Commentary Magazine


Topic: musician

Not Everything Is Cool at the End of the Day

According to the Associated Press, Arizona State junior quarterback Samson Szakacsy is “unusually introspective” and “a deeply spiritual person.” He counts among his heroes Jesus, Gandhi, and Buddha. An athlete, musician, and religious-studies major, Szakacsy is, we’re told in a glowing profile,

a philosopher who says the true way to convey wisdom is to bring all of yourself into every situation and to see yourself in everyone. Mr. Szakacsy is, as the title of his new CD suggests, someone who has spent his life “chasing truth.”

“I’m just really interested in everything,” he said. “You can find God in everything, truth in everything, so everything is cool at the end of the day. I try to just really see myself in everything. It’s all connected in some way.”

I don’t want to be overly harsh toward a junior in college, but since his arguments were made publicly, perhaps it’s worth publicly responding to them as well. So let’s begin with the basics.

Some of us don’t really think that the “true way to convey wisdom” is to see ourselves in everyone — because, you see, “everyone” includes (for starters) Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson.

And some of us don’t actually find God and truth in “everything” — because, you see, “everything” includes mass genocide and gas chambers, child abuse and infanticide, flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, bombing pizzerias in downtown Jerusalem and Christian churches in Egypt, and cutting off the ears and noses of women in Afghanistan. And so not everything is cool at the end of the day. Some things, in fact, are evil rather than cool. Some actions clash rather than connect. And to pretend they aren’t and to pretend they don’t — to embrace a trendy, shallow, easygoing relativism — is at best unserious and at worst self-destructive.

That isn’t to say that good can’t ever emerge from an evil act. But that isn’t what our Arizona State philosopher is saying. He is arguing that truth is like a Chinese menu, where you take equal samples from column A and column B and sit back and enjoy the meal.

It doesn’t quite work like that in real life, though.

The modern/postmodern sensibility is forever attracted to, and even making CDs about, “chasing truth.” But eventually one has to give up the chase and actually settle on some basic truths, such as honesty is better than lying, compassion is preferable to savagery, fidelity is better than betrayal, liberty is superior to tyranny, and courage is preferable to cowardice. A fulfilled and noble life is impossible without making moral judgments — meaning, judging some things to be right and others to be wrong. “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid” is how G.K. Chesterton put it. One day soon, we can hope, Samson Szakacsy (and the Associated Press) will discover that wisdom as well.

According to the Associated Press, Arizona State junior quarterback Samson Szakacsy is “unusually introspective” and “a deeply spiritual person.” He counts among his heroes Jesus, Gandhi, and Buddha. An athlete, musician, and religious-studies major, Szakacsy is, we’re told in a glowing profile,

a philosopher who says the true way to convey wisdom is to bring all of yourself into every situation and to see yourself in everyone. Mr. Szakacsy is, as the title of his new CD suggests, someone who has spent his life “chasing truth.”

“I’m just really interested in everything,” he said. “You can find God in everything, truth in everything, so everything is cool at the end of the day. I try to just really see myself in everything. It’s all connected in some way.”

I don’t want to be overly harsh toward a junior in college, but since his arguments were made publicly, perhaps it’s worth publicly responding to them as well. So let’s begin with the basics.

Some of us don’t really think that the “true way to convey wisdom” is to see ourselves in everyone — because, you see, “everyone” includes (for starters) Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson.

And some of us don’t actually find God and truth in “everything” — because, you see, “everything” includes mass genocide and gas chambers, child abuse and infanticide, flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, bombing pizzerias in downtown Jerusalem and Christian churches in Egypt, and cutting off the ears and noses of women in Afghanistan. And so not everything is cool at the end of the day. Some things, in fact, are evil rather than cool. Some actions clash rather than connect. And to pretend they aren’t and to pretend they don’t — to embrace a trendy, shallow, easygoing relativism — is at best unserious and at worst self-destructive.

That isn’t to say that good can’t ever emerge from an evil act. But that isn’t what our Arizona State philosopher is saying. He is arguing that truth is like a Chinese menu, where you take equal samples from column A and column B and sit back and enjoy the meal.

It doesn’t quite work like that in real life, though.

The modern/postmodern sensibility is forever attracted to, and even making CDs about, “chasing truth.” But eventually one has to give up the chase and actually settle on some basic truths, such as honesty is better than lying, compassion is preferable to savagery, fidelity is better than betrayal, liberty is superior to tyranny, and courage is preferable to cowardice. A fulfilled and noble life is impossible without making moral judgments — meaning, judging some things to be right and others to be wrong. “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid” is how G.K. Chesterton put it. One day soon, we can hope, Samson Szakacsy (and the Associated Press) will discover that wisdom as well.

Read Less

Pops and Pale

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

I don’t usually link favorably to the New York Times, but all COMMENTARY readers should hie to Michiko Kakutani’s review of our chief culture critic Terry Teachout’s newly published biography of Louis Armstrong. Pops has been received ecstatically, and nowhere more than in Kakutani’s review today:

With “Pops,” his eloquent and important new biography of Armstrong, the critic and cultural historian Terry Teachout restores this jazzman to his deserved place in the pantheon of American artists…[he] writes with a deep appreciation of Armstrong’s artistic achievements, while situating his work and his life in a larger historical context. He draws on Armstrong’s wonderfully vivid writings and hours of tapes in which the musician recorded his thoughts and conversations with friends, and in doing so, creates an emotionally detailed portrait of Satchmo as a quick, funny, generous, observant and sometimes surprisingly acerbic man.

She’s right.

Also of note is the inclusion of “Beyond the Pale,” a stunning story by COMMENTARY’s longtime contributor Joseph Epstein, in the latest edition of The Best American Short Stories. “Beyond the Pale” was originally published in COMMENTARY’s March 2008 issue.

