Monday, December 5, 2016

In Defense of Purging

No, dear friends. I have not, in my desire to lose weight, come out in favor of bulimia. Instead, I am addressing the controversy of deleting online friends due to their offensive political views. 

 In terms of vulgarity and general offensiveness, Donald Trump goes way beyond anything this nation has ever seen in a major party candidate. I have had strong differences with many elected officials, from Ronald Reagan (who ignored the AIDS for six years) to John Kasich. But I never questioned their basic decency or their belief that they were doing what they thought was best for the nation as a whole. 

But Trump is a horse’s ass of another color. For the past year, some on the left were comparing Trump with Adolf Hitler. At first, I was offended by the comparison, and thought the Hitler-Trump comparisons were specious. Not anymore. Read these excerpts from a New York Times review of a recent biography of Hitler, and take note: “‘Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,’ Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order. Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising ‘to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,’ though he was typically vague about his actual plans.” 

 Change “anti-Semitic” to “anti-Immigrant”, “anti-Gay”, “anti-Muslim” and, well, you get the picture. 

There are superficial similarities between 1933 Germany and 2016 America as well: 

“‘The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed “a man of iron” who could shake things up. “Why not give the National Socialists a chance?” a prominent banker said of the Nazis. “They seem pretty gutsy to me.”’ 

America's political system is a portrait of dysfunctional gridlock. The spirit of compromise that allowed the country to unite against fascism, communism, and land a man on the moon is a distant memory. But while 1933 Germany was economically destitute, America’s economy continues to improve, unemployment is at its lowest level in nine years, incomes are rising – albeit dis-proportionally for those in the upper economic strata. 

 How would Hitler have used a social media platform, like Twitter? My guess, pretty much like Trump has. 

 There are a few differences, though. While Trump dodged the draft, Hitler volunteered for the German army during World War I and was known as a brave, tenacious message runner. Also, Hitler only married once. 

And then there’s this: 

Many of those who voted for Trump will tell you that they were offended by his behavior and don’t condone the mocking of people with disabilities. NOT GOOD ENOUGH. As the child of a semi-disabled person, I will never be able to understand how any right-thinking person with an OUNCE of sympathy in them wouldn't have found this to be a deal-breaker. Add to that Trump’s comments about women, religious and ethnic minorities, and using nuclear weapons – how could this man have been considered? It’s not that far from Trump’s disdain toward those with life challenging conditions and Hitler’s stated belief that the disabled, mentally ill, and mentally retarded should be euthanized so they wouldn’t be a drain on the state. 

With the above in mind, I did perform a long overdue enema on my facebook friends list. It wasn't all encompassing, I just weeded out the worst of them.  Most of those removed were either people I had never met in real life or had passing acquaintances with in school or previous jobs. One was a relative who, frankly, has always been something of a bully and about whom I’ve long had reservations. I also blocked several people, including someone who I knew in elementary school (I didn’t like her, even then). Typically for Trump supporters, she became pregnant while in high school and later “matured” into a born-again judgmental Christian who posted “Hillary for Prison” pictures on her facebook timeline. 

No thanks. I have enough friends to be selective.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Zweden and Trifonov at Severance

This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts featured guest conductor Jaap van Zweden and pianist Daniil Trifonov.  Given how the hall was nearly sold out and the parking garage was filled an hour before the concert began, it's no exaggeration to state that this was the hottest ticket in town.

The concert began with Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem.  The work was commissioned by the Japanese Government in 1940, in celebration of the 2600th anniversary of the founding of their empire.  Ultimately, the Japanese rejected the work (although Britten was still paid) on the grounds that the titles of the movements – Lacrymosa, Dies Irae, Requiem aeternam – were too Christian in character for Japan.    Given that the Japanese Empire was already engaging in atrocities against Manchuria, including cannibalism, the use of chemical weapons, and the wholesale slaughter of civilians, it’s probably for the best that Britten’s work was premiered in Carnegie Hall.

Last weekend was only the second time the Cleveland Orchestra had programmed the piece – the first was in 1976.  The movements are bound together, although it’s easy enough to determine where one ends and the other begins as there are no cross movement thematic references.  Despite many interesting passages – particularly in the Dies Irae – the piece lacks the dramatic line that carries the listener from beginning to end.

Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488 followed, with pianist Daniil Trifonov.  The work is one of Mozart’s most popular in that form.  Trifonov has a Cleveland connection, having lived here while studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Sergei Babayan.  On that basis alone, I’d love to be able to give the performance a rave review.  But I can’t honestly do that.   The opening movement, a lyrically cheerful Allegro, was devoid of inflection, rubato, and color.  It was as drab and as plain as could be.  Further, there were several right-hand passages that were blurred and tentative sounding – this was also an issue in the Finale.  The slow movement, an Adagio in F-sharp Minor (the only time Mozart used that as a home key) was taken at a tempo that could almost have been a Larghetto or even a Lento – so that the movement took the character of a funeral dirge in 6/8 time.  As with most slow movements of his piano concertos, Mozart did not fully write out the piano part, expecting pianists to improvise their own filler passages.  Trifonov played only the inscribed notes, except for a brief flourish nine bars before the end – which I realized was copied from Horowitz’s version.  The Finale, an Allegro assai, was reasonably brisk but – as with the rest of the concerto – played at a disappointingly small scale.  This was Rococo, porcelain doll Mozart - a cautious conservatory rendition, designed to offend as few as possible – but fated to fade in memory after a brief time.  The audience, however, leapt to its feet as of Trifonov had just slaughtered the piano in the Rachmaninoff Third – including a woman two seats away from me who talked with her husband through much of the Britten.  I can only surmise that the audience was packed with Trifonov’s fans who were apt to suspend judgement for “their boy” – certainly there were many unfamiliar faces that night.  Zweden kept the orchestra in time with the pianist. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven’s ubiquitous Fifth Symphony.  Probably the most well-known orchestral work in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Fifth has one characteristic in common with Britten’s Sinfonia de Requiem: the joining of movements – although in Beethoven’s case only the Third and Fourth Movements are joined – to the best of my knowledge the first time that had ever been done in a Symphony by a major composer.  Zweden, whose tempos were well judged (although the Finale was a bit overly fast), paid careful attention to balances, observed all the repeats, made striking use of dynamics, and brought the work to a thrilling conclusion.

The concert was nearly sold out.  Perhaps that was a factor in the constant coughing we heard – particularly throughout the Mozart – the worst such cacophony of audience eruptions I’ve heard at Severance.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reflections on Election 2016

It’s part of human nature.  You lose, or your team loses, or your candidate loses, or your party loses – followed by a period of (self) recrimination.

No doubt, the pending Electoral confirmation of Donald Trump is a harbinger of Presidential stupidity not seen since the days of George W. Bush, and malfeasance in office that could exceed that of Richard Nixon.  But the country survived eight years of Bush, five and a half years of Nixon, and it will survive four years (possibly less) of Trump. 

It is not the end of the world as we know it, but it’s going to be a rough ride.

However this is painted by the blogosphere and the media, 2016 was not a rout of the Democratic Party.  Democrats gained at least six seats (four remain undecided) in the House of Representatives, and two in the Senate.  And Hillary Clinton, as you may have heard, earned the highest number of votes, despite narrowly losing the Electoral College.

But there are anomalies in the Presidential race which demand further scrutiny.   In 2009, Barack Obama rammed an auto-industry bailout package through Congress which saved Michigan’s economy – not just for the Big Three automakers but for the vendors who serve them, everything from auto parts to food for their cafeterias to toilet paper.  If blue collar Michiganders indeed voted for Trump it would be the most striking example of political ingratitude since voters sat home and allowed Republicans to take over Congress in 1946.  But given the Putin government’s repeated attempts to hack into our nation’s computers – both public and private – and the obvious collusion between the Russians and Wikileaks, a sudden spasm of ingratitude from Michiganders seems less likely.  Will our government investigate this, and if merited call the Russians out on their behavior? Unlikely.  That would jeopardize world stability – which Putin knows we are loathe to do.    

The 1946 reference above is hardly random.  Americans, after enduring the Great Depression and World War II, were enjoying a strong economy, plentiful jobs, the reuniting of loved ones, and the beginning of families – a normalcy not seen since the 1920s.  The demand for new housing was such that there was a shortage as suburban development proceeded at a breakneck pace.  But the American people have a short memory – relatively minor issues like inflation were irritants and a series of strikes caused a backlash among conservative voters who began to fear a middle-class that had it “too easy” and was becoming too “uppity”.    As for the middle class, many were too busy enjoying the “easy life” which, for them, meant a regular job, food on the table, a decent home, a car – along with saving a little for the future.  President Truman’s program, called the Fair Deal, was intended to build on the gains made under the New Deal.  But Truman’s actions on their behalf were not enough to drive middle class voters to defend their gains, leading to the low turnout elections of 1946. 

