on William Shakespeare's Richard III. The lecturer took the position that Shakespeare saw Richard as a scourge to rid England of all the corrupt figures that had emerged in the wake of the Wars of the Roses. In other words they all deserved all the cruelties that Richard dished out, after which all that remained was for "young blood" (Henry, Earl of Richmond) to dispense with the villainous Richard and begin the Tudor line as Henry VII. Of course, as Josephine Tey pointed out in The Daughter of Time, Shakespeare's primary source for his play was a biography of Richard written by Thomas More, which was basically a propaganda tract to justify that Tudor line; and, given Shakespeare's needs for support for his work, there is no doubt that pro-Tudor propaganda was good for business. As further context, since the primary definition of scourge (a whip or lash used for punishment) figures in the last days of Jesus, one could easily see "the Sainted More" (as Tey called him) invoking Richard as the instrument of chastisement of a corrupted England.

It would be easy to take a similarly moralistic view of current economic conditions, particularly in the United States, where it seems to take very little to stimulate a culture of living beyond one's means. It is hard to raise too much sympathy for a family in front of a television camera talking about having to sell the Mercedes in order to make the next mortgage payment, just as Shakespeare allows us little sympathy for most of Richard's victims. More interesting is when the scourging escalates from individual follies of finance to a more institutional level.

This brings us to a report that AP Business Writer Adrian Sainz filed yesterday under the headline "Dealers see SUV glut as drivers trade in gas guzzlers." Here is how Sainz began his report:

For used car dealer Ivan Hoyos, accepting a sport utility vehicle as a trade-in is no longer good business. The only SUV he's offering at his Florida Auto Sales and Finance is his mother's red 2004 Mitsubishi Endeavor.

With only 21,000 miles on it, he's advertising the six-cylinder vehicle with the online network Craigslist for $13,991 — about $200 less than Kelley Blue Book's suggested retail value. Hoyos' mom purchased a Mazda 5, a smaller crossover vehicle with plenty of interior room but better gas economy — up to 28 miles per gallon as opposed to about 20 for the Mitsubishi.

"Nobody is buying used SUVs," said Hoyos, 35, who stopped accepting them six months ago. "The truth is more and more dealers are staying away from used SUVs and large trucks ... It doesn't pay. You can't have a unit sitting on the lot forever."

As gas prices pass $3.50 a gallon nationally and the economy teeters on recession, independent used car dealers like Hoyos and massive chains like AutoNation Inc. are having trouble selling used SUVs as buyers prefer smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles likes hybrids and crossovers (CUVs). Crossovers such as the Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, and Toyota RAV4 have more interior room and more rugged styling that the average car, but with a lighter chassis and generally better gas economy than an SUV.

Used SUV sales in March were down 14 percent nationally compared to last year, according to data compiled by CNW Marketing Research. That follows drops in used SUV sales of more than 8 percent for the first two months of the year, compared to the same months in 2007.

That trend has sent used SUV prices plummeting, giving owners a shock when they try to trade theirs in and find out how little they can get.

At the risk of sounding too vindictive, I must confess that I find myself thinking less of Richard III and more of Hamlet, particularly his meditation on the skull of the deceased jester Yorick:

Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Mind you, I do not think of Hamlet addressing these words to all those duped consumers. This is a text for all of those engines of propaganda that flooded consumer minds with the gospel that all of these big wasteful toys were absolutely necessary for all the fun they provided. In the face of such intense advertising, it is extremely difficult not to be duped.

Fortunately, Sainz is much better than I am at keeping vindictiveness out of his text:

David Tivadar has spent three months trying to get fair trade-in value for his 2005 Lexus SUV, which gets about 17 miles per gallon. He would like to trade it in for a minivan that gets better mileage and can accommodate his baby daughter.

He bought the Lexus new for about $33,000, and said the monthly payments of $465 "would be more manageable if gas prices weren't so high."

Tivadar would rather trade in his SUV than deal with the hassle of selling it himself, and he plans to visit other dealers to see if he can get better trade-in value.

"At first gas mileage was a secondary issue — we wanted something bigger and safer for the baby," said Tivadar, an operations manager in Murrieta, Calif. "But the gas issue becomes more and more important as the price goes up. It's already $3.79 here."

For a decade, many Americans bought big SUVs like the Ford Expedition, the Chevrolet Tahoe and the Toyota Land Cruiser as they benefited from a booming housing market, low fuel costs and a steady economy. The SUV became a status symbol.

"What is unusual is that a segment that had grown very quickly in the '90s and the early 2000s has really shrunk dramatically," said Mike Maroone, AutoNation's chief operating officer. "The difficulty is in valuing them, because the market has clearly softened on those vehicles."

What strikes me most about Tivadar is that he was well aware that he was making a trade-off; but it is far from clear that his final decision was grounded on the sort of rationality that too many economists worship. He may well have tried to be as objective as possible before making a purchase decision; but, even now that our economy is so bad that we argue over the words we use to describe it, the advertising is still out there, beating potential consumers over the head with bigger and bigger sticks.

The one benefit that may emerge from this fiasco is the possibility that people will begin to see that "green" purchasing is more affordable. At a time when every penny counts, this may make for an ironic advantage for environmental movements. Perhaps we may ultimately see a King Kong ending, where the beauty of Mother Earth ultimately brings down the beast of over-polluting self-indulgent vehicles!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Student Performers

Regular readers may have noticed a tendency on my part to refer by name only to professional musicians, as opposed to students, such as those at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, or adult amateurs. This may be a reflection on my personal experience. One of things I remember about being a student, particularly a graduate student, was the way in which it seemed to grant me the ability to experiment "from a safe place." Education is very much a matter of exploration, and one cannot be a successful explorer by going down paths that have already been beaten smooth. Forging a new path, however, always carries an element of risk; and in the "real world" some of those risks could entail dire changes in the rest of your life if they are not approached with considered caution. Educational institutions provide at least some level of buffering against such drastic consequences, although, at a school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are any number of subject areas where the potential risks to a student can be pretty serious. One of those subject areas is biology, which is one reason why I tend to worry about increased numbers of students choosing it as a major simply because they see it as the best choice for a career path.

