Friday, August 7, 2015

Stanisław Skrowaczewski

The art of the conductor is a rare and elusive one. There are conductors who are walking encyclopedias of music, and those who have baton techniques which thrill the audience (at least) as much as inform the orchestra. There are conductors glowing with charisma. There are those who are merely intimidating. And there are those who commune with the orchestra and from whose hearts the music pours. Such a conductor is Stanisław Skrowaczewski.

I’ve heard a dozen or so performances of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. They have ranged from the superficial to the bombastic to the ponderous. Never have I heard this work, and its reflection of the composer’s suffering under the Stalinist regime, bared so unsparingly as tonight’s performance by The Cleveland Orchestra - led by Maestro Skrowaczewski. His interpretation of the Fifth was doubtless the result of a lifetime of studying and performing the work (Skrowaczewski is nearly 92). Tempos, balance, rubati – all were perfectly judged and entirely organic. I hope the performance was recorded, although I doubt even the finest recording could fully reproduce the incredible sonority where the Orchestra, justly known for incomparable refinement, let loose with a ferociousness I’ve never before heard from them. There were individual performances of distinction tonight, including moving violin solos by Peter Otto, but collectively the Orchestra exceeded the sum of its parts in a way all orchestras should, but few actually do.

I’ve been attending performances by The Cleveland Orchestra, on and off, since 1976. I’ve heard them in Severance Hall and at Blossom (and during their visits to Symphony Hall in Boston when I lived there) more times than I can remember. In nearly 40 years of concert going, this is, on balance, the greatest live performance I’ve ever heard from our beloved orchestra.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Why Ted Cruz is wrong about Kirk, and Trek


By now, every Star Trek fan from here to Vulcan has doubtless heard about Ted Cruz’s ill-advised attempt to recruit Star Trek fans to his faltering Presidential campaign.  When prompted by an interviewer to discuss his love of Trek and compare iterations of the franchise, Cruz opined that “Kirk is working class; Picard is an aristocrat.  Kirk is a passionate fighter for justice; Picard is a cerebral philosopher.  I think it is quite likely that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat.”

Shatner, who seldom makes political pronouncements outside his advocacy for the environment, was swift to respond. 



All due respect to Mr. Shatner, it can be debated whether or not Trek was "political."  But Trek assuredly wasn't partisan - Trek had bigger fish to fry. 

First, the notion of applying contemporary political paradigms onto 23rd and 24th Century characters is ludicrous.  Second, to call Kirk “working class” and Picard an “aristocrat”, when they both came from farming families – and in a future when economic systems have drastically changed – is just plain silly.  It’s as if Cruz is trying to use Class Warfare as a reason to vote for him – as if the policies he espouses would ever help working people, as opposed to the 1% whose interests he really represents.

Over the past several decades, the public’s image of Captain Kirk has solidified into a phaser-toting, shoot from the hip space cowboy, even though the character seldom acted that way.   Nor was he written that way, at least in the beginning.  In the series’ second pilot, which marked Kirk’s first appearance, an old friend remembered the Captain during his time at Starfleet Academy as a “stack of books with legs” who challenged undergraduates to “think or sink.”

 Part of the reason for the retroactive re-branding of Kirk is doubtless because most people’s experiences of the Original Series have been incomplete, at best.  Not only have most casual viewers only seen a handful of episodes, the episodes as shown in syndication were increasingly truncated as time wore on.  As the FCC has allowed more commercial time over the decades, the running length of each episode was reduced from 50 minutes to as few as 40.  Ten minutes might not seem like a lot, but it represents 20% of each episode.  Paramount’s editors naturally geared their cuts toward anything that didn’t move the plot forward – which translated to subordinate plot lines, often involving secondary characters; also cut were character moments, usually involving Kirk trying to think his way through the problem of the week.

In series television, the creation and molding of characters is the result of collaboration between the writers (both staff writers, who stay with the show for a time; and guest writers, who may only write a single episode), and the actors, who get to know their characters after portraying them for a time – all with the guidance of the series’ “bible”.  What did Star Trek’s bible say about Kirk?

