Thursday, April 2, 2020

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

1. The realities of politics are unfortunate and tragic. You have to wait decades, even generations, for the moment when necessary reforms can ever happen, and the only time we're able to implement them is when it's too late to save thousands and thousands and a critical mass of people realize that what they've spent lifetimes opposing is completely necessary. Transformational reforms can only happen in the moments when the world is already transformed. So this is the moment so many have been waiting for an entire lifetime: to enact an economic bill of rights, to draconianly curb emissions standards, to fasten regulations of iron on every big business in the world, to break up the monopolized companies of tech, credit cards, cellphones, agriculture, to tax the rich at levels they haven't been since the 1950's. But it's inevitable that these reforms will only kick totalitarian movements into still much higher gear too. Trump was not Hitler, he was never going to be Hitler, he's too stupid, and the circumstances weren't right. He's authoritarian alright, but he is much more like the authoritarian men-children of the generation before who somehow ended up kings like Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas. But once we get the ball rolling on reform, THAT is the moment when the true dangers among dangers reveal themselves: you can only transform society for the better when society is already unstable enough that a path is clear to change it, and in such moments, other leaders arise too who will consider some people unworthy of a better society. That's how you get Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Tojo, Enver, Pol Pot at the very same moment when 20th century liberalism creates a middle class with hundreds of millions throughout the world. The dangers that come next make the last five years look like a Golden Age, and will be just as numerous as the rewards. This time, it may not even be the heads of state. The great danger in the 20th century was the size of governments, the great danger in the 21st is the size of businesses, and government can only struggle to barely keep up with them. The great mass murderers of the 21st century may much more resemble King Leopold and Cecil Rhodes than Hitler or Stalin.

2. The thought occurs: Hillary, unpopular as she would have been for every moment until now, would have kicked the shit out of this virus. The point of being a Head of State is not the leadership you promise when things are business as usual, but the leadership you exhibit when a true catastrophe presents itself, as it inevitably does. Obama presided over a 2nd-tier catastrophe at the beginning of his presidency and proved himself thoroughly up to the challenge. But Hillary is exactly the sort of President you want in a crisis, and because Americans didn't want to hear that true catastrophe was still possible, she lost. Her administration would have tracked it from the very first passenger to come over, the right people would have been isolated, it would result in a couple hundred deaths, maybe a couple thousand, the public would rally around her in a way New Yorkers aren't even to Andrew Cuomo, she could properly administer a stimulus, she probably wouldn't have passed all the necessary reforms, but we wouldn't have needed them as direly, and she'd have occasion to get the ball rolling much more quickly than we will, which will have to wait until January, and maybe another four or twelve years after that... and now she'd be sailing to re-election. And this until now do-nothing lame duck could have proven herself in this our greatest president since FDR if only Americans realized how much they still had to lose in 2016. 

...And still the Republicans would impeach her for how she handled it.

3. 
Not going to lie, for the first time in all this the black dog is truly getting to me. Experts who've spent their lives preparing for these things don't lie about their findings, you know exactly what's coming, and now it's here, and it's only going to get worse for a while. I'm amazed it took this long to feel this way. The loneliness is not getting to me all that much, I kind of enjoy it. Even the claustrophobia is bearable with music and online conversations. But it's the fear of unimaginable things that can to happen to everyone and everything you ever valued and the powerlessness against it, that's what's unbearable about it all. Whatever happens to any of us, I'm filled with love for so many people and institutions that we may soon lose, and I will be here to help in any little way I can, but the burden that it probably can't be enough is overwhelming.

....though maybe this is coffee anxiety.....