Read Less

Expert Opinions

A number of far-left and far-right websites are featuring excerpts from that classic work of historical scholarship, Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak by Victory S. Navasky, former editor and publisher of the Nation, and Christopher Cerf, a musician who is most notable for his contributions to Sesame Street (I’m not making that up). This is a collection of quotes regarding the Iraq War that is supposed to make supporters of the war effort look stupid. Judging by the mention of me in the excerpt posted online, it’s the authors who look stupid. They write:

On November 6, 2003, President Bush observed: “We’ve reached another great turning point…” On June 16, 2004, President Bush claimed: “A turning point will come two weeks from today.”

That same day the Montreal Gazette headlined an editorial by neoconservative columnist Max Boot: “Despite the Negative Reaction by Much of the Media, U.S. Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point.”

I didn’t recall the article in question, because I have never written a word for the Montreal Gazette. I have, however, written a lot of articles for the Los Angeles Times and other publications that have been syndicated and thus appeared in other publications such as the Montreal Gazette. But it took about ten seconds of digging by my industrious research associate, Mike Scavelli, to discover that the article they refer to ran in the Gazette on December 9, 2004, not on June 16, 2004.

That’s quite a difference: the U.S. mounted two assaults on Fallujah in 2004: the first in April, the second in November. The first assault failed, although U.S. government spokesmen initially tried to spin it as a success. I wasn’t buying it. I wrote about the earlier battle in a May 6, 2004, column entitled, “The U.S. Loses by Quitting in Fallouja.”

The second battle was more successful and my column reflected that. But notwithstanding the headline put on it by the Gazette editors (which contrasted with the more accurate L.A. Times headline: “What We Won in Fallouja”), I didn’t exactly call the second battle of Fallujah a turning point. What I actually wrote (quoting from my original L.A. Times column which was slightly altered in the Gazette) was this:

The news media . . . seem positively despondent over the battle of Fallujah.

It is right and proper . . . to mourn the death of 71 Americans and the wounding of hundreds more . . . But it is wrong to . . . [assume] as so much of the current commentary implicitly does, that war solves nothing and that all casualties are meaningless. In fact, many of the turning points of history have been battles, such as Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, which ended for two centuries, and counting, the threat of French expansionism in Europe.

Obviously, the battle of Fallujah will not be as decisive as Waterloo; few battles are. But that shouldn’t blind us to the accomplishments of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which led the offensive along with U.S. Army and Iraqi soldiers.

My article ended with a warning:

Thus, for all their success in Fallouja, we should not expect U.S. troops to completely pacify Iraq anytime soon. What they can do — what they are doing — is to keep the insurgents from derailing a political process that, one hopes, will soon result in the creation of a legitimate government that can field indigenous security forces and defend itself.

Cerf and Navasky don’t actually explain what it is that each of their quoted “experts” got wrong. They seem to expect it should be obvious. Maybe I’m not as smart as a “Sesame Street” lyricist, but I fail to grasp the error in what I wrote.

A number of far-left and far-right websites are featuring excerpts from that classic work of historical scholarship, Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq: The Experts Speak by Victory S. Navasky, former editor and publisher of the Nation, and Christopher Cerf, a musician who is most notable for his contributions to Sesame Street (I’m not making that up). This is a collection of quotes regarding the Iraq War that is supposed to make supporters of the war effort look stupid. Judging by the mention of me in the excerpt posted online, it’s the authors who look stupid. They write:

On November 6, 2003, President Bush observed: “We’ve reached another great turning point…” On June 16, 2004, President Bush claimed: “A turning point will come two weeks from today.”

That same day the Montreal Gazette headlined an editorial by neoconservative columnist Max Boot: “Despite the Negative Reaction by Much of the Media, U.S. Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point.”

I didn’t recall the article in question, because I have never written a word for the Montreal Gazette. I have, however, written a lot of articles for the Los Angeles Times and other publications that have been syndicated and thus appeared in other publications such as the Montreal Gazette. But it took about ten seconds of digging by my industrious research associate, Mike Scavelli, to discover that the article they refer to ran in the Gazette on December 9, 2004, not on June 16, 2004.

That’s quite a difference: the U.S. mounted two assaults on Fallujah in 2004: the first in April, the second in November. The first assault failed, although U.S. government spokesmen initially tried to spin it as a success. I wasn’t buying it. I wrote about the earlier battle in a May 6, 2004, column entitled, “The U.S. Loses by Quitting in Fallouja.”

The second battle was more successful and my column reflected that. But notwithstanding the headline put on it by the Gazette editors (which contrasted with the more accurate L.A. Times headline: “What We Won in Fallouja”), I didn’t exactly call the second battle of Fallujah a turning point. What I actually wrote (quoting from my original L.A. Times column which was slightly altered in the Gazette) was this:

The news media . . . seem positively despondent over the battle of Fallujah.

It is right and proper . . . to mourn the death of 71 Americans and the wounding of hundreds more . . . But it is wrong to . . . [assume] as so much of the current commentary implicitly does, that war solves nothing and that all casualties are meaningless. In fact, many of the turning points of history have been battles, such as Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, which ended for two centuries, and counting, the threat of French expansionism in Europe.

Obviously, the battle of Fallujah will not be as decisive as Waterloo; few battles are. But that shouldn’t blind us to the accomplishments of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which led the offensive along with U.S. Army and Iraqi soldiers.

My article ended with a warning:

Thus, for all their success in Fallouja, we should not expect U.S. troops to completely pacify Iraq anytime soon. What they can do — what they are doing — is to keep the insurgents from derailing a political process that, one hopes, will soon result in the creation of a legitimate government that can field indigenous security forces and defend itself.

