Monday, August 30, 2010

Two peas in a pod

Last Friday, Mark brought Buster over for Danny & me to watch while he was in Carrollton. Buster, who Mark and I rescued in January of 2003, is a seven pound tan Chihuahua. As far as we can tell, Buster (who I named) is about 11 years old by now, and full of spunk. Despite his age and small stature, he kept Mason in line – even though Mason tried to reassert himself. Buster stayed with us until Sunday afternoon.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dan Savage on Ken Mehlman's belated coming out

Btw, Mehlman still thinks LGBT people should support the Republican Party because Islamofascists are so much worse.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Dr. Laura and the First Amendment

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, no stranger to controversy, has come under fire in recent days for a radio program where she repeated the N-word multiple times, and defended the concept of people saying it freely. Her comments were in response to a call from an African-American woman, married to a white man, who was hearing this language from her husband’s family. Dr. Laura’s spin was that since some African-American men call each other the N-word, then everyone else should be able to shout it with impunity as well.

Does anyone wonder what her response to the caller would have been if the caller’s family were using epithets against Jews or Christians – or bleached blondes - as opposed to African-Americans? She would have rushed to the caller’s defense and lambasted the in-laws in no uncertain terms.

Numerous groups have expressed entirely understandable outrage over Dr. Laura’s comments, to the extent that she made a half-hearted apology the next day. Following this latest media circus, Dr. Laura has stated she’s ending her radio program to defend her First Amendment rights, which she claims are being oppressed. Sarah Palin, that Constitutional scholar, agrees with her.

Let us review the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances[

Dr. Laura (who is not a psychologist but has a degree in physiology – in essence, she’s qualified to be a gym teacher), is perfectly free to say whatever she wishes, no matter how offensive, misguided, or just plain wrong. And those who disagree with what she says are free to picket her appearances and call for boycotts of her advertisers. Her sponsors are free to withdraw their support – although in this case she voluntarily is ending her radio show (and will probably relent and stay on the air).

I, under my First Amendment rights, will now state my opinion: I despise Laura Schlessinger. She’s a phony doctor who promotes ignorance and intolerance against anyone who doesn’t fit into her narrow paradigm of acceptable behavior: Republican voting Judeo-Christian heterosexuality. Given her own spotty moral history, she’s in no position to moralize toward anyone, and is a hypocrite par-excellence.

There. Don’t like what I wrote? Feel free to boycott my advertisers.

And now, time for that perennial favorite, an open letter to Dr. Laura:

Dear Dr. Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.

a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

e) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

g) Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

i) I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them (Lev.24:10-16)? Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws (Lev. 20:14)?

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging. Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's not even a mosque

As usual, Keith Olbermann has addressed this situation more eloquently than I can. I'd just like to add: Nearly every branch of Judaism and Christianity has persecuted homosexuals at one time or another - some to the point of execution. I would never oppose the building of a Christian church or Jewish Temple anywhere in the United States - even the most rabidly homophobic one if it were placed right next to my house.

If you want to defeat fundamental Islam, do it with the strength of ideas - which is not determined by who shouts the loudest.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How falsity becomes “fact”

I stumbled upon this short bio of Vladimir Horowitz at Arkivmusic. Probably written by a Steinway press agent (Arkiv is a subsidiary of Steinway), it’s chock full of inaccuracies. Sad thing is, many will consider this blurb an “authoritative source” even though the frequently dissed Wikipedia has a superior article on Horowitz. The full text is below with my remarks in red.