Does any of the above sound familiar?  In 2008, the economy was in tailspin.  Only quick action by Presidents Bush (in a rare moment of poise and competence) and Obama prevented a second Great Depression.  In 2008 the United States was mired in two wars: Afghanistan and the misbegotten war in Iraq.  Obama began to immediately move upon taking office on getting the economy moving again, reducing unemployment, pulling our troops out of harm’s way, and locating and killing Osama Bin Laden.  He also began work on reforming Health Care, a task which has confronted Presidents since Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House.  The Affordable Care Act, while far from perfect, has resulted in 20 million Americans obtaining Health Insurance.  But the lobbyists for Health Care Insurers, along with the NRA, are two formidable forces in American politics, and they – along with Dick Armey’s AstroTurf Tea Party – were able to collectively throw the House and Senate to the Republicans – along with enough Governorships to Gerrymander House districts. 

After the 1946 elections, Harry Truman was worse than a lame duck – politically he was considered a dead duck and was widely expected not to seek reelection.  But persevered through 1946’s election losses and gained reelection in 1948 by focusing on issues that mattered to ordinary Americans and by ceaselessly pointing out how the “good for nothing” 80th Congress was working against their interests.  In the process, he also helped return the Democrats to majorities in the House and Senate.

Today’s Democrats, too, will recover from the 2016 election and regain the White House - if they learn Truman’s lesson.  The Democrats must return to their roots as a people’s party, which means, at a minimum, that there must be a house cleaning in which corporate types like Debbie Wasserman Schultz no longer have influence beyond her own Congressional District.  Further, the party should pursue Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy which was the blueprint for President Obama’s victory in 2008.  Big money donations, as this year has shown, are not enough to win election.  Neither are strategic firewalls.  In every district of every state, Democrats should declare rhetorical war on the 115th Congress, which stands poised to become the most anti-people Congress since the 80th.   Democracy is like a rubber band: whenever a politician or party pulls too far to one side – as the Republicans are now likely to do – the people snap it back.  Finally, Democrats must seek and nominate someone who will motivate supporters – no matter that person’s gender, ethnicity, or religion.  As much as I like Hillary Clinton, she was not someone who inspired the deepest level of motivation or loyalty among ordinary Americans – particularly independents.  She has served her country well since the 1970s, but it’s now time for her to retire.   The same is true for Ohio Democrats.  The Governor's race is in 2018.  It's time to move past relics like Ted Strickland and find a younger candidate with solid credentials who will appeal to voters.  

We have work to do.   

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

2016 Election Fallout

Those who voted for Trump, those who voted for useless 3rd party candidates, and those who sat home will deserve exactly what they get. The rest of us will be victims of their folly.

Americans are going to be in for a painful awakening. Just as with B
rexit in the UK, when the American people grasp the implications of what they have wrought there are going to be clamors for a do-over. But there are no do-overs in the US. We're going to be stuck with The Donald, and his equally odious running mate, for the next four years.

My father was born and raised in Michigan. And though he was a lifelong Republican, two weeks before he died he told me he would never vote for Donald Trump if he was the GOP nominee.
It was President Obama's auto-bailout package, passed by a Democratic Congress, that saved America's Big Three auto manufacturers and not just their jobs, but those of their vendors as well.
As the son of a Michigander, I say that there is a special place in Hell for Michigan auto industry workers who voted for Donald Trump.
I would end this by saying "Go Buckeyes", but Ohio sucks pretty badly too.

I haven't felt so ashamed to be an Ohioan since 2004, when the anti-marriage equality amendment was passed.

Ohio was once known as an abolitionist state that sent a huge portion of its men into battle to preserve the Union, which was the stomping ground for two young brothers who dared to fly, which proudly elected John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum to the Senate.

But that Ohio is dead. Cleveland and Columbus are the last holdouts.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Wang and Hrůša at Severance

The Cleveland Orchestra performed a varied program with guest conductor Jakub Hrůša and pianist Yuja Wang this weekend. 

The concert began with Bohuslav Martinů’s Parables, a triptych with which I was unfamiliar. The programmatic work was presented with a mix of orchestral color and a picturesque quality that befitted the 1958 piece. One would never guess the Orchestra was presenting the work for the first time given the technical finish and ease with this they performed the piece.  