Cerf and Navasky don’t actually explain what it is that each of their quoted “experts” got wrong. They seem to expect it should be obvious. Maybe I’m not as smart as a “Sesame Street” lyricist, but I fail to grasp the error in what I wrote.

Read Less

Dvorak Diplomacy

Today, the New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang, the cold and barren capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The orchestra will perform a concert tomorrow, and Lorin Maazel, its music director, hopes to make a “tiny contribution” to warming up America’s relations with the world’s most repugnant state. “I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact.”

Contact? The hope in the West is that increased contact, starting with the Phil’s visit, will open up North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation. Many argue that friendly relations will weaken the regime, which has been built on hostility to the United States. “I don’t see why Kim is doing it,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of the Kimist state. “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”

So why did North Korea’s leader invite America’s premier orchestra to play in his capital? The answer may be found in Seoul, the capital of the better version of Korea. South Korea today inaugurated its 17th president, Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee looks set to reverse a decade of the Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee has already set a new tone in Seoul by signaling that he will condition major assistance to North Korea on adherence to its commitment to give up its atomic bombs. Since the beginning of this year Pyongyang has failed to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and, as a result, the international community has slowed aid deliveries.

There are signs that the North is headed toward another economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il is undoubtedly looking for new sources of assistance. The North Korean government has stockpiled at least six months’ worth of fuel and other supplies, so it can last through the year. Although it’s unlikely that Beijing would let the regime fall, Kim does not either trust or like the Chinese and would prefer to find other sources of support, especially because multiple benefactors would allow him to play one off against the others, as his father so skillfully did during the Cold War.

The risk is that the United States will fall for the euphoria surrounding the New York Phil’s visit, which has the blessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” said Condoleezza Rice, who attended Lee’s inauguration. I agree, but her recent Korean policy has been marked by unimaginative strategy, humiliating moments, and unseemly compromises. Kim is a grandmaster of tactics, and if there will be any victim of “Dvorak Diplomacy,” it may be us, not him.

Today, the New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang, the cold and barren capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The orchestra will perform a concert tomorrow, and Lorin Maazel, its music director, hopes to make a “tiny contribution” to warming up America’s relations with the world’s most repugnant state. “I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact.”

Contact? The hope in the West is that increased contact, starting with the Phil’s visit, will open up North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation. Many argue that friendly relations will weaken the regime, which has been built on hostility to the United States. “I don’t see why Kim is doing it,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of the Kimist state. “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”

So why did North Korea’s leader invite America’s premier orchestra to play in his capital? The answer may be found in Seoul, the capital of the better version of Korea. South Korea today inaugurated its 17th president, Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee looks set to reverse a decade of the Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee has already set a new tone in Seoul by signaling that he will condition major assistance to North Korea on adherence to its commitment to give up its atomic bombs. Since the beginning of this year Pyongyang has failed to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and, as a result, the international community has slowed aid deliveries.

There are signs that the North is headed toward another economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il is undoubtedly looking for new sources of assistance. The North Korean government has stockpiled at least six months’ worth of fuel and other supplies, so it can last through the year. Although it’s unlikely that Beijing would let the regime fall, Kim does not either trust or like the Chinese and would prefer to find other sources of support, especially because multiple benefactors would allow him to play one off against the others, as his father so skillfully did during the Cold War.

The risk is that the United States will fall for the euphoria surrounding the New York Phil’s visit, which has the blessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” said Condoleezza Rice, who attended Lee’s inauguration. I agree, but her recent Korean policy has been marked by unimaginative strategy, humiliating moments, and unseemly compromises. Kim is a grandmaster of tactics, and if there will be any victim of “Dvorak Diplomacy,” it may be us, not him.

Read Less

What’s Up With Itzhak?

The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

Read More

The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

Instrumentalists who are “naturals” as conductors are few. One example is Peter Oundjian (born 1955), former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, now Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of New York’s Caramoor Music Festival. Oundjian has proven a passionate maestro with a real sense of symphonic line, who motivates both orchestral musicians and soloists to surpass themselves artistically. A decade older than Oundjian, Perlman may have left playing for conducting a bit late in his career.

Music fans will always rejoice in the best of Perlman’s sweet-toned, dazzlingly effortless playing, which can be heard on a recently reissued 1965 New York recital with pianist David Garvey, and in the delightful camaraderie of Isaac Stern’s 60th Anniversary Celebration, starring the so-called “Kosher Nostra” of Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, et al. Perlman is joyously virtuosic in a 1976 Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, in delightful miniatures by Fritz Kreisler, and in a program of rare Romantic works usually only played by students, Concertos from my Childhood.

Itzhak Perlman has won the hearts of a vast music-going public with his emotional playing, indomitable spirit, and sometimes raucous sense of humor. Westchester audiences surely will give him the benefit of the doubt and cheer his on-the-job training as conductor. Yet by the evidence so far, his main achievement looks likely to remain, first and foremost, as a violinist.

Read Less

Asians in Classical Music

Anyone who has been to a classical concert recently, especially at a conservatory, will note the ever-increasing number of Asian musicians, what some call an “Asian Invasion.” In 2006, of the nine new musicians hired by the New York Philharmonic, six were Asian. At the noted Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, fully three-quarters of the piano students are from Asia. A new study from Temple University Press, Musicians from a Different Shore, by Mari Yoshihara, analyzes the phenomenon.

Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim recalls, during an interview transcribed in the book, that when he studied at Juilliard in the 1970’s, “Eastern European and Jewish students were diminishing and Asians were just coming up.” Kim adds: “Right now at Juilliard, it’s like all Asian.” Yoshihara asserts that in fact only 30 percent of Juilliard students today are Asian, yet the impression remains. Many Asian families seem willing to make any sacrifice in order to advance their offspring’s studies. At ten, Kim made bi-weekly flights to Juilliard from his family’s home in South Carolina, so he could study with legendary pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. Classical music enjoys great prestige among educated families in China, Japan, and Korea, akin to that routinely felt a century ago in bourgeois households in Middle and Eastern Europe.

