Thursday, July 31, 2008

Still Chutzpah

The cat is now out of the bag. As Nick Mulvenney reported for Reuters last night, the International Olympic Committee knew about China's intention to reserve the right to block access to certain Internet sites all along:

"I regret that it now appears BOCOG has announced that there will be limitations on website access during Games time," IOC press chief Kevan Gosper said, referring to Beijing's Olympic organizers.

"I also now understand that some IOC officials negotiated with the Chinese that some sensitive sites would be blocked on the basis they were not considered Games related," he said.

So the Chinese "art" of negotiation seems to have extended beyond "making the International Olympic Committee look like complete idiots" to making them look like calculating liars. Is this what Jacques Rogge, IOC head, had in mind by "silent diplomacy?" Whatever the answer to that rhetorical question may be, China has still earned with Chutzpah of the Week award, perhaps scoring bonus points for leaving the IOC with egg on its face.

Meanwhile, Mure Dickie has provided a follow-up report for the Financial Times:

The head of the International Olympic Committee’s press commission on Thursday suggested its president Jacques Rogge might have acquiesced to Chinese plans to censor the media’s internet access during the Beijing games reports AP in Beijing.

”I would be surprised if someone made a change without at least informing” Mr Rogge, Kevan Gosper said. “But I really do not know the detail.” Mr Rogge on Thursday declined to comment in Beijing.

This leaves me wishing that he had someone like Howard Baker investigating this whole question of Internet access: What did which members of the IOC know and when did they know it?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Olympic Chutzpah

You have to hand it to the "new China." Whether it involves trade, environmental conditions, or even diplomacy, they have raised the bar on the art of promise-anything-deliver-nothing; and now they seem to be extending that art to include making the International Olympic Committee look like complete idiots. Mure Dickie filed this report from Beijing for the Financial Times in rather more polite language:

China is to maintain its censorship of overseas websites even for journalists covering the Beijing Olympics, undermining earlier claims by the International Olympic Committee that international media would enjoy unfettered internet access during the Games.

Beijing routinely blocks access to thousands of overseas websites considered politically or socially suspect as part of a sprawling and secretive internet censorship system. However, the government had been widely expected to offer unfiltered internet access to the more than 20,000 journalists covering the Games, which open on August 8.

Jacques Rogge, IOC head, this month cited free internet access as an achievement of his "silent diplomacy" with Chinese officials.

“For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China. There will be no censorship on the internet,” Mr Rogge said in an interview with AFP.

However, the Beijing Games organising committee (Bocog) insisted on Wednesday that it had never promised full freedom. “During Games-time we will provide sufficient and convenient internet access,” Sun Weide, Bocog spokesman, said.

Bocog was already providing “sufficient” access, Mr Sun said, even though journalists have complained about blocks on overseas websites such as that of Amnesty International, a human rights group that this week issued a report on preparations for the Games.

There is an award-winning quality to the way in which China has managed to maintain its own characteristic brand of business-as-usual, while giving the appearance of honoring all the commitments that the IOC felt would be in the best global interests of an Olympic gathering. The best I can manage, of course, is a Chutzpah of the Week award. Given the emphasis of "face" in the Chinese approach to conduct and given that China has now pretty much demolished any sense of "face" that the IOC brought to arranging the Games that will shortly begin, I would say that such demolition is as good an instance of chutzpah as we are likely to find. So, whatever medals its athletes should win, China itself can now enjoy a Chutzpah of the Week award as part of the Olympic celebrations!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Memory, Reminders, and Wisdom

Even researchers confront "senior moments" as they get older. So perhaps Stefanie Olsen's latest Digital Media post on the CNET Web site is a reflection of the "graying" of IBM Research:

For the past two years, IBM researchers have been developing technology to help people recall events, names of new acquaintances, and details of a conversation in their context with the use of cell phone and computer. On Tuesday, IBM Research Labs plans to publicize an early version of its personal-assistant software, called "Pensieve," after the fictional memory bank described in Harry Potter books. IBM posted a video on YouTube.

Not available publicly yet, the software could feasibly be used with any mobile smart phone. The technology relies on people keeping track of what's important to them by using the phone to snap photos, create text documents, or record audio. When the phone is synced to a computer via a Pensieve-enabled dock, the software takes over. It collates files by their tagged GPS location and time, among other rules, and creates associations between them.

"As it processes the information, it's building an associative network of people and places and events," said Laura Haas, director of computer science at the IBM Research Center in San Jose, Calif.

For example, if a person takes a photo of an event poster, the software's optical character recognition technology would take down the details of the event and make a calendar entry. Or if a person takes a photo of someone new at a business workshop, followed by a picture of his or her business card, Pensieve might create an address book entry that's linked to the photo and notes taken at the workshop. Later, when the person tries to remember the name of new acquaintance, he or she could use Pensieve's search engine to recall data from the workshop.

"If I'm trying to remember the name of this interesting person, maybe all I remember is that I met them at Google, I would search for 'person at Google' and it would show my contacts from there and start jogging my memory," Haas said.

I have no idea whether or not Olsen is up on her Plato; but, at the very least, it looks like those IBM researchers forgot about what that old Greek wrote in his "Phaedrus" dialogue (as translated into English by R. Hackforth):

The story is that in the region of Naucratis in Egypt there dwelt one of the old gods of the country, the god to whom the bird called Ibis is sacred, his own name being Theuth. He it was that invented number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing. Now the kind of the whole country at that time was Thamus, who dwelt in the great city of Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes, while Thamus they call Ammon. To him came Theuth, and revealed his arts, saying that they ought to be passed on to the Egyptians in general. Thamus asked what was the use of them all, and when Theuth explained, he condemned what he thought the bad points and praised what he thought the good. On each art, we are told, Thamus had plenty of views both for and against; it would take too long to give them in detail. But when it came to writing Theuth said, ‘Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.’ But the king answered and said, ‘O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If me learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.’

This is not to argue that a technology for "reminder" is entirely a bad thing; but, from the point of view of those of us who draw heavily upon our memories, it may be a displaced priority, whose most dangerous flaw is the extent to which it can escalate our reliance "on that which is written" to a richer body of captured digitized content.

As I have argued in many previous contexts, this is yet another example of what happens when technologists jump with both feet into noun-based thinking when they should be thinking about the verbs. The biological evidence now is pretty strong on the proposition that human memory is not some vast filing cabinet (or, in more modern language, database). Rather, it is an ongoing process; and Gerald Edelman has even tried to make this more specific by concentrating on the process of recategorizing our perceptions. Therein lies the problem: Capture and retrieval have very little to do with any dynamic process of recategorization; and, indeed, almost no work has been done on trying to investigate Edelman's conjecture through digital models. Instead, the digerati jump on their horses and ride off madly in all directions that take them away from any serious thinking based on ongoing processes or, to draw upon a related school of thought, Israel Rosenfield's verb-based concept of "invention" as a process of memory.

Now I have no difficulty owning up to my own problems with "senior moments." I am even willing to confess that, when I am on my own, I often rely on my own mechanisms for "reminder," many of which involve the search engines available through my computer. However, the "senior moments" that matter most tend to be those that take place when I am away from my computer; and, at such times, I have discovered that the best way to deal with them is through conversation. I confess to my loss and start talking about what I am trying to recover; and, more often than not, some Rosenfield-like "invention" emerges from that conversation and comes to my rescue. At the very least I find this far more socially acceptable than excusing myself while I pull out a mobile tether that has been designed to achieve the same effect more efficiently! I would further argue that, because my "old-fashioned" technique keeps me engaged in conversation, it keeps that process of memory (whatever it may be) properly lubricated and frees me from excessive reliance "on that which is written."

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Rich are NOT Different (at least not this time)!

First of all, rather than falling into the trap of citing a conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway that never took place, let me offer an account provided by a letter to The New York Times in 1988 (back when the Times was a much better newspaper):

In 1926 Fitzgerald published one of his finest stories, ''The Rich Boy,'' whose narrator begins it with the words ''Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.''

Ten years later, at lunch with his and Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, and the critic Mary Colum, Hemingway said, ''I am getting to know the rich.'' To this Colum replied, ''The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.'' (A. Scott Berg reports this in ''Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.'') Hemingway, who knew a good put-down when he heard one and also the fictional uses to which it could be put, promptly recycled Colum's remark in one of his best stories, with a revealing alteration: he replaced himself with Fitzgerald as the one put down. The central character in ''The Snows of Kilimanjaro'' remembers ''poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of [ the rich ] and how he had started a story once that began, 'The very rich are different from you and me.' And how someone had said to Scott, yes, they have more money.''

