Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye 2010



Not sure how much I believe this sentiment. But I certainly tried this year.

Happy 2011 everyone.


....cuz even if the Vienna New Year's concert's usually boring, listening to the once-a-year breaking out of Johann Strauss is usually the highlight of every New Year. You can't possibly be in a bad mood with this music. Once after watching an episode of Law and Order I tried to imagine that somebody could do a Steampunk version of the Vienna New Year's Concert so that I wouldn't be the only American under 80 watching this thing.........is that suggestion as odd as it feels?

Looks like I'm celebrating my New Year's Eve by going down to DC for the very first time since VoW's dissolution (a Steve Reich concert at Strathmore doesn't count) and going to the new Brickskellar which is directly across from Church of the Pilgrims. Nothing about this feels like a bad idea, nothing at all...

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Quote of the Day

Der Fersko (about A Serious Man): Also did you laugh when the wife thought Fyvush Finkel
was dead
That might have broken the 4th wall

2010 Darwin Awards

The one thing I look forward to every December more than the Bad Sex Awards. (h/t Dad)

8th Place
In Detroit , a 41-year-old man got stuck
and drowned in two feet of water after squeezing head first through an
18-inch-wide sewer grate to retrieve his car keys.

7th Place
A 49-year-old San Francisco stockbroker,
who "totally zoned when he ran", accidentally, jogged off a 100-foot high cliff
on his daily run.

6th Place
While at the beach, Daniel Jones, 21, dug
an 8 foot hole for protection from the wind and had been sitting in a beach
chair at the bottom, when it collapsed, burying him beneath 5 feet of
sand. People on the beach used their hands and shovels trying to get him
out but could not reach him. It took rescue workers using heavy equipment
almost an hour to free him. Jones was pronounced dead at a
hospital.

5th Place
Santiago Alvarado, 24, was killed as he
fell through the ceiling of a bicycle shop he was robbing. Death was
caused when the long flashlight he had placed in his mouth to keep his hands
free, rammed into the base of his skull as he hit the floor.

4th Place
Sylvester Briddell, Jr., 26, was killed
as he won a bet with friends who said he would not put a revolver loaded with
four bullets into his mouth and pull the trigger.

3rd Place
After walking around a marked police
patrol car parked at the front door, a man walked into H&J Leather &
Firearms intent on robbing the store. The shop was full of customers and a
uniformed officer was
standing at the counter. Upon seeing the officer,
the would-be robber announced a hold-up and fired a few wild shots from a target
pistol. The officer and a clerk promptly returned fire and several
customers also drew their guns and fired. The robber was pronounced dead
at the scene by Paramedics. Crime scene investigators located 47 expended
cartridge cases in the shop. The subsequent autopsy revealed 23 gunshot
wounds. Ballistics identified rounds from 7 different weapons. No
one else was hurt.

HONOURABLE MENTION

Paul Stiller, 47, and his wife Bonnie
were bored just driving around at 2 a.m. So they lit a stick of dynamite
to toss out the window to see what would happen. Apparently they failed to
notice the window was closed

RUNNER UP
Kerry Bingham had been drinking with
several friends when one of them said they knew a person who had bungee-jumped
from a local bridge in the middle of traffic. The conversation grew more
heated and at least 10 men trooped along the walkway of the bridge at 4:30
a.m. Upon arrival at the midpoint of the bridge they discovered that no
one had brought a bungee rope. Bingham, who had continued drinking,
volunteered and pointed out that a coil of lineman's cable lay nearby.
They secured one end around Bingham's leg and then tied the other (!) to the
bridge. His fall lasted 40 feet before the cable tightened and tore his
foot off at the ankle. He miraculously survived his fall into the icy
water and was rescued by two nearby fishermen. Bingham's foot was never
located.

AND THE WINNER IS...
Zookeeper Friedrich Riesfeldt ( Paderborn
, Germany ) fed his constipated elephant 22 doses of animal laxative and more
than a bushel of berries, figs and prunes before the plugged-up pachyderm
finally got relief. Investigators say ill-fated Friedrich, 46, was
attempting to give the ailing elephant an olive oil enema when the relieved
beast unloaded. The sheer force of the elephant's unexpected defecation
knocked Mr. Riesfeldt to the ground where he struck his head on a rock as the
elephant continued to evacuate 200 pounds of dung on top of him. It seems
to be just one of those freak accidents that proves.... 'shit
happens'.
The stupid hurts so bad.

h/t Le Malon

A Serious Man and My Coen Brothers Problem (Part I...will there be a Part II?)

(For HaZmora, Der Fersko, Le Malon and Der Schreiber)

I'm not sure A Serious Man is a great movie - it's probably too earnest for that, but there's the rub. The reason A Serious Man is among the Coen Brothers' best is because it's one of their only movies that does not smell of an elaborate game constructed by precocious children.

There are only two movies by The Coen Brothers I love. One is, of course, The Big Lebowski - which like every nerdy male I watched upwards of fifty times in college. Seeing it last weekend, I'm more convinced than ever that it is the Great Pinnacle of Western Civilization (...not sure how much I'm kidding). I've memorized whole scenes, gone to screenings, watched my friend win a Big Lebowski costume competition - John Manning did Larry's homework - and nearly paid an obscene sum to attend a Lebowski Convention in Chicago.

Lebwoski is one of the few cult films I 'get.' It has a perfectly incomprehensible story that serves as a mere hoop through which to put various LA lowlives through assorted berths of hilarity. It is a defiantly unserious movie, and because of its silliness probably a hundred times more intelligent than any number of their more solemn efforts.

The other movie I love, though not with the same intensity, is Fargo. It's not a unique opinion, everybody loves Fargo though mostly for the value of imitating the accent. Fargo is, in my humble opinion, a love letter to the rural Midwest: not just the unforgiving landscape, but also the congenial, unassuming people who populate it. Marge Gunderson (who has to be one of the greatest female characters in any movie) undergoes a series of situations that would disgust most of us from the banally gross to the unbelievably gruesome, and not once does she let her neighborly demeanor slip. Like our mind's-eye image of the perfect Midwesterner, the gentle Brainard demeanor is a survival tactic against the harshness of everything from their climate to human nature. Behind the Minnesota warmth lies concealed a cold, unbendable Detroit steel.