Read More

Anyone who has been to a classical concert recently, especially at a conservatory, will note the ever-increasing number of Asian musicians, what some call an “Asian Invasion.” In 2006, of the nine new musicians hired by the New York Philharmonic, six were Asian. At the noted Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, fully three-quarters of the piano students are from Asia. A new study from Temple University Press, Musicians from a Different Shore, by Mari Yoshihara, analyzes the phenomenon.

Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim recalls, during an interview transcribed in the book, that when he studied at Juilliard in the 1970’s, “Eastern European and Jewish students were diminishing and Asians were just coming up.” Kim adds: “Right now at Juilliard, it’s like all Asian.” Yoshihara asserts that in fact only 30 percent of Juilliard students today are Asian, yet the impression remains. Many Asian families seem willing to make any sacrifice in order to advance their offspring’s studies. At ten, Kim made bi-weekly flights to Juilliard from his family’s home in South Carolina, so he could study with legendary pedagogue Dorothy DeLay. Classical music enjoys great prestige among educated families in China, Japan, and Korea, akin to that routinely felt a century ago in bourgeois households in Middle and Eastern Europe.

Another interviewee, the eminent Taiwanese-born violinist Cho-Liang Lin (profiled on contentions earlier this year) points out that nowadays Asian music students all want to be solo stars instead of ensemble musicians; most do not “want to play the trumpet, they hardly play the clarinet, but they have to play a solo instrument, piano or violin, or maybe sometimes cello, but bassoon, out of the question, you know.”

Despite the indisputable number of talented Asian performers, Yoshihara points out that Asians remain severely underrepresented on a management level, on boards of trustees, and in other power positions in the classical music world. On the boards of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, Asians are as rare as hen’s teeth. And even when it comes to musicians, misunderstandings still remain. Joel Tse, principal flutist of the Toledo Symphony, recounts that when he plays school concerts in Ohio, students ask him, “Are you related to Jackie Chan?” When the violinist Muneko Otani, who teaches at Columbia University, tours in Oklahoma, people ask her about Pearl Harbor, as if her Japanese ancestry sufficed to make her a ranking expert on the faraway subject. The viola player Junah Chung relates that when his blonde wife, also a musician, auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, she was told by another string player: “Oh thank God, a blonde violinist! This orchestra is starting to look like the Shanghai Symphony.” Even setting aside blatant racism, it is clear that Asian musicians still have some ways to go before they are integrated fully into America’s classical music scene.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

Read More

• Is the Holocaust a fit subject for novelists? It’s tempting to reply with the oft-quoted words of Terence, the Roman playwright who declared that “nothing human is alien to me.” As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich made surpassingly clear, it is possible to make humane art out of the most monstrous of historical events. But if there is any act of human monstrosity that resists fictional treatment—especially by those who did not witness it at first hand—it is the Holocaust. The very phrase “Holocaust fiction” makes me squirm, and to look at a list of novels in which that dread occurrence figures is to be struck by how few have succeeded as art, whatever their value as testaments of man’s inhumanity to man. The more I reflect on the problem of Holocaust fiction, the more I find myself inclined to echo Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Be that as it may, novelists continue to grapple with the Holocaust, and on occasion something readable emerges from the struggle. Eugene Drucker’s The Savior is by no means a great novel, but it is exceedingly thought-provoking, and it also has something interesting to say about one of the deepest mysteries of the Third Reich, which is the corrupting effect it had on German art. Drucker comes by his interest in this subject honestly, for he is not a novelist de métier but a member of the world-renowned Emerson Quartet, and his father, a violinist who played in the Busch Quartet, got out of Germany in 1938, just in time. Small wonder, then, that his violin-playig son should feel moved to reflect on the nature of Hitler’s appeal to the artists of the Third Reich.

That a considerable number of German artists approved of Hitler, or at least cooperated more or less willingly with the Nazi regime, is incontestable. As I wrote four years ago in COMMENTARY:

The list of distinguished non-Jewish artists who left the country after Hitler came to power is brief to the point of invisibility when placed next to the rogues’ gallery of those who stayed behind, in many cases not merely accepting the inevitability of Nazi rule but actively collaborating with the regime. The composers Carl Orff and Richard Strauss, the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, the Nobel Prize-winning author Gerhart Hauptmann, the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the actor Emil Jannings, the stage designer Caspar Neher—all these and many more were perfectly prepared to make their peace with Nazism.

Gottfried Keller, the central character of The Savior, is a small fish in this big sewer, a good-but-not-great violinist who in the last weeks of World War II is forced to take part in a a grotesque “experiment” devised by the music-loving commandant of a forced-labor camp. The purpose of the experiment is to find out whether exposure to classical music will raise the spirits of the camp’s demoralized Jewish inmates high enough to increase their efficiency. Later on in the novel, we learn that Keller was once engaged to a Jewish musician who gave him the opportunity to emigrate to Palestine, but that he chose to remain in Germany instead, and by book’s end we come to realize that this fateful decision has made him an “accomplice” (Drucker’s word) to the Holocaust.

This is Drucker’s first novel, but he has written many program notes for the Emerson Quartet’s concerts, and from time to time he disgorges undigested chunks of technical language that betray his inexperience as a writer of fiction (“An accelerando leads to a Presto that plummets from the highest to the lowest registers, where the music briefly regains its repose”). For the most part, though, he tells his terrible tale with an appropriate plainness. Moreover, Drucker is well aware of the difficulty of saying anything meaningful about the Holocaust through the medium of fiction, going so far as to put the following words into the mouth of one of the inmates of the unnamed camp portrayed in The Savior:

I can’t tell anyone here what I’ve seen. It would be a useless repetition of their story, of what they’ve seen; it would be self-indulgent, a way of asking for sympathy. There’s no place for sympathy here. Only an outsider, who understands maybe one-millionth of it, could feel an emotion like sympathy.