Well, this may have been the case during the Roaring Twenties and even during the Great Depression; but, according to a report by Francesco Guerrera and Saskia Scholtes for the Financial Times, "it ain't necessarily so" today:

The US financial crisis is spreading from subprime borrowers to wealthier consumers, with evidence mounting that more affluent people are failing to pay their mortgages and credit card balances.

Growing concerns over the financial health of richer borrowers are prompting banks and card issuers to tighten lending practices in moves that could futher dampen consumer confidence and spending more.

In other words, while the rich may think they are rich enough to keep spending in the manner to which they have become accustomed, when it comes to paying the bills, they are no better than the rest of us. Indeed, those who are overextended in their real estate investments may find that selling some of that property to pay the bills will not work any better for them than it will for all those middle-class families faced with the prospect of selling their current (and only) house at a painful loss. Perhaps this economic crisis will turn out to be a great equalizer, one in which the rich have as much trouble paying bills and putting food on the table as everyone else. Realistically, this is unlikely to be the case; but it would still be nice to dream for a minute or two that the tide may be turning in the War Against the Poor!

Find That Song!

I have now encountered my first serious discontent with the Brilliant Classics' collection of the complete works of Johannes Brahms; and, as far as I am concerned, it is much more serious than a quibble over the usage of the phrase "a cappella." It is the matter of the thirteen discs labeled "Songs & Duets" on the box. It is not the arbitrary combining of songs and duets that provokes me as much as the failure to honor any sense of the order in which these works were composed. It is bad enough that there is no attempt to order all of these works by their respective opus numbers; but, even worse, the songs collected under a single opus number are rarely grouped together on the same disc.

The reason for this is that the discs are ordered according to who is performing on them. Thus, all the songs on Volume 1 are sung by the tenor Christian Elsner. On Volume 2 Elsner is joined by soprano Simone Nold, and this disc offers a combination of songs and duets. Volume 3 then gives us performances by alto Ingeborg Danz (including the two Opus 91 songs with viola accompaniment). Indeed, it was only by accident that I realized that the songs I knew best were on this particular disc, not only Opus 91 but also "Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer" (Opus 105, Number 2, which draws upon the same theme as the cello solo for the second piano concerto) and the most sung of all Brahms songs, the "Wiegenlied" (Opus 49, Number 4).

Thus, when it comes to finding a specific composition, the situation is far more problematic than it was in the Brilliant Bach Collection. In that package the listing on the box gave the BWV numbers of the cantatas on each disc. There was no order to the numbers, but at least it was easy to skim for the number you wanted. There is no room to do this on the Brahms box; nor is it really possible to do so, since the songs are not grouped by opus number. In this case, if there is a specific work you want to hear, then you have little choice other than to consult the data CD, preferably with a tool that can search its contents. I might be willing to argue that the inconvenience is a fair price to pay for the bargain price; but, since most of what I have had to say about Brilliant has been generally positive, I figured it would make sense to point out this particular inconvenience out of a sense of fairness!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Stay Drowsy

If Anna Russell is best known for her hilarious (but surprisingly accurate) routine in which she analyzes the entirety of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in less than half an hour, then her second-best routine would have to be "How to Write your own Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta." She concocted this one at a time when practically every American city had some group along the spectrum between professional and amateur mounting a Savoyard production, making it, as she put it, "a pity that there weren't a few more." To deal with this lack of material, she tapped into the basic formula behind the best-known G&S creations, gave it a new setting ("the New York upper crust") and proceeded to make up a whole set of new songs to go with a new plot, singing all of them, regardless of voice range and including the obligatory madrigal ("You'll have to excuse me. My quartet singing is not what it used to be.") … all in less than fifteen minutes! As was the case with her Wagner analysis, this became a great hit for anyone who knew the material and a meaningless antic for anyone else.

These days it feels as if the Broadway musical extravaganzas in the years leading up to the Great Depression (and Hollywood's effort to keep carrying that torch after the Depression hit) have displaced Gilbert and Sullivan as a prime object of nostalgia. One would have thought that, once Mel Brooks broke the mold with Springtime for Hitler (in the original film version of The Producers), audiences would have become too rattled for such parodic humor; but this spirit keeps going with the robust energy of that well-known pink bunny. For those who prefer not to go over the top with Brooks, The Boy Friend remains an old reliable source for revival, although I have my own fond memories for a revival I saw of Dames at Sea during my time in the New York vicinity. Back in those days a director like Tommy Tune could take the ridiculous material of A Day in Hollywood; A Night in the Ukraine and turn it into a sublime escape from reality, exactly in the spirit of the source material being lampooned.

Nevertheless, as was the case with Russell's routines, these are products best appreciated by those with a sharp sense of the details of that source material. In other words these are entertainments about "the business" best appreciated by those closest to, if not in, "the business." As the background piece that Doug Sturdivant provided for Playbill on April 6, 2006 explains, The Drowsy Chaperone first emerged as such an entertainment:

The Drowsy Chaperone, which bows (or is it curtsies?) May 1 directly on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre, first saw the bleary light of day in the back room of a Toronto club called The Rivoli as the centerpiece entertainment of a bachelor party - a "stag," as Canadians call it.

Back then - "then" was August 9, 1998, for any showbiz buffs out there - it was a faux 40-minute musical created, just for the fun of it, for the happy couple: Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff. It was the work of several friends from the groom's side of the aisle. Among them, lyricist Lisa Lambert and book writer Don McKellar were buds since high school, and composer Greg Morrison came from a TV series Martin wrote called "Slings and Arrows."

That back-room party was probably a real hoot. If the production took more time than it took for Russell to do her number on Wagner, I suspect there were enough libations to make the duration more than endurable. This is the stuff of which did-you-hear-about stories are made; and, now that I have had a chance to see what emerged while it is on tour in San Francisco, I kind of wish that it had remained the subject of a you-had-to-be-there account.

The problem is that, when you take a mountain of details appreciated by a select few and try to make them palatable to the many who have to buy tickets to keep the production afloat, much (usually including the best bits) of the humor goes down the drain. The homage is still there, and there are still plenty of jokes that are good for a genuine belly laugh. However, the overall effect is leaden when it should be light; and any sense of love (even illusory) for the source material, without which the ridiculous cannot rise to the sublime, is depressingly absent.

To add insult to this injury, the original creators decided to frame their product in a run-down Manhattan apartment whose resident (the "Man in Chair") greets the audience with, "I hate theater." He then proceeds to play for the audience his treasured vinyl of the "original cast" (Did he really say "soundtrack" when I heard him last night?) recording of The Drowsy Chaperone, providing us with a running commentary (too much like Russell's "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts") as the performers come (almost literally) out of the woodwork and into his living room. Needless to say, this is no longer a 40-minute romp; and it has the chutzpah to keep us in our seats when the "original show" has its intermission. This is not to suggest that I spent much of my time in the Orpheum Theatre seeing if the light was good enough to check my watch (I knew the formula well enough to know what was going to unfold before the final curtain) but just to observe that the final product was so overloaded in the interest of audience appeal that it lacked any sense of what a Duck's Breath Mystery Theater routine used to call pace (as in, "We have got to get this production of Music Man to run less than nine hours!").

The Man in Chair is right, of course. When it comes to the current fare on Broadway (even without road productions), things are a far cry from what they used to be. Unfortunately, The Drowsy Chaperone plunks this poor grieving soul right in the middle of the very sort of stuff that now drives him to so much grief.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Massive Mozart

It is rare to encounter a full evening of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that consists of only two works, but that is what the Midsummer Mozart Festival offered for their second program at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco last night. The intermission was preceded by the K. 361 serenade in B flat Major and followed by the K. 491 C minor piano concerto. These works are separated by only five years, and K. 361 comes at the beginning of Mozart's move to Vienna in 1781. Thus they originate from the same cultural environment, so to speak. However, the only other feature they share is how they reflect Mozart's approach to working with longer time scales.

K. 361 is scored for a rather unconventional collection of solo voices. Double reeds are represented by two oboes and two bassoons. Single reeds are represented by two clarinets and two basset horns. Brass are represented by four horns, two in F and two in B flat, covering a broader range of pitches than usual. Finally, there is a solo string bass, which has a few witty melodic comments that raise it above the usual continuo work. Thus, to revisit the language of Jos van der Zanden cited last week, Mozart is very much back in his playground for "exploring a variety of timbres;" and the qualities of those timbres contribute much (if not most) to the listening experience.