In the performing arts the risks are not as serious as infecting the world with an antibody-resistant virus when an experiment goes wrong; but, from the point of view of trying to make a career, the risks are still there. The problem is a relatively simply one, even if it has to be expressed in totally inartistic terms: The demand ("slots" in blunt business-speak) for performers is an extremely small fraction of the supply (as is also the case in professional athletics). Thus, while I tend to take a dim view of what a "culture of competition" (which includes not only prize-awarding contests but auditions for employment) tends to do to both the craft and art of performing, that culture is an unavoidable consequence of the number of institutions that now contribute to the supply level. This is not to imply that I would be providing unfair advantage by naming students who will soon be contributing to that "supply population," since most competitions are conducted behind reasonably (but not always) effective barriers of anonymity. Rather, I am just trying to encourage that idea that, in an educational setting, it is "safe" to take certain chances that would probably impose too great a risk in a serious competition.

Another reason stems from the primary theme behind all of my posts about music, which is that we listen to music in order to be better listeners. To the extent that I would not call myself a "professional listener," I feel it is one thing for me to write about what I have learned about listening from Menahem Pressler or Michael Tilson Thomas and quite another to address this topic where someone not yet in the professional arena is concerned. After all, if I am trying to argue that learning to listen is a critical element in learning to play, who am I, still learning to listen myself, to dwell too much on others who are also learning? Indeed, if we go back to that remark by Stravinsky, which I so value, about the distinction between hearing and listening, we never arrive at a "goal" in the course of learning to listen, because we shall always be exposed to new experiences that will demand the synthesis (as I recently put it) of new strategies for listening. Thus, to invoke one of my least favorite clichés from the business world, listening to music is a matter of "lifelong learning."

From this point of view, a writer can do little more than document "evidence of things heard" (if I may warp the language of Paul's epistle to the Hebrews—11:1). This is what I tried to do yesterday in writing about Thursday evening's student recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What emerged was not so much a review (at least in the sense of material that professional performers and their agents scan to harvest items to put in a press kit) as one person's account of what it was like trying to be a good listener at the event. To the extent that any text can serve to initiate a conversation, the difference resides in my writing for the sake of conversation with the students as well as the audience, rather than with any of the "players in the professional game." Within that context the "bottom line" of the entire post may be an account of listening to a student recital that provided as much of a learning experience as those master classes I have previously witnessed and documented. For those who insist on turning any such proposition into a value assessment, I would say that I can think of no better statement of praise for students preparing to "make it" in the professional world than such an assertion!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Another Neglected American Composer (and much much more)

We are coming to the end of the term at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and I am trying to catch up on opportunities to hear some of the compositions explored in recent master classes now played in their entirety. Last night it was Robert Schumann's Opus 47 piano quartet, whose first movement had been coached by Peter Frankl. Given Schumann's ongoing interest in integrating the multiple movements of an extended structure into a "unified package," this is a work that gains more from being taken as a whole, rather than a focused view on a single movement. Indeed, I would go a step further and propose that one could make an excellent listening experience out of a program that would couple Opus 47 with the Opus 44 piano quintet (as the Benda Musicians did in their PRICE-LES$ CD of Schumann chamber music), since each takes experimental steps in a different direction and both prepare us for the more finished strategy that Schumann applied to his Opus 120 D minor symphony a little less than ten years later. Opus 44 can be heard as an acknowledgement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's final K. 551 symphony ("Jupiter"), whose concluding movement climaxes with its thematic material coming together in a single closely-knit contrapuntal network; and Schumann's fabric adds the thread of the theme that began the opening Allegro brillante movement. However, while Opus 44 climaxes by looking back to the very beginning, Opus 47 experiments with looking forward.

In this case the integration resides in the link between the third Andante cantabile movement and the following Vivace Finale. Drawing upon an extended melody line for the cello, the Andante cantabile has that same heartbreaking quality that Joel Krosnick had identified when he coached the Andante movement from Johannes Brahms' Opus 60 piano quartet, thus reinforcing the heavy influence that Schumann must have had on this movement (including its position as third, rather than second, of the four movements). Schumann's experiment, however, involved linking the coda gesture of the Andante cantabile (which, by its very context, is saturated with reflective melancholy) with the burst of energy in the opening theme of the Finale. One might almost take this as evidence that Eusebius (in the third movement) and Florestan (in the final movement) are, indeed, the same person wrapped into Schumann's body; but that does not make it a sign of dysfunctional bipolarity. This is Schumann in his early thirties, accepting his psyche for what it is and letting it lead him down unexplored paths, which means it also constitutes a critical part of the nineteenth-century repertoire that would shape how we still listen to music today.

Taking that as my own attempt to link to the present, I was also pleased that last night's program included a duo for viola and cello by Walter Piston. Piston is another example of an American composer who received too little attention in his own time and was too often dismissed as a dry academic. (Since he had written a full complement of textbooks for the study of composition and was a Harvard Professor, one could appreciate the origins of such dismissal!) There was certainly nothing to dismiss about his duo, beginning with his unique ear for the colors that emerge when viola and cello are combined without any intervening higher instruments. My only regret is that I approached this performance without any preparation, which meant that I could do little more than grasp at the most salient surface-level features, such as Piston's use of pizzicato to mark structural boundaries. I suspect there was as much ingenuity in Piston's contrapuntal fabric as I have come to love in the work of Mozart and Schumann, but I shall need several more opportunities to listen to this work before writing about such matters from an informed position.