 “Kirk is about thirty-four, an Academy graduate, rank of Starship Captain. A shorthand sketch of him might be "A space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower", constantly on trial with himself, a strong, complex personality. 

With the Starship out of communication with Earth and Starfleet bases for long periods of time, a Starship captain has unusually broad powers over both the lives and welfare of his crew, as well as over Earth people and activities encountered during these voyages. He also has broad power as an Earth Ambassador to alien societies in his galaxy sector or on new worlds he may discover. Kirk feels these responsibilities strongly and is fully capable of letting the worry and frustration lead him into error. 

He is also capable of fatigue and inclined to push himself beyond human limits then condemn himself because he is not superhuman. The crew respects him, some almost to the point of adoration. At the same time, no senior officer aboard is fearful of using his own intelligence in questioning Kirk's orders and can themselves be strongly articulate up to the point where Kirk signifies his decision has been made. 

Important -- Although Kirk will often solicit information and estimates from Spock, never does the first officer act as Kirk's "brain". Our Captain is a veteran of hundreds of planet landings and space emergencies. He has a broad and highly mature perspective on command, fellow crewmen, and even on alien life customs, however strange or repugnant they seem when measured against Earth standards. 

Aboard ship, Captain Kirk has only a few opportunities for anything approaching friendship. One exception is Mister Spock, a strange friendship based upon logic, high mutual respect and Spock's strong Vulcan loyalty to a commander. Another is with ship's surgeon, Dr. McCoy, who has a legitimate professional need to constantly be aware of the state of the Captain's mind and emotions. But on a "shore leave", away from the confines of self-imposed discipline, Jim Kirk is likely to play pretty hard, almost compulsively so. It is not impossible he will let this drag him at one time or another into an unwise romantic liaison which he will have great difficulty disentangling. He is, in short, a strong man forced by the requirements of his ship and career into the often lonely role of command, even lonelier because Starship command is the most difficult and demanding task of his century.”

In other words, Captain Kirk was a highly complex character, with many internal contradictions – the type of person writers love to write for an actors love to portray.  Shatner once stated he found the role so challenging that the only way he felt he could portray Kirk week-after-week was to play Kirk as if he was playing an idealized version of Shatner.

Let’s take a look at how Kirk dealt with conflict and see if it matches with Cruz’ description:
   
In The Corbomite Maneuver, Kirk matches wits with Balok, the apparently hostile leader of the Fesarius, bluffs to prevent the Enterprise from being destroyed, comes to Balok’s aid after breaking free of the Fesarius’ tractor beam, and proposes friendly relations.  Kirk repeats the Corbomite bluff in The Deadly Years, allowing the Enterprise to escape from Romulan ships without firing a shot.

Kirk & crew toast the peace with Balok


In Arena, non-corporeal entities place Kirk and the lizard-like captain of the Gorn ship into hand-to-hand combat to the death with each other.  When Kirk emerges with the upper-hand, he refuses to kill the Gorn captain – and Kirk appears to have a revulsion to the death penalty throughout the series.

Kirk spares the Gorn captain

In The Return of the Archons, Kirk and the landing party discover the humanoids inhabiting Beta III are being governed by a repressive, computerized God.  Kirk matches wits with the computer, causing it to destroy itself and allowing the inhabitants to live according to their own consciences - the first of several instances where Kirk kills “God.”  He uses a similar strategy in The Apple.  (Kirk’s own feelings about God and religion are largely unexplored, beyond commenting to Spock and McCoy that the best place to find God is in one’s own heart.)

In The Devil in the Dark (reportedly Shatner’s favorite episode), Kirk prevents vengeful miners on Janus VI from killing the Horta, who had killed several miners after miners had destroyed her eggs.  Communicating with the creature via Spock’s telepathy, he negotiates a peaceful settlement.  (Some could also interpret the episode as having a “pro-life” message, but Kirk is never trying to impose his will on the mother Horta.)