A pianist of legendary fame and stature, Vladimir Horowitz was born in Kiev, Ukraine. (According to some sources, Horowitz was born in Kiev, according to others, it was Berdichev. There are conflicting documents on this matter, and Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire at the time of his birth.) His mother, herself a professional pianist, provided his first instruction at the piano and was the first to recognize his extraordinary talents; he studied further at the Kiev Conservatory. His first public appearance was a recital in Kiev on May 30, 1920, (this was his graduation recital at Kiev Conservatory, which may or may not be considered a "public appearance") and in 1922 he gave a series of 15 concerts in Kharkov for which he was paid in food and clothing. Although Russia was still reeling from the revolution of 1917, Horowitz fashioned successful concert tours in major cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev -- marking the beginning of a performing career of unflagging and spectacular success. (There is no mention here of Horowitz's most significant success from that era: 23 recitals in Leningrad {then called Petrograd} playing 11 different programs.)

His first international appearance came with his 1926 trip to Berlin (his Berlin debut took place on December 18, 1925, Horowitz playing the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Symphony under Oskar Fried) soon after which followed concerts in Paris, London, and New York. Further appearances in the United States solidified his reputation as an exceptional virtuoso, and the country which was to become his adopted home embraced him warmly. He was invited to the White House to play for President Hoover in 1931, and in 1933 he married Wanda Toscanini -- the daughter of the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini, who would soon conduct Horowitz and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in performances of the Beethoven piano concertos. (Here, the writer has his chronology reversed: Horowitz played under Toscanini on April 23, 1933 – and it was only in the Beethoven Emperor Concerto. He married Wanda on December 21, 1933.) Horowitz permanently settled in the United States in 1940 and achieved citizenship in 1944.

Wanda Toscanini assumed a gentle stewardship (Gentle, are you kidding?) of her new husband, who was in fragile physical and emotional health. Often seized with an irrational fear of failure, Horowitz found the life of touring threatening to his equilibrium. He withdrew from the concert stage for several periods during his life, and made only rare appearances after 1970 (actually, his appearances from 1965 were pretty rare). When Horowitz did schedule a concert, it often took the persuasive powers of his wife and friends to keep him from canceling at the last minute. (If this is referring to the post-1970 era, it’s incorrect. Horowitz rarely canceled after 1970, most notably in the aftermath of his daughter, Sonia’s, death in 1975, and when he underwent prostate removal surgery in late-1978. In both cases, the concerts were rescheduled and performed.) His nagging, and often overpowering, insecurity led him to seek shock therapy in 1973, but though he seemed to achieve some benefit from treatment, he was never free of anxiety when playing in public. The one exception to this trend was when he appeared as accompanist to another artist, which he often did with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and violinist Isaac Stern. (He played with the listed performers only once, at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert on May 18, 1976. If that’s often then I’m a vegetarian.) Because of his long absences from the concert stage, Horowitz's popularity was largely sustained by his recordings.

Perhaps the most significant single event in Horowitz's long career was his long-overdue return to the Soviet Union (his first since his departure in the 1920s) for a series (Does two concerts count as a series?) of concerts in 1986. The resulting tour became a major political event, coinciding as it did with an era of new understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it resonated powerfully with Soviet audiences. Revitalized by the Soviet tour, Horwowitz (<-don’t they have a proofreader?) signed a new contract with Sony, (He was still revitalized by the tour three years after the tour ended, and two years after he stopped giving concerts? In fact, he signed with Sony because the head of Deutsche Grammophon, Gunther Breest, went to work for Sony and Horowitz went with him.) the contract included provisions for recording him at home on his favorite piano. He made his last such recording on November 1, 1989; on November 5 he died of a massive heart attack.

As a performer, Horowitz had huge resources of speed and power, and a clean articulation. His performances were brilliant, exciting, and often mystifying to those who found his technique enigmatic (he played, for instance, with unusually straight fingers, laying them nearly flat on the keys). Though his performances were frequently criticized for their willfulness and self-indulgent nature, there was an undeniable charisma to his playing that endeared him to most everyone who heard him.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hubris on All Sides...

I’ve written on this matter before. So, a quick summary: Donald Rosenberg was the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s lead Classical Music critic for many years. His primary job was covering the Cleveland Orchestra. In 2008, he was reassigned by the paper’s editor, Susan Goldberg, and now covers other musical and dance events.