This makes for another link, since the Piston duo was preceded by Mozart's K. 465 string quartet ("Dissonant"). This is one of the quartets that Mozart wrote for Joseph Haydn and which Haydn himself played (along with Mozart). The nickname applies only to the Adagio introduction to the first movement, but it is another source for reflection on how ideas evolve into the future. One has to wonder whether or not Mozart's little experiment with taking a repeated C natural and forging a winding trail through many tonal ambiguities before coming to a sustained dominant G in the 22nd measure planted a seed in Haydn's mind that he would then cultivate when faced with the problem of representing that state of chaos that preceded the opening text of Genesis for his Schöpfung oratorio. The "trick" in performing this Adagio is to lead the ear confidently along that trail; and it may well have been the confidence that these particular student performers brought to the very beginning of the evening that encouraged and sustained the listener from Mozart to Piston to the final bars of the Schumann piano quartet.

Jimmy McNulty and the Confederacy of Liars

The extent of my addiction to The Wire is so great that I could not resist reading David Sirota's latest Truthdig report, "Matthews vs. McNulty," whose premise is laid out in his opening sentence:

If television is the nation’s mirror, then no two TV characters reflect the intensifying “two Americas” gap better than Chris Matthews and Jimmy McNulty.

Unfortunately (from my own biased point of view), Sirota invests almost all of his column space in a rant (albeit a well-conceived one) against Matthews and his ilk in today's world of what passes for news on television. So McNulty only shows up for the punch line:

Pop culture tells us “The Cosby Show’s” economically privileged family represents the ordinary black experience, politics tells us a money-controlled electoral system is “democratic,” and pundits tell us that aristocrat George Bush is a “regular guy.” Propaganda is ubiquitous—and it results in Jimmy McNulty.

He is the cop from HBO’s “The Wire”—the quintessential everyman. For a time, he tries to understand politics by watching vapid Matthews-style talk shows, but quickly becomes frustrated. “It doesn’t matter who you’ve got [running for office], none of them has a clue what’s really going on,” he says, lamenting that politics treats him “like a [expletive] doormat”—as if the day-to-day challenges he faces are “some stupid game with stupid penny ante stakes.”

McNulty may be fictional, but McNulty-ism is a very real reaction to Matthews-ism. When the media responsible for explaining our world deny the existence of the world most of us inhabit, they breed—yes—bitterness. And the more the Matthewses treat us McNultys like reality is just “stupid games with stupid penny ante stakes,” the wider the gulf between the two Americas will become.

Now there is nothing wrong with using a fictional character as a metaphor for a "real-world" human condition. As far as I am concerned, that is why literature has value in the first place; so Sirota has bestowed upon David Simon the ultimate honor for his efforts, recognizing that The Wire managed to elevate a television series to the level of what we should all be comfortable calling literature. My only real quibble with Sirota's analysis is that he did not carry the metaphor far enough, perhaps because he did not tease out enough of its substance from Simon's text.

To do this we need to look deeper than McNulty's bitterness born of frustration (not to mention the booze and loose sex). The most important plot element in the final season of The Wire was the pervasive role played by lies in “getting the job done.” This was most evident in the parallel between McNulty and his counterpart over at the Baltimore Sun, Scott Templeton. Templeton employs fabrication to advance his career, and we are definitely left with the impression that his advance could well lead to his being the next Chris Matthews. McNulty, on the other hand, fabricates just to do the stuff required by his job description in an organization whose budget has been gutted, regardless of either social norms or the consequences of his acts (both of which come back to bite him as the narrative works its way to the final episode). The result is a society that has evolved from John Kennedy Toole’s “confederacy of dunces” to a “confederacy of liars.” Once we examine all the lies that support Simon’s plot structure, we appreciate that exposing any one of them will bring down the very social foundation in which all his characters abide (even the ones most admirable, like Gus Haynes).

Sirota's report originated not so much in the world of The Wire as in the world of the negative ballyhoo over Barack Obama, whether it involves questions of race stemming from his association of Jeremiah Wright or questions of elitism over "bitterness" and "clinging." As a result, Sirota may have (unwittingly, perhaps) played into that ballyhoo and lost sight of what Simon's literature may actually be telling us: The fictional McNulty depends on the lies of the fictional Templeton in order to sustain his own lies. Could it be that, in some way that none of us may yet have anticipated, Sirota's "McNulty-ists" depend upon (rather than react against) his "Matthews-ists" for reasons we may not yet have penetrated? Think of some of McNulty's rationalizations for his fabrications:

  1. It's the only way to get the job done.
  2. Operations are so screwed up, who's gonna notice?
  3. I can live with the worst of what may happen to me.
  4. Everybody is doing it.

What makes McNulty such a powerful metaphor is that each of these excuses is so consistent with the very identity of his character. Thus, the extent of McNulty's bitterness and frustration is the extent of Sirota's McNulty-ists; and we understand them better not from the surface-level feature of the bitterness Obama was citing but from a deeper structure in which qualities such as honesty need to be sacrificed in the name of basic hand-to-mouth survival. By concluding The Wire with McNulty reflecting on what he had become, Simon was applying his literary skills to get us all to reflect on what we have become. That is a major challenge for an author, but it is an even greater challenge for his readers. Sirota took one small step in that direction; are we prepared to follow his path?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

On the Value of ANY "Encyclopedic" Reference

It has been some time since I have dwelled on the significant distinctions between the world of nouns and the world of verbs, but I am beginning to realize, in the context of my recent experiences, that these distinctions may be relevant to how one approaches this question of "encyclopedic" references. I would like to consider two perspectives that may highlight these distinctions. One concerns the "inertia" of reference sources; and the other deals with what to do about "volatile" content.