The temporal scale of the work has a lot to do with the number of movements (seven). These include two menuetto movements, two adagio movements (the second a "Romance" with an allegretto middle section), and andante theme with six variations, all framed by two energetic molto allegro movements (the opening preceded by a largo introduction). I think it would be fair to say that Mozart resorted to so many movements for the opportunity to experiment with how these thirteen voices could be deployed in different combinations; so, while the forms themselves may feel a bit repetitive, the sounds themselves never fail to be anything other than fresh and original.

We rarely encounter situations in which mere words can do justice to the richness of purely sonic qualities of a listening experience; but, in the case of the first adagio, we have a descriptive text that provides a far better than usual account of such an experience. The author is Peter Shaffer; and the source (as many either know or can guess) is the text for his play (as opposed to screenplay) Amadeus. The speaker is Antonio Salieri, who has already had two impressions of the Mozart who had just arrived in Vienna. The first impression, in the presence of Emperor Joseph II, was one of a show-off brat. The second is one of his sexual excesses with his wife when they thought they were alone in the library of one of the palaces of lesser royalty. That palace is the site for a performance of the serenade, which became Salieri's first serious listening experience:

I heard it through the door—some serenade—at first only vaguely, too horrified to attend. But presently the sound insisted—a solemn Adagio in E flat.

It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers—bassoons and basset horns—like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single not on the oboe.

It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded! The squeezebox groaned louder, and over it the higher instruments wailed and warbled, throwing lines of sound around me—long lines of pain around and through me. Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God, "What is this? … What?!" But the squeezebox went on and on, and the pain cut deeper into my shaking head, until suddenly I was running—dashing through the side door, stumbling downstairs into the street, into the cold night, gasping for life. "What?! What is this? Tell me, Signore! What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours? …"

Dimly the music sounded from the salon above. Dimly the stars shone on the empty street. I was suddenly frightened. It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God—and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard—and it was the voice of an obscene child!

Of course not every movement has the profound quality of this adagio, but each movement does speak with its own unique approach to combining the voices of the ensemble. This makes the roughly fifty-minute duration of the serenade one of the most stimulating listening experiences that the entire repertoire of "serious music" affords.

Fortunately, conductor George Cleve has a good sense for how such music is more about that listening experience than about anything else. Yes, he knew how to pace the fifty minutes without letting any individual episode feel like a tax on our time; but, far more importantly, he presided over an impeccable blending of those thirteen solo voices. Thus, whatever we might have known (or not known) about Mozart, the forms of music found in a serenade, or even the "musical scene" in 1781 Vienna, Cleve and his ensemble delivered a performance that was "all about the sound;" and it is performances like those that make San Francisco such a good city for listening to Mozart.

The C minor piano concerto, on the other hand, takes a different approach to composition on a larger temporal scale. As the notes in the program book put it:

When Mozart writes in a minor key, pay attention! Something special is going to happen.

Actually, it is not just what "is going to happen;" it is also a matter of the context that Mozart would bring to minor-key composition. The heart of that context consists of the minor-key works composed by Joseph Haydn between 1765 and 1775. My old Musical Heritage Society liner notes (by Karl Geiringer) called this Haydn's Sturm und Drang period, although, as H. C. Robbins Landon observes in his monumental (five-volume) Haydn: Chronicle and Works, these dates really do not align very well with the rise of Strum und Drang in German literature. Robbins Landon prefers to call this period one of "Crisis Years" (the title of Chapter Four in Volume II), where the musical crisis involved an attempt to break from "business as usual" in the act of composition.

We seldom (if ever) encounter the attribute of Sturm und Drang when we read about Mozart. Nevertheless, we know of the strong personal relationship between Mozart and Haydn; so it is reasonable to assume that, if Haydn was using minor keys as an opportunity to experiment with new approaches to composition, those experiments would have encouraged (if not provoked) Mozart to do the same. From such a point of view, the K. 550 G Minor symphony may be seen as a culmination of Mozart rising to Haydn's challenges, in which case viewing the K. 491 piano concerto as a significant milestone along that path to K. 550 can be seen as enhancing, rather than detracting from, the value of that concerto. So that injunction in the program book to "pay attention!" really is more than shallow rhetoric.

Much of the large scale of the work lies in the opening allegro movement; and this is where we encounter Mozart at his most experimental in matters of form, melodic shape, interplay between soloist and orchestra, and orchestral color. However, even if the following two movements, the (major key) larghetto and concluding allegretto are closer to the usual durational scale, Mozart is still seeking out new territory in them. This is particularly the case in the final movement, where we again encounter the theme-and-variations form; and, as was the case in K. 361, the processes of variation have just as much to do with diversity of sonority as they do with thematic invention. This makes the larghetto a bit of a "calm" between the storm of aggressive declamations in the first movement and the storm of variety in the closing; but that calm weaves its own spell of invention in which, once again, sonority plays a crucial role.

Soloist Nikolai Demidenko had a keen sense of the breath of approaches that a soloist must take in delivering all of this material. Mozart's moods change with the swiftness of turning on a dime, and Demidenko never failed to be in the right "affective place" at the right time. He also chose to perform on a Fazioli piano provided by Piedmont Piano Company. I once heard a lecture about this new standard of piano technology at the old Piedmont showroom in San Francisco; but before last night I had never heard one of these instruments "in action." To the extent that it really is more responsive than more traditionally designed instruments, Demidenko seemed to be working it for all it could deliver. Thus, this was not an "authentic sound" for Mozart; but it was a highly expressive one. Indeed, the choice to go for a more "contemporary" sound was reinforced by Demidenko's decision to play a cadenza for the first movement composed by Johannes Brahms, which begins relatively deferential to Mozart but builds up to pretty much "pure Brahms" by the time it reaches its final trill; and the sensitivities of that Fazioli displayed those "pure Brahms" moments in the best possible light.

Like Jon Nakamatsu last week, Demidenko was given (and accepted) the opportunity to play an encore. He chose two sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (and, no, I cannot identify them by either Longo or Kirkpatrick numbers). From the point of view of imaginative invention, Demidenko's choice of Scarlatti was far preferable to Nakamatsu's choice of Felix Mendelssohn. I doubt that anyone would associate Scarlatti with anything like Sturm und Drang, but he always displayed an uncanny spirit of invention (and often wit) in his brief sonatas, regardless of whether they were in a major of minor key. Demidenko approached his two selections with just the right blend of assertiveness, delicacy, and wit; and, if that Fazioli piano facilitated his decision to take such an approach, then we were all beneficiaries of that choice!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Innovation and Security

A frequent topic among innovation evangelists is whether or not the "Silicon Valley miracle" can be replicated. This is usually argued in terms of a laundry list of the assets of Silicon Valley. At the nut-and-bolts level there are items such as proximity to quality academic institutions and a "critical mass" of non-technical assets, such as venture capitalists and lawyers specializing in intellectual capital. Then there are social factors like nice weather, options for entertainment, good public education for the kids, and housing commensurate with compensation (if not affordable by the standards of the rest of the country/world).

All this reminds me of a joke that John McCarthy used to tell about the nature of common sense. He considered the question, "What do you need to know to start a car?" He then proceeded to develop a similar laundry list that included the need for fuel in the tank, having the key for the ignition, and (just as important) knowing the right way to turn the key once it has been inserted. After leading his audience to believe that a complete list had been compiled, he would ask, "What about the potato in the tail pipe?" His point was that, while we tend to compose these lists in terms of what needs to be present, there are all sorts of things that need to be absent (such as an object obstructing the exhaust system) that are ignored because we usually do not have to think about them.

Well, when it comes to the efforts of the Indian city of Bangalore to replicate Silicon Valley (under the sobriquet "Electronic City"), this morning's Financial Times ran a story by Amy Kazmin about a potato in the tail pipe:

India’s information technology capital, the southern city of Bangalore, was rocked on Friday afternoon by a series of eight small bomb blasts that killed at least one person and injured nearly a dozen others.

The blasts happened in quick succession at about 1.30pm local time and caused temporary traffic chaos in the city, which is the hub of India’s global software outsourcing business. Known as India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore is home to 1,500 companies such as India’s Infosys Technologies and offices of global groups such as Microsoft, IBM and Intel.