Does The Savior add to our understanding of the camps? Not really. But what I did find striking was its author’s willingness to engage directly with the implications of Hitler’s homicidal dream of purifying German art and culture through mass murder. The commandant is made to speak for all the artists and intellectuals who allowed themselves to share that dream, whether in whole or in part: “You’re surprised to find a cultivated man in charge of such a place. But then you have no idea how closely these camps are related to the core of our culture.” And were they? That we should still be asking that question is a measure of Adolf Hitler’s dark victory over the German soul.

Read Less

Stalin’s Music Master

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

Read Less

Huddled Masses (of Musicians)

By-now familiar moans about “agonizing” visa delays for foreign musicians hired to perform in the U.S. inspired the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma to testify last year on Capitol Hill. Such plaints echoed again recently when Erik Schumann, a visa-less 25-year-old German violinist, forfeited a July engagement as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its summer season at Vail, Colorado. In May, Italian pianist Cristina Barbuti could not obtain a visa in time to perform in a scheduled duo concert at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. Last year, the Manchester, England-based Hallé Orchestra scuppered a planned 2007 U.S. tour because of the extra cost of obtaining 100 U. S. work visas for its players.

Such delays and difficulties are widely attributed to a current backlog at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some nonetheless consider the delays to be (as Ma alleged in his testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform) affronts to musicians’ “dignity.” But Ma raised an interesting question: should musicians (as inherently “dignified” beings) be given instant visas regardless of current security concerns?

Read More

By-now familiar moans about “agonizing” visa delays for foreign musicians hired to perform in the U.S. inspired the superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma to testify last year on Capitol Hill. Such plaints echoed again recently when Erik Schumann, a visa-less 25-year-old German violinist, forfeited a July engagement as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in its summer season at Vail, Colorado. In May, Italian pianist Cristina Barbuti could not obtain a visa in time to perform in a scheduled duo concert at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. Last year, the Manchester, England-based Hallé Orchestra scuppered a planned 2007 U.S. tour because of the extra cost of obtaining 100 U. S. work visas for its players.

Such delays and difficulties are widely attributed to a current backlog at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some nonetheless consider the delays to be (as Ma alleged in his testimony before the House Committee on Government Reform) affronts to musicians’ “dignity.” But Ma raised an interesting question: should musicians (as inherently “dignified” beings) be given instant visas regardless of current security concerns?

That question can be answered in two words: Papa Wemba. Papa Wemba was the stage name of Jules Kikumba, a renowned Congolese musician who was jailed in France in 2003 for helping to smuggle hundreds of illegal immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Europe. French prosecutors charged that would-be immigrants paid up to $4,500 for documents stating that they belonged to Papa Wemba’s band. Suspicions were raised when around 200 Congolese “musicians” arrived in France in 2000, none carrying any musical instruments. (Most turned out to be goat herders and fishermen.)

Some classical music snobs might assert that highbrow performers are more trustworthy than stars of world music or pop. Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music—which provides a fascinating account of drug use and debauchery among classical musicians—should disabuse anyone of the notion that classical musicians are better behaved than their pop counterparts. If our Citizenship and Immigration Services are dancing as fast as they can, traveling performers (and the artistic managers who hire them) should grin and bear it. After all, Johann Sebastian Bach never left Germany once, and his musical development did not suffer as a result.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Contrary to popular belief, not many critics are failed artists. (They might be better critics if they were.) Some, however, are what I call “recovering artists,” a category into which I fit, since I spent several years working as a professional musician prior to becoming a full-time writer at the age of 29. While my experience is anything but unique, it is one that, so far as I know, has never been written about in any detail. This is one reason why I found Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music so compelling. Kurtz studied classical guitar at the New England Conservatory of Music and, like me, pursued a performing career before deciding to take up writing. A few years ago he started playing again, this time for his own pleasure, and now he has written a book, half memoir and half meditation, about the broken arc of his musical life.

Read More

• Contrary to popular belief, not many critics are failed artists. (They might be better critics if they were.) Some, however, are what I call “recovering artists,” a category into which I fit, since I spent several years working as a professional musician prior to becoming a full-time writer at the age of 29. While my experience is anything but unique, it is one that, so far as I know, has never been written about in any detail. This is one reason why I found Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music so compelling. Kurtz studied classical guitar at the New England Conservatory of Music and, like me, pursued a performing career before deciding to take up writing. A few years ago he started playing again, this time for his own pleasure, and now he has written a book, half memoir and half meditation, about the broken arc of his musical life.

The fact that Kurtz gave up the guitar altogether for an extended period doubtless explains why he is so good at describing the inner life of musicians. Because he lost touch with that life, he now takes no part of it for granted. He writes with great acuteness, for instance, about the unending drudgery without which no one, however naturally gifted, can hope to make music for a living:

You sit down, you look at your hands, you hold the instrument. You listen to the musicians you admire, who have this same equipment, hands and instruments. Then you look at your own hands again, and it doesn’t seem possible. . . . I think this is when your story as a musician begins. Playing, you’ve begun to practice. And practice has made “perfect.” Now you’ll never play the way you wish you could. Now one lifetime is not enough. You’ll never be finished practicing.

He is also very good at describing the alienation from everyday life that is, for better and worse, the artist’s lot:

My parents . . . silenced their emotions, delegated them to others. They sacrificed what was most important in order to preserve their comfortable lives. But I was part of a select society, with music and poetry as our secret language. It was startlingly clear: artists expressed exquisite emotional truths in tones that everyone heard but few had the courage to feel and understand. To speak these truths, to be an artist, was the ultimate calling, the antithesis of school and partying and repetitive family rituals.