Bernie was right, I was wrong

That squishy noise you just heard was the sound of 100 acquaintances creaming their pants.... ...if they're wearing pants these days.
Of course, dear reader, all nine of you who are reading past the title don't expect that I will make that concession without preconditions. Of course there are preconditions, and the foremost precondition is this: Bernie Sanders is absolutely right that in the era of pandemic, and the inevitable Great Depression which follows it, we require the means for universal medical care, universal means for employment, universal housing, universal social security, and universal education. All those things which Franklin Roosevelt proposed for us three quarters of a century ago, we must now claim it as our fundamental right. Now is the time, and there is no going back. But Bernie Sanders is right about that because of circumstances which he and his millions of his lemmings did no small part to create themselves. Ideology is the solution to the problems it itself causes.
Autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Xinping think democracy can't work, so they subvert democracy in other countries, and thereby prove themselves right. Far-right conservatives like Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz think liberalism can't work, so they ostracize minorities and alternate lifestyles to back the disadvantaged into feeling compelled to make bad life choices, thereby proving themselves right. Libertarians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul think liberal social programs can't work, so they neuter the programs of every dollar they can to strip these programs of their effectiveness, and thereby prove themselves right.
Socialists like Bernie Sanders think capitalism can't work, and so he subverts the election of moderate capitalists so that the worst type of capitalists may be elected. Donald Trump to many is the essence of capitalism personified, but a dynamic economy has no essence that can be captured so simply, and anything which purports to be the essence of forces so complex is a straw man, the type of straw man that is ideal for a socialist to prove himself right about capitalism.
Bernie Sanders is the solution to problems he has always longed to cause, and now he's done it, and we have to adopt his agenda and be his staunch ally in enacting every bit of it.
We'll do it, every part of it, to the dotted i and crossed t, we absolutely have to now. Blood has now been spilt to bring us to the point that the enactment of every part of the social democrat agenda is an urgent requirement. But we will never forgive any of you for ever allowing it to come even so close to a point so dire as this. This blood stains the hands of the Bernii as on any Trumpkin, and you can never wash it out. We will never, ever forgive you for it, the dead cry your names as well as Trump's.
Conservatives in power can throw hissy fits, they can stand on ideals, they can limit their inclusion to the elect, they can base their entire party platforms on demagoguery. Moderates can look at demagoguery and willfully hold the illusion that there is no more virtue in virtue than there is in vice. Powerful liberals do not have these options.
Fortunately, I am not a powerful liberal. But were I, I, like Obama, like Pelosi, like Hillary, would be forced by circumstance to be the adult in the room, building coalitions bit by bit until our coalition can keep the forces of darkness at bay and let the country live on, muddle through, fight another day against forces that can crush millions. The true forces of light can only come out when the forces of darkness have already been unleashed, and in those moments when the forces of darkness stay on a leash, it is the liberal responsibility to make sure the world stays stable enough that darkness stays mired in the filth from whence it comes. But progressives and social democrats, they see the world irresponsibly, they see every injustice as something that must be redressed with the greatest possible haste, they do not accept that the world will always be unjust or that one must reconcile oneself to lesser evils. And thus, they charge into every problem heedless of whether or not there is a solution, and they increase problems exponentially which they claim they mean to solve.
There are certain cliches I hear all the time from ideologues. Aside from citing the Overton Window, the most ductile window in existence, the most common cliche is that liberal pragmatism and ideological flexibility, these are themselves ideologies and therefore the idea that the world can be interpreted without an ideological prism is a misnomer. Technically, I suppose that's true, but just as the human body has a couple dozen benign tumors over the course of a lifetime, so too does the body politic have benign ideologies do not so radically change the condition of the body that it runs the danger of killing the body. Well, bodies are about to pile up by the tens of thousands, perhaps well over a hundred thousand.
There will be plenty of time to lambast conservatives in the grossest most vituperative of terms. They deserve every bit of it and far more than they've gotten. The blood on their hands is so unspeakably obvious, and they deserve decades of shame. They, not socialists, personify the evil that parasitically eats away at our American country like the virus that's killing us. But people with the extremism gene are born to the more destructive circumstances only by luck, and had socialists, even social democrats, been born to different life circumstances, they too would have been Trumpkins, following him to every rally, laughing as Trump implies that the persecution of the majority of Americans is a necessity. If you read no books you can be a conservative, if you read one book you can be a socialist.
So now that we have to make common cause on the side of social democrats, I'm here to say that you will never ever be forgiven for it, and on every moment when we don't have to present a united front against conservatives, it is the responsibility of people like me to make sure your victory brings you as little happiness as possible. May you feel as wretched in victory as you always have in defeat.
And knowing socialists, you will feel even more miserable in victory than you ever did when your ideals were still abstractions.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: 4/1/20