In both these movies, there are two unmistakable feelings missing in much else by the Coens - and those are the feelings of justifiability and plausibility. The former means the ability the ability to tell ourselves that this work is worth the time we spend on it. The latter means our ability to suspend disbelief and not say 'Yeah, right...' to ourselves in the middle.

Don't misunderstand: justifiability does not mean pandering, and plausibility does not mean realism. Justifiability does not imply that one should reject anything that makes you feel unpleasant or challenged. But it does mean that the meaning you derives from from a work of art is ultimately worth the struggle you might endure to absorb it. Likewise, plausibility doesn't mean that a work should be true to how reality operates. But it does mean that a work of art has to be true to itself.

In one way, art is no different than architecture or a mathematical equation. Parts that seem to have nothing to do with one another must be welded together in a way that makes sense. Without this, art has no plausibility, and therefore no justification for spending time with it because it unfolds in a flat, boring manner. A lack of plausibility and justifiability were - at least in my opinion - the irredeemable problems of No Country for Old Men.

When audiences spend two hours watching Llewellyn Moss squirm his way through a cat-and-mouse game against Anton Chigurh, they have a right to expect a resolution that implies more than the futility of their game - however craftily assembled the game might be. The game's outcome is of little importance, what matters is that the outcome has enough meaning to justify sitting through the monotonous unpleasantness of such a long chase. If the point of this movie is to show us that its outcome is foreordained, why am I watching it?

I couldn't help comparing No Country to a similarly long cat-and-mouse game in Hitchcock's North by Northwest. Hitchcock can match the Coen Brothers bleak for bleak (and then some). North by Northwest's chase is still more fraught with difficulty. Hitchcock does not take the shortcut of putting evil into a single personification like Anton Chigurh. The only appearances of evil in North by Northwest are personified by villains barely more corrupt than the movie's protagonist, Roger O. Thornhill (ROT), all of whom decide that their interests are served by ruining and killing him.

Both of these movies are chase movies. But both chases, in their own ways, serve as moral parables about the evil within men that make them want to act badly to one another. One comes out of North by Northwest with at least as low an opinion of human nature as one does in No Country for Old Men. But the difference lies in the tone of the chases. There is a justifiable meaning in the darkness of North by Northwest other than itself, however shallow. Whereas in No Country for Old Men, evil is its own justification. We're not meant to identify with evil, we're just meant to watch it happen. And that gets boring.

But North by Northwest gives us all the justification for watching evil we need, and that is to let us see how enjoyable 'being bad' can be. These are both movies about the darkness of human nature, but only one of them shows us that being evil can be enormous fun. As Roger Ebert (or Neal Fersko) says, 'a great film should never make you feel bad.' This is a sentiment I had difficulty with for a number of years, but I think I understand it better as I get older. This epigram does not mean that movies should be banned from making you feel bad things, but that movies should only make you feel bad with a greater purpose in mind.

Both The Big Lebowski and Fargo have exactly what No Country for Old Men lacks. And that is both a sense that we are being put through our paces with good reason, and a sense that the movie is interesting on its own terms. In the space of a few words of dialogue, or a single corner of a shot, both The Big Lebowski and Fargo are able to suggest more than they show: a character, a place, or a unique event in a way that suggests whole imaginative worlds. Worlds vastly more complicated than whatever we see on the screen. And yet the laconic characters of No Country for Old Men are deliberately as sparse as the desert they inhabit, suggesting nothing other than what our senses tell us is there. It may be a well-made film, but it's not imaginative by any definition that I understand.

I don't know if A Serious Man is on the level of either The Big Lebowski or Fargo, but it has far more in common with both of those than it does with No Country or a host of other Coen Brothers bores. I have no idea if any of these three are closer to the reality of the Coen's life experience than any of their other movies, but they certainly feel as though they are. Whereas in so many other movies, The Coens seem to take pride in displaying how paper-thin their plots and characters are, these three movies feel far more tangible. It's not because they're more realistic (anybody would have a hard time saying The Big Lebowski is realism), it's because they're more plausible. And the only reason they seem more plausible to us is because the filmmakers obviously believe that these movies are more plausible. Truffaut would always say that in a great film we have to either feel its creator's agony in making it, or the creator's joy. In most Coen Brothers' movies, we only feel their indifference. There is indifference aplenty in A Serious Man, but it never feels as though it comes from the filmmakers. The indifference is embedded into the various scenes of a movie that refuses to indulge the audience with easy answers. The shocking difference of this movie from their others is how comfortable the Coens seem with asking the questions that lead us to that conclusion.

For the first time in their careers, the Coen Brothers seem to have made a "Jewish" movie. But this does not portray the same Jews as populate the 70's mentality of Woody Allen and Philip Roth. Nobody is angrily rejecting their parents' fundamentalism, nobody rages about the awfulness of their childhoods, and nobody is making a show of pursuing their baser urges. This is the Jewish America of the mid-20th century, far closer to Saul Bellow's Herzog - and on a more primal level, Isaac Bashevis Singer's Gimpel the Fool.

These characters are a linear part of the Jewish experience. Rather than endure the chaos of an angry break with tradition, they painstakingly inch away. They allow themselves as much distance as good taste permits, and they silently accept misfortune as an integral part of their lives. Each character is reconciling Judaism with modernity as best they can, and every one of them craves approval for how they do so. But all the characters are torn: torn between doubt and belief, innovation and tradition; tangibles and spirit, resolvability and mystery. As Jews seem to have been from time immemorial, they are exactly like other human beings, only moreso.

This world is the unique crossroad of postwar Judaism - a middle-class soap opera that took place in gated suburbs. Here was the moment when secular Jews awakened to the fact that they were equal and needn't be separate. They were entirely American, yet entirely Jewish, existing in a members-only limbo between the shtibl and the bowling alley, their creed "There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai."