Through our "cultural memory," we have come to view an encyclopedia as a relatively static reference. True, the Britannica publishers have long issued their Book of the Year "addenda;" but we tend to consult an encyclopedia for things that don't change, rather than for "keeping up with the latest." Put another way, the world of the encyclopedia is a world of noun phrases, based on objects and their attributes (and, therefore, not unlike most of the databases upon which we all now depend so heavily). However, as Isaiah Berlin kept trying to remind us through our his study of the history of ideas, there is a "tragic flaw" in any worldview that is fundamentally static, even when it involves the objects and attributes described in an encyclopedia. What we learn when we study the history of ideas is that just about any subject area is always changing due to advanced scholarship. This can occur on the micro level (a cantata attributed to Bach later found to have been composed by Telemann) or the macro level (as in scientific theories that assign to information the same fundamental priority assigned to matter and energy). When the macro level involves a major shift in worldview (akin to Kuhn's paradigm shift), that would entail more than "surface-level" emendations in an encyclopedia, which is why there have been essays and books about "the encyclopedia problem" for at least the last fifty years. If Berlin has left us more comfortable with the fluidity of such worldviews, then it is easy to recognize that any reference source that is, by nature, static will never have more than limited value.

If we can accept fluidity, then we should also be able to accept volatility. At the very least we can use the Internet to make sure that we never have to be informed by a single source (at least when the information is critical to some aspect of our lives). However, if we accept that volatility, then we must also live by the caveat lector precept, which has been a recurring theme on this blog. There is a much greater risk in being a "casual reader" than there used to be; but we are well-equipped to deal with that risk. The good news is that on Wikipedia a reader can consult the discussion tab to get some sense as to how volatile the content is and adopt appropriate reading habits accordingly. Thus, the very premises behind the design and implementation of Wikipedia may allow it to sustain the nature of a fluid and volatile world, in which the verb phrases that capture the very nature of that fluidity and volatility engage in a Hegelian synthesis with the noun phrases of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, perhaps even to the point of prevailing over the recent Britannica "confrontation."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth about the Global Food Crisis

Whenever I worry that investigative journalism is having its teeth systematically extracted by the power-brokers of mainstream media, I remember that Frank Hornig is still on the job and that I can read his dispatches through SPIEGEL ONLINE. I have probably not done him sufficient justice by citing him only three times on this blog:

  1. For his report with Gabor Steingart on the global regulation of hedge funds
  2. For his really perceptive "Outsourcing your Personal Life" article
  3. Most recently for the "What's Really Driving the Price of Oil?" piece that he prepared with Beat Balzli

However, given the current significance of the global food crisis, the analysis he prepared today (again with Balzli) may be the most important follow-up to their (or any other) analysis of the oil crisis. The significance lies in the extent to which these problems arise from the same cause. Just as the price of oil has nothing to do with supply and demand (or even how OPEC regulates the supply) and everything to do with what is happening in commodities trading pits, the same is true for the price of food. Yesterday Emily Buchanan prepared an excellent report on the United Nations World Food Programme, which I saw broadcast on BBC World Service News. In that report Josette Sheeran, who runs the program, described the crisis as "A silent tsunami which knows no borders sweeping the world." Just as important, however, was an off-hand remark on the broadcast, which did not appear in the print version, that called the price of food "an inconvenience for the rich."

I have written in the past about the speciousness of that old cliché from the days of the first Reagan Presidential campaign about a rising tide lifting all boats; but we now have to confront increasing evidence that the rising tide of speculative investment (driven by nothing more than the greed of "haves" wanting to "have more") could well sink many (most?) of the boats in the sea, particularly where food (commodities futures trading), shelter (trading on the anticipated income from loans), and even clothing (heavily dependent on the price of petrochemical products) are concerned. Whatever the traders may be doing or saying, Balzli and Hornig took the trouble to get out of the trading pits; and, as far as both farmers and food producers are concerned, the commodities markets are "broken." This brings us to the heart of the argument that Balzli and Hornig have developed:

Biofuels and global warming have been blamed for shortages driving up the price of food, and both trends have played their role. The planet's grain reserves are almost empty for a number of reasons, including global population growth and greater prosperity in some countries like India. Feed corn is in short supply because industrialized nations have used it for ethanol. Droughts -- in Australia, for example -- have devastated rice and wheat harvests. Wheat reserves worldwide are only sufficient right now to cover about 60 days of demand.

This helps to explain why commodity prices have rallied since early 2006, with the price of rice ballooning 217 percent, wheat 136 percent, corn 125 percent and soybeans 107 percent.

But classic supply and demand theory offers only a partial explanation. Sudden price hikes since last January have been alarming. The UN estimates that at least $500 million (€312 million) in immediate aid will be needed by May 1 to avoid serious famines. Agricultural scientists at the world body's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have presented a report on the world food crisis. And criticism is growing that hedge funds, index funds, pension funds and investment banks bear part of the blame.

Unfortunately, the Balzli-Hornig analysis gives little indication of there being any light at the end of the tunnel. At best we may candidates in the coming election trying to turn up the heat on commodities speculators; but, when campaigns are financed heavily by those speculators, can we expect that heat to be anything more than hollow rhetoric? More likely we are witnessing the emergence of yet another battle in the War Against the Poor, in which case it may be time for those waging this war to reflect (if that is within their cognitive capacities) on just why this war was waged in the first place. What good is having all the marbles, if you can no longer do anything with them? What good will come of enslaving the poor, if they have become too enfeebled by the lack of food, clothing, and shelter to do the will of their would-be new masters? Iraq has taught us that it is possible to wage a war without clear logic, so it may well be that the basis for the War Against the Poor is nothing more than the product of the illogic of greed. Unfortunately, recognizing that the mess we are in is little more than a side effect of what Susan Jacoby has called "the age of American unreason" does little to inform us about getting out of that mess!

