Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Dozen Roses

My parents were married on November 22, 1956. 

On their seventh anniversary, my father left work early to celebrate the day with my mother.  On his way home, he stopped at a florist and purchased a dozen roses.  After leaving the florist, he switched on the radio of his 1963 Ford Galaxie and shortly thereafter heard a news flash from Dallas announcing that President Kennedy had been shot and seriously wounded.  He hit the gas pedal and raced home.  Though my parents were Republicans, my mother nevertheless met my father with a tearful embrace as Walter Cronkite announced that the President had died.  My parents and my sisters sat in front of the television for much of that weekend – never leaving the house.  The flowers my father bought had been left in the passenger seat  where they withered and died over the course of the weekend.       

A thousand miles away, a dozen blood drenched roses lay on the floor of a Lincoln Continental – forgotten in the chaos of the moment.

In later years, my parents would observe their anniversary one day early, as November 22 would forever more be remembered as a day of mourning.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Dangers of Weak Government

One week ago, the world was shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Paris.  Relatively few took notice of similar attacks in Syria, Iraq, and Beirut.  Such attacks have become, sadly de-riguer in the Middle East.  But we Americans respond more readily to attacks in Europe because, frankly, they are seen as more “like us.”

Most knew, even before it was officially announced, that Islamic extremists were behind the attacks in Paris.  As the details about the terrorists began to emerge, it became clear that most had become radicalized while residents of the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium – France’s next door neighbor.  More about Belgium in a moment.

Here in America, there is constant talk of reducing the size of Local, State, and especially Federal governments – most of it coming from self-acknowledged members of the “tea party”.  Much of this is presented under the guise of efficiency and getting the most bang out of every taxpayer dollar – certainly laudable goals.  But what the tea-partiers really want is weak government, because of their 18th Century view that the best government is that which governs least – a view which, at best, must be taken with many grains of salt.  Franklin Roosevelt turned the idea on its head when he pointed out that the conservative mantra really meant “that government is best which is most indifferent to mankind”.  The tea party views government of all kinds as part of the “beast.”  Hence their phrase “starve the beast.”

Contrary to popular belief, the march toward deregulation did not begin with President Reagan, but with President Carter, who signed legislation deregulating theairline industry.  How has that worked out for airlines and airports in the United States?  One need only travel through London’sHeathrow and fly on British Airways and then compare Chicago’s O’Hare airportand service on any domestic carrier for an answer.  The deregulation of the financial sector – in particular the repeal of Glass-Steagall, constituted the primary cause of theMortgage Meltdown of 2007 and Great Recession that followed. 

But the biggest danger of weak government is not that the trains might not run on time, or even terrorism.  It is the inevitable backlash when weak government fails.  History is replete with examples of how weak, ineffective government led to disaster, and, ultimately, tyranny.  

In the 1920s, Germany’s Weimar government was so ineffective it couldn’t control the value of its currency, resulting in hyper-inflation.  I vividly recall how my piano teacher recounted how his teacher, Artur Schnabel, would only accept cash-payment after performances in Germany during this period.  If he’d accepted a check, he would have had to wait until the banks were open the next day to cash it – by which point the value his payment would be halved.  So, Schnabel took the cash and spent most of it immediately.  It was the economic situation in Germany, which made America’s Great Depression look like a country picnic, that led to the German public giving the Nazi party a ruling majority in 1933. 

More recently, following the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991, a power vacuum left Boris Yeltsin’s Russian government unable to enforce its own laws - resulting in a combination of oligarchs holding the real power, and a massive crime wave ranging from financial fraud, to drug trafficking, to child pornography.  And, of course, the government was unable to deal with food shortages or even provide most basic services.  Small wonder, then, that Vladimir Putin has been able to hold onto power since 1999 by promising “a dictatorship of the law”, which was seen as a balm to many Russians whose new freedoms merely constituted a lack of law & order.  While Putin is no Hitler, it’s also clear that he’s an oppressive tyrant, easily willing to “eliminate” pesky journalists and others who question his power.

Which brings us back to Molenbeek.  Reports indicate that the Belgian government knew that Molenbeek was becoming a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but was unwilling or unable to do anything about it.  Whether by design, neglect, or intention, weak government was a contributing factor in the attacks in Paris.  While the primary cause was Islamic extremism, we should bear last week’s events in mind when we hear politicians and protesters propose the neutering of the government which is charged with, among other things, protecting us.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

My review of Horowitz in Chicago

Deutsche Grammophon has released a recording of Vladimir Horowitz's October, 1986 recital in Chicago. This was his final appearance in that city, and took place one week after I met him in
Boston. Click here to read my review.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Two Decisions