Authorities said the bombs were placed at traffic circles, near bus stops and other locations along important thoroughfares, including the road to Electronic City. They were triggered by timer devices and had metal bolts to add to their damage.

This is not to imply that innovation evangelists are oblivious to the impact that crime might have one where we choose to live and work. Rather, it is to suggest that the rose-colored glasses of their evangelism seem to filter our distinctions between the undesirable and the catastrophic. Those who spend much, if not most, of their time living in Silicon Valley begin to fall under the spell that any part of the world can replicate Silicon Valley as long as the right incentives can be implemented. This overlooks at least one critical element of social context, which Kazmin drew upon for the punch line of her article:

Bangalore was shocked in 2005, when a Kalashnikov-armed militant opened fire at the Indian Institute of Science, killing one retired professor and injuring four others. That attack was blamed on Islamist militants fighting for independence for the Himalayan state of Kashmir.

Is this a problem that can be solved by implementing "the right incentives;" and who is going to do the implementing (not to mention how)? This is not to say that the problem is being ignored:

In recent years many Indian cities – including the popular tourist town of Jaipur – have been rocked by serial bomb blasts, often causing serious loss of life.

While authorities suspect militant groups eager to fan hatred between Hindus and Muslims, and raising tensions between India and neighbouring Pakistan, police rarely have success in identifying, arresting or prosecuting the perpetrators.

Mohandas Pai, chief financial officer of Infosys, said the Bangalore attack highlighted the need for greater investment in policing, including electronic surveillance. “It’s a wake-up call,” Mr Pai told an Indian television channel. Other local executives echoed his call.

This is where we recognize the most important factor about that potato in the tail pipe. However extensive the laundry list may be, I doubt that anyone has ever included in it the following item:

Silicon Valley is not (nor does it need to be) a police state.

We do not think about such things, because we take it for granted that our Constitution protects us from them. However, our cultural context provides us with not only the Constitution but also a positive spirit of eternal vigilance moderated by due process of law. Not only are such matters not "universal" standards; but also, as anyone who has given more than a passing thought to what Clifford Geertz called "the interpretation of cultures," there is no reason that they should be universal standards.

The question, then, is not one of replicating something that works, so to speak. Rather, it involves recognizing that different settings "work" for different reasons in different times. In the history of art, Paris was long assumed to have the same level of priority that Silicon Valley now has for technology; but nothing is forever. The Nazis put an end to that priority; and, for a variety of reasons, the priority, such as it was, shifted to New York. These days it is probably more distributed, with different settings drawing different sorts of artists. Why should it not be the case that a similar tendency towards greater distribution for the sake of greater diversity would have an equally beneficial effect on the innovation and development of future technologies?

The Knol Challenge

Will Knol take the "Wikipedia fight club" mentality out of the pursuit of documenting reference material? Wikipedia may like to present itself as the ultimate demonstration of the "wisdom of crowds;" but as I, and many others, have pointed out, the longest pole in Widipedia's ideological tent has been anonymity. This is a critical issue, because there is very likely a tight coupling between how "knowledgeable" a crowd can be and how accountable individual members are for their contributions. Google has been in the process of trying to address the problem of anonymity with a new product called Knol; and, as Jennifer LeClaire reported on NewsFactor Network yesterday afternoon, that product is now ready for public consumption:
On Wednesday Google took the lid off a new product called Knol. The search-engine giant first announced it was testing the product in December. Knols are authoritative articles about specific topics, written by people who know about those subjects.
My guess is that LeClaire got that last sentence from press-release material; and, on the basis of how it was written, I would classify it as "news," rather than "opinion" or "analysis." I therefore see it as fair game to question the validity of this particular sentence.

Note that the sentence actually makes two claims:
  1. Every article is written by someone who knows about its particular topic.
  2. Regardless of the credentials of the author, the content of the article is authoritative.
On my first visit to Knol, I decided to take a look at an article entitled "A Crisis In Leadership." In addressing the first point, it is easy to observe that the author of this article is Angelo Mastrangelo; and, to the right of the article, we see a photograph of him along with the description, "Entrepreneur, Professor, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY." Following the hyperlink attached to his name, we find the following Web page:

Biographical knol not published

The requested biographical knol has been unpublished by the author.
That is all we know; but, to invoke the "poetic wisdom" of John Keats, I would argue very strongly that it is a far distance from all we need to know. There is nothing wrong with asking an author to provide a biographical statement of credentials, as long as two fundamental questions are addressed:
  1. Should the author's article be released for publication if credentials have not been provided?
  2. What is the process for vetting those credentials (moving from Keats to Plato's "Republic" or, in more contemporary language, "checking your sources"), once they have been provided?
Under current Knol operations, we definitely know the answer to the first question; my guess is that the answer to the second is no better.

This is a sensitive matter, particularly where a topic like leadership is concerned. "Business school" articles cannot be reviewed in the same manner as contributions to scientific publications. It is not a matter of adhering to proven methods that address the collection and interpretation of data. Ultimately, it is a matter of argumentation, which is as likely to be supported by enthymematic reasoning as by the rigors of a propositional or predicate calculus. Thus, within the framework of the medieval trivium, the soundness of the text depends on some combination of sound logic and sound rhetoric. Unfortunately, in this particular article there is far more self-promotion than there is argumentation; and, as far as the needs of the trivium are concerned, there is a comment to this article (also by an author without credentials), which observes that the grammar is also weak! We are thus faced with an article by an author whose background we are justified in questioning (regardless of whether or not his background actually is questionable) providing content that reads more like an advertisement for the author (jumping from Plato all the way up to Norman Mailer) than an "authoritative" statement about leadership and its associated "question of crisis." All in all, then, this particular article puts a considerable strain on that "unit of knowledge" (which is what the designers of this system claim a "knol" is) epithet that sits at the top of ever page.

This brings us back to LeClaire's report. Rather than performing a similar exercise in evaluation, she did what reporters often do, which is to complement the promotional material from a press release with some source who can articulate the opposing point of view. This occupies her final four paragraphs:
Knol is a potentially valuable property, according to Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. But that potential, he said, depends on the content. It could take years for Knol to build the volume of content Wikipedia boasts, and the nature of the site -- relying on named authors -- could slow the content-generation process. That means Knol is not an immediate threat to Wikipedia, Sterling said.

"The difference between Knol and Wikipedia is that Wikipedia is edited by a group of people, a community or a select number of editors, and this has a single author," Sterling explained. "An individual expert or author is the source of the information, or at least has the byline."

Knol, then, offers pros and cons for its readers. The benefits, Sterling said, might be more authoritative or reliable content. The downside may be people motivated to write pieces as a promotional vehicle for books or other products.

"Maybe there's a subject like heart disease and both Wikipedia and Knol have articles. Both articles would both show up in search results," Sterling said. "People could look at them both and make their own determination."
Whether or not Sterling actually saw a "promotional vehicle," such as the one I just examined, his pro-and-con thinking was definitely running along the right lines. Now I have to confess to a certain bias towards Sterling, since his punch line is basically a reinforcement of my own caveat lector philosophy: In the world of the Internet, the reader must be actively responsible for being informed. Unfortunately, in its current state Knol provides little (certainly far less than Wikipedia) to support "reader actions;" but such a reader can still get considerable mileage out of the Google parent!