Prior to Franz Welser-Möst’s taking the baton, Rosenberg’s reviews of the Orchestra had been consistently laudatory. But in 2002, his reviews began to take on an almost unrelentingly negative tone. The Plain Dealer reassigned Rosenberg to cover non-orchestra events, and replaced him with Zachary Lewis, a clearly less qualified (but perhaps more open minded) reviewer.

Being the Plain Dealer’s critic for the Cleveland Orchestra has its perks: free tickets always in a great seat, use of the orchestra’s Green Room while writing one’s reviews, being able to hobnob with movers & shakers – all part of the job.

When Rosenberg was reassigned, he lost the privileges of membership. Neither his pay nor his benefits were cut, but his ego must have been bruised. This would have been especially humiliating for Rosenberg because he literally "wrote the book" on the Cleveland Orchestra.

Rosenberg sued, alleging that the Plain Dealer reassigned him under pressure from the MAA as a result of his reviews. He further alleged age discrimination. 56 at the time of his reassignment, that’s a tough complaint to swallow.

This past Friday, the jury decided against Rosenberg. I can’t say I am surprised by this. Barring a prior contractual agreement, a newspaper has the right to assign its reporters to any beat it wishes. In addition to the age discrimination complaint, Rosenberg was unable to prove that his reassignment has harmed his career. Is his book about the Cleveland Orchestra, Second to None, any less respected than it was before he was reassigned? Hardly. Indeed, the publicity surrounding the trial has probably boosted sales. (The book does not cover Welser-Möst as it was written prior to his tenure here.)

As I have stated elsewhere, I don’t agree with many of Rosenberg’s reviews. When it comes to his critiques of various piano based events, from the local piano competition, to recitals and concertos, he’s out of his depth. (This is more than a matter of differing taste, but many factual errors on his part. Sadly, Rosenberg’s reassignment has resulted in him covering precisely these kinds of events.) But Rosenberg’s reviews of the orchestra were written from a knowledgeable perspective – the guy knows his onions. I also think it is fair to state that Rosenberg was biased against Welser-Möst – and slavishly devoted to his predecessor, Christoph von Dohnányi. But if every biased critic were removed from his post, there would be precious few reviewers. Harold C. Schonberg, for many years the New York Times’ lead music critic, had an axe to grind with many musicians, from Leonard Bernstein to Glenn Gould to Ivo Pogorelich, and it showed in his reviews. If there is an influential critic, it’s one who writes for the most noteworthy paper in the cultural capital of the nation. Despite frequent letters to the editor protesting Schonberg’s reviews, Times’ management never considered removing him from his post. I am unaware as to whether New York Philharmonic management tried to exert pressure for Schonberg’s removal or reassignment, but if they did, the Times ignored it. That paper stood by its man. Plain Dealer management tried to have it both ways by reassigning Rosenberg without firing him.

On the other hand, however, Schonberg scrupulously guarded his integrity – to the extent that he avoided cultivating friendships with musicians that he reviewed (following his retirement he reached out to many of them). Schonberg would never have considered “advising” the orchestra that Bernstein had to go, as Rosenberg has admitted doing with Cleveland Orchestra staff regarding Welser-Most. A critic advising the orchestra in any place other than his written reviews is a serious overstepping of boundaries and sign of personal hubris.

I’ve had my own complaints about Welser-Möst’s tenure at the orchestra: the continued over-emphasis of Germanic repertoire (which started under Dohnányi); the lack of a clear interpretive point of view; the eclipsing of the orchestra’s sharp aural profile in favor of a soft, marshmallowy sonority. But I’ve also maintained an open mind, and come to the conclusion that Welser- Möst’s conducting has improved over the last few years. Franz (he insists on being called by his first name) seems to have hit his stride. Also, to his credit, the current conductor has responded to tight economic times by taking a substantial cut in pay. And he involves himself with Cleveland’s everyday folk in a way few conductors would. Dohnányi, the anti-populist, wouldn’t have been caught dead conducting a July 4th concert as Welser-Möst has done.