In Metamorphosis, McCoy reminds Kirk he’s not just a starship captain, but a trained diplomat – leading Kirk to peacefully persuade the non-corporeal life form inhabiting the planetoid to come to the aid of a critically ill Federation commissioner.

In A Private Little War – the original series’ most obvious Vietnam allegory – Kirk agrees to arm a friendly faction on the planet Neural only so far as the Klingon’s have armed the other side, and declines to use the Enterprise’s weapons to rout the other side, in the hopes that a “balance of power” will lead to a negotiated peace.  This is somewhat analogous to America’s strategy in Vietnam before Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in 1964.

Kirk & McCoy contemplate "the 20th Century brush wars on the Asian continent"


In The Omega Glory, Kirk preaches that the inherent rights of sentient creatures must apply to all the people of Omega IV, not just the Yangs – a repudiation of the type of policy that would lead to the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay in the wake of 9/11.

Kirk lectures Cloud William on the meaning of Freedom

In By Any Other Name, Kirk extends the hand of friendship to Rojan, the leader of hostile Kelvans from the Andromeda galaxy, even after Rojan killed a member of Kirk’s crew. 

Kirk persuades Rojan that peaceful coexistence is possible

In Day of the Dove, Kirk struggles to make peace with Klingons who’ve been beamed aboard his ship by an alien entity (somewhat symbolic of the military-industrial complex) that draws power from hostile emotions.  During the course of the episode, it’s implied that both Klingons and Federation members have been fed misinformation about each other – in an apparent attempt to stoke tensions.

Kirk and Kang - cooperating for peace

In The Motion Picture, Kirk is able to use his wits to persuade V’ger that humans created Voyager 6; that the Earth shouldn’t be destroyed, and that V’ger needed to evolve - all without firing a shot.

"V'ger, WE are the Creator."

In The Voyage Home, Kirk and crew literally “save the whales” by time travelling to 1980s San Francisco to bring two humpback whales to the 23rd Century to respond to a destructive space probe – and repopulate the species.

Scotty, Gillian Taylor, and Kirk celebrate saving the whales


The list goes on and on.  There were, of course, moments when Kirk used weapons – or a well-placed punch – to make his point.  But these were nearly always the last resort – just as with Picard in The Next Generation.    

It’s interesting to me that both Kirk and Picard underwent a transformation from thoughtful leaders in their respective series to more action-oriented heroes as the films progressed.  This was not always to the benefit of character continuity.  Kirk, who had previously found ways to collaborate with Klingons even though he disliked them, displayed the rankest prejudice in The Undiscovered Country – somewhat understandable since a Klingon had murdered Kirk’s son David Marcus in The Search for Spock.  Shatner was disturbed enough by writer/director Nicholas Meyer’s “Let them die” line that he persuaded Meyer to allow him a “retraction” gesture as if to say “I didn’t really mean that.”  The gesture was filmed but cut from the movie, a directorial decision which has reportedly angered the actor ever since.

The deleted "retraction" gesture


When it comes to the Next Generation, Picard wasn’t always as cerebral as Cruz opined.  Next Generation fans who weren’t swept up in the action in First Contact were stunned to see Picard in “Captain Ahab” mode while seeking revenge against the Borg, machine gunning assimilated crewmembers and exploding in a rage late into the film.  Like Kirk, Picard was a man of conscience who refused to blindly follow orders.  Just as Kirk violated Starfleet orders in stealing the Enterprise to retrieve Spock’s body in The Search for Spock, Picard violated the orders of Admiral Daugherty in preventing the Sona from despoiling the Baku homeworld in Insurrection - which also carried some powerful analogies to the United States' treatment of Native Americans. 