One final point is that any visitor to Knol would do well to take that "BETA" in print both fine and faint very seriously. It is not at all easy to figure out what content is worth looking for in the first place and the Browse hyperlink (also in very fine print) constitutes one of the greater abuses of terminology, even by Internet standards. It is only when you follow the link and find a page headed "Bag o'knols" that you encounter any truth in advertising. This is a truly unstructured list, and it currently runs to seven Web pages! As an alternative to browsing, my only test of the search tool did not surprise me:
Search Results:
No results found for Brahms
Don't like empty search results? Know something? Write a Knol
Thanks for the invitation guys, but I am currently making far better use than I might have anticipated from the Wikipedia entry for Johannes Brahms!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brilliant Brahms Piano Music

In grousing over Brilliant Classics' editorial abuse of the term "a cappella" in their collection of the complete works of Johannes Brahms, I seem to have skipped over any observations about the Piano Music section. I had already observed that none of the pianists in this section were familiar to me, but none of them disappointed. This section was not very large, only eight discs; but it includes some of the most impressive, as well as some of the most problematic, of Brahms' compositions. In the latter category the three piano sonatas were shared between Kamerhan Turan (Opus 1) and Alan Weiss (Opera 2 and 5). Opus 5 is about the only one that gets played regularly; but all three are massive works that border on the unwieldy. Thus, the primary virtue of the performances by both Turan and Weiss is how accessible they are. The trip for each of these sonatas is a relatively long one, but both pianists have selected tempi and phrasing decisions that make the journey interesting enough that the duration becomes less of an issue. On more familiar ground I was particularly delighted with the performances and the Paganini (Opus 35) and Handel (Opus 24) variations by Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy. The two Paganini books are amazing exercises in miniaturization, which take an approach similar to that of Ludwig van Beethoven's 32 variations in C Minor (WoO 80) and push that particular envelope a bit further. Finally, there are the two discs of "Miscellaneous Piano Pieces" performed by Louis Demetrius Alvanis, which include some wonderful gems in the forms of "studies" and transcriptions. Where Ferruccio Busoni had converted the chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach's D Minor solo violin partita (BWV 1016) into a flamboyant display of piano virtuosity, Brahms adapted it into an etude to be performed by the left hand in which Bach's source receives as much attention as the pedagogical goal of developing left-hand technique. My favorite, however, is his adaptation of the slow movement from his Opus 18 string sextet, probably because I like the music so much that I was delighted to have it in a form that I could play! This was similar to the point behind Vladimir Leyetchkiss' transcription of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Opus 17 suite for two pianos, which Sandro Russo recently played here in recital. There are certain compositions that one would just like to sit down an play at the piano, even if they were not written to be played that way; and working on Brahms' arrangement of his sextet movement was one of my most satisfying experiences in front of my piano keyboard!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Speak Loudly and Carry a Flimsy Stick

It seems like only yesterday that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was disclosing "inconvenient truths" about the cost of health care; but actually it was closer to six months ago. These days he is attracting more attention for the war he is trying to wage against child pornography. While it would be hard to find anyone who would dispute the merits of such a war (at least if it were well waged), as Declan McCullagh pointed out this morning on his Iconoclast blog, it would be even harder to find any of us who remember when the Internet emerged from the network of gateways that sustained Usenet in approval of his methods:

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has found a novel way to shake down law-abiding broadband companies: accuse them of harboring child pornography and threaten to prosecute them unless they do what he wants. That might just happen to involve writing Cuomo a hefty check.

The latest company to be honored by Cuomo's personal attention is Comcast, which received a two-page letter on Monday threatening "legal action" on child pornography grounds within five days, if its executives failed to agree to a certain set of rules devised by the attorney general.

In the letter (PDF), the Democratic politico says he wants Comcast and other broadband providers to "volunteer" to take actions "surgically directed" only at child pornography and "not at any protected content." (He's targeting Usenet, the venerable pre-Web home of thousands of discussion groups that go by names like sci.math,, and comp.os.linux.admin.)

That might be laudable, if it were true. But Cuomo's ham-fisted pressure tactics already have led Time Warner Cable to pull the plug on some 100,000 Usenet discussion groups, including such hotbeds of illicit content as talk.politics and Verizon Communications deleted such unlawful discussion groups as us.military, ny.politics, alt.society.labor-unions, and alt.politics.democrats. AT&T and Time Warner Cable have taken similar steps.

I kind of like that phrase "ham-fisted pressure tactics." However, I have enough personal history to remember when our military talked about our method of "surgical strikes" during Operation Desert Storm. More importantly, I remember I. F. Stone's post hoc analysis of both the war and how it was reported, in which he pointed out that the Pentagon's semantics of "surgical precision" was a far cry from the sort of treatment you would want to receive on a operating table. This seems consistent with the semantics of Cuomo's "surgically directed" phrase.

As I see it, Cuomo has decided to deal with child pornography by going after the Internet with a big stick without giving much thought as to where he is swinging it. My guess is that this strategy will have little impact on the proliferation of child pornography in cyberspace. My fear is that Cuomo's actions will reawaken the dimwitted thinking of some of our more vociferous Internet evangelists on the subject of governance, running them once again into the brick wall of a failure to comprehend why governance is necessary in the first place. This could very well lead to a sort of "rhetorical arms race" over the pornography problem that could easily culminate in those eye-for-an-eye exchanges, which, as Gandhi reminded us, ultimately make the whole world blind.

Perhaps it would be better to view Cuomo's action as one of "chutzpah for show," giving him another crack at a spotlight that shines on more that New York. Thus, in the hope of encouraging him to sheathe this particular sword, I would like to placate him by offering him the Chutzpah of the Week award. Take it, Andrew. Treasure it. Show it off in your office, but stop trying to bash Usenet! As I continue to preach in my own evangelical streaks, Usenet taught us more about the true nature of "social software" than just about anything the Internet evangelists now promote with such vigor; and perhaps it could teach you a thing or two about how to moderate (if not regulate) the proliferation of child pornography through cyberspace (even on Facebook, if that investigation you launched last September is still active).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Terminological Blunder

Whatever else may be said about the folks who compile these Gesamtwerk collections over at Brilliant Classics, their command of terminology leaves a bit to be desired. I have just begun the collection of eight discs grouped under the title, "Works for Choir a Cappella." I knew something was fishy when the first of these discs turned out to be the two collections of "Liebeslieder" waltzes (Opera 52 and 65), which are accompanied by four-hand piano! I was also a bit disappointed that these waltzes were sung by the Chamber Choir of Europe, since I have always preferred four solo voices; but one cannot exercise many choices in selecting a complete edition. It turns out that, of the eight discs in this group, only two are for unaccompanied voices. In order to distinguish them from the first three of the Vocal Music discs, this collection would more accurately be described as "Works for Mixed Voices without Orchestra," which does not consume that much more printing ink (or toner)! One final nit to pick is that the Chamber Choir of Europe uses solo voices for some of their performances. These voices are named on the "Liebeslieder" disc but on none of the others, nor do they seem to be given on the "Digital Guide" CD.

Post Script: Upon closer inspection, I found that the solo voices are listed in the "Digital Guide." However, they are listed on the final page for each disc, rather on the page that gives the texts of the songs! Thus the problem has more to do with design than with content!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Scare quotes?

I can't quite figure out whether or not the quotation marks in the headline for the Al Jazeera report of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic are scare quotes or, for that matter, why they are there at all:

'War criminal' Karadzic arrested

As their report makes clear, the man is, at the very least, a fugitive from a UN-approved international judiciary body:

The former Bosnian Serb leader was indicted on genocide charges in 1995 by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and topped the its most-wanted list for more than a decade.

It is almost as if the quote marks are questioning the legitimacy of the indictment or the authority of the United Nations to arrest the man. As one of the few remaining sources of reliable journalism, Al Jazeera would have done better to compose a more objective headline!

Virtue Put in its Place

The Merola Opera Program presented the first of its two complete opera productions at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco. The opera was Albert Herring, composed by Benjamin Britten with a libretto by Eric Crozier, based on the story, "Le Rosier de Madame Husson," by Guy de Maupassant. The work is a comic chamber opera, written (at least according to its Wikipedia entry) as a "companion piece" to the far more serious Rape of Lucretia. The term "chamber" applies less to the rather generous cast of characters than to the musical resources, in which, as in The Turn of the Screw performed at the Cowell at the end of the spring, each "voice" is a solo: first violin, second violin, viola, cello, bass, flute (including alto and piccolo), oboe, clarinet (including bass), bassoon, horn, harp, a single percussion performer, and "recitative" piano. The Merola company is less a "suburban" affair (as I had described the San Francisco Lyric Opera in their Screw production) than a workshop setting for singers who have completed their education and are embarking on careers as opera performers. Albert Herring is an excellent opera for such a setting. The music is both challenging and enjoyable, and the comedy provides an opportunity to take on more dramatic substance and creativity than one encounters in the usual bel canto repertoire.