It was a generation dancing on a latent volcano, unwittingly holding an untenable balance between assimilation and re-acclimation. In most of America, the world of 'seriously unserious Judaism' no longer means much. Because whatever else The Holocaust did, nothing contributed more to preserving the idea that one could (perhaps should) simultaneously be 'secular' and 'Jewish.' It is not within our lifetime that the decision of assimilation or re-acclimation has appeared in such stark terms, and the schism only grows larger as both intermarriage and orthodox birth rates continue to break their all-time highs. The Holocaust happened in large part because of the resentment engendered by successfully integrating of Jewish culture into the worldls. Ironically, killing so many Jews only served to embed Jews, Judaism and "Jewishness" far further.

But the Shoah is fast disappearing from living memory. And the answers faced by the question Jews round the world always ask "How should Jews live?" grows ever more stark. To live as a "Jewish-American" is not the harmonious blend of terms it may once have seemed. Larry Gopnik may have feared his goyishe neighbor, but he feared his own family and friends far more. These characters are all part of a community that to every objective standard seems American, and yet the elements within it are unmistakably different from anything other people would understand. There is little belief in A Serious Man, and less certainty. There is only solidarity and a community left to shield a person from tragedy. And when community fails (as it often can't help doing), there is no consolation left.

Quote of the Night

Le Malon: Brokaw is from Yankton, South Dakota
which I canvassed in 2004
let me tell you... it felt like the kind of place that would spawn Tom Brokaw
it was boring and in love with world war II

Flash Artisanal Market



Why wasn't Tom Brokaw ever this funny?

h/t The Winters.
Toyota Corleone.
Danny Huston is the new Kevin Bacon.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Banksy's Simpsons Opener



...wow is that disturbing.
Dear A Serious Man,

Stop making me write already!
Whether you believe it or not, The Sopranos might be the most feminist TV show ever.

Quote of the Day

La Tomasik: Denis Dutton!
His first name was a portmanteau of Dennis and Penis
No more

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian Explanation of Beauty

"[Peter] Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' represents the victory of special effects over dramatic art. ... I have never looked at my watch as often during a movie as I did in "The Return of the King." Toward the end, I found myself desperately cheering on the giant spider in hope of getting home early. Eat Frodo! Eat him!"


- Denis Dutton


...whether one agrees ...this is the work of a funny man.



The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Denis Dutton
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

Political Reading - Insomniac Edition

Dear Thera-Flu

Screw you for being the only non-prescription substance to keep my cough at bay.  So while I wait for you to kick in, please humor me for recommending the following:

The only profile I've ever read that 'gets' Marty Peretz.  A textbook example of how someone a person can maintain the requisite manic passion to be both a great liberal lion and an incontrovertible bigot.  (h/t Le Malon)


The precise reasons that Harry Reid is the exact opposite of boring.  (h/t Le Malon)


And lest one forgets what they fled in 1947 (not for those who dislike grim readings).  (h/t Dad)


Regardless of one's feelings about it, the world needs some rational discussions about how wikileaks will be applied.  Whether or not this is a good or bad thing, I believe that Wikileaks is capable of affecting more seismic changes in our lives than Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple combined.  Whether anyone agrees with what's written here, they at least ought to read what it says.

.....

So...yeah, I wrote the other day that trying to find great choruses in Austria is like trying to find great country music in Seattle.  Now, "obviously" that meant as a snub to the Vienna Boy's Choir.  With few exceptions, they're generally as interesting as Dane Cook (...and I'm a man who hates me some Dane Cook).  Now, for all I know I could still be quite wrong about Seattle's country scene, but obviously I forgot about Karajan's chorus of choice, the Wiener Singverein.  Now, the Singverein probably doesn't belong on the list.  It's the 200-voice choir that probably gave rise to the idea of performing all sorts of works with 200-voice choirs that should never be performed by them (in their defense it was entirely acceptable by the standards of the early 1900's).  But, it's a musically significant choir that premiered the Brahms Requiem and the Bruckner Te Deum, Schmidt's Book of Seven Seals and took part in the Mahler Symphony of a Thousand premiere.  So they deserve at least mention ...


(Karajan and the Singverein in the Bruckner Te Deum.  Jochum's better...)

....Does anybody in the remotest possibility care one iota about this?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dear Coen Brothers,

A Serious Man made me think hard.  You don't usually do that.  Mazel Tov.



....More later.

Quote of the Day

The McBee:  I am truly thankful that I don't live in a Coen Brothers movie.

A Serious Man - And My Coen Brothers Problem

I'm not sure A Serious Man is a great movie, it's probably too earnest for that.  But there's the rub.  This is one of the only movies (maybe THE only movie) the Coen Brothers have ever made that doesn't feel like an elaborate game constructed by two overly-clever children.

There are only two movies by The Coen Brothers that I love.  The Big Lebowski, which like every nerdy male I watched upwards of fifty times in college, is the great pinnacle of Western Civilization (I'm not sure how much I'm kidding).  It's a perfectly incomprehensible story that serves purely as an excuse to display various LA lowlives in assorted berths of hilarity.  It is a defiantly unserious movie, and because of it's silliness it's probably a hundred times more intelligent than any number of their more solemn efforts.  

The other movie I love, though not nearly as much, is Fargo.  It's not a unique opinion, everybody seems to love Fargo, though mostly for the value of imitating the accent.  Fargo is, in my humble opinion, a love letter to the rural Midwest.  Not just to its unforgiving landscape, but also to the congenial, unassuming people who populate it.  Marge Gunderson (who has to be one of the greatest female characters in all movies) goes through a series of situations that would disgust most of us from the banally gross to the unbelievably gruesome, and not once does she let her neighborly demeanor slip, even for a second.  Because like so many other midwesterners, behind the gentle warmth is concealed a cold, unbendable steel.