Harry Truman once said that the main job of being President is to make decisions. 
History judges Presidents primarily on the decisions they make.  Relatively few remember that President Kennedy was not spectacularly successful legislatively.  But nearly everyone knows he almost single-handedly prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from devolving into a nuclear war; simultaneously facing down Khrushchev, his most hawkish advisors, and a nearly mutinous military.
No President in history had to make more decisions than Franklin Roosevelt.  It wasn’t merely the extraordinary length of his tenure: 12 years, one month, eight days.  It was also the nature of the times he lived in: The Great Depression; World War II.
Historical revisionists engage Monday morning quarterbacking of Presidential decisions, and FDR is hardly immune from their wrath.  One economist has claimed that Roosevelt’s jobs programs and other attempts to stimulate the collapsed economy made the Depression worse, and amounted to FDR’s Folly.  Other economists counter that FDR didn’t do enough to turn the economy around and should have been bolder – citing as their evidence the 1937-38 recession that was brought on when FDR, antsy about deficits,  throttled back on spending.  Then there was his decision to intern Japanese-Americans, which no one who grasps the concept of civil rights and Constitutional justice can defend (I will address that decision in a future post).
Today, I will address two decisions – one famous, the other well-known but seldom discussed, that saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American Servicemen – which collectively ensured the births of many of the baby-boom generation.
In August 1939 – one month before war broke out in Europe, President Roosevelt was presented with a letter from Albert Einstein, advising that German scientists were experimenting with Uranium and that such experiments could result in the creation of a bomb far more devastating than any made before.  Roosevelt, no scientist, nevertheless immediately grasped the implications of Einstein’s letter and told “Pa” Watson, his military advisor, “This requires action.”  Thus, the Manhattan project was born, the United States developed atomic weapons, making an armed invasion of Japan unnecessary, and shortening the war by months – perhaps years.  For those who would turn this decision on its head, and blame FDR for the development of nuclear weapons, I would respond by pointing out that the Germans and Soviets were working on atomic programs of their own, and without our nuclear deterrent, the U.S. may well have been cooked.  As stated in a previous post, FDR fully understood the potential power of the atomic bomb, remarking to an aide that such a bomb, if dropped in Times Square, “would lay New York low”.  FDR would certainly have used it to end the war.
Fast forward to December, 1941.  Pearl Harbor lay in ruins, with much of America’s Pacific Fleet, following a sneak attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy.  One day after “a date which will live in infamy”, the United States has formally declared war on Japan – yet still tenuously remains at peace with the two other Axis powers: Germany and Italy.  The next evening, December 9th, Roosevelt addresses the nation in a Fireside Chat (see below for an abridged version).  During his speech, Roosevelt summarizes the previous ten years of Axis military aggression – which long predated the “official” outbreak of World War II: Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchukuo; Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia; Germany’s pre-war invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia.  Roosevelt could have taken the easy way out with rhetorical home runs against the Japanese.  Instead, he spoke plainly, advising his fellow citizens that every man, woman, and child would have to contribute to “the most tremendous undertaking of our American history”, would “share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories” and that so far, “the news has been all bad”.  He sternly warned his fellow Americans that “we shall have to give up many things entirely” and that he expected them to “cheerfully help to pay a large part of its financial cost while it goes on.”
This is tough talk – of the kind I can’t imagine any politician having the guts to meter out today.  It’s the very antithesis, in fact, of George W. Bush’s approach in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, where he told American’s to “go about your business” and spend money. 
But the bravest part of Roosevelt’s speech was in the closing measures: “We expect to eliminate the danger from Japan, but it would serve us ill if we accomplished that and found that the rest of the world was dominated by Hitler and Mussolini.” 
Remember, there had been no declaration of war from Germany or Italy.  But Roosevelt was already hinting toward a Europe first policy that he would put into official action just days later when Hitler addressed the Reichstag, where he referred to President Roosevelt as “the man who is primarily responsible for this war”, whined that Roosevelt, unlike Hitler, “came from an extremely wealthy family” and concluded that “ I regard him, like his predecessor Woodrow Wilson, as mentally unsound.”  Roosevelt anticipated that Hitler would move against the U.S.  FDR could well have held his cards close, said nothing, and watched while Europe continued to fall.  Instead, he was willing to buck the enormous pressure at home demanding immediate blood revenge against Japan.  In addition to cementing an alliance with Soviet Russia, which forced Hitler to continue concentrating his Army on the Eastern Front, FDR relieved the British, and bought the scientists time to complete the Atomic bomb.
These two decisions were the most important in FDR’s time in office because hundreds of thousands of American lives were in the balance, and the decisions shortened the war by as much as two years.  Any American born since 1945 should be unceasingly grateful that FDR made the right decisions.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Vladimir Horowitz on Tour - 1966-1983

Sony has released their remaining cache of Vladimir Horowitz's post-1965 recordings (minus two, which were held back at the request of the estate).  Potential purchasers should be aware of the disclosure below.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

TeMPO's end, and Telling's new beginning

As was reported by the media several months ago, the Telling Mansion Preservation Organization disbanded early this year.  It has been over a year since I posted about the Telling Mansion, and I was reluctant to reenter the fray.  But after careful consideration, I have decided to speak now and henceforth hold my peace – at least for the foreseeable future.  As one of the founding members of TeMPO, I believe I have earned this right and that my opinions are founded on facts, not suppositions.