There are certain historical figures in the Republican Party Kirk might have looked on with admiration, and in The SavageCurtain Kirk is charmed by an ersatz Abraham Lincoln – much to the embarrassment of his senior officers. 
Kirk introduces Lt. Uhura to Abraham Lincoln
But he would have also admired John Kennedy – whose delicate handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was emulated by Kirk in several of the scenarios above.  The idea that Kirk would have favored the kind of pre-emptive was against Iraq that Cruz and his compatriots supported is anathema not only to Kirk’s character, but to the ethos of Star Trek in general.


*With the exception of Shatner's Twitter comment, all screencaps are courtesy of Trekcore.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Thoughts on Marriage Equality


June is an important month in the history of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender rights movement.  1969’s Stonewall Riots took place over two nights in late June; on June 26, 2003 the United States Supreme Court ruled that gender based sodomy laws were unconstitutional; exactly ten years later, the court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which outlawed Federal spousal benefits to same-sex couples; finally, on June 26 of this year, the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act entirely, along with all State measures prohibiting the same- thus legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.  It is all the more fitting, therefore, that LGBT Pride month falls in June.    

There was a flurry of internet comments that greeted the Court’s ruling.  One that stood out to me was in response to a gay man who stated he had no plan on marrying his long-term partner: “I don’t see why you should,” a respondent said. “It’s just a piece of paper.”

But marriage is so much more than a piece of paper. So much more.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.”

Well said, Justice Kennedy.  I only wish your views on corporate personhood were as enlightened.

It’s well worth pointing out that four of the five Justices who voted for marriage equality were appointed by Democratic Presidents: Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by Clinton; Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, appointed by Obama.  The fifth Justice, Anthony Kennedy, was appointed by Reagan when his first two nominees, Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg, failed to gain Senate approval.  Whenever someone complains that there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats, I always point out the importance of the Supreme Court.  It’s appropriate to pay homage to another, unrelated Kennedy: Edward – without whose withering criticism theodious Bork would have likely won Senate confirmation.

Back in 2010, when Daniel and I had to go to Vermont to get married, I was impatient with the lack of progress on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Hate Crimes Legislation, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  I noisily announced my intention to leave theDemocratic Party in favor of the Greens.  Two things happened which changed my mind: The Hate Crimes Act and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were passed and signed into law; and I witnessed the ridiculous behavior on the part of several Green Party members revolving around a local zoning ordinance – which led me to an epiphany: America’s Green Party and their members have accomplished nothing for the environment, and certainly nothing for human rights.  That’s when I recalled an old truism, which has applied in my own life as well as in most politics: Slow and steady wins the day.

Following the ruling, I was amused that thrice-married, twice-divorced Donald Trump promptly assailed the Court’s action and spoke out for the “sanctity” of marriage.  Trump sets a poor example for the country both on issues of marital fidelity and pronouncements on public policy.  There is an old adage which cautions to “Never speak of rope in the house of a man who’s been hanged” and that certainly applies to Trump vis-à-vis marriage.  I simply cannot take him or any of his followers seriously. I find it interesting that while numerous Republican or religious acquaintances have quietly told me that they don’t agree with their Party’s or Church’s stance on LGBT people, not one of them has stood up and proclaimed that view publicly.  Not one of them has joined the many groups, like Republicans for Marriage Equality, or an LGBT-friendly religious group, to express their belief.  This has led me to the conclusion that either these people were lying to me, or they simply lacked the guts to stand up for their beliefs.  As Toscanini said, “The spine curves when the soul is curved.”    

Their behavior was particularly galling in light of comments by all too many on the religious right, which affirmed my belief that many religions are little more than an excuse to hate.  While their leaders, and followers, endlessly repeat “Hate the sin, love the sinner”, it’s patently obvious that many of them hate the sinners as well.  It’s not enough of them to froth at the mouth, they lie while they do so when they claim that religious liberties are under attack – for the Court’s ruling affects Civil marriage only.  No priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or other religious figure will be required to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony.  Frankly, considering how most religious institutions – with the exception of a few “open & affirming” congregations like the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarians – have made it part of their mission to slander and suppress the LGBT community, I can’t understand how any LGBT person of conscience can associate with them. 