In both these movies, there are two unmistakable feelings missing in much else by the Coens - and those are the feelings of justifiability and plausibility.  The former means the ability the ability to say that a device within a work of art 'works' and say   The latter means the ability to suspend disbelief and not say 'Yeah, right' in the middle of a story.  Because suspension of disbelief is the single most important element of being drawn into a work of art.

Let's not misunderstand: justifiability does not mean pandering, and plausibility does not mean realism.  This doesn't mean that a movie should be true to how real life works, usually movies are better if they are not.  But it does mean that movies have to be true to themselves.  A good movie (or book, or play, or whatever) should be able to justify every moment of its content with something plausible when compared to every other moment of the movie.  Without plausibility, stories unfold in a flat, boring manner because in whatever direction a movie goes, it doesn't carry us with it.  This was - at least in my opinion - the irredeemable problem of No Country for Old Men.  When audiences watch Llewellyn Moss wiggle his way through a cat-and-mouse game against Anton Chigurh for a full two hours, they have a right to expect a resolution that implies something more than the futility of that game.  Whether the mouse eventually dies is of second importance, what matters is that the death has enough meaning to justify sitting through the monotonous unpleasantness of such a long chase.  If this game is totally futile, why am I watching it?  I couldn't help comparing No Country to similar long sequences in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.  Hitchcock can match the Coen Brothers bleak for bleak (and usually then some).  And in North by Northwest, the chase is probably even more fraught with difficulty.  There is no personification of evil like Anton Chigurh, there is just a series of banally corrupt people who decide it's in their interests to ruin and kill Roger O. Thornhill.  Both of these movies are really just elaborate games of chase, and one comes out of North by Northwest with just as low an opinion of human nature.  But the difference is in the tone of their chases.  Rather than feeling forced to sit through two hours of ironically bleak discursiveness, one feels pleasure and elation from North by Northwest.  The reason for that is simple: we   As Roger Ebert (or Neal Fersko) says, 'a great film should never make you feel bad.'  A sentiment I agree more and more with as the adult in me realizes how important good feelings are.  

For Denis Dutton 1944-2010

The founder of Arts and Letters Daily (kind of the intellectual Drudge Report) just died of cancer.  I didn't even know he was sick.  Ironically (at least a little), I probably lowered my college GPA with the amount of time I spent on this website.



He was also a huge classical music fan and an expert on the great pianists.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Dear New Year's Eve,

You are my least favorite holiday.  Figuring out where to spend it is always stressful.  The part(ies)y we end up at is/are invariably (an) alcohol-fest(s) that only remind(s) us how much worse binge drinking feels than it did when we were 20.  And even after we drink ourselves into a stupor/torpor we watch 3/4ths of the people around us make out with the significant others the other 1/4th of us don't have.

Last year I went to four seperate parties (doubtless the most socializing I did all year), and while I love all my friends, I must confess now that between party 1 and party 2 I went back to my car for a nap.

...Definitely thinking about a movie night this year.
Dear Stalin,

For an evil mass-murderer of millions, you're kind of awesome.

Quote of the Month

"May all those who are no longer with us bless us with their best wishes.  Whether they're looking at us from down or up."

Bubbie Witow, from her big 90th Birthday Party yesterday.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

It occurred to me today that the plot of Avatar was probably stolen from Spaceballs.

Quote of the Day

Der Fersko: I should stop making the joke that the D.C. sports scene goes from 60 to 0 in under 5 sceonds

BWV 50



"Nun Ist Das Heil."  A four minute masterwork.  Not the cleanest performance, but at least they're not in a rush to get through it (a la Koopman and Gardiner).  .
I had no idea that Mendelssohn wrote the tune for Hark the Herald Angels Sing..



....not the composer's fault when performers do bad things to the music....

Saturday, December 25, 2010



I'm continually amazed at how well most Looney Tunes hold up.

A Merry Christmas to All



h/t Der Fersko

Favorite Cultural "Stuff" 2010 (part 3 of ???)

Top Ten Favorite New Cultural 'stuff' 2010 (part 2 of 5)

3&4. Roger Ebert & Christopher Hitchens: Lions in Winter  


It amazes me how often we hear this same story: so many people of our generation didn’t come to reading Roger Ebert through developing a passion for movies.  They developed a passion for movies through reading Roger Ebert.  There was a period in the early-to-mid-90’s when every middle-class household seemed to have an Ebert movie guide.  Soon thereafter, every one of his movie reviews and articles got posted on CompuServe, and soon after that he started his own website.  For all those decades when Ebert was so omnipresent, it has been fashionable to rag on him for being too generous to mediocre movies and dumbing down criticism with the TV show "Siskel and Ebert" (would that most of today's TV critics could discuss movies on their level...).  But what they (at times ‘we’) all missed was that Ebert’s zealous passion for all aspects of his job was clearly just a facet of his larger zeal for life: for food and drink (obviously), for books, for art, for women (and apparently they loved him right back..), for friends, for family, and anything else that enriched.  But it was not until Ebert was so debilitated that he found a metier through which we could perceive his life for everything it is.   
And with his Pulitzer for Criticism now thirty-five years in the past, Ebert may have only reached the peak of his influence in the past year.   Horribly disfigured by thyroid cancer and left without the ability to eat, drink or speak, Ebert has taken to the age of blogging and twitter with a naturalness stunning for anyone in their late 60’s.  But there’s simply no adjective to describe the stunning ease with which a person in his condition took to an entirely new technology.  Perhaps he understands things about how to use the internet that younger, more fit people never could.  Roger Ebert’s blog is simply like nothing else on the internet.  Like clockwork, a fully formed essay arrives every week on topics ranging from loneliness to alcoholism to politics to illness.  Ebert delves into the most personal crevasses of his experience, and perhaps for the first time in my experience of the blogosphere, the result is wisdom instead of TMI.  Self revelation rarely results in deeper appreciation, but Ebert has a humanity that few people are capable of allowing themselves, and through his emotional generosity he’s created a community of ‘the neglected.’  The comments section is filled with posts from all sorts of people who for the first time in their lives feel confident that there is a place where they can share the most personal parts of their lives, openly and without judgement or prejudice.  Go to any Ebert blogpost and you find hundreds of extraordinarily well-written essays in of themselves which seem to be written by a confluence of hundreds of articulate, lonely teenagers looking to find a place where people like them belong, unwell people who are desperate to remember how they functioned in their illness’s remission, unhappy people who never got the chance they should have for life to hear their voices.  These are all people who thought the world was divided into those who are broken and those who are not, but through each other they all seem to have realize that there is no such division....Or at least there should never be..
It is through Ebert’s example that so many of them found the courage to tell stories of their own: lives torn apart by tragedy, by mental illness, by the unfairness of circumstance.  And yet through Roger Ebert each of them has discovered that they have a story to tell and a public who will listen.    Only a man of very deep good will could have created something so consoling, so unique and so unforseen that (I don’t use this word lightly) it has enriched the lives of so many whose lives desperately needed enrichment.  Had Roger Ebert died on the operating table, life would have been far the poorer for what all these people would have lost.   