Artur Bodanzky today. 
I both love opera dearly and terribly tire of it. The problem with opera is that - with a very few exceptions like Mozart, Janacek, and Sondheim - it's not true to anyone's lived experience, and is not supposed to be. The great scores of orchestral, chamber, and solo music, is unlimited by context, the music literally mimics the complexities of our emotional transitions. It does not express mere primary emotions, it expresses many emotions all at once and the always gradual transitions between one emotion dominating our being and another. But when you tie such a powerful force as music to specific situation, the situations must generally be very very simple. 
It says something about opera's limitations that its most complex, thoughtful, meaningful composer is Richard Wagner, the fucking psychopath. With the exception of Meistersinger, it's impossible to hear lived experience within his work, it is meant to express the work of mythical beings from legend and history, beings larger and more important than we, archetypes who represent distinct parts of the human psyche while walling off the rest of human experience. The end result is that the music seems to promise possibilities of human experience that are impossible to realize, humans are not meant to realize the ideals Wagner leads them to expect from life, and the ecstasies to which Wagner's driven tens of millions are unspeakably dangerous. 
I certainly don't hate Wagner, rather I hate that part of myself and others which is often entranced by his music. The extraordinary power of his music wears down the resistance of the brain until one can't listen to anything else. It is not music to make one moved or feel connected to others in the manner of Beethoven, Bach, even Verdi, it is music for disconnected times such as these, promising a great bonfire of the vanities after which greater human connection is possible. Human destruction is inevitable, as this era demonstrates, and that is the destructive source of Wagner's power, but the price of these cleansing events is so overwhelming that what can a person who truly listens to his conscience do but resist the temptation to aid in knocking society down? How can wholesale destruction be worth the price of better things that come in their wake?
But if one has to make Wagner a palatable experience, the best way is through Artur Bodanzky. The tempi are so much faster and more flexible than today's, and performed with cuts all over the place. Nobody yet had occasion to realize the full destructive potential of Wagner's music, and perhaps thus Bodanzky can almost make Wagner sound like normal opera - little different in its impact from Strauss or Puccini. Bodanzky was a Mahler assistant, and we of course have no record of Mahler's conducting. Mahler, forever attacked for his fast tempos and whiplash tempo changes, forever criticized for giving his public musical intensity so great that they couldn't possibly keep up, must have sounded something like this, and this may be the closest we can get to understanding how he conducted this most powerful of music. 
But Mahler only got ten years to realize his intentions with the Vienna Opera and only two years with the Metropolitan Opera. With the Met, Bodanzky refined his interpretations for a quarter-century. He died in 1939, so the sound is of course terrible, but the voices of grand opera in this era were so much better than they are today: more secure, better interpreted, and more engaged. Opera today has other strengths: the early opera of the Baroque is obviously 100x better than it used to be, and so are performances of 20th century opera. But standards in the 'standard repertoire' have dipped so precipitously that it begs belief. If you truly want to understand how opera inflamed the world for so long, listen to the old Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from the 30s and 40s conducted by Artur Bodanzky, Ettore Panizza, Bruno Walter, Fritz Busch, Dmitri Mitropoulos, even Fritz Reiner and George Szell. This is a lost art of opera performance. 
I honestly don't know if it much about this style pre-dates this era of the Met. The 30s-40's Met was an unprecedented gathering of the greatest talents from all around the world fleeing war in Europe. Together, they could make miracles of performance that I am skeptical its like could ever have been achieved in any other time and place - even under the baton of earlier greats among Met conductors like Mahler, Toscanini, and Seidl. Certainly early opera recordings from elsewhere, great as they are, do not have THIS much flexibility of pulse, stentorian singing, and impossibly charged orchestral fireworks. What must have all this been like to hear live! It makes you understand how classical music lovers in New York could have been so insensible to the great developments of popular music all around them. What music-making could possibly be more powerful than this? 
By the time After Rudolf Bing came on as manager in 1950, he seemed to do everything he could to dismantle this stunning achievement, dismissing most of the world's greatest conductors so that he could reign unchallenged, and creating a theater for the Met so enormous that the challenge of projecting into it shortened the careers of untold dozens of great singers. There are so many great and famous conductors who were often begging for engagements at the Met whom we will never know how they conducted all sorts of operas for which they were well known elsewhere but would never have been preserved on radio broadcast as the Met has been for nearly the last 100 years: Monteux, Beecham, Coates, Klemperer, Stokowski, Munch, Erich Kleiber, Victor de Sabata, Rodzinski, Barbirolli, Dorati, Fricsay, even Lenny. One cannot begin to fathom the memory of tradition classical music lost by their absence. 
Thanks to a seventy-year decline, the Met is now seeing its darkest days in its long history, when it may go bankrupt, and bankrupt forever. The decline was in many ways slowed by the constant presence over 40 years of James Levine, but it came at a horrible price of Levine's terrible open secrets, which would inevitably become a horrifying scandal to the public at some point. Levine was a very fine conductor whom at times could rise to greatness. There are too many great performances in too many composers to ever deny that Levine had true achievements, but he was the perfect conductor for New York's corporate era: creating tapestries of velour orchestral luxury in lyrical moments, precisely the opposite of Bodanzky's revelatory drama; and pure brassy steel in the loud ones that seemed a perfect reflection of midtown's imposingly impersonal skyscrapers. He was, perhaps, the most reliable conductor of his generation, rarely ever giving a terrible performance even though he did more than a hundred opera performances every year for more than thirty, but nor was he a conductor who changed the earth's curvature the way Lenny was, the way Mahler was, and the way Bodanzky and Panizza were. 
Whether or not its audience realizes it, the Met is a dinosaur of an organization, a decadent antique that has been coasting on old achievements since the end of World War II. Its current problems were completely foreordained by its unending string of bailouts from the easy money of corporate patrons who demanded there be no reform from the way opera used to be. Opera itself is far more antique and decadent than it should be in no small part because of the Met's role in slowing opera's evolution to the slowest possible crawl. To hear Bodanzky at the height of his powers is to hear opera at its healthiest, so vital that it could propel opera's largest organization forward another seventy years with barely any more innovation. With only a very few exceptions, the same repertoire as was done then, only now with worse voices, less exciting conductors, and a behemoth of a hall that on any given night may only be half full.