The Court’s affirmation of the right of same-sex couples to marry is a huge threshold in the continued mainstreaming of the LGBT community – a phenomenon which has gained momentum since the 1990s.  About the most courageous thing an LGBT person could do back then was live openly in the suburbs – especially if coupled.  At the same time, there are members of the community who don’t want to be mainstreamed.  For every gay couple out there wanting to marry, there’s a self-styled “queer” who rejects marriage as “heterosexist” and “patriarchal” (even if the couple involved is Lesbian).  It’s no surprise that many of these people live in gay ghettos, surrounded by gay friends, shopping in gay shops, drinking and dining in gay bars and restaurants.  That’s OK, but it’s limiting – as recounted in Edmund White’s States of Desire, Travels in Gay America, it amounts to a “shtetl” mentality of separateness - where immersion in one's own Tribe comes at the expense of knowledge of the wider world.  Everyone should be free to pursue their own path in life – to pursue “happiness”, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.  No one should feel “pushed” into marriage any more than someone should be forced into heterosexuality.  For what the Court’s ruling acknowledges is that LGBT people have a legal “choice” – in other words, Freedom – to marry as they see fit.  I don’t see how any right-thinking person can besmirch that right – particularly as so many states still allow marriage between first cousins, which is virtually incestuous.

With rights come responsibilities.  Doubtless there will be some lesbians and gay men who frivolously marry, and those who marry to receive attention and gifts, as have many heterosexuals.  It will be up to individual members of the LGBT community to exercise their newly acknowledged rights in a responsible manner.

The work goes on.  In too many states, it’s still legal to fire an LGBT person without cause.  This needs to be changed.  There must be an end to job, housing, and other discrimination against LGBT people.

So, to quote fictional President Jed Bartlet: “OK, what’s next?”

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

In Memoriam: James Horner

In previous posts, I’ve detailed how I entered the world of Classical music via the back door marked "film scores".  This started in 1977 with John Williams’ score for Star Wars, then Superman; and expanded to Jerry Goldsmith in 1979 with his score for the first Star Trek film.  (Coincidentally, I recently relistened to the first Star Wars score and was appalled how weak the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra was – with scrappy strings and repeatedly misfiring brass.) 

In 1982, a new name entered my pantheon of film composers: James Horner. 

Fresh out of USC, Horner got his start scoring documentaries for the American Film Institute in the late 1970s.  From there, he went on to score several small films, including Roger Corman’s schlock-fest Battle Beyond the Stars – the score was the best aspect of the movie.  His work got the attention of director Nicholas Meyer, who was looking for a composer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Partly on the basis of his work for Corman, partly because he could compose a score in four weeks – as opposed to the twelve weeks required by bigger names like Williams and Goldsmith – but mostly because his fee was lower, Horner was selected for Trek, which turned out to be one of the largest hits of 1982.  This is how Horner came to my attention.  Upon seeing the film (for which I waited in a long line the day after it opened), I purchased the soundtrack LP – which still graces my collection.  Horner’s work was impressive enough to Trek’s team that he was selected to score The Search for Spock in 1984.  Leonard Nimoy’s decision in 1986 to forego Horner for The Voyage Home, in favor of his old friend Leonard Rosenman, was ill-advised.  Rosenman’s score mishmashed Schonbergian pretentions with a cartoonish mentality and was the weakest aspect of an otherwise fine film.  It also went against the inner continuity of Trek’s de-facto trilogy.

Born in the United States, James Horner was raised in London, attended the Royal College of Music, and spoke with a British accent.  His music was cosmopolitan and adapted to the needs of the films he scored.  Horner’s scores covered a variety of genres, from the jazzy, strolling theme from Sneakers to the otherworldly dreamscape of Brainstorm.  His music for Field of Dreams has a uniquely American flavor, and his use of orchestration, repetition, and thematic metamorphosis take the movie’s emotional climax to a level that reaches straight for one’s heart.  Without Horner’s score, I doubt Field of Dreams would have become known as the film that made nearly every American male weep.  