Christopher Hitchens is, in so many ways, Ebert’s polar opposite: A professional quarreller who derives relish from mutual hatred, a stubbornly analog bibliophile in the Age of the Internet; a thinker with revulsion for doubt, and a contrarian who asks no corner in public debate because he gives none.  And yet through all that bombast, he carries in tandem an elemental force of personality capable of convincing anyone of his beliefs simply by the gusto with which he argues.  Abrasive as he is, his whole career as a political commentator is marked by an eagerness to face all challenges, stand by the tenets of his beliefs, and blithe unconcern with whom he alienates.   Even if Hitch is wrong much of the time, his wrongness feels right.  In France it used to be said "better right with Sartre than wrong with Raymond Aron." Sartre may have been a terribly sloppy thinker and a pernicious influence on all sorts of people (no doubt Hitchens agrees), but he defined 'engagement' in an era when so much of the world wanted to turn its back on all but the most narrow self-interests.
Political policy, in reality, should always be an extremely boring thing: full of endless meetings, charts and bar graphs. But most people come to politics through romantic notions and dreams of standing the world on its head. Even if people who believe so fervently are dangerous, they are absolutely necessary. Without developing a youthful passion for engagement and causes, there would be no one willing to carry on the endless, boring hurdles of affecting change.  
I remember seeing Hitch earlier this year on Jon Stewart and thinking that he looked terrible.  As it turned out, that was the very same day on which he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.  Within a matter of weeks, Hitch had written multiple essays on the experience of receiving the news, its development, and its metastasis.   And all these were written in addition to the regular political columns and book reviews which he continued to provide. Hitch was never the loose canon everyone thought him to be, but in what may be his final illness, the world is finally discovering his human side. The barbs are still there, but for the first time in his writing life, Hitch seems to have some curiosity about and compassion for his opponents. His rage is no more temperate, but the illness seems to have given him more compassion about the people at which he rages.  
If anyone doubts that in illness, Hitch is a more compassionate man. Read this essay. For the first time that I've read, he has nice things to say about his opponents. And maybe it's simply because they have nicer things to say about him than he thought were possible, but they've endowed him with the one literary gift Hitch always seemed to lack: empathy. But even as he softens, none of his other literary talents have weakened along with his body. Hitch may well be dying, but he seems determined to chronicle to chronicle his physical breakdown with all the foolhardy courage that he brought to every other endeavor.  In the words of Andrew Sullivan, ‘cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against.’

Thursday, December 23, 2010



Been in my head most of the day.
"You've got a friend if you sleep with a Quaker."

- Jack Tucker

Happy Festivus

The Ones Who Deserved To Make It

The Choirs that deserved to make it:

All-Rounders

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir: The thought that they're not mentioned among the world's greatest choirs is kind of a disgrace.  Even if it was founded thirty years ago, it's one of the world's great traditional choirs and was a symbol of freedom in the late-Soviet era when religious music was still taboo. This is the choir that brought to the world most of the choral music of Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Part, Erkki-Sven Tuur, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli and Veljo Tormis (who's my personal choice for greatest living choral composer).  You may have never heard of these composers, but one day your grandchildren might.

Leipzig Radio Choir (now known as the MDR Choir): If you love those ultra-serious German radio choirs (and who doesn't?), this is the standard-bearer for them all.  Listen to them beat everybody at the 'choral behemoths' like the B-Minor Mass or the Mozart Requiem in those incredible Peter Schreier recordings.  Then listen to them under Herbert Kegel take on the most avant-garde possible music like Ligeti and Berio.  This seems a chorus comprised solely of great musicians who probably have no sense of humor.  Just don't expect them to sing Aerosmith.

Schola Cantorum de Venezuela: The bannerhead choir of El Sistema, the choir of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov but like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (their orchestral semi-counterpart), an ensemble that proves just as capable in the traditional repertoire as in things without the Latin twinge.

Los Angeles Master Chorale (under protest): This is the choir that gave us Morton Lauridsen.  And yet it's almost unquestionably the greatest chorus in America (that should tell you something).  For twenty years they were drilled by Roger Wagner (Robert Shaw on the West Coast).  Since Grant Gershon took over ten years ago, the place is breathing a different air.  This is a now a chorus that's beginning to champion a better breed of new composer.  Reich, Glass, Muhly have all gone to LA to permiere, that should tell you something.

Eric Ericson Chamber Choir: The name means what it says.

(Where's Chanticleer you ask?...)

Smaller Ensembles:

The King's Singers:  Seriously, how could they not be there?  For over 40 years, verything a great chorus should be shrunk to 1/10th its size.  People (myself included) used to resent the King's Singers for selling out and putting Byrd next to the Beatles.  But if anybody wants to see the only way forward for classical music, just look to them.

Voces8: The King's Singers SATB heir.  Both groups combine the best of choruses with a cappella groups.  I'm constantly amazed that more professional singers don't follow their examples.