Chutzpah as Meme

Speaking of local bias, it appears that the strategy that won San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom his Chutzpah of the Week award has crossed the Pacific Ocean (far more efficiently than Kon-Tiki) and has been adopted by Canberra, Australia, for their leg of the Olympic torch ceremony. Here is the story, according to the wire service sources for Al Jazeera English:

The Olympic flame has been taken to a secret location in Australia following its arrival there on the latest leg of its journey across the world.

Australian police promised a "dynamic" relay to avoid people protesting against China's human rights record and Beijing's crackdown in Tibet.

Mike Phelan, Canberra's police chief, said on Wednesday the torch route, expected to start with a lake-crossing, "is something that will be dynamic", with contingencies in place if expected protests turn violent.

This report did not include any explicit acknowledgement of Newsom by Phelan; but we have to assume that Phelan has been closely following the news of the torch's controversy-laden path to Canberra. Knowledge is a product of experience, that of others as well as one's own. Phelan seems to have been well-informed by the San Francisco experience!

Chutzpah over States' Rights

Conflicts over legislative authority between individual states and the Federal government have been around literally as long as the United States of America, since such conflicts figured heavily in the drafting of the Constitution. Therefore it should be no surprise that such conflicts erupt into acts of chutzpah, particularly in light of the predilection the current Executive Branch has for such acts. Indeed, while our President and Secretary of State seem to have an almost innate talent for "slam-dunk chutzpah," we still get occasional glimpses of full-court team work where other key members of the Administration get to sink a shot or two. This week the ball was passed to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who demonstrated that she could commit that particularly Administrative style of chutzpah with the best of them while fighting for one of the Administration's favorite causes: defending those responsible for environmental damage against a growing global trend of environmental responsibility and planning.

To pursue the basketball metaphor, one might say that the ball was first passed to Peters last week when President George W. Bush finally put his stake in the ground on the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. As was noted at the Times Online Web site, the general reaction was that it was not much of a stake:

President Bush has been criticised by environment groups after he called for a halt to the growth of US greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 but offered few ideas on how to achieve it.

The proposal on global warming, which fell short of European proposals, was announced as the US Congress prepares to consider more ambitious plans and before international climate change negotiations take place in Paris.

Mr Bush offered only broad principles, such as focusing on emissions from the power industry, and rejected new taxes, abandoning nuclear power and trade barriers.

This now brings us to Peters' part in this game through an early-morning report by Zachary Coile from the Washington Bureau of the San Francisco Chronicle:

When the Bush administration announced proposed regulations Tuesday to raise fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, even some environmentalists applauded. But then they read the fine print.

Tucked deep into a 417-page "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" was language by the Transportation Department stating that more stringent limits on tailpipe emissions embraced by California and 17 other states are "an obstacle to the accomplishment" of the new federal standards and are "expressly and impliedly preempted" by federal law.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown called it a covert assault on California's rules. Environmentalists said the language will be used by automakers in their legal challenges to two recent federal court rulings that sided with the states.

The language showed that beneath the bipartisan veneer of support for new fuel economy standards - approved by Congress and signed by President Bush in December - the conflict is still raging between the White House and the states over who will set the nation's first limits on greenhouse gases.

Now, just to make it clear that this is not another case of local bias, at least two of those "17 other states" have been pursuing their cause (successfully until now) through the proper legal channels:

The Supreme Court ruled in the Massachusetts vs. EPA case last year that the Transportation Department's authority to set fuel economy standards should not impede other efforts under the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gases. California traditionally has had special authority under the Clean Air Act to set limits on air pollutants that are tougher than federal standards.

A federal judge in Vermont ruled in September that the state rules do not conflict with federal mileage standards, and a Fresno court in December found that both California and the EPA are empowered to set limits on vehicle emissions.

This legal history provided Peters with the opportunity to exhibit her chutzpah with a little flourish:

In its new document, the Transportation Department said, "We respectfully disagree with the two district court rulings" and noted that an appeal has been filed by automakers.

It is no surprise that, in an ideological battle between the automobile industry and the global environment, our Administration should side with the former; nor is it a surprise that such a battle should find its way onto the grounds of the Department of Transportation. However, given the opportunity to act, the Department managed to do so with that style of chutzpah that seems to have become a trademark of the Administration as a whole. So, if that Administration decided that it was Peters' turn for a Chutzpah of the Week award, then I am happy to oblige. Let it not be said that I refuse to cooperate with the Bush Administration on all matters!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Ultimate Abandonment of a Sense of Reality

Here's a news flash from the Geek Gestalt blog on CNET

According to a report out Tuesday from Virtual Worlds Management, the trade group that puts on the Virtual World conferences, a total of $184 million was invested in such businesses in the first quarter of 2008.

That is $184 million that could be alleviating a global hunger crisis, providing affordable housing to the victims of predatory lending practices, or doing anything to make sure that ten years from now our environment will still be life-supporting. Yes, I know this money is invested on the basis of what it is likely to return; but what does it profit one to gain an abundant ROI and forfeit the world that supports one's life-style? Do these investors think they will be able to live in their virtual worlds after our only real one has gone down the tubes? Once again our sense of reality has turned out to be our most endangered species!

Late Brahms and Early Dohnányi

Doing my best to get back from today's Noontime Concert at Old St. Mary's Cathedral (which happens to be in San Francisco Chinatown) before a threatening rain storm reminded me that the last time I had heard a live performance of Johannes Brahms' Opus 115 clarinet quintet had been in the McCarter Theater at Princeton University. There was a raging storm outside and a hole in the McCarter roof directly above where the cello was supposed to sit. (If memory serves me correctly, the ensemble was the Tokyo String Quartet performing with Richard Stoltzman.) This is little more than one of those odd free associations. It is certainly not meant to associate Brahms with any of those corny illustrations of Beethoven stomping his way through a wind-driven rain; and there is nothing "element-driven" about this particular quintet!