Tales From the Old New Land - Ten Episode Outlines


Charlap: 1894, Bransk - The prologue or pilot starts with Reb Yaakov Charlap teaching Cheder to boys, then leaving his job and going to his house where he's met by all eleven of his sons, all of whom are now Bar Mitzvahed and teenagers, his wife (probably unnamed) having had four sets of triplets. They do a l'chaim, and Reb Yaakov explains that an angel appeared to him in a dream, and that so long as he named his children after the twelve tribes of Israel, Hashem would bless his house. He has a rich twin brother in Warsaw who sends them lots of money but notes in his speech that he wishes his brother was here for this day but they haven't seen each other in ten years because his wife doesn't like Reb Yaakov. He tells them that after Shabbos, the shatkhan will be coming with matches for all of you. Very soon you will all be married and have kinder of your own, this is going to be a year of Simcheh. The eleven brothers drink with Reb Yaakov and they start making plans for the bris. They talk about the first events in the Dreyfus affair. It has been more than thirteen years since the mother had Yosef, Dinah, and Zevulun, but a Warsaw doctor brought by Yaakov's brother warned that he would endanger the health of the mother if they ever had another child. At the birth of Benyamin, the mother dies, and it causes a bitter fight among the children with their father who said that Reb Yaakov endangered their mother. A few minutes later, they get a letter from Yaakov's sister-in-law that the brother in Warsaw died, and the payments must stop immediately. The family knows they must break apart. It ends with a mini-pseudo sermon from the father lamenting that he knows that most of the children will cease to be Jewish, will be answered by others. 

Shimon: 1902, South Africa - about the Second Boer War: British and the guerrillas and why the Boer guerrillas care much more than the British do, but also why the British imperialism may be more benevolent than Boer imperialism, but maybe worse because it is much further reaching. Shimon (Simon) is an officer at a concentration camp. The commandant is an aristocrat whose father was from an old Portuguese Jewish family (possibly also named Charlap). We hear the British interacting with the Boers but we do not meet the Boers. The other officers are from all around the British empire, we meet them either in the mess hall or over a game of cards. Simon has to interrogate a Boer prisoner, who argues with him that the British are no better than the Boers and just want the blood diamonds. And eventually rather than wear the Boer down, the Boer wears him down because the Boer realizes that he's Jewish and tells him he'll never be British, and the non-violent supposedly principled British interrogation Shimon kills him. Ends with motivational speech from Commandant telling him he knows exactly what happened without having to read any report. Don't worry, here you're an Englishman, not a Jew, but ends on a not of ambiguity that Simon is not sure he wants to be English. "He fell off a wall, accidental circumstances. This never happened. You're an Englishman now."

Judah and Zebulun: 1903, Basel - Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, the motion to have a Jewish state in Uganda. We meet Theodore Herzl who hates his most passionate followers. We hear Herzl over the phone with some famous Jewish businessman, perhaps Nathaniel Rothschild, perhaps Karl Wittgenstein,  is idolized by the people he The Kishnev pogrom is in the minds of everybody and what might soon happen elsewhere around Russia and Europe. Judah is a law student who clerked at a Jewish firm in Kishnev, dutiful and circumspect, Zebulun is the firm's errand boy, rebellious and wayward. They are there because their firm's boss was killed in the pogrom and need to make connections or find work. Judah's real hope is to work for Herzl. He waits in line for days and days for an audience, which of course he doesn't get. Zebulun is not interested at all in anything about the conference or Basel, but he ends up drinking in a Basel inn and unwittingly ends up talking and getting drunk with Chaim Weizmann while having no idea who Weizmann is. Weizmann drunkenly tells the young man about his problems convincing Arthur Balfour to let Jews have a state in Palestine, to which Zebulun replies 'Would he give up London to live in Canada?" Weizmann immediately realizes this is the argument he needs to use, and Zebulun, suddenly impressed that he can be useful to someone, becomes so committed a Zionist that out of enthusiasm, Zebulun becomes the one who stands up in the convention and leads the chant of 'Am Yisroel Chai' which leads to the adaptation of Palestine as the only possible home for a Jewish state. 

Reuven: 1904, Odessa - Reuven ends up servant in urban palace of a Russian Count who is a general in the army. At the palace, Reuven is Roman, and tries to conceal from the staff that he is Jewish, but a person on the staff runs into him on his way to his apartment which he shares with Gad, who is a student, and sees that he is Jewish. So he blackmails him. But the Count grows to like his footman, thinking him very competent and funny. The house is preparing for Leo Tolstoy to come, and they have to take extra care to accommodate Tolstoy's eccentricities. When Tolstoy comes, he can't care less about the noblemen and wants to spend all his time with the servants rather than the masters, and his extremely personal questions make the servants deeply uncomfortable. In front of the entire dinner, Tolstoy puts Roman on the spot and asks him his life story. Reuven can't help it at this point and has to confess the whole thing. Upon hearing that Reuven is Jewish, Tolstoy sermonizes about the importance of tolerance, but the other servants are antisemitic, and in the kitchen one deliberately drops hot soup on his hand, scalding him.  The Count sends for Reuven, and Reuven and the other servant expect for him to be fired, but the Count promotes him to head of the house because the Count too has a terrible secret. When the count asks what happened to his hand, he has to lie about why. 'I sent for you because you BOZHE MOY WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR HAND! (Reuven lies). I sent for you Jew because you have a terrible secret, and I must tell someone my terrible secret.' The Count confesses to him about the plans for the Russo-Japanese War and how it will be a disaster that kills tens of thousands, but the Czar's word is law. 'You must count yourself fortunate that I know you're a Jew. If it were not known, you would come as my personal valet, and you would die along with everyone else.' It ends with the aristocrat leaving for it with one of the crucial commands, but knowing he will die and his men will be slaughtered. 