In addition, Kurtz articulates what I can only call the spirituality of the artist’s futile quest for perfection: “Each day, with every note, practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture—reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.” What is most poignant about this quest is that the youngsters who embark on the artist’s way do so without any guarantee of success:

Because Salieri knows Mozart is a genius, his own failure then seems inevitable. But the real weight that he and every artist—every person who strives for greatness—suffers is the weight of not knowing. You must find in yourself the courage to leap off the cliff. Yet it is not up to you whether you fly or fall.

Glenn Kurtz fell, and it was a long time before he found within himself the courage to start again, this time as a committed amateur. Yet that painful experience made it possible for him to write this exceedingly beautiful book. No doubt he would rather have grown up to be a world-class guitarist—but I’m not so sure he got the short end of the stick.

Read Less

Happy Birthday, Maestro Masur

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

On Wednesday, at the Royal Albert Hall, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France combined their forces to celebrate the 80th birthday of Kurt Masur, who leads them both. The orchestras played works by the two composers with whom Masur has felt perhaps the closest affinity: Tchaikovsky and Bruckner.

If Kurt Masur is by some distance the most impressive living German conductor, the reason is in part because he is much more than a musician. Five years ago, there was some turmoil as Masur’s tenure as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic came to an end. But this should not detract from his achievement, both as an interpreter of the grand symphonic tradition, and as an example of a phenomenon rare in German history: the artist who turned against the dictator.

In October 1989, when the people of Leipzig took to the streets every Monday to protest against the Honecker regime, Masur, the Kapellmeister of Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, played a key part in preventing a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. On October 9, the Stasi had prepared for a bloodbath as tens of thousands of people emerged from prayers in the Nikolaikirche to gather in the city center.

According to John Lewis Gaddis’s book The Cold War, Kurt Masur’s appeal to allow for “the free exchange of opinions,” broadcast by loudspeakers, was decisive in persuading the security forces to withdraw before the order to crush the protest could be given from Berlin. A week later, Erich Honecker was forced to resign. Masur deserves as much credit for the bloodless reunification of Germany as any of the politicians on either side.

This was Masur’s one moment of political glory. What of his conducting over 60 years? The word that is often associated with Masur is “perfectionism.” On Wednesday of this week, however, what was in evidence was, rather, a genial warmth. Sitting in the choir seats right behind the massed ranks of double-basses, facing the conductor, I noticed that he would sometimes blow little kisses to a section that had just carried off an especially elegant or difficult passage. Masur uses no baton, and his arm gestures at first appear awkward. Yet his tall frame, though stiffened by age, is still eloquent. He sways and swoops, grinning and grimacing. Masur saves the nobility for the orchestra’s performance, not his own. As he left for the last time, a nonchalant little shrug of the shoulders told us: what I do is no big deal.

The most telling aspect of the music was, again, how closely Masur followed the inclinations of the composer. In the case of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, the gorgeous, shimmering sound of the massed strings gave way to an abrupt glimpse, in the Elegy, of aching depths of sexual despair. In Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, the intense Catholic piety in the orchestral plain chant demanded restraint, not overkill. With the formidable forces of a double orchestra at his disposal, Masur knew he could fill the vast hall and its 5,000 auditors with ease. He let the fortissimo passages stand out, but not overwhelm. The solemn modal simplicity of Bruckner’s Seventh contrasted strongly with the festive brilliance of Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture, which Masur tossed off as an encore, as if he were only just getting into his stride.

The juxtaposition of Wagner with Bruckner was deliberate. The most revealing part of any performance of Bruckner’s Seventh comes at the climax of the slow movement, written as an elegy to Wagner, and making copious use of the “Wagner tubas.” At this sublime moment, busybody pupils persuaded Bruckner to insert the sound of cymbals. The cymbal clash has become so beloved by audiences that most conductors retain it without a thought, even though Bruckner apparently later added the words “gilt nicht” (“not valid”) beside the percussion line in the score.

Masur, however, obeyed Bruckner’s wishes. When the moment came, it sounded no less grand without the cymbals, and much less Wagnerian. The German tradition, both in politics and music, has always suffered from a propensity to hysteria. Kurt Masur, for one, stood out against it. I hope, for his compatriots’ sake, we shall see his like again.

Read Less

Elders (Not Betters)

Nelson Mandela will celebrate his 89th birthday tomorrow. To mark the occasion, Mandela, along with Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and other “elders” of our global village will launch an extraordinary worldwide humanitarian campaign. The Council of Elders, as the Daily Mail calls it, will be a “United Nations of the great, the good and the rich.” (Expect Clinton—Bill, that is—to have a leading role.)

Conceived by entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, this new assemblage will tackle (and presumably attempt to eradicate) armed conflict, AIDS, and global warming. But are these people really capable of saving the world? Many of the big names on this list didn’t exactly distinguish themselves the first time around. Kofi Annan presided over the decline and (further) corruption of the United Nations; Bill Clinton, his successes at home notwithstanding, failed to use American power abroad wisely. Carter was weak as a president, and seems to have gone around the bend since leaving office. It will take people of great vision and courage to guide the world through the strife undoubtedly lying ahead. (As Washington journalist David von Drehle memorably put it, “some very different sort of world is roaring up at us.”) These “elders,” unfortunately, do not possess that vision.

This new multilateralist group may have commendable aims; ironically, its charter members have helped discredit multilateralism as an instrument in global politics. I worry that this irony will be obscured by the pomp and circumstance attending tomorrow’s celebration.