If anything, because of the high opus number, there is a tendency to assign it a valedictory quality. It is certainly a very poignant composition; so one can be forgiven for hearing it as a "farewell to life." However, poignancy was Brahms' strong suit for much of his life; and, given the works he composed after this one, there is no reason to assume that this was intended as a meditation on death. Rather, as we can read in the Wikipedia entry for Brahms, the work grew out of a new sense of discovery brought about by the clarinet itself:

In 1890, the 57 year-old Brahms resolved to give up composing. However, as it turned out, he was unable to abide by his decision, and in the years before his death he produced a number of acknowledged masterpieces. His admiration for Richard Mühlfeld, clarinetist with the Meiningen orchestra, moved him to compose the Clarinet Trio Op. 114, Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 (1891), and the two Clarinet Sonatas Op. 120 (1894).

This makes for an interesting parallel with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote his K. 581 clarinet quintet for Anton Stadler in 1789, within two years of his death. Like Mozart, Brahms appreciated that the three registers of the clarinet constituted three distinctive "voices" and felt that each of these voices should "sing" in the course of the entire composition. While there is plenty of other chamber music for clarinet, these two quintets still occupy pride of place in the repertoire and show off the best abilities of their respective composers.

The Laurel Ensemble, which performed the Brahms quintet today, may not be as elevated as Stoltzman and his colleagues were; but that did not diminish from their performance. Clarinetist Ann Lavin commanded all three of her instrument's registers with equal capability, always finding just the right blend with the string quartet members. The result was not necessarily as poignant as other performances but had more to do with an almost meditative calm over the discovery of a new palette of sounds. Given all the things I have written about workplace pathology, this was the sort of performance that was the perfect escape from the strains of a workday.

Music that "brought Brahms out of retirement" was preceded by a work by the 25-year-old Ernő von Dohnányi, his Opus 10 Serenade for string trio. I cannot recall having an opportunity to hear this work in performance, so I know it only through the recording the Jascha Heifetz made in 1941 with William Primrose and Emanuel Feuermann. Dohnányi may not have had quite the elaborate sense of development that Brahms had. The work is in five short movements, the longest being the fourth in theme-and-variations form. Even there the variations are more straightforward than the exploratory variations in the final movement of the Brahms clarinet quintet (which ultimately lead back to the first theme of the entire work). Nevertheless, having been written in 1902, the Dohnányi trio is one of those works that looks back fondly on the gestures of nineteenth-century romanticism while searching for how to take composition in new directions. This piece certainly deserves to be heard more often, and it was good for the Laurel Ensemble to provide us with an opportunity.

Calling Something by its Proper Name

This morning's San Francisco Chronicle had an interesting analysis piece by Verne Kopytoff on the current prospect for startup entrepreneurs in today's economic conditions. Publication was probably motivated by the fact that the Web 2.0 Expo starts today and runs through Friday at the Moscone West convention center here in San Francisco. Whether or not his analysis is a sound one, I have to give credit for Kopytoff calling this gathering an "Internet industry revival meeting," thus having the guts to acknowledge that these meetings are more about evangelism than they are about technology. He made this point not only by appealing to a religious tent show as a metaphor but also through his implicit omission of the noun "value" in his article. The closest he gets is when he talks about valuations of startups; but serious discussion of value seems to be taboo among technology evangelicals, just as faith-based politicians have their taboo concepts (such as "recession"). Since I continue to hold to the precept that the very concept of Web 2.0 is little more than patent medicine for the technology age, if not more harmful than most of those old nostrums were, I shall be interested to read the reports of how many of "the faithful" actually pay for admission to this year's tent show and how many are more interested in current assets than in promises of wealth!

A Metaphor that Tells us Who we Really Are?

In reviewing my recent posts, I have discovered that I have invoked the metaphor of WWE Friday Night Smackdown! in two independent contexts:

  1. The discussion and editing of Wikipedia entries
  2. The approach to political debate either assumed or accepted by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Apparently that second context is extending further beyond the scope of this blog than I could have anticipated. Derrik J. Lang of the Associated Press reported that all three of the leading contenders for the White House decided it would be appropriate to "leverage" last night's Monday Night Raw broadcast's being on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary:

Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain will appear on World Wrestling Entertainment's live "Monday Night Raw" (8-11 p.m. EST on cable's USA network) but instead of smacking each other down, they separately will deliver some wrestling-themed stumping in taped messages before Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary.

"Tonight, in honor of the WWE, you can call me Hillrod," Clinton says in her message. "This election is starting to feel a lot like `King of the Ring.' The only difference? The last man standing may just be a woman."

Obama borrows The Rock's famous catchphrase during his appearance.

"To the special interests who've been setting the agenda in Washington for too long and to all the forces of division and distraction that has stopped us from making progress, for the American people, I've got one question: Do you smell what Barack is cooking?" Obama says before flashing a smile.

McCain, meanwhile, looked to Hulkamania for inspiration for his message.

"Looks like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to celebrate their differences in the ring," McCain says. "Well, that's fine with me, but let me tell you: If you want to be the man, you have to beat the man. Come November, it'll be game over. And whatcha gonna do when John McCain and all his McCainiacs run wild on you?"

The candidate appearances will be used to promote "Smackdown Your Vote!" — the WWE's voter registration drive.

I suppose that last sentence is to assure us that this is all in good fun and all for a good cause, but who are they kidding? The race between Clinton and Obama in Pennsylvania is so tight that every investment in media counts as much as every investment in personal appearances. However amusing this may have appeared, it was clearly all aimed at the serious business of getting the right people to show up at the polls today, presumably to "vote the right way."

Since I do not follow WWE, I have no idea whether they have had a past history of getting political. After all their time slot overlaps with both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (at least here on the West Coast); and I do not really see them competing with those two programs for the same viewers. More likely, this was intended by at least Clinton and Obama as a final shot over the bow aimed at that open sore of elitism that the media (or at least ABC) continues to scratch.