The Hilliard Ensemble: The most incredible musicianship you'll ever hear from any singers.  A group of enormous musical integrity and taste who makes the conscious effort to perform only the best at the highest level, regardless of era or area.

(Where's Anonymous 4?...)


Early Music:

Bach Collegium Japan: For my money, gives the very best Bach performances on period instruments in the world.  In this case the name means they don't really perform much else.  They don't need to.

Gachinger Kantorei:.  Helmuth Rilling has been honing them for 56 years, and the results speak for themselves.  Nobody has gotten Bach to sound this lithe and dramatic with modern instrumental accompaniment.  Rilling is a sure hand at much else too, from Monteverdi to Brahms to Penderecki.  They may not be the most unique choir in the world, but few beat them for traditional excellence.

Amsterdam Baroque Choir: Ton Koopman is probably a better keyboardist than conductor.  But if the Monteverdi Choir can make this list, so can the Amsterdam Baroque Choir which gives performances of early music with the kind of unsubtle dramatic force which Gardiner often seems to be going for without hitting you over the head.

Gabrieli Consort: There are few conductors working today more imaginative than Paul McCreesh.  His Bach isn't very good, but his Handel and Haydn are revelatory.  His earlier music has the willingness to keep a flexible pulse which so many of his early music predecessors lacked.  Only Harry Christophers is a better programmer.

(Where's...any American early music ensemble?..)

We're not getting into collegiate, symphony, operatic or festival choruses here...(do I even know anything about Festival Choruses?).  

...and now that I think about it I can't think of any Russian ones either.  Just goes to show how qualified I am to make a list like this....ah well.

  




Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tide is now making something to wash the washing machine.  Where will this cycle end?

Evan Tucker's Handy-Dandy Guide to Gramophone Magazine's Top 20 Choirs


Who deserved to make it, who didn't.  

But five things to be said right off the bat...

- This list makes the Top 20 Orchestra List look positively serious.  No way that 13 out of the top 20 choirs in the world are British, and especially not these 13.  This is purely sucking up to their professional contacts and subscription base.


- There are easily more good British choirs than anywhere else in the world (great?...I dunno). Some of these choirs are freelance orgs that don't comprise the same musicians from concert to concert, I'd be lying if I say that I knew exactly which were which.

- What matters is how well they make music.  Everything else is a fetish.  No matter how much choral insiders talk about sound, nobody cares.  

- In spite of being a choral director and even if I’m putting on the airs of expertise here, I’m no more than an enthusiastic listener of choral music.  In fact, it’s probably the classical genre about which I know the least and am the least interested in learning more....so I'm not sure anything in my life has ever made me feel more nerdy than doing this list.

- This is really no more than a lame and shameless attempt to get the attention of the good people at NPR where I applied for a job opening in the classical music department.  Chances of them seeing this? Pretty nil, but just in case...

So without further ado...(ahem):

1.  The Monteverdi Choir: errrr...no.  Great strengths and terrible weaknesses.  They should be on the list, but clearly, they’re success is widely variable.  Together - with their conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and their expanded counterpart for later music, the pretentiously named L’Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique - they’ve made some of the finest recordings of early romantic choral music (basically Mozart to Brahms) ever made. But their melodramatic style doesn’t lend itself particularly well to interpretive subtlety.  Their Bach can be rigid (though better these days than in the 80's) and their Handel is often wooden.  The music making can be incredibly dramatic, but also just plain bizarre, with overarticulated singing, weird tempos and a lack of ability to relax in slow sections.  They're never anything less than competent, and often exciting. But their performances are generally stuck in 1985 with now old-fashioned notions about adhering strictly to early music texts without improvisation. Still, there's something important to be said for any chorus which sings with that level of dynamic contrast, technical proficiency and obvious commitment.

2.  Polyphony: This must be some kind of joke.  No group (except maybe the Dale Warland Singers) is more responsible for the current epidemic of second rate new choral music.  Again, when the music sucks, who cares about the sound?  Next.

3.  The Cardinall’s Musick: Not a terrible pic, just weird.  They’re mostly an early early music group.  And they’ve recorded reams of it, much of which is quite beautiful.  But like most early music groups, there’s plenty of boredom that goes with the great stuff.  Should be much further down if at all IMHO.

4.  The Sixteen: That’s more like it!  One of the greatest mainstream choruses in the world and led by Harry Christophers, a great conductor by any standard.  They’ve proven their excellence many times over in nearly a millenium’s worth of music.  I just wish they’d lighten up a bit and put some lighter stuff in their repertoire.

5.  Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge:  I guess I just really dislike Stephen Layton (also the director of Polyphony), but this is another joke.  I’m always skeptical about including collegiate groups among lists of great ensembles.  Membership turns over every couple years, the repertoire is almost always second-rate (in this case, lots of High Anglican dreck), and it’s difficult to imagine those public school kids pushing their conductors in the direction of something that changes the ultra-privileged air these groups invariably give off.  BUT...I have no idea about them before Layton....their previous director, Richard Marlow, had much better taste in music.  And before him came Raymond Leppard, who was perhaps a better musicologist than conductor.  But still...

6.  Wells Cathedral Choir: Never heard them, and I don’t expect much.

7.  Collegium Vocale Gent: Finally, a non-Brit choir (Belgian, to be precise).  Their longtime director, Phillipe Herreweghe, is the period performance conductor for people who hate period performance.  He shies away from ugly sounds and gets a purely blended sound out of his chorus that is gorgeous in of itself.  His approach works very well in some French music, and (sometimes) in Bach.  The rest is less convincing.  After lots of listening, you’d be forced to conclude that there are a couple groups that are even better than them in Bach.  

8.  Accentus: THIS is the chorus that should be #1!  It’s a daring, visionary organization that takes on projects no other ensemble has the nerve to touch.  The conductor, Laurence Equilbey, learned her trade from Eric Ericson, probably the greatest choral conductor of the 20th century.  After returning to France, she created an organization that sings everything from established repertoire to new music to transcriptions of orchestral music (and those transcriptions are really incredible).  It’s the only choir in the world whose CD’s I always look forward to hearing.