The basic story concerns a small market town, Loxford in East Sussex, whose one blue-blooded resident, Lady Billows, is annoyed about the deterioration of morals. Her annoyance comes to a climax when it is discovered that none of the girls of the town is "morally fit" to be crowned Queen of the May; so, to teach the girls a lesson, the "search committee" decides to elect a May King, choosing Albert Herring, a shy and dull young man who has been under his mother's thumb for as long as anyone can remember. Sid, the closest to a friend that Albert has, finds this absurd and decides to teach this "moral majority" a lesson. At the crowning ceremony he spikes Albert's lemonade with rum. The transformation exceeds Sid's expectations: Albert gives himself such a night on the town that he cannot be found the next morning. The villagers turn on a dime from despair over his presumed death to fury when he appears in a hung over state. Nevertheless, Albert emerges from it all as a stable (no longer shy) force of moderation, who is finally capable of getting a life.

Albert's role makes for an interesting musical affair. For roughly half the opera we hear little from him other than the odd polite note or two; but, once the rum takes effect, we get to enjoy major stretches of solo tenor writing. This is particularly important, since none of the other characters has anything close to an aria: almost all of this opera is driven by (usually rather clever) dialog, often spiked with arch references, such as the schoolteacher named Miss Wordsworth (who appropriates Emily Dickenson in her speech at the May Day ceremony and presents Albert with the award of a two-volume edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs) and the vicar Gedge, whose advocacy of Albert's virtue verges on Keats' Grecian urn. For his part Britten is not shy about matching Crozier's wit with his own. Every mention of Foxe is accompanied by the ominous sound of a large gong, while the pouring of the rum into Albert's glass draws upon the inevitable passage from Tristan und Isolde.

All of this provides ample opportunity for the performers to have fun with their work; and that is precisely what the Merola cast did, without sacrificing the seriousness of technique required to make sure that the fun found its way across the stage and into the audience. Lady Billows, sung by Kate Crist, made her entrance in a wheelchair with all the imposing presence of Doctor Strangelove and dominated every scene in which she appeared. However, the center of attention was James Benjamin Rodgers, who nailed Albert's transformation perfectly. His "before" Albert was played exactly according to plan without deteriorating into a ridiculous prig. One understands why Sid (sung by Darren Perry) sees potential in him. His first extended solo, at home after the ceremony, where his mother is expecting him to go to bed, delivered a wonderful sense of the emergence of the "new Albert," which makes the opening of the third act, in which the entire village assumes he has died and is searching for his body, all the more ludicrous. Finally, Rodgers provided this "new Albert" with just the right combination of backbone and proper manners to face up to not only Lady Billows but (more importantly) his own mother.

All this was presumably the product of the two directors behind this production: Peter Kazaras for the staging and Mark Morash for musical direction. Similarly, the Cowell Theater deserves credit for providing a stage of a scale appropriate to the drama (as it did for The Turn of the Screw). Martha Graham used to say that comedy is always far more difficult to deliver than tragedy. If that is really the case (rather than just an apology for her own work), then the skills of the current Merola crew bode well for the future of opera!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Private Enterprise Trumps the Public Trust

I have written several posts about the deterioration of balance between the interests of private enterprise and those of the "public trust;" but, for the most part my writing has focused on the consequences of this deterioration in the institutions of journalism. However, the need for extending the scope of the public trust and providing it with due support extends far beyond keeping the public better informed than corporate interests would have them be. This morning the Reuters Web site ran an article by Debra Sherman, which is a poignant (at the very least) demonstration of the lack of public-trust thinking in our current health care system. Like most informative reports, this one begins with an anecdote that is likely to surprise most readers:

Every year, Chicago-based cardiologist Ziyad Hijazi accompanies two or three children and their families to his native Jordan for heart operations using medical devices that are not approved in the United States.

In one such case, Hijazi implanted a device to close a hole between the lower chambers of the heart in a child from Massachusetts. The device, called an amplatzer muscular VSD, manufactured by Minneapolis-based AGA Medical, was available for 9 years in Jordan before it was approved in the United States in 2007.

According to Hijazi, who is chief of pediatric cardiology at Rush University Medical Center, and other doctors, children are getting worse treatment in the United States, and have even died, because pediatric medical devices are not approved.

Sherman then uses this mini-narrative as a point of departure to analyze the how-did-we-get-into-this-mess question. Much of that analysis draws upon an interview with Thomas Forbes, director of cardiac catheterization at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. This is because one of the major areas addressed by the final paragraph of her anecdote concerns the use of stents (small tubes that prop open the walls of blood vessels), which are administered through catheterization. The problem is that both stents and catheters designed for adults can be dangerous when applied to children for the simple reason that they are too large and not flexible enough.

By all rights this should be a golden opportunity for all those innovation evangelists to put aside their usual claptrap and strut their stuff to beneficial effect. Getting beyond the usual problem that too much innovative thinking tends to be in an echo chamber that blocks out any reverberations concerned with consequences, this is an example of a well-defined problem for which a robust solution would greatly benefit the general public. Nevertheless, you are unlikely to find any of those evangelists preaching about this particular problem in dire need of a solution. It does not take long for Sherman to get to the heart of why this is the case:

One factor is that companies that make medical devices focus on adults because the market is bigger. Heart diseases in children, for example, are more likely to be congenital, and rare, while in adults they are more likely to be progressive, and common.

A law signed late last year provides financial incentives to companies for making devices for children, but also requires those companies to track patients at their own expense.

"It's a paperwork nightmare. They have to commit resources and follow these patients forever," Forbes said. "If I'm a J&J stockholder, I'm saying, 'I love kids, I'd love to help them out, but move on.'"

There you have it: When innovation evangelists write their sermons, they are not preaching about solving problems; they are writing about new opportunities for Return on Investment (ROI). Put another way, they are interested in innovations that benefit shareholders; and, in the classic language of The Gilded Age, "the customer be damned." If too many children (or, for that matter, adults) can no longer receive effective health care through improved medical technologies, then the only consequence that seems to matter is that the "surplus population" may be reduced.

There is another lesson from Sherman's anecdote, which is that those who currently can enjoy better health care are those who can afford the expense of having a procedure performed in another country. Thus, the sort of "surplus population" that receives so little thought by our innovation evangelists are, as usual, the poor. The problem is that the poor are not receiving much more attention by the strongest voices of health care reform either, particularly when it comes to a complex socio-technical issue like being able to deploy the best technology to solve the most challenging problems. Thus, like so many other stories about the primacy of the interests of shareholders, this is ultimately another story about the War Against the Poor; and it appears that this particular skirmish is being waged on a battlefield where most of the casualties will be children.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Mozart's Orchestral Palette

Even before the orchestra began to play the K. 205 D major divertimento to open the 34th Season Midsummer Mozart Festival under the baton of Music Director George Cleve, one could expect that this occasion would be different, rather than merely "diverting." There were no cellos on stage. The melodic voices were concentrated in the two violin and viola sections, supported by two double basses. In addition the wind section was restricted to two horns and one bassoon. The program notes made the usual dismissive comments about the divertimento being "simply a diverting piece of music that you were not expected to listen to with the care that you might give to a weightier work" (as if the audiences at the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave much consideration to the "weight" of the music being played for them), followed by the usual gratuitous nod to the composer:

This is brilliantly mature music, even if it does come from a 17-year old boy whose talent was light years beyond his calendar years.

This all diverts (so to speak) our attention from an aspect of Mozart that is seldom explored, which is the extent to which each of his compositions (sometimes down to the individual numbers of an opera) draws much of its strength from a meticulous choice of instrumentation and the resulting sound qualities. A more useful context is provided by the notes that Jos van der Zanden prepared for the Brilliant Classics edition of Mozart's complete works:

In some of his Serenades and Divertimenti Mozart experimented with unusual combinations of instruments. He not seldom enriched an ensemble of strings by adding woodwinds and brass instruments, in search for coloristic effects and new sound spectra. A fine example is the curious ‘Concerto ï sia Divertimento’ in E flat major, K. 113, composed in Milan in 1771. Here Mozart for the first time used clarinets. He revised the work a few years later, adding oboes, english horns and bassoons and enabling the clarinets to be omitted.

A daring combination was tried in the six-movement Divertimento in D major, K. 131 from the summer of 1772. Along the strings (with diveded violas) there was a flute, an oboe, a bassoon, and last but not least four horns. The horns feature as a solo quartet in several movements and these passages call for very skilled musicians. Such passages as the slow introduction to the finale, where the seven wind instruments play without strings, must have been a real playground for Mozart to exploring a variety of timbres. In a later stage he transplanted such innovations into his major works, like symphonies.