Gad: 1905, Odessa -  Gad, a communist, still lives with Reuven, who is now working as butler for a middle class Jewish family who owns a factory. Gad is a university student who never goes to class, and instead he is a street organizer who unknown to Reuven is using his his brother to get intelligence on the family's business practices to use against them to help the workers. From Bund meetings he has an unserious girlfriend who tells him she's pregnant and they need to get married, she comes up to him multiple times over the course of the episode, and each time he explains marriage is a bourgeois capitalist institution and he uses institutional jargon to get out of it, and then announces he's leaving her and convinces her that it's because she's insufficiently committed to the revolution. Gad should seem like a schmuck, a filthy character who betrays everybody, but then he goes a 1905 revolutionary protest, the army fires on the protestors and Gad behaves like a hero who saves multiple lives. 
Yosef: 1907 - Ellis Island: Starts with guy Yosef got to know on the boat throwing his tefilin overboard 'Don't you understand? In Amerikeh we get to be what we want and we don't have to do nothin' no more.' Yosef and his wife and children (Menashe and Ephraim of course) get off the boat at Ellis Island and through them we take the audience through the exact process of immigration at Ellis Island. 

Yosef: 1908 - Lower East Side: Takes us through the realities of tenement housing. Working in a sweatshop. Having to work on shabbos, being unable to afford kosher food and generally being unable to eat many days. Yosef is a short tempered father whom the kids are intimidated to contradict. He stays home for Shabbos, not believing the injunction of acquaintances that Shabbos doesn't exist in the American workplace. The boss clearly knew what was happening and says to him: "I know what you think we're going to allow you to do, and you get it just this once. But if you ever don't come to work on Saturday again, don't come in Monday either." Yosef's wife, pregnant with a third child, prays for her husband to find work without desecrating shabbos and Yom Tov. The neighbors have a good job and can keep shabbos and she goes over to their house and brings the kids, Yosef goes apoplectic because they are supposed to spend it only with themselves. "But you're not here. What should I do?" "What you would do if I was here. You keep a proper heym and you machine de Shabbos fa dem without me!' She tries to make Shabbos without him, the kids behave badly, she tries yelling and they don't stop, they leave the table and start chasing each other around the apartment. She breaks down and cries. 

Yosef: 1909 - Yosef organizes a union of garment workers, organizes a strike and the day they're supposed to strike management comes out and agrees to his concessions. He's immediately called into the front office, he's expecting to be fired or arrested, and he is asked to take a promotion to foreman. "You're clearly a leader and people listen to you!" He takes a day to think about it. Knowing that he'd be asked to make excuses for new company policies, he absolutely doesn't want to do it, but his wife, taking care of a sick baby Maishe, is livid that he wouldn't have taken the position immediately because they might change their mind by tomorrow: 'It has extra pay and extra naches! Would you have to do the dangerous stuff anymore?" "No!" He goes into work the next day fully expecting to take the meeting, but the moment before he comes in, he's flagged down by  Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America head Sidney Hillman from Chicago who was in town and heard about the strike, who tells him that they probably offered him a promotion immediately, but instead he and his coworkers form a New York branch for themselves of the ACWA and they would get protection and negotiations done by the national office. The threat of violence is also implied if he doesn't agree to Hillman's demands. He accedes, Hilliman comes with him and makes an impromptu speech to the workers in his sweatshop in front of the management which tries to call the police, but the police ..... needs ending

Yosef's Wife: 1911 - Greenwich Village: Budgets are tight, so Yosef's wife gets a job working at a shirt factory in Greenwich Village. She gains a sense of self-respect and competence that she never had from being a homemaker. But she turns out to be working during the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and dies after she jumps from the window to avoid burning and dies in the fall. Her dead body is on the front page of every paper in America. At the shiva house, Yosef is approached by both Sidney Hillman o try to become a poster boy for the union movement and talk to journalists about his wife. Yosef is extremely reluctant to be used in that way, and says no. Hillman sends the journalist anyway, and of course, Yosef breaks down as he tells about his wife. The journalist refers to Yosef Kharlap in the paper as Joseph Charlap. 
 
Menashe and Ephraim: 1912 - Borough Park. Yosef's children are about to get Bar Mitzvahed, they both go to public school rather than Yeshiva because Yosef wants them to get a better education. They both hate Judaism and resent Yosef's insistence on shul and davening and keeping Shabbos, trying to break away and play baseball with neighborhood kids. The key being to jump over the neighborhood fence when Yosef is coming. Menashe is very athletic so has little trouble avoiding it, Ephraim, shorter and pudgier, can't jump the fence, so he has to always accompany his Dad to shul. Menashe starts hanging out with neighborhood toughs, whereas Ephraim starts reading. It ends with them all sitting around on Friday night and Yosef telling stories about the Old Country. 