9.  RIAS Kammerchor: A ‘very serious’ German radio chorus for ‘very serious’ music lovers.  Seriously though, the virtuosity is undeniably jawdropping.  Only a professional organization with huge public subsidies could do the kind of work they do, and who knows how long they can keep that going.  Groups like them are the antithesis of Polyphony and the Dale Warland Singers: lots of ‘difficult’ music designed partially to intimidate the uninitiated.  And they are also Rene Jacobs's choir of choice, and a musician as imaginative as Jacobs has to know something. Still, if you’re going this route, why not another half-dozen other virtuosic German groups that sing music just as seriously?  

10. Swedish Radio Choir: One of Eric Ericson’s old choirs.  Should be muuuuch much higher.  No matter who’s directing, they seem to find the happy medium between challenge and accessibility that eludes so many other vocal ensembles.  So many of the greatest choral composers of our time got to where they were because of Ericson’s championing: Ligeti, Rautavaara, Penderecki, Tuur, Nystedt....what?  You’ve never heard of them?  Maybe that has something to do with the American choral scene and the fact that it’s LAME AS HELL!

11. The Dunedin Consort: Really Gramophone?  Really?  There can’t be more than half-a-dozen singers in the Dunedin Consort.  If you have the Dunedin Consort, why not the King’s Singers, or the Hilliard Ensemble, or Voces8?  This is like the ten-inch Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

12.  Choir of King’s College, Cambridge: OK Gramophone.  So if you’re going to put three Oxbridge Choirs on the list, how do you put Trinity at 5 and King’s at 12 (and why not St. John’s?)?  If any collegiate choir deserves to be here, it’s King’s College.  This is the choir that spawned half-a-dozen professional vocal groups (including the King’s Singers), made the great EMI recordings under David Wilcocks, and created the whole ‘school’ of British choral singing. So yeah, I’d probably put it on the list in spite of my ‘collegiate’ misgivings.

13.  Tallis Scholars: A fine group for early music that I’ve heard in some revelatory performances and recordings.  Still, a ‘specialist’ group that like most early music groups doesn’t vary their repertoire is necessarily going to create as much boredom as they do greatness.

14.  Choir of New College, Oxford: Another assembly line British collegiate.  Their longtime director, Edward Higginbottom (great name) has made some very fine recordings with them.  But except for St. John’s I’m not sure I could pick the Oxbridge Choirs out of a lineup.

15.  Les Arts Floirissants: The Monteverdi Choir for early opera.   Actually, it’s more an opera company than anything else.  There are enormous similarities between William Christie and Jeggy, right down to the hair-trigger tempers.  Some amazingly dramatic performances, but they sound mannered and over-controlled outside their specialty.

16.  Westminster Abbey Choir: Why are all these young person choirs on the list when there are so many perfectly good adult choirs too?  It’s a bit as though these experts think good singing ends when you hit your mid-20’s.

17.  Balthasar-Neumann Choir: A fine-sounding German ensemble.  Thomas Hengelbrock is a very fine, tasteful conductor.  But it’s clear Hengelbrock has moved into the orchestral world, I’m not sure even he would understand what it’s doing here.  

18.  Stile Antico: Another fine Rennaissance ensemble that can bore.  You get the feeling I’m eager to wrap this up?

19.  Arnold Schonberg Chor: I would be very hard-pressed to find a better chorus in Austria, which is a bit like trying to find great country music in Seattle.  This being Austria it takes a back seat to whatever orchestra it performs with and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them sing without an orchestra in front.  I have a hard time separating them from their most frequent collaborators: the  Concentus Musicus Wien - which has probably been the most exciting period orchestra in the world for the last fifty years.  

20.  I, Fagiolini: An extremely promising young British group that’s done an enormous amount to put old music in newer settings.  Check out their movie: The Full Monteverdi.  Monteverdi Madrigals staged in modern settings.

...later I’ll hopefully post corresponding youtube clips and which choruses should have made the list.  But right now I need a long break.

The Choirs that deserved to make it:

All-Rounders

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir: The thought that they're not mentioned among the world's greatest choirs is kind of a disgrace. Even if it was founded thirty years ago, it's one of the world's great traditional choirs and was a symbol of freedom in the late-Soviet era when religious music was still taboo. This is the choir that brought to the world most of the choral music of Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Part, Erkki-Sven Tuur, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli and Veljo Tormis (who's my personal choice for greatest living choral composer). You may have never heard of these composers, but one day your grandchildren might.

Leipzig Radio Choir (now known as the MDR Choir): If you love those ultra-serious German radio choirs (and who doesn't?), this is the standard-bearer for them all. Listen to them beat everybody at the 'choral behemoths' like the B-Minor Mass or the Mozart Requiem in those incredible Peter Schreier recordings. Then listen to them under Herbert Kegel take on the most avant-garde possible music like Ligeti and Berio. This seems a chorus comprised solely of great musicians who probably have no sense of humor. Just don't expect them to sing Aerosmith.

Schola Cantorum de Venezuela: The bannerhead choir of El Sistema, the choir of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov but like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (their orchestral semi-counterpart), an ensemble that proves just as capable in the traditional repertoire as in things without the Latin twinge.

Los Angeles Master Chorale (under protest): This is the choir that gave us Morton Lauridsen. And yet it's almost unquestionably the greatest chorus in America (that should tell you something). For twenty years they were drilled by Roger Wagner (Robert Shaw on the West Coast). Since Grant Gershon took over ten years ago, the place is breathing a different air. This is a now a chorus that's beginning to champion a better breed of new composer. Reich, Glass, Muhly have all gone to LA to permiere, that should tell you something.

Eric Ericson Chamber Choir: The name means what it says.

(Where's Chanticleer you ask?...)

Smaller Ensembles:

The King's Singers: Seriously, how could they not be there? For over 40 years, verything a great chorus should be shrunk to 1/10th its size. People (myself included) used to resent the King's Singers for selling out and putting Byrd next to the Beatles. But if anybody wants to see the only way forward for classical music, just look to them.