Nelson Mandela will celebrate his 89th birthday tomorrow. To mark the occasion, Mandela, along with Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, and other “elders” of our global village will launch an extraordinary worldwide humanitarian campaign. The Council of Elders, as the Daily Mail calls it, will be a “United Nations of the great, the good and the rich.” (Expect Clinton—Bill, that is—to have a leading role.)

Conceived by entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, this new assemblage will tackle (and presumably attempt to eradicate) armed conflict, AIDS, and global warming. But are these people really capable of saving the world? Many of the big names on this list didn’t exactly distinguish themselves the first time around. Kofi Annan presided over the decline and (further) corruption of the United Nations; Bill Clinton, his successes at home notwithstanding, failed to use American power abroad wisely. Carter was weak as a president, and seems to have gone around the bend since leaving office. It will take people of great vision and courage to guide the world through the strife undoubtedly lying ahead. (As Washington journalist David von Drehle memorably put it, “some very different sort of world is roaring up at us.”) These “elders,” unfortunately, do not possess that vision.

This new multilateralist group may have commendable aims; ironically, its charter members have helped discredit multilateralism as an instrument in global politics. I worry that this irony will be obscured by the pomp and circumstance attending tomorrow’s celebration.

Read Less

Music from Kids of All Ages

Lunch-hour pedestrians in midtown Manhattan from June 4th to 8th may have stumbled across one of five consecutive mid-day recitals (part of Bryant Park’s Piano in the Park series) by Roy Eaton, an African-American musician born in Harlem in 1930, gifted with unusual poise and calm grace. Mr. Eaton, who has released CD’s of Chopin on Summit Records and Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on Sony, has a new Summit CD out, Keyboard Classics for Children, which reveals unusual insight into the world of childhood. The disc includes works by J.S. Bach and Claude Debussy, as well as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played in deliberate (yet never heavy) tempos and with unshowy intimacy, in the spirit of the acclaimed British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982).

Eaton was born, sadly, before it was possible for an African-American classical pianist seriously to envisage a concert career. Instead, he became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam and Benton & Bowles. (Eaton is responsible for several popular TV jingles, including You can trust your car/ to the man that wears the star/ the big, bright, Texaco star and Beefaroni’s full of meat/ Beefaroni’s really neat./ Hooray for Beefaroni!). After being downsized in 1980, Eaton (who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music) found time to rediscover his inner child and his musical ambitions.

Read More

Lunch-hour pedestrians in midtown Manhattan from June 4th to 8th may have stumbled across one of five consecutive mid-day recitals (part of Bryant Park’s Piano in the Park series) by Roy Eaton, an African-American musician born in Harlem in 1930, gifted with unusual poise and calm grace. Mr. Eaton, who has released CD’s of Chopin on Summit Records and Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on Sony, has a new Summit CD out, Keyboard Classics for Children, which reveals unusual insight into the world of childhood. The disc includes works by J.S. Bach and Claude Debussy, as well as Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, played in deliberate (yet never heavy) tempos and with unshowy intimacy, in the spirit of the acclaimed British pianist Clifford Curzon (1907-1982).

Eaton was born, sadly, before it was possible for an African-American classical pianist seriously to envisage a concert career. Instead, he became an advertising executive for Young & Rubicam and Benton & Bowles. (Eaton is responsible for several popular TV jingles, including You can trust your car/ to the man that wears the star/ the big, bright, Texaco star and Beefaroni’s full of meat/ Beefaroni’s really neat./ Hooray for Beefaroni!). After being downsized in 1980, Eaton (who now teaches at the Manhattan School of Music) found time to rediscover his inner child and his musical ambitions.

An equally moving expression of childhood in classical music can be heard in the merry, radiant works of Conrad Tao, a composer, pianist, and violinist born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 1994. Tao, a student at Juilliard’s preparatory program, has produced a CD of his pieces, Silhouettes & Shadows, expressing a balletic musical grace. His Sonata for Cello and Piano ranges in mood from the impish to the searching. Another disc available on Tao’s website, a 2006 solo piano recital at Juilliard, includes tenderly exalted performances of works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt.

Tao has a sense of musical line—a conviction that each note is part of the total fabric of a given work—found only in the greatest musicians, like the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the tenor Peter Pears. This quality, plus the congenial sense of community endeavor that marks everything Tao does, augurs very well indeed for his future as a musician. He has nothing in common with the usual image of the child prodigy, an isolated misfit in a media fishbowl.

Whether an aging musician re-awakens a talent long ignored, or a child possessing unusual gifts writes music with adult acumen, it’s clear that music can provide an exception to the otherwise cruelly rigid laws of Father Time.

Read Less

Good as Gould?

A few months ago, at Manhattan’s Yamaha studios, a large black piano stood onstage—minus any pianist—playing what was billed as a “re-performance” of Glenn Gould’s 1955 mono recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The feat was accomplished with a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file containing vastly detailed information about Gould’s old record, including such matters as volume and tempo, fed through a Disklavier Pro piano, one of the few concert grands that can play such files.

But why bother? This bestselling record—Gould would rerecord the “Goldbergs” in stereo in 1981—has remained in print ever since it was first published by Sony Classical (now Columbia) in 1956. Why this staged display for a pianist who famously loathed concert performance, retiring at 31 from live recitals to devote himself entirely to recording, films, and radio? The event’s real protagonist, of course, was Zenph Studios, a North Carolina software company, which developed this technology.

Listening to the Zenph re-performance, it is immediately clear that no musician’s fingers are actually hitting keys. The notes may be faithfully replicated in terms of the duration of notes and their intensity, but the physical presence of a pianist is sadly missing. What is a piano without a pianist, except an odd-looking piece of furniture? When Franz Liszt began the tradition of piano recitals in the 19th century, one audience member was heard to ask quizzically, “A piano recital? How can a piano recite?” The question today—thanks to Zenph—becomes “Should a piano recite?”