So, if things were more serious than they appeared on the surface, did either of these candidates anticipate that, as Abby Livingston reported for NBC, WWE would "retaliate" by taking on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with their own attempt at political humor:

WWE featured a wrestling match between Obama and Hillary and Bill Clinton impersonators. There were lots of body slams, knee lifts and even some sneaky moves (Bill). "Bill" primarily stayed out of the action, but both "Obama" and "Hillary" got some pretty good licks in on each other. Then an actual wrestler came out and took them both down. The announcers declared it "a draw." The skit ended with Obama and Hillary's bodies strewn across the wrestling ring with Bill scampering away.

Note that the Web page from which I copied this text also includes the YouTube clip of the entire sketch.

I first discovered this video through Truthdig, which described it as "hilarious, ridiculous and disturbing." This, of course, is a matter of taste (a topic in which I found myself immersed in the writings of Immanuel Kant, whose birthday today happens to be, over the last week or so, which probably has not helped me very much); so I do not mind disputing their first adjective. Both Stewart and Colbert usually know how to punch my hilarity button; but this act fell firmly on the "ridiculous and disturbing" side of my taste meter.

Yes, it was nothing more than a comedy sketch; and, as the "E" in "WWE" should remind us, the whole WWE enterprise has absolutely nothing to do with wrestling as athletic competition and everything to do with extended comedy sketches. The problem is that, when a metaphor is enabled by being acted out on television, that particular medium has this disturbing effect of shifting it from the figurative to the literal. Thus, it ceased to become "only a metaphor" for the way in which both candidates have managed their behavior over the last couple of weeks and became a reductio ad absurdum statement of who they really are and, for that matter, who we really are for wanting to see them in that light. Make no mistake, in some collective sense we really did want to see that sort of thing, since, if we wanted to concentrate on issues and opinions, we would have turned off all network coverage of the campaign a long time ago (perhaps as long ago as when the media were systematically ignoring those candidates who were offering serious voices of dissent). So, like it or not, that little video clip is one of the more accurate mirrors of our national character. We should all look in that mirror and reflect (literally as much as figuratively) on whether we are disturbed by what we see or whether we can accept it with the same complacency that allowed us to accept all of the self-serving political decisions that got us into the mess that has become our day-to-day life, all in the name of our obsession with our diet for "entertainment."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Too Little or Too Much

My Encyclopædia Britannica subscription has now been processed; so I figure I should provide at least a brief follow-up to yesterday's post and the ensuing comments. As I mentioned in a comment this morning, I knew I was not going to find anything like the "Propædia;" and it turned out that the closest I could get to any organization structure involved outlines for the "Macropædia"-like articles. My first impression was that those outlines were neither better nor worse than the ones I have found for the longer articles on Wikipedia. Thus, there was very little to pique the sort of exploratory adventures I used to have with the print edition. Instead I was back in the world of search queries and quick scans to see if what I found was answering some immediate question I had.

Things where not much better when I explored the blog space. The most important thing I observed was that it was not very active. Also, the "stable" of bloggers did not interest me very much, probably because I was perusing it primarily in terms of my interest in the performance of music. I did note Andrew Keen's name on the list, but I already have an RSS feed for his own blog! Besides, his Britannica posts are now about a year old.

Will I now start to use Britannica content instead of Wikipedia sources? For all that I have written about contentious behavior on Wikipedia, the music contributors have (so far, at least) been a rather amicable and mild-mannered bunch. They have also been really good at cataloging, which helps when I am interested (as I was recently) in such things as a chronology of the operas of Francesco Cavalli. I shall still continue to argue that Wikipedia has limitations if you really want to learn about something (particularly something unfamiliar); but I am not sure that the online version of Britannica is doing that much better a job. It is certainly not doing the job that the old print edition used to do.

A Serial-Killer Opera

I found Rupert Christiansen's Telegraph review of the new English National Opera production of Harrison Birtwistle's Punch and Judy a fascinating read. I once used the CD of the performance of this work by The London Sinfonietta to push the envelope with one of my research groups in Singapore and would like nothing more than to see a staging of this work here in San Francisco. In his limited column space Christiansen did an excellent job of setting context before undertaking critical assessment:

But the more I get to know Punch and Judy, the more powerful and fascinating it becomes.

Perhaps the best way to approach it is as a primitivist opera, born before the genre became noble, romantic and refined.

Critics have noted that Birtwistle and his librettist Stephen Pruslin draw on the conventions of Bach's Passions and Greek drama, but even deeper is the influence of pantomime and puppet-show theatricality and anonymous urban folk traditions - playground games, crude ditties, tavern rounds, the clang and clatter of street and fairground.

Stravinsky's Petrushka comes to mind, too, refracted in its abruptly episodic structure - the score is composed of more than 100 tiny units, few more than a minute long - and the bright, hard orchestral colours and relish in dissonance.

I like the reference to Igor Stravinsky and certainly understand it; but, when you take in all the factors that Christiansen enumerated and then add in the fact that Punch is, in modern language, a psychotic serial killer, then I suspect that any acknowledgement of Stravinsky should also include "Renard," which casts brutal murder into the framework of a clown-show portrayal of barnyard animals. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the video of this work that The London Sinfonietta made under Paul Crossley along with a choreographed troupe of acrobats will immediately see the relevance of this connection.