Voces8: The King's Singers SATB heir. Both groups combine the best of choruses with a cappella groups. I'm constantly amazed that more professional singers don't follow their examples.

The Hilliard Ensemble: The most incredible musicianship you'll ever hear from any singers. A group of enormous musical integrity and taste who makes the conscious effort to perform only the best at the highest level, regardless of era or area.

(Where's Anonymous 4?...)


Early Music:

Bach Collegium Japan: For my money, gives the very best Bach performances on period instruments in the world. In this case the name means they don't really perform much else. They don't need to.

Gachinger Kantorei:. Helmuth Rilling has been honing them for 56 years, and the results speak for themselves. Nobody has gotten Bach to sound this lithe and dramatic with modern instrumental accompaniment. Rilling is a sure hand at much else too, from Monteverdi to Brahms to Penderecki. They may not be the most unique choir in the world, but few beat them for traditional excellence.

Amsterdam Baroque Choir: Ton Koopman is probably a better keyboardist than conductor. But if the Monteverdi Choir can make this list, so can the Amsterdam Baroque Choir which gives performances of early music with the kind of unsubtle dramatic force which Gardiner often seems to be going for without hitting you over the head.

Gabrieli Consort: There are few conductors working today more imaginative than Paul McCreesh. His Bach isn't very good, but his Handel and Haydn are revelatory. His earlier music has the willingness to keep a flexible pulse which so many of his early music predecessors lacked. Only Harry Christophers is a better programmer.

(Where's...any American early music ensemble?..)

We're not getting into collegiate, symphony, operatic or festival choruses here...(do I even know anything about Festival Choruses?).

...and now that I think about it I can't think of any Russian ones either. Just goes to show how qualified I am to make a list like this....ah well.

Quote of the Day

Dad: Nothing reconciled me to my own family like meeting your mother's family.

Italian Auction



h/t Aunt Debbie
Dearest Gramophone Mag,

Your selection of the World's 20 Best Choirs has caused me some near-orgasmic levels of schadenfreude.  It's nice to know that my feeling about the American choral scene being an embarrassment to music is in small part shared by a few people who happen to be experts in the field.  Now if you stopped marketing Eric Whitacre as Pinup Palestrina to sell your mag to the Rachel Berry's of America (that'll be the day), you'd really make my day.

Your faithful online reader since 1998,

Evan

PS.  I'm fully aware of your British bias.  But yeah...Brit choirs are better...still...where are the Russians?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Jew and an Irishman walk into a bar...

...And there I was.

Shaq Conducting the Boston Pops

Monday, December 20, 2010

Favorite Cultural "Stuff" 2010 (part 2 of ???)

Top Ten 'Old' Stuff I saw/heard in 2010 (part 1 of 5)





1. The Sopranos:  The Sopranos does not mark a beginning, it marks an end.  In The Sopranos we see the end of America’s fascination with organized crime, the end of America’s white immigrant working class, the end of trust in the nuclear family, and the end of America’s illusions about the price of success.   It is, in every way, a show about deaths.  It does not glorify the importance of death, a la Six Feet Under, but it does accept death as life’s natural end.   It does not glorify violent people as misunderstood, a la The Godfather, but it allows us to see violent people as humans who have redeeming qualities weighted against their brutality.  But whatever else The Sopranos is, it‘s above all a moral parable about humanity’s desire to convince itself that we act in good faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  We invariably slump into our seats a little as Tony is ‘forced’ to kill friend after friend, Paulie turns violent after the slightest insults, Carmela finds an infinite number of excuses to maintain her lifestyle by staying with Tony, Christopher puts off his desire to find something better than mob-life, and hundreds of peripheral characters who are drawn to the danger of criminals like flies to shit.    Like Westerns before them, images about the mafia are embedded in the American DNA.  At their beginning both Westerns and Mafia movies glamorized outlaws by portraying them as taking what more privileged people refused to give.  As time went on, both gradually exposed the rot behind that myth, until finally a work came along that exploded our illusions finally and forever.  In Westerns, it was late John Wayne’s movies like The Searchers or True Grit which showed the hatred and bigotry that motivated the Old West.  In mafia movies, we went from the paean to organized crime that was The Godfather to the pathos of Godfather II, to the uneasiness of Goodfellas.  And finally, here was a piece that made us realize how dangerous it is to view criminals as heroes even as we became ever more drawn to them. With every season, we become more complicit in the evil perpetrated on the screen. And by exposing the rot at the core of our desire to see glory in violence, The Sopranos both became an elegy for an enormous chunk of the American Dream, and a Premium Cable Requiem for the dominance of a medium that made us feel the American Dream so intensely.  




2. Company:  I saw Stephen Sondheim’s Company when I was fifteen at a college performance.  It was an eminently forgettable affair.......seriously, I forget everything about it.   Most Sondheim is beyond the understanding of adolescents, but no show proves more over-the-head of immature people than Company.   Sondheim is not comprised of tunes that narcissistic music-theater fans can belt, nor are his shows (or should his shows be..) virtuoso displays for set designers.   Sondheim’s shows are written for adults with adult problems.  It goes without saying that the sheer craft of the wordplay is beyond the comprehension of most music theater buffs, but the real miracle is the fact that the wordplay is married to so much dramatic meaning.
Company is a perfect musical.  Not since Mozart has music theater ever had a composer who can hold form, humor, pathos, design, love of life, and melancholy in such impeccable balance.  The musical is a series of vignettes, each of fundamentally equal length and packed with equally intricate emotional complexity.  Like The Marriage of Figaro, it is one of those exceedingly rare pieces of theater that isn’t about the people we wish to be or fear being - it’s about us exactly as we are.  But Mozart only repeated his operatic miracle three or four times.  Sondheim has done it at least a dozen times over.   At this point, who knows? By the 90's it may have made him the most accomplished writer for the theater since Shakespeare himself.