Zevulun: 1912, Constantinople - The Yeshiva slacker Zevulun, much more confident now and to everybody's shock a macher in the Zionism movement, gets to know David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi who seek him out because of Weizmann's recommendation. Judah is now his errand boy. But he also gets to know a Sephardic souk dealer and his daughter and their whole family and realizes he truly belongs with the Sephardim. The son/brother of this family is graduating from a French school and has contempt for his father's backward ways, he is moving to Paris and is getting loopholed into taking French citizenship, which implies that he will soon fight in WWI, but Zevulun sees in this holistic worldview a completeness and sense of belonging that he's always missed and also sees in the Sephardic brother his own struggles of finding his place in a world that's grown too big, and wishes he could live in a much smaller world. The uptight, hard working, and unable to catch a break Judah bristles at this worldview, but Zevulun realizes that it's Judah who is the truly belongs at Ben-Gurion's side, and sneakily finds a way to ingratiate Judah to Ben-Gurion. 

"Don't you have love songs in Poland?"
"No. But we have lots of songs about how love doesn't work out."

Menashe and Ephraim: 1913, Borough Park - Menashe and Ephraim have to contend with a neighborhood Irish gang which beats them up for being Jews. One of them pulls out a knife and says that if they don't give bring them all their Jew money next time, he's going to use the knife on them. We go into the violent Irish house of that gang member, with an unemployed abusive alcoholic father who after beating his family up, breaks down in tears and blames Jews for taking a job that is rightfully his. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: 3/31/20

The Sirba Octet today. 
So if I had to make a bet on what the future of classical music is, my bet is that it will branch in two directions whose competition will be as ideologically fraught as Verdi vs. Wagner, Schoenberg vs. Stravinsky. On the one side, electronic music and its infinite frontier of possibility, on the other side, the plethora of folk music recordings greater and greater fidelity to the organic roots of music's long history and pre-history, but with renewed classical sophistication as a framework to give still greater flights of instrumental virtuosity and harmonic and timbral invention. 
The Sirba Octet is a Klezmer group, but with virtuosity and compositional rigor compounded so stunningly that it can't really be considered an organic sort of Klezmer. It is archetypal of that very French stylistic way of taking the best genres considered anachronistic elsewhere and giving it the home of extended life, just as they have with jazz and Jerry Lewis. 
To be sure, this is Klezmer, and just about all of it is old Klezmer tunes, but with stunning instrumental virtuosity beyond anything you'll hear from Abe Elenkrig and Dave Tarras. 
It's not authentic Klezmer anymore than Newgrass is authentic bluegrass, but it is the next step, and relates Klezmer to context of music history's long river. The result is a once-in-a-year musical revelation.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians: 3/29/20

So I guess we ought to talk about Penderecki, who died yesterday. On the one hand, there's no world in contemporary music where Krzystopf Penderecki was underrated, if anything, I wonder if we slightly overrated him. On the other hand, how many people listen to contemporary classical music? Short of maybe Arvo Pärt, there's literally no composer in our day of serious concert music whom you can even argue gets a proper hearing. Not even Philip Glass or John Adams, it's debatable that even Arvo Pärt gets a fair hearing. 
I had mixed feelings about Penderecki. There is no question of his significance. He is one of the pre-eminent voices of our time, at the very center of the 'Polish Composers' School': a generation of genius that begins with Witold Lutoslawski and goes through Panufnik, Baird, Kilar, Gorecki, and Penderecki. 
Per the size of his reputation, was Penderecki greater than the greatest of the others? Certainly not in my not completely educated opinion. I have a particular fondness for Andrzej Panufnik, but Penderecki is an essential composer, one of the crucial voices of music whose music speaks not just for him, but for Poland, for the Bloodlands, for the Twentieth Century, and particularly for all in that very deadly time and place who perished. 
Penderecki was certainly a composer for his time, whose embrace of the avant-garde was perfect for the moment in the 60s when his severe dissonances exploded through the Iron Curtain as though to say that Social Realism was dead and the artist was still free to compose as he liked. Penderecki later admitted that his music in that period gave the unfortunate impression that life under communism was freer than it actually was. 
Try as I did rather hard, I could never get particularly into those 80 minute avant-garde monsterpieces like the St. Luke Passion or Utrenja or even the Polish Requiem. It's a lot to ask of even the most obsessive listener to listen to well over an hour of unremitting dissonance and darkness. In my strong opinion, the best music of those years is the short stuff. Everybody knows the Threnody for Hiroshima, even if they think they don't. It's in so many of the most crucial scenes in Kubrick's The Shining, it was in Children of Men, it was in Twin Peaks and Black Mirror.... This music is, quite literally, the sound of horror, and the kind of music you would expect from a composer who grew up near Auschwitz. 
Similarly Polymorphia, another piece for a massive and individually scored string section, is featured not just in The Shining but also in The Exorcist. These avant-garde years have all these brief dissonant masterpieces: Canticum Canticorum Salomonis, Psalms of David, The Dream of Jacob, De Natura Sonoris. Like Webern, albeit at least a little larger, they make the most extraordinary sounds, and then they're over: if the larger statement pieces never seemed to end, he had a great dinner guest's instinct in the small pieces for when it was time to leave. 