Horner’s best known score is undoubtedly to James Cameron’s Titanic.  The director’s selection of Horner to score the film was counterintuitive – an epic film would normally call for a pompous, bombastic score.  But Horner’s scoring, which used an orchestra lightly enhanced by female chorus and synthesizers, was decidedly Irish-hued, briskly paced, and hovered around in major keys (until the ship hit the iceberg) and helped the three and a half hour film move along.

It has been disparagingly noted that Horner occasionally borrowed from other composers’ works (and often his own), far more liberally than most of his colleagues.  Two things are worth bearing out: film composers work under nearly impossible time crunches, and Horner was known as a “fast” composer who could deliver the work on time – an important consideration when an offset premiere date can mean the loss of millions of dollars; also, the actual uniqueness of the music itself must be secondary to its ability to enhance the action on screen.  Max Steiner’s scores were heavily influenced by Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss – and it can be argued they often distracted from the action on screen and lacked the physiological insight of Bernard Herrmann’s scores.  Just as Williams’ score for Star Wars is in influenced by Walton and Elgar, Horner’s scores (particularly the early works) are shadowed by Prokofiev – including paraphrasing from Alexander Nevsky and Romeo and Juliet.  But most often Horner borrowed from himself – one of his standard motifs involved a flatted 6th alternating with a natural 5th, played by the brass, usually to denote building tension.  Making repeated use of the same motif is in the tradition of Beethoven himself, whose three dots and a dash motif appeared in the Fourth Piano Concerto, and Appassionata Sonata, and throughout the Fifth Symphony.  Speaking of Beethoven, has anyone else noticed that the theme used in Titanic’s “Take her to Sea” sequence is based on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? 

Borrowing and all, I’ll take Horner’s work over the percussive hammering of Hans Zimmer and the empty gimmicks of Michael Giacchino any day.


The news of Horner’s death brought me more than the usual twinge of sadness.  Only 61, he had many years of creative live left to him.  As Grillparzer said of Schubert, “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes.”

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The true cost of War


The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

World War II was the worst catastrophe to befall the human race. The percentage of people in the world who were wholly unaffected by this global conflict is comparatively small.  The Soviet Union, China, and Germany suffered disproportionately - although it can be said the Germans largely brought their fate upon themselves.  The British lost about one percent of their total population, including 43,000 killed in the Blitz.  The Americans lost about one-third of one percent of their population, almost exclusively military - the least in terms of percentage of any of the major powers.  Pointing this number out is not meant to denigrate the heroic conduct of our fighting men, particularly in the latter stages of the war.  But it's no exaggeration to say that the United States gained the most from the war, in terms of global and economic power, with the least blood shed.  The British wound-up bankrupt, parts of London decimated, their Empire collapsing. The Soviets lost nearly an entire generation of men.  It's no wonder they retained a buffer zone over Eastern Europe after the war.

No Purple Hearts have been manufactured since 1945, when the US military stocked up on them for the anticipated invasion of Japan.  To this day, Purple Hearts which are awarded to American military personnel derive from this old stock.  This fact belies the notion that Harry Truman's decision to use the Atomic Bombs against Japan was based on anything other than a desire the end the war as quickly as possible with the least lost of Allied personnel.

One small correction to one bit of information presented: The video refers, almost in passing, to "homosexuals" killed in the Holocaust.  In reality, it was homosexual men who were persecuted by the Nazis - who refused to acknowledge the presence of lesbians.  They felt that as long as Aryan women were available to impregnate to further the Master Race, it mattered not whether they were attracted to other women.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Horowitz's Scriabin - Toward the Flame

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scriabin's death, Sony has published a compilation of Vladimir Horowitz's RCA and Columbia recordings of his works. Click here to read my review.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Smash Cut

Brad Gooch's memoir of his relationship with Howard Brookner and their life in New York has just been published. Click here to read my review