Christiansen began last week's review of the Covent Garden premier of Birtwistle's The Minotaur by recalling when "the story went round that Benjamin Britten had stormed out of the premiere of his first opera, Punch and Judy." Birtwistle's worldview is a radical departure from Britten's in terms of both opera subject matter and musical language, and it is not hard to appreciate the way in which the former was pushing the wrong buttons for the latter. Since the opera had its first performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1968, it would be interesting to see whether, in retrospect, Birtwistle would now confess to having had some trepidations about bringing such raw stuff to Britten's "turf." Forty years on, however, the media have done a good job of shifting the bar for what constitutes "raw;" and it is hard to imagine a San Francisco audience finding this work "too much," just as, for the most part, they had no trouble getting into the extremes of the San Francisco Opera production of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (which I would be delighted to see revived). To the best of my knowledge San Francisco Opera has not mounted any of Birtwistle's works; so, in light of the recent elevation of interest in London, now might be a good time to start thinking about doing so! "Right tol de riddle doll!"

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Willful Ignorance of History … or Not?

In "What Have We Learned, If Anything?," his latest essay for The New York Review, Tony Judt, pessimistically declared, "We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us." He was writing primarily about the political climate in the United States; but, on the basis of what I just saw of Doug Varone and Dancers during their visit to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, he may as well have been writing about modern dance, if not a broader expanse of the performing arts. I make this assertion on the basis of two works, "Lux" and "Home," having made the decision to bail out at intermission and pass on "Boats Leaving," set to Arvo Pärt's half-hour "Te Deum," my mind having been contaminated by an old friend calling the Berlioz setting of this text "tedium."

My aggravation had less to do with tedium being the order to the day and more to do with why that turned out to be the case. Some would put the blame on Varone's decision to set "Lux" to "The Light," a 1989 Philip Glass composition; but, as I pointed out in writing about his Appomattox opera, while ostinato figures heavily in Glass' approach to minimalism, ostinato does not imply monotony. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to hear performances (as opposed to recordings) of Glass' music know how fortunate he has been to work with conductors such as Michael Riesman and Dennis Russell Davies (who conducted all but one of the San Francisco Opera performances of Appomattox). These conductors know that beneath the layer of ostinato lies a foundation of modulated energy, and it is because they understand the power of even the most subtle such modulation that all of those off-the-cuff accusations of monotony are so grossly unfounded.

This is why in "Lux" the dance is such a great disappointment when compared to the music. At best "Lux" is a moderately clever assemblage of steps that gradually increase in tempo; but, regardless of what the tempo happens to be over the course of the dance, none of the steps are executed with any sense of the expenditure of energy. One might as well be watching animated figures on a computer screen, which has as little to do with the performance of dance as most recordings have to do with the performance of music (particularly when, as is the case with Glass, performance is such a subtle matter). I am not saying that replacing the recording with a musical ensemble led by a competent conductor would have improved the choreography, but it could have done so had that conductor been able to communicate a sense of how Glass deploys energy not only to the musicians but also to the dancers, because those dancers were certainly not getting any such message from Varone himself.

Ninette de Valois was aware of this problem with the rise of interest in ballet in Britain after the Second World War. Of her primary rival, Marie Rambert, whose ballet company tended towards more "experimental" choreography, drawing upon recordings of relatively new composition, she once said that choreographers should know better than to spend so much time in gramophone shops. True, de Valois was fortunate enough to include performing musicians among her resources; but that is probably one reason (among many others) why the work of her chief choreographer, Frederick Ashton, has endured so much longer than anything in the Rambert repertoire. The performance of dance draws much of its strength from music that is actually performed, rather than simply partitioning the duration into intervals of time.

Yes, maintaining an ensemble of performing musicians does a lot to a dance company's budget, particularly when that company goes on tour. However, I came away from "Lux" wondering if Varone even knew enough about how to listen to "The Light" to recognize just was performance adds to this particular piece of music. Had he known that, he might have had a fighting chance of compensating for having to use a recording behind his choreography. Unfortunately, he did not know it; and, as a result, his choreography was little more than a matter of "partitioning the duration into intervals of time," most of which went on far too long.

Varone's background material does not say much about when he was born or where he studied. We only know that he has been making dances since 1986, which means he has been at it for over twenty years. Unfortunately, it also means that he was getting started at a time when the dance world was beginning to suffer from "cultural amnesia," with regard to both my "holy trinity" of ballet choreographers and all that work in modern dance that began with Martha Graham and was continued by those driven to get out from under her influence. Thus, while Judt seems to feel that we only started rejecting the twentieth century once we left it, Varone may well have been turning his back on his predecessors when he first started doing choreography.

This would seem to be the case with "Home," which was first performed by the Pennsylvania Dance Theater in 1988. This company should not be confused with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company, but both companies had the advantage of performing with an orchestra in the pit. However, the music for "Home" is a string quartet by Dick Connette, which he may have written for the Ethel quartet. So its first performance may have taken place through loudspeakers, possibly at the same ear-splitting level that the Yerba Buena audience experienced. Again, all problems could be traced back to sloppy management of the expenditure of energy. However, while "Lux" led me to question what, if anything, Varone had learned from the history of dance in the twentieth century, the male-female "alienation duet" of "Home" left me wondering if Varone knew who Harold Pinter was, because, having seen the result of Pinter having directed some of his own plays, it struck me that the playwright had a far better sense of managing human movement than the choreographer did.

I realize that one problem may be that I am just not bringing realistic expectations to dance performances in the twenty-first century. In my case it is a matter of having to carry the burden of history. Yesterday I was writing about the influence of the Sixties on the performance of music, but the decade was just as extraordinary in the development of both modern dance and classical ballet. Even that lioness Graham still had her teeth, while lions like Ashton and George Balanchine were never afraid to go after fresh prey; and, at that time, Merce Cunningham was finally coming out of the shadows and receiving recognition for his innovations from just about every critical source (with the possible exception of The New York Times). Those days are still very much alive in my memory, but I have a lot of trouble adjusting to the fact that they are pretty much beyond recall for everyone else making dance or paying to watch the stuff. So, if ours has turned out to be an age that has willfully decided to ignore history, perhaps it is just a waste of my own time, which entails that other consequence against with Mark Twain warned.