Let me make it plain, the disbanding of TeMPO was the direct result of two disruptive members who poisoned the atmosphere and refused to depart gracefully from the group, abetted by a third member who was unwilling to stand up to their inappropriate behavior.  When TeMPO’s bylaws were written, there was no provision for terminating a membership.  It simply never occurred to us that such a provision would be necessary.

When TeMPO was formed in late 2012, there was no notion of who might purchase the Telling site – although it was becoming increasingly clear that it would be sold and the library moved, despite the efforts of the Save the Mansion Library Group.  TeMPO formed to, hopefully, demonstrate that there were those who were concerned about the Telling Mansion and, while not necessarily supporting the Cuyahoga County Public Library’s decision to move, were willing to work with them to ensure the building and property were preserved.  As one member put it, we were the “sane” alternative to the Mansion Library group.  But how well can sanity work when we live in insane times – when a sizeable portion of the country believes the President is an illegal alien, that teachers ought to carry guns, and that Chem-Trails are the cause of many of our troubles? 

Upon the formation of TeMPO, I accepted the position of Vice President.  During that first year, TeMPO formally incorporated, created an action plan, raised initial funds, applied for 501(c)(3) status, and reached out to the library board and, eventually, the prospective owner.  All of us at TeMPO, particularly the board, put our hearts into the effort, but never let our passion devolve into the hyperbole and inappropriate behavior that characterized the Save the Mansion Library group which has, to date, accomplished nothing positive.

Upon the election of new officers in April 2014, I resigned as Vice President of TeMPO.  I did not offer my own name for consideration.  At the time, I announced my decision to scale back my activities in TeMPO due to career and personal considerations.  I did my best to ensure an orderly transition by turning over all materials I had in relation to TeMPO to the new President and Vice President.

Unfortunately, the new President and Vice President were met with hostility by a few other members – despite the lack of alternative candidates.   The new leadership’s efforts to get TeMPO moving, to apply for grants to renovate the gatekeeper’s lodge, to establish a fundraising apparatus, and for public outreach were stymied at every turn.   Between April, 2014 and March, 2015, I did not attend any TeMPO meetings - although I received updates from several group members.  I kept in contact with the group’s new communications director, who had come over from the Save the Mansion Library group, and about whom I felt wary.  Despite my concerns regarding her intentions, I assisted her in putting together a press release – which was never issued.  After receiving conflicting information from multiple parties with differing viewpoints, I was persuaded to attend TeMPO’s March 2015 meeting.  The tension was so thick I could barely stand to remain in the room.  It became obvious that the group’s new secretary did not have the mental stability needed to do the job.  Particularly galling was the demeanor of the very person I assisted with the press release.  Upon the expiration of TeMPO’s webdomain, she purchased it, and in a process known as “cybersquatting”, initially pointed it to her own personal website, then for use by the Save the Mansion library group – a nonsensical idea as the new library was already under construction with no chance the move would be prevented.  As it turned out, my suspicions about this woman, which I had made known to the former President of our group and others, proved exactly correct – she had originated as a leading member of the Save the Mansion Library group and her intentions were anything but benign.  On top of all this, one of TeMPO’s most influential members,  who ran for mayor several years ago, was unwilling or unable to stand up to the misbehaving members.  In my opinion, while a competent CPA, he has all the fortitude of a spineless jellyfish. 

There are probably many such groups that start with high hopes and enthusiasm for the hard work necessary to keep the vision going – only to dissipate due to internal squabbling.  But this is the only case I know of where a group such as ours was deliberately infiltrated by someone with a destructive agenda and sabotaged from within. 

As I have stated before, the notion that Richard Barone’s motive in purchasing the Telling Site is merely a ruse to flip the land is nonsensical on its face.  The very limited return on investment he would receive for the rather small portion of land would simply not be worth the time he’s put into the effort.  As a seasoned investor, Mr. Barone could easily make that money with a few clicks of his computer mouse over the course of a lazy afternoon – and save himself the trouble of dealing with the hysterical ire of a few self-appointed community guardians.  I have no doubt that Mr. Barone’s decision to purchase the Mansion and grounds was made with the best intentions.  This is demonstrated by the work he’s already done to hire a permanent, live-in custodian; the replacement of the failing gutters with historically accurate copper gutters; and his work with the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Historical Society to renovate and expand their space.  It’s true that part of his purchase agreement called for the Library to repave the driveway – and why shouldn’t they?  CCPL’s neglect of the property has led to so many issues with this Library that I stopped using it as such well before they closed.  Mr. Barone recently purchased a New Jersey porcelain art manufacturer, which certainly gives the lie to the ridiculous accusations hurled by the Save the Mansion Library Group – which recently filed another lawsuit in a desperate grasp for relevance.  Indeed, a former member of that very group told me that their “leader”, a Cleveland Heights based activist with a knack for garnering publicity for herself, admitted that she didn’t really care about the Telling Mansion, and was just trying to stick it to the CCPL.