Read More

A few months ago, at Manhattan’s Yamaha studios, a large black piano stood onstage—minus any pianist—playing what was billed as a “re-performance” of Glenn Gould’s 1955 mono recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The feat was accomplished with a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) file containing vastly detailed information about Gould’s old record, including such matters as volume and tempo, fed through a Disklavier Pro piano, one of the few concert grands that can play such files.

But why bother? This bestselling record—Gould would rerecord the “Goldbergs” in stereo in 1981—has remained in print ever since it was first published by Sony Classical (now Columbia) in 1956. Why this staged display for a pianist who famously loathed concert performance, retiring at 31 from live recitals to devote himself entirely to recording, films, and radio? The event’s real protagonist, of course, was Zenph Studios, a North Carolina software company, which developed this technology.

Listening to the Zenph re-performance, it is immediately clear that no musician’s fingers are actually hitting keys. The notes may be faithfully replicated in terms of the duration of notes and their intensity, but the physical presence of a pianist is sadly missing. What is a piano without a pianist, except an odd-looking piece of furniture? When Franz Liszt began the tradition of piano recitals in the 19th century, one audience member was heard to ask quizzically, “A piano recital? How can a piano recite?” The question today—thanks to Zenph—becomes “Should a piano recite?”

Sony has signed up Zenph to produce a series of eighteen CD’s, half classical and half jazz. The jazz wizard Art Tatum’s Piano Starts Here, a compilation of performances from 1933 and 1949, is next in line to be Zenph’d, followed by recordings by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943). Both of these will doubtless offer noisier originals to be cleaned than Gould’s 1955 record, whatever the loss in direct communication of personality may turn out to be.

All marketing surveys show that CD buyers are generally drawn to recent performances with high sound quality, not historically important material. And the Zenph release is clearly aimed at CD buyers who still find the sound quality of Gould’s previous recordings to be too old-fashioned, even when cleaned up by traditional engineering methods for CD. For these demanding purchasers, the best alternative may simply be to choose be a more recent Goldberg Variations: Murray Perahia (Sony; 2000), András Schiff (ECM; 2001), and Pierre Hantaï (on harpsichord, Mirare; 2003), all master musicians, have all produced them. Glenn Gould’s uniqueness apart, he was not the only fine performer to record the Variations, and—although rabid Gouldians may find it blasphemy to even hint as much—his may not have been the best recordings. Posterity will decide.

Read Less

Hantaï and Savall, Beyond “Authenticity”

Time was when music journalists were obsessed with the fashion for “original instruments” or the “authentic approach” in early music. Now that this trend is (fortunately) losing steam, musicians can be judged on how directly and memorably they communicate, regardless of their or their instruments’ so-called “authenticity.” In a concert at the Metropolitan Museum on Wednesday May 9, some remarkable early music specialists performed, including the French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï and Jordi Savall, the Catalan player of the viola da gamba.

The lean, bespectacled Hantaï (b. 1964) physically resembles a young Rudolf Serkin. His performances of excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Second English Suite made trills into microcosmic explosions in a way unmatched among contemporary harpsichordists; he probably has no equal other than his mentor, the Dutch legend Gustav Leonhardt. His recital partner, Savall—a veteran musician and mainstay of Europe’s concert circuit—played quirky, characterful works by baroque oddballs like Tobias Hume, a British-born professional soldier. In Hume’s strangely vehement A Souldiers Resolution, Savall’s pizzicatti flowed softly and naturally. A bearded, grave figure, Savall has the stage presence of a seasoned actor and is clearly willing to take any technical risk to convey the meaning of the oft-neglected music that he performs.

Read More

Time was when music journalists were obsessed with the fashion for “original instruments” or the “authentic approach” in early music. Now that this trend is (fortunately) losing steam, musicians can be judged on how directly and memorably they communicate, regardless of their or their instruments’ so-called “authenticity.” In a concert at the Metropolitan Museum on Wednesday May 9, some remarkable early music specialists performed, including the French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï and Jordi Savall, the Catalan player of the viola da gamba.

The lean, bespectacled Hantaï (b. 1964) physically resembles a young Rudolf Serkin. His performances of excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Second English Suite made trills into microcosmic explosions in a way unmatched among contemporary harpsichordists; he probably has no equal other than his mentor, the Dutch legend Gustav Leonhardt. His recital partner, Savall—a veteran musician and mainstay of Europe’s concert circuit—played quirky, characterful works by baroque oddballs like Tobias Hume, a British-born professional soldier. In Hume’s strangely vehement A Souldiers Resolution, Savall’s pizzicatti flowed softly and naturally. A bearded, grave figure, Savall has the stage presence of a seasoned actor and is clearly willing to take any technical risk to convey the meaning of the oft-neglected music that he performs.

To seek further insights into this kind of artistry, I tagged along the day after the concert on Hantaï’s visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s fabled instrument collection. There, Hantaï tried his hand on such rarities as a 1720 fortepiano made by the Florentine craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori. (Hantaï is a master technician, as well as a harpsichordist: he spent most of the intermission on May 9 onstage, bent over the harpsichord rented for the occasion by the Museum, fervently trying to tune it, leaning in deeply to hear the subtle variations in tone.) As Hantaï raced through chunks of demanding pieces like Bach’s Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, museum visitors stopped with their jaws agape, as if Bach himself was playing the Metropolitan’s old instruments.

Performers like Savall and Hantaï, idiosyncratic though they are, offer needed, insightful views into the essence of Baroque music. Hantaï has recorded a dozen of the best CD’s of harpsichord music by Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Georg Telemann, and many others, most recently for the excellent small label Mirare; Savall has recorded works by Marin Marais and François Couperin, as well as an excellent anthology of early European music. The old question of authenticity becomes completely irrelevant when confronted by musicianship of this quality.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.