K. 205 was composed in Vienna in 1773; and, while the orchestration may not be as radical as that chosen for K. 131, Mozart is still very much in his playground. Furthermore, this is another composition that features winds playing without strings, even if it is only in the modest setting of the trio for the second menuetto. There is, however, some possibility that the decision to accompany the two horns with the bassoon was Cleve's. When I consulted the on-line version of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, I discovered that the bass line, intended for both bassoon and double basses, was marked "senza Fagotto" in this trio! Either way this composition is as much about orchestral color as it is about the inventions of melody, harmony, and counterpoint that usually draw our attention to Mozart.

K. 205 was followed by the K. 488 A major piano concerto with Jon Nakamatsu as soloist. This is a much later work (1786); but Mozart is still in his playground. This time we have a full complement of strings; but for winds we have two horns, two bassoons, two clarinets, and a single flute. This makes for an interesting blend of high voices, particularly when Mozart exploits the sonorities of the clarinet in both low and high registers. Several different combinations of these sounds unfold in the orchestral accompaniment to the second Adagio movement; and one can tell that Mozart was enjoying what he was doing, because the piano solo (which he probably played) attempts to imitate these colors!

This was but one example of how this performance was a vast improvement over the last K. 488 performance I discussed, because it demonstrated that keen sense of acoustic balance that emerged in the collaboration of Nakamatsu and Cleve. This was very much an intimate conversation involving piano and orchestra, in which the orchestra provided several significant solo voices to add to that conversation; and Nakamatsu has the confidence of a piano soloist who knows that his is not the only voice in the conversation. Indeed, his sensitivity in playing softly can be heard when he introduces a passage at piano level and then repeats it pianissimo. He understands intimacy, and Cleve knew how to get his orchestra to share in that intimacy.

While I was doing my background research, I discovered that the numbering of the C major oboe concerto, played by soloist Laura Griffiths after the intermission, opens a minor can of worms. The program listed it as K. 271k, while the score in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe lists it as K. 314 (285d) along with a footnote stating that the music is "presumably identical" (Vermutlich identisch) with K. 271k! The Neue Mozart-Ausgabe numbers are identical to those assigned to the D major flute concerto, but a footnote indicates that the oboe version is the earlier one. This all raises an interesting question in the context of Mozart's interest in orchestral color. Did he really think that instrument color did not matter in this work, or was the flute version an expedient act to satisfy a flute soloist? Both versions provide the same wind accompaniment in the orchestra, two oboes and two horns; so go figure it.

The level of Griffiths' "conversation" was, unfortunately, not as intimate as Nakamatsu's had been. Indeed, some of her solo work had a rushed sound, which tended to undermine the "grammar" of the phrasing. Thus, while there were no problems with balance, there was a certain chemistry lacking in the overall performance that made it less compelling than the piano concerto.

That chemistry quickly returned to the orchestra, however, as they concluded with the K. 504 D major symphony ("Prague"). This provided the richest assortment of colors, with the full string section filled out with two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and a pair of timpani. Cleve was right on top of all the dynamic variety, making sure that the orchestra had enough left to give to a brilliantly energetic final Presto movement. Given the resources required, we might call this the biggest playground of the evening; and Cleve knew how to deliver it with just the right balance of discipline and play.

There was one "intruder" in the performance not listed on the program. After the piano concerto Nakamatsu took an encore by performing the Opus 14 Rondo Capriccioso in E major by Felix Mendelssohn. This led me to realize how little I have written about Mendelssohn at all on this blog and how little he is played by the pianists whose discs I collect. The Opus 14 makes for a nice encore. It is certainly showy enough, and it provided Nakamatsu with further opportunity to demonstrate his command of lightness of touch. The only problem is that Mendelssohn does not make for particularly good company with Mozart from a "cultural" point of view; but, if we began with the "diversion" of a divertimento, then perhaps the encore "diverted" us from Mozart to take our intermission break!

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Media under Fire

No reporter was named for this article on the BBC NEWS Web site. Thus, there probably was not a BBC reporter on site at the time of this incident:

Three Chinese reporters attending a police briefing on the success of an anti-gun campaign were accidentally shot, media reports say.

An officer picked up one of the weapons on show - a confiscated home-made gun - but it went off in his hand.

A reporter needed surgery for injuries to his ankle, crotch and chest, after being hit by what appeared to be pebbles fired by the gun.

Two others were slightly injured in the incident in Nanchong, southern China.

There is, however, an eyewitness account (of sorts):

"Journalists from 13 media outlets were led to a hall on the second floor after attending the meeting on the 12th floor,'' one woman called Lin told the newspaper.

"One officer picked up a confiscated pistol and demonstrated it to the journalists.''

Lin said she heard a bang and saw West China City Daily reporter Su Dingwei collapse.

"White smoke was rising in the room and crushed stone-like things were scattered all around,'' she was quoted as saying.

There are any number of accounts of reporters who have come under fire (probably both enemy and "friendly") in the course of war coverage; but this may well be the first account of a reporter who was a victim of "friendly fire" at the hands of a municipal police force.

Martial Chutzpah

In another week with an ample supply of chutzpah, I find that my strongest memory is of some words I heard delivered by John McCain as part of the BBC coverage of his campaign:

I know how to win wars. And if I'm elected president, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory.

Unless I am mistaken, he reinforced this point by telling his audience that he was a "war-winner." I should put out that the above quote was cut and pasted from the Prime Buzz site managed by the Kansas City Star, which, in turn, attributes the Associated Press as its source. The Chutzpah of the Week award goes to John McCain on the basis of how much evidence there is to support his claim, but I find it interesting that this little episode in Albuquerque on Tuesday received so little attention from the media.

I suppose all this came to pass because the general question of winning wars, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, was part of this week's prevailing discourse. This leads me to wonder whether the media would ever let that discourse shift its focus from war to peace. What would be McCain's reaction in that unlikely event? Would he then tell us that he knows how to make peace? Might he play his "age card" to advantage and claim that he was there at the signing of the Treaty of Paris?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Two Views of Brahms' Chamber Music

I have now completed listening to the discs in the Orchestral and Chamber Music sections of the Brilliant Classics collection of the complete works of Johannes Brahms; but, as I move into the Piano Music section, I have not yet reached the halfway mark. This is because close to half of the discs are devoted to the Vocal Music section (which also happens to include a disc of Organ Works, probably for lack of any other section to accommodate it). Nevertheless, since my initial "ascent on Mount Beethoven" was interrupted by a defective chamber music disc (the first cello sonata), I feel as if I have passed a barrier, even if it happens to be a barrier of superstition!

Some readers may have inferred from a previous post that I already have the Philips Complete Chamber Music collection in my possession, so it is hard to resist making some comparisons. The Philips collection is older and most of the performers are more familiar, if not more venerable. Nevertheless, I would not want to be forced to make a preferential choice between the Beaux Arts Trio on Philips and Joseph Kalichstein, Jaime Laredo, and Sharon Robinson on Brilliant. They bring different ways of listening to the Brahms trios; and, as I recently observed about the "Beethoven's Eroica" DVD in the Keeping Score series, there is no such thing as a definitive perspective on any composition of music. On the other hand, given my personal preference for performances by Janos Starker, I find it a bit ironic that Philips satisfies that preference with the cello sonatas, while Brilliant satisfies it with the "Double Concerto."

More interesting is that Brilliant made up for Philips neglecting to include the works for two pianos and four hands on one piano as chamber music. Having played a fair amount of the four-hand repertoire (and some of the work for two pianos when I had the luxury to do so in Palo Alto), I strongly support Brilliant's decision, particularly since this gives us an opportunity to hear different perspectives on a single composition. The Haydn variations makes for the most interesting case in point; and, as I previously mentioned, it took only one listening to a good performance (by the performers in the Brilliant collection) of the piano version for me to prefer it over the orchestral. I tend to feel the same about the Hungarian dances, although I appreciate the extent to which these works gain some benefit from the right splashes of orchestral color. On the other hand I am not sure I have a preference for the Opus 39 waltzes when it comes to two hands or four; but some day I may try to work up the courage to take on the two-hand version myself. The most interesting contrast, however, comes from the Opus 34b sonata for two pianos, whose Opus 34(a) is the F minor piano quintet. This is a fascinating exercise in approaching a single "text" with two different types of sonority. Each approach has its own merits; and there is much to be said for the opportunity for side-by-side comparison. The same may be said for the Brilliant decision (also not made by Philips) to include both the clarinet and viola versions of the two Opus 120 sonatas. Again, the difference is all in the sonority; but that difference brings with it a difference in rhetorical approach, which makes for different directions in which the listener may be swayed.