I’m certain Mr. Barone knows that decisions are not made, nor public opinion particularly swayed, by online click-baiting or by comments made at and other sites – especially when many of the comments obviously come from the same person posting under multiple sock-puppet accounts.  Decisions are made and actions are undertaken by those who show up and do the hard work.  I was and remain proud of my work for TeMPO.  My only regret is that others were more interested in getting themselves publicity than in moving forward with positive action.  

Creators, Re-Creators, and Regurgitators

In Classical Music, there are Creators, Re-Creators, and Regurgitators. 

The Creators are, obviously, the Composers – along with those tangentially involved in the creative process: Librettist if an opera, Choreographer if ballet score, and so on.

Then, there are the performers, who fall into two categories: Re-Creators, and Regurgitators.

Up until the mid-20th Century, most performers (including singers, instrumentalists, and conductors) were Re-Creators.  They often took what are today disdainfully described as “liberties” with the printed text and dared to “impose” their own personality.  This was not only permissible, but expected by the audience – and more importantly, by the composers themselves.  It’s not for nothing that Mozart, for example, submitted the barest writing in the central movements of his piano concertos, and left blank areas for the performer to insert his own – usually – improvised cadenza.  When Beethoven specified in his “Emperor” concerto that the performer ought not play a cadenza but immediately attack the next passage, he did so because such a procedure was unusual.  Beethoven broke precedent – but that didn’t mean he was setting a new precedent, or intended to.

It’s worth pointing out that Rachmaninoff, a noted composer, pianist, and conductor, was both a Creator and Re-Creator.  This is an important distinction because, unlike Mozart and Beethoven – who almost exclusively performed their own music – Rachmaninoff had a wide ranging repertoire, particularly as a pianist.  In his time, he was considered something of a purist in his approach to interpretation.  But by today’s standards, he took “liberties” that few pianists today would dare, including altering the dynamic scheme of Chopin’s Funeral March and inserting his own cadenza in Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody.

When comparing two of the most prominent pianists whose careers strode most of the 20th Century, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, it’s customary for some of the “purist” school to opine that Horowitz was the better “pianist”, Rubinstein the better “musician”- a statement so vague that it almost nullifies itself.  I beg to differ with the conventional wisdom.  True, Rubinstein’s playing was more in sync with contemporary standards: he generally played what was written, played reasonably well, and his tone was gorgeous.  But it was Horowitz, who trained as a composer, whose playing was more involved, more involving, and often wrung the most meaning from the much of the music he played.  Compare Horowitz against Rubinstein in Schumann’s Kreisleriana or C major Fantasia, and you’ll hear the difference between someone whose recordings you can play as background music while you’re dusting, and someone who will pin your ears to the wall.  This is not merely a question of recordings either.  Compare Rubinstein’s traversal of Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand with Horowitz’s rendition of the same composer’s Prelude for the Left Hand: Rubinstein glides over the notes and bathes the audience in pretty, but innocuous colors; Horowitz brings the audience into proximity with Scriabin’s anguish.  It goes without saying that Horowitz’s left-hand technique is infinitely more honest and sophisticated than Rubinstein – with Horowitz cannily separating each line so it sounds at times like he’s playing with three hands, yet scrupulously observing Scriabin’s markings.

 In the second decade of the 21st Century, Rubinstein’s way is closer to what’s being taught in conservatories.  But the Regurgitation route is, in the final analysis, a dead end.  Between the lack of new music that audiences want to hear, and performers who are sounding increasingly alike, it’s no wonder that even the most talented musicians have a hard time sustaining a viable career.  Nor is it a surprise that supposedly “sophisticated” audiences are drawn to the circus act antics of Lang Lang – not because he’s praiseworthy, but because he’s “different.”  The same old, same old, gets old awfully fast.

There was a time, from the early 1980s until about ten years ago, when I listened to Rubinstein incessantly.  That’s not the case anymore.  Beautiful tone only gets one so far – just like a pretty face.

So, to me, it was Horowitz who was both the greater pianist (in his prime), and the better musician – because he played from within the music looking out – not the other way around.   Rubinstein was, occasionally a Re-Creator.  But most often he was a Regurgitator – although a supremely charismatic one.