If he’d still been reviewing the orchestra over the past two years, would Rosenberg have had the same response? Would he still be harping on Welser-Möst, and telling management the conductor “had to go”? Thanks to Welser-Möst’s thin skin, Rosenberg’s own hubris, and the caving of the Plain Dealer’s editorial team, we may never know.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Would FDR have dropped the bomb?

Sixty five years ago today, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  That and another bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later forced the unconditional surrender of Japan – ending World War II.

The use of the bomb was one of the most controversial issues of the war.  The efficacy and appropriateness have been discussed to death, and I will not debate it here except to state that I believe from the perspective of ending the war quickly, with the least loss of life on both sides, that the strategy was not only effective, but moral – as moral as anything in war can be.  It also prevented the possible carving up of Japan by Soviet and American forces which would have resulted from a land invasion.  The straw arguments brought out by those who state that Japan was on the verge of surrender in summer 1945 would be laughable if they weren’t made in the face of Japan’s human rights abuses both before and during the Second World War – both against Allied military personnel and innocent civilians.  Isn’t it interesting that Japan’s behavior in atrocities such as the Bataan Death March and the rape of Manchuria are utterly forgotten by those who use August 6 to declaim America’s evil?  Some of this is doubtless due to Japan's own whitewashing of her history.

One question that has been raised is whether Franklin Roosevelt would have used the atomic bomb and if he knew of its potential for destruction. There is no doubt among serious historians that Franklin Roosevelt fully intended to use the bomb.  Although certain naïve persons have been misled by FDR’s genteel image, he was particularly tough on issues of American security: pushing J. Edgar Hoover to make broad use of wiretaps, approving the execution of several German nationals who snuck into the United States with the intent of sabotage, and signing Executive Order 9066 - which led to the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry.  (For what it’s worth, both Hoover and Harry Truman though Japanese Internment was a mistake and unjustified by American security concerns.)

It was FDR himself who put the development of an atomic bomb on the agenda after he received a letter from Albert Einstein advising that Germany was working on just such a weapon.  He immediately told his military aide, General Edwin “Pa” Watson, that “this requires action” and to keep all documents relating to the project in the White House safe.

Roosevelt followed the development of the Manhattan Project closely and was fully aware of an atomic bomb’s potential power, telling an aide that one dropped in Times Square “would lay New York low”.

When the Germans broke through Allied lines in the Ardennes in late 1944, FDR called in Leslie Groves to ask about the possibility of fast tracking a bomb to be dropped on Berlin to force an end to the war.  Groves had the unpleasant duty of informing the President that production of a workable bomb was months away.

There is also the written account of James Roosevelt, the last of FDR’s sons to see him alive, who in January 1945 confessed to this father his fears concerning Operation Olympic – the planned invasion of Japan.  FDR bluntly told James “There will be no invasion of Japan.  We are developing a weapon of immense power, and we will use it if we can.”  For FDR, who always kept his cards close to his chest and hadn’t even told his wife about the Manhattan Project, to drop such a broad hint was extraordinary.

Shortly after FDR’s death, his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, advised Harry Truman of the existence of the atomic bomb project - although Truman had suspected the Manhattan Project centered on a new kind of “super-weapon” since he stumbled upon the project while chairing the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program when he was a Senator.  As the targets were being chosen, it was Stimson who persuaded the military against Kyoto as a target – as it was primarily a cultural and religious center.

FDR would have used the bomb.  The only questions are when and where.  But FDR died, and that decision fell to another man. 

 Thank God for Harry Truman.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bread & Blossom

My coworker Sheilagh had a garage sale over the weekend. Daniel & I bought a bread maker and some knick-knacks. As soon as we got home, Daniel rushed to the store, bought ingredients, and made a loaf of wheat-raisin bread. Delicious, but not conducive to a reduced carbohydrate diet.