On the other hand, a true sign of Penderecki's greatness was his willingness to evolve over time. Once he hit forty, he gradually became very, VERY different. The Polish Requiem, which I'm listening to right now, is definitely still the same funerary expressionist of earlier years, grandson of Schönberg and younger brother to Bernd Alois Zimmermann, but the horizons have broadened, and you hear that he's brought the light of tonal chords back in. He never completely lets go of his old chromaticism in extremis, but it's balanced by other elements. This music is not 'tonality' per se, certainly not tonality as modern Bachian harmony understands it, but rather the counterpoint and modality of the Church's earlier incarnations. The counterpoint is pure Renaissance: Palestrina, Josquin. But the harmonies go back to the modes of the early church, perhaps Machaut or Perotin, and perhaps even further back into the monophonic chants of the early Middle Ages. By the time he gets to the Credo in 1998, it's almost too simple. So completely different and simple does his idiom become there are all sorts of passages that could be mistaken for Arvo Pärt or John Williams. The totality is more complex than either of those two contemporaries of his, but it speaks to how dramatic his evolution was. Extremely talented artists can mine a single vein their whole careers, but great artists evolve, and the fact that Penderecki can change so dramatically over the course of his career tempts one to re-evaluate the early thorny music in light of what he later became. 
Penderecki, like so many Poles, was quite religious and lived his life in the environs of Krakow, the city of Pope John Paul II, but by ancestry, Penderecki was mostly Armenian, not Polish, and he worshipped at an Armenian church rather than one of Krakow's many, many Catholic parishes. Perhaps spiritual bent rather foreordained his return to much older conceptions of music that have very little to do with the modernity his young self embraced with such a vengeance.
But my favorite piece by him is The Seven Gates of Jerusalem. Not necessarily because of its Jewish theme, but because it is as close as Penderecki came to finding the perfect blend of complexity and simplicity to sustain interest over a full hour. It is technically called a symphony, but it's one of the last great choral works of the 20th century, and at this point at least, I would easily take it over the more iconic earlier choral works like St. Luke and Utrenja. 
But there is no way that I can make that the link here when this video exists:

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tales from the Old New Land - Reboot - First Four Story Outlines


Charlap: 1894 - The prologue or pilot starts with Reb Yaakov Charlap either teaching Cheder to boys or in a Beit Din, then leaving his job and going to his house where he's met by all eleven of his sons, all of whom are now Bar Mitzvahed and teenagers, his wife (probably unnamed) having had four sets of triplets. They do a l'chaim, and Reb Yaakov explains that an angel appeared to him in a dream, and that so long as he named his children after the twelve tribes of Israel, Hashem would bless his house. He has a rich twin brother in Warsaw who sends them lots of money but notes in his speech that he wishes his brother was here for this day but they haven't seen each other in ten years because his wife doesn't like Reb Yaakov. He tells them that after Shabbos, the shatkhan will be coming with matches for all of you. Very soon you will all be married and have kinder of your own, this is going to be a year of Simcheh. The eleven brothers drink with Reb Yaakov and they start making plans for the bris. They talk about the first events in the Dreyfus affair. It has been more than thirteen years since the mother had Yosef, Dinah, and Zevulun, but a Warsaw doctor brought by Yaakov's brother warned that he would endanger the health of the mother if they ever had another child. At the birth of Benyamin, the mother dies, and it causes a bitter fight among the children with their father who said that Reb Yaakov endangered their mother. A few minutes later, they get a letter from Yaakov's sister-in-law that the brother in Warsaw died, and the payments must stop immediately. The family knows they must break apart. It ends with a mini-pseudo sermon from the father lamenting that he knows that most of the children will cease to be Jewish, will be answered by others. 

Shimon: 1902 - about the Second Boer War: British and the guerrillas and why the Boer guerrillas care much more than the British do, but also why the British imperialism may be more benevolent than Boer imperialism, but maybe worse because it is much further reaching. Shimon (Simon) is an officer at a concentration camp. The commandant is an aristocrat whose father was from an old Portuguese Jewish family (possibly also named Charlap). We hear the British interacting with the Boers but we do not meet the Boers. The other officers are from all around the British empire, we meet them either in the mess hall or over a game of cards. Simon has to interrogate a Boer prisoner, who argues with him that the British are no better than the Boers and just want the blood diamonds. And eventually rather than wear the Boar down, the Boar wears him down because the Boer realizes that he's Jewish and tells him he'll never be British, and the non-violent supposedly principled British interrogation turns extremely violent. Ends with motivational speech from Commandant telling him he knows exactly what happened without having to read any report. Don't worry, here you're an Englishman, not a Jew, but ends on a not of ambiguity that Simon is not sure he wants to be English. 