So now I leave the Chamber Music base camp and begin the Piano Music ascent. None of the pianists in the Brilliant collection are familiar to me. However, it is also the case that I do not currently have that much of this music on CD, the most notable exception being the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Kristian Zimmerman playing the sonatas, along with the Opus 4 scherzo and the Opus 10 Balladen. Most of my Brahms is in my Rubinstein collection, which is far from thorough. In addition I have come to know many of these works through my own faltering attempts; so, as far as my own listening is concerned, my "pump is well primed" for the occasion. I have to confess that my greatest curiosity remains for the Vocal Music; but I am looking forward to what I may discover in new recordings of works by a composer who took his own piano-playing very seriously.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Getting into the Iran Mess

In "Iran: The Threat," his latest piece for The New York Review, author Thomas Powers provides us with a terse statement of historical context that explains much of how the current Administration has made such a mess of foreign affairs, both diplomatic and military:

Sometime during the Clinton years a faction of the Republican Party in exile lost patience with the accepted way of conducting foreign relations. Talking, negotiating, proposing alternatives, cajoling allies with economic and military aid, taking conflicts to the United Nations, convening conferences, sitting on commissions and issuing, repeating, and underlining warnings—in short, all the other "options on the table"—came to be seen in certain Republican circles as time-wasting, irresolute, and futile—a pattern of weakness that invites defiance.

Powers' context may be further elaborated with the observation that his laundry list of "options" aligns very nicely with the principles that Dennis Ross articulated and discussed in his book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World. Ross was, of course, one of the active agents during those "Clinton years," serving as a special Middle East coordinator, which was probably enough to make that Republican faction forget (or, more likely, ignore) the fact that he had also served in the State Department of the Bush I Administration as a director of policy planning.

However, as Powers continues his own discussion, it is clear that the Republican faction he is discussing in one that believed firmly that such matters as statecraft and policy planning were only for wimps:

The argument of the neoconservatives, stated in its nakedest form at the outset of the Bush administration, notes that the United States is the world's sole great power. We have a military capability that dwarfs all others. We need not defer to weak and corrupt governments that treat us with disdain.

It goes without saying that, as a foundation for such concepts as "statecraft" and "policy planning," the fundamental principle of understanding those with whom you must engage is also for wimps. The last time I explored this matter, I compared our current President to Pentheus in Euripides' play, The Bacchae; but perhaps it might be fairer to say that neoconservatism adopted Pentheus as their standard-bearer, forgetting (or, again, ignoring) Euripides' lesson of what happens to those who use power to enforce an ideology without taking due stock of their opposition. However, there is one important difference between George W. Bush and Pentheus. Pentheus could exercise his power directly; Bush must exercise power through our country's military, which means, at the very least, through the mediation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Powers has observed, more and more of our most senior military leaders are feeling more and more skeptical about how this Administration would exercise power; and they are getting more and more vocal about that skepticism. This may not sway the ideological fixations of the Executive Branch, but perhaps it will have a more beneficial effect on both the general public and their elected representatives in the Legislative Branch.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Losing Score

It has been almost a year since I participated in the 2007 "Bloggers' Night" at the San Francisco Symphony. While I responded to my invitation to this event with several posts about the performances that evening, I never mentioned that all participants were further rewarded with a modest element of swag, which included review copies of DVDs of the Keeping Score series that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony had created for production by local PBS station KQED. I have never seen any of these programs broadcast. Truth be told, I have become very disappointed in what PBS has to offer in just about any subject area; and the local contributions from KQED are not much better. Nevertheless, I was curious about the project; but, in spite of that curiosity, the jewel cases gathered dust for about a year until last night when my wife and I decided to see what they had to offer, beginning with the "Beethoven's Eroica" broadcast. This seemed like an appropriate way to begin, particularly since we had heard Thomas conduct this work at Davies Symphony Hall last March.

That recent listening experience, however, made for an interesting and significant object lesson: The beauty of the "live" performance is that, like snowflakes, no two are alike. If they were alike, they would be little better than recordings; and, if that were they case, why should we bother to exchange our "virtual concert hall" for the real thing? Thomas is well aware of how the approach to performance changes from one occasion to the next, and he even talks about it when first introducing this work. However, as a result of that simple "principle of diversity," I found the "Beethoven's Eroica" presentation more than a little disquieting, because it felt too much as if Thomas were providing his viewers with a definitive perspective on what, in my own post, I called "The Ultimate Warhorse."

This observation then leads to my second observation, which is that there is too much talk and not enough music. Part of the problem is that this particular symphony is significant for its revolutionary approach to scale; and this poses a difficulty in presenting it, along with supplementary material, in a one-hour television program. The result is that we end up experiencing "significant excerpts," rather than the imposing whole ("Dear God, he's big") itself. Many years ago Kurt Masur worked with a British television production company to prepare recorded concerts of the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms. Each of those made for a one-hour broadcast; and Masur prepared his remarks to fill the space that was not occupied by the music. One might argue that this would be too little for a work as major as Ludwig van Beethoven's third symphony, but I doubt that anyone would claim that the details behind Brahms symphonies are any less than those behind Beethoven's.

This leads to my final observation: If the music is the most important part, how can the video do justice to it? Put another way, since it is virtually impossible to ignore a video signal (particularly if it is motion video), what can be done to make sure that the video contributes to the listening experience, rather than detracting from it? This is a question I have examined in previous posts. My primary regard is that many who read what I feel is the best answer to this question will regard it as ancient history:

I have always felt that this [skilled video production] was the "secret ingredient" that made Evening at Symphony on PBS such a triumph. All direction of camera shots was informed by the score being performed. This was such a serious matter that the camera crew would rehearse in Symphony Hall with a stage on which all the chairs were in the right place, each labeled with the name of the performer; and all the camera work would be executed against a recording of the performance. This whole process was the brainchild of Jordan Whitelaw, who supposedly once said, "If you don't see it, you may not hear it!" This is far from a trivialization of the listening process; it is one of the best strategies for cultivating that process. Of course it only works if it is properly executed; and, if it is poorly executed, it can do far more harm than good.

If Whitelaw's spirit remains with us at all today, it would be through the innovations that Barbara Willis Sweete has brought to videos of the Metropolitan Opera, apparently with the encouragement of general manager Peter Gelb. Sweete shares Whitelaw's keen sense of what it means for audiences to see the right thing; but she also has the advantage of working (by virtue of high-definition (HD) bandwidth) with far more sophisticated video management technology than WGBH was ever able to provide to Whitelaw. This was most apparent when she delivered a video product that caught all of the subtleties of the Met production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and made them accessible (and perhaps more comprehensible) to all of us who could only attend the performance by watching it in a movie house. Alas, the few opportunities we had to see the San Francisco Symphony performing excerpts in "Beethoven's Eroica" were depressingly uninformative, particularly when assessed by the standards set by Whitelaw and extended by Sweete. This brings to mind the Annie Hall joke about the exchange between two old ladies staying at a resort in the Catskills:

"The food here is terrible!"

"Yes, and the portions are so small!"

No, the video work in "Beethoven's Eroica" is not as terrible as all that; but those of us who have been tracking the role that video can play in extending audiences for the performing arts know it can be much better.

This brings me to my final point, which is that, if we are to take the shortcomings of "Beethoven's Eroica" seriously, then we should also entertain the hypothesis that this production is more symptom than disease. In this case the "disease" (which I have also discussed in the past) is the growing neglect of the performing arts on public television. As I previously wrote, this is a "gap that cable cannot seem to fill," since it appears that every attempt cable has made to do so has come to a dismal end. Of course the problem may well be that the performing arts are just not particularly compatible with the culture of a "technological age," such as the one we are currently experiencing. Thus, while we may get no end of jawboning in favor of arts education, even when clothed in rhetoric about "the importance of arts to the future of the nation's competitiveness in a changing paradigm of global, economic, technical and social evolution and cultural change," that jawboning is unlikely to lead to much other than a few grants, which will probably go to the same old organizations that continue to get grants to do the same old thing. Just on the basis of the impact he has had on programming for the San Francisco Symphony, I have strong confidence that Michael Tilson Thomas would like to reverse this trend; but I do not see him getting the support he would need for such an endeavor. Without that support it is hard to imagine that future projects will be much more satisfying than "Beethoven's Eroica" was.