Did you ever sit and listen to an orchestra play a fine overture and imagine that things were as they ought to be and not as they are?
- Harry Truman

Saturday evening, Daniel & I headed to Blossom Music Center for a concert with the Cleveland Orchestra. It was an especially well balanced program: Vaughn-Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije Suite, and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1. in D minor with pianist Stephen Hough.   

Starting with the final work on the program, I must confess to having an on-again/off-again relationship with the Brahms Concerto. A popular discussion among pianists is which concerto is the most “difficult.” The Rachmaninoff Third usually gets the nod (unless one includes non-standard repertoire works like the mammoth Busoni Concerto). But while the Rachmaninoff Third is more technically advanced, in many ways the loftier Brahms First is more difficult to carry off. It’s the work of a young composer, who had deep ideas, but had not completely mastered orchestration and did not write idiomatically for the piano.   For me, the crux of the problem is twofold: achieving balance between the piano and orchestra, and maintaining a singular dramatic “through-line” during the very long first movement.

Stephen Hough has written about this concerto, and I concur with his opinion: the Second Concerto is the work of a more mature, seasoned, “professional” composer, but the First Concerto reaches higher and digs deeper.

The Brahms D minor is probably the most poorly served Concerto in the standard repertoire. There are precious few exemplary recordings of it. Indeed, the first recording of it I ever heard was an execrable version by Arthur Rubinstein that should not have been released (he recorded much better versions of it with Reiner and Leinsdorf). I have not heard Hough’s recording of the work, but after Saturday night’s concert, I plan to get it. 

All too often, one tends to hear the first movement played like the work of a prematurely middle-aged composer – soggy and weighted down. But Hough brought out the tragic ardor in the movement without negating the composer’s Maestoso (Majestic) marking – partly by maintaining a sensible tempo and playing with a wide dynamic range. Indeed, there were some intensely fiery moments in the middle of that movement.

Throughout the middle movement, a deeply spiritual essay, a moth flittered above the musicians. I thought “this must be the luckiest insect in the world”.  Hough daringly mixed harmonies with the pedal here, but the texture never became mushy. For the first time though, I noticed something troubling about Blossom’s acoustics: where we were sitting (Row F near the center), lower frequencies were nearly lost, so that the double-basses’ harmonic underpinnings were undermined.

The infamous “Blossom crack” was heard early in the third movement, but it only added to the proceedings. In the passages leading to the cadenza, the orchestral sound virtually exploded, and Hough’s presentation of the cadenza built upon that. The switch to major in the final bars brought about a catharsis that ended the concert. 

Before intermission, David Zinman brought out the humor of Prokofiev’s satirical Lt. Kijé Suite, which is adapted from a film score. The piece, a parody of bureaucracy, (Kijé essentially translates into “what’s-his-name”) is effectively orchestrated (including use of the saxophone) and has the piquant harmonic touches Prokofiev is well known for. Zinman is an economical conductor – he doesn’t flap his arms about or sway his body around to demonstrate his emotional involvement in the music. He lets the music speak for itself and concentrates on getting the best possible playing from the orchestra. That was the case both here and in the Brahms.

The concert began with Case Scaglione making his conducting debut with the Tallis Fantasia. The interpretation was unobtrusive, and the dynamics of this strings-only piece - which begins and ends with fade-in/fade-out effects - were very well handled. Of course, The Cleveland Orchestra could probably play this work in its sleep. The true test of Scaglione’s skills will lie in what he can do with a less gifted orchestra.

During the Prokofiev and Vaughn-Williams, I noticed an older second- violinist, who seemed so casually at-ease with his instrument as he gently swayed back & forth to the music - it looked as if playing the violin was the most natural thing in the world. As someone who briefly and unsuccessfully tried playing the violin, I can assure you it’s not. 

After the concert, I remarked to Daniel that we should go to concerts more often (as it is, we attend about three times per year). With so much war, strife, chaos, and political infighting, Harry Truman’s quote haunted me for the rest of the evening.