Judah and Zebulun: 1903 - Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, the motion to have a Jewish state in Uganda. We meet Theodore Herzl who hates his most passionate followers. We hear Herzl over the phone with some famous Jewish businessman, perhaps Nathaniel Rothschild, perhaps Karl Wittgenstein,  is idolized by the people he The Kishnev pogrom is in the minds of everybody and what might soon happen elsewhere around Russia and Europe. Judah is a law student who clerked at a Jewish firm in Kishnev, dutiful and circumspect, Zebulun is the firm's errand boy, rebellious and wayward. They are there because their firm's boss was killed in the pogrom and need to make connections or find work. Judah's real hope is to work for Herzl. He waits in line for days and days for an audience, which of course he doesn't get. Zebulun is not interested at all in anything about the conference or Basel, but he ends up drinking in a Basel inn and unwittingly ends up talking and getting drunk with Chaim Weizmann while having no idea who Weizmann is. Weizmann drunkenly tells the young man about his problems convincing Arthur Balfour to let Jews have a state in Palestine, to which Zebulun replies 'Would he give up London to live in Canada?" Weizmann immediately realizes this is the argument he needs to use, and Zebulun, suddenly impressed that he can be useful to someone, becomes so committed a Zionist that out of enthusiasm, Zebulun becomes the one who stands up in the convention and leads the chant of 'Am Yisroel Chai' which leads to the adaptation of Palestine as the only possible home for a Jewish state. 

Reuven: 1904 - Reuven ends up servant in urban palace of a Russian Count who is a general in the army. At the palace, Reuven is Roman, and tries to conceal from the staff that he is Jewish, but a person on the staff runs into him on his way to his apartment which he shares with Gad, who is a student, and sees that he is Jewish. So he blackmails him. But the Count grows to like his footman, thinking him very competent and funny. The house is preparing for Leo Tolstoy to come, and they have to take extra care to accommodate Tolstoy's eccentricities. When Tolstoy comes, he can't care less about the noblemen and wants to spend all his time with the servants rather than the masters, and his extremely personal questions make the servants deeply uncomfortable. In front of the entire dinner, Tolstoy puts Roman on the spot and asks him his life story. Reuven can't help it at this point and has to confess the whole thing. Upon hearing that Reuven is Jewish, Tolstoy sermonizes about the importance of tolerance, but the other servants are antisemitic, and in the kitchen one deliberately drops hot soup on his hand, scalding him.  The Count sends for Reuven, and Reuven and the other servant expect for him to be fired, but the Count promotes him to head of the house because the Count too has a terrible secret. When the count asks what happened to his hand, he has to lie about why. 'I sent for you because you BOZHE MOY WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR HAND! (Reuven lies). I sent for you because you have a terrible secret, and I must tell someone myterrible secret.' The Count confesses to him about the plans for the Russo-Japanese War and how it will be a disaster that kills tens of thousands, but the Czar's word is law. 'You must count yourself fortunate that I know you're a Jew. If it were not known, you would come as my personal valet, and you would die along with everyone else.' It ends with the aristocrat leaving for it with one of the crucial commands, but knowing he will die and his men will be slaughtered. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

What Do We Do About Conservatives Now?

Yesterday, the State of Mississippi rescinded all local stay-at-home orders about coronavirus.  'We reject dictatorship models like China.' Three days ago, Liberty University re-opened, ' and Jerry Falwell Jr. said "I think we have the responsibility to our students... ...to not interrupt their college life." On the same day, Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, became an international celebrity for suggesting on Fox News, where all Republican talking points are aired, that old people are ready to die to save the economy for their grandchildren. And of course, on still the same day, our international celebrity President suggested in a press conference that he wants America back to normal by Easter. 

We ultimately have no idea how resilient this virus is, but the conservative estimate of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is 470,000 deaths in 18 months, and it could be as much as 2.2 million deaths. 470,000 is almost exactly how many people died in the Syrian Civil War so far over nearly ten years. So looking at how things are going now, let's just assume that since we're a weak or two behind Italy, and the curve in Italy has just begun to flatten. Italy's had 8,000 deaths from coronavirus. So obviously Italy will easily reach 10,000 deaths, probably reach 12,000, could reach 15,000, and still might reach 18,000 or 20,000. Italy is sixty million people, the US is three-hundred-thirty million.  The US is 5.5 times the population of Italy.  So proportionally, our curve this time around would probably begin to flatten at 45,000, probably reach 65,000, ccould reach 80,000, and still might reach 100,000. But this is an eighteen month disease with no vaccine, this could come back at the beginning of the next flu season with much, much more virulence.

It may not happen that way. The average of the US population is ten years younger than Italy, smokes much less, and believe it or not, the US still has a more government than Italy and better sanitation. We even have better healthcare than in Italy, and we have rough parity on environmental cleanliness.
On the other hand, according to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, Italy is literally the second healthiest nation in the world, and they still had the worst outbreak of this disease. We are, I believe, the #33 healthiest, right between Chile and Bahrain. By the World Bank's estimates of income inequality, we are the 51st most unequal country in the world, while Italy is #98. Not very impressive, but we are as unequal as the Ivory Coast, a country literally named for its imperial plunder. In the world of public health, you are only as free of infectious disease's threat as the lowest in your society, and if germs pollinate