After a brief break during which the stage extension with the Hamburg Steinway piano and supplementary percussion was raised, Yuja Wang strode on stage to begin the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 1. I am only passingly familiar with this, the least popular of Bartók’s three piano concertos. While I cannot provide a detailed analysis, I can relate that Wang’s interpretation and delivery were more convincing than Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording. For one thing, Wang was able to play with an appropriately percussive sound without lapsing into an unpleasant and unmusical sonority. It’s rare when a work such as this brings the audience to its feet, but Wang and the orchestra pulled it off. The audience, from which nary a cough was heard, was rewarded with two encores: Arrangements of Mozart’s Turkish March and Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice.

Wang has come under criticism in some circles both for her musicianship and the haute couture she wears during her performances. I can report that last night she wore a dazzling yet tasteful black sequined dress. As for the other criticism, I have heard nothing from Wang – either last night or in her recordings – to support the snide remarks made by some critics and on some Internet chat boards. After decades observing and participating in the Classical scene, I can dismiss them as the typical mix of jealousy and pedantry that are part of the cause of the decline in Classical audiences.  (The criticism of Lang Lang, however, is justified owing the musical hash he makes of nearly everything he plays.) 

Wang has appeared in Zsolt Bognár’s interview series, Living the Classical Life, and I am delighted to present the interview below: 

The Brahms Fourth is one of my five “desert island” Symphonies. (The other four, in no particular order, are Mozart’s “Jupiter”, Beethoven’s Seventh, Schubert’s “Great” C major, and Rachmaninoff’s Second.) In terms of musical architecture, Brahms’ E minor Symphony is probably the most perfect work in that genre of the post-Beethoven era. The opening movement’s themes and motifs are developed in a totally organic manner; it is one of the rare symphonic opening movements without an introduction (Brahms composed and discarded one early on). Leonard Bernstein analyzed the many wonders of this movement far better than I could. The finale’s passacaglia is an homage to Bach but delivered in a Brahmsian manner. 

Sadly, Hrůša chose a rather lethargic tempo for the opening Allegro non troppo, and from there gave in to the urge to slow down and brood over individual passages. The second movement, a moderate Andante, was paced appropriately but suffered from limp phrasing and a lack of dynamic contrast. The Scherzo came off best, with the triangle passages a bit more prominently heard than usual – or perhaps it was the acoustics of Severance Hall’s row W, where we sat. The finale, like the opening movement, is best heard in a fairly straight line – it’s essentially a headlong slow-motion descent into Hell. Hrůša started off well, but midway started alternating between the accelerator and the brake so the sense of inevitability was disrupted. In the end, Brahms’ greatest symphony, which reconciles the Classic and Romantic traditions, was gently ruined by Hrůša’s essentially immature conception.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trump and accusations of rigging

By now, you’ve heard it in the media repeated ad infinitum, ad absurdum: Hillary/the Media/the Democrats are rigging the 2016 election.  It’s a common enough election year mantra.  I remember a conversation with my father, about ten years ago, in which he stated that Truman’s 1948 upset victory over Dewey was rigged.  He went on the say it was accomplished by fraudulent voting in Chicago and Texas - and it was then that I first realized my dad, approaching 80 at the time, was mentally losing it.  It was not the 1948 election, but the 1960 election, conspiracy buffs claim, that was rigged by Richard Daley’s machine in Chicago and Lyndon Johnson in Texas – all greased with money by Joe Kennedy.  These allegations have never been proven.

It’s worth pointing out that, of the billion or so votes cast in the United States since 2000, there have only been 31 proven cases of fraudulent votes – a statistically insignificant number.  Voter suppression, on the other hand, is very real, and likely had a role in George W. Bush’s victory in Florida that year.   While those allegations also remain unproven, there’s far more evidence for tomfoolery in Florida in 2000 than anywhere in 1960.

In fact, it is nearly impossible to rig a national election in the United States, because, simply put, there is no such thing as a national election here.  True, there are Presidential elections – but those are 50 state elections (territories like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, of course, don’t have a vote in Presidential elections – although they do in party primaries) which happen to have Electors for Presidents on the ballot.  It is certainly possible to rig a state election – and it’s entirely possible that Jeb Bush helped rig Florida for his brother in 2000.  But if Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida vote for Hillary Clinton on November 8, it’s not evidence of rigging – as the electoral boards in all three states are controlled by Republicans.  On the other hand, if those states vote for Trump in the face of polls which indicate a lead for Clinton, further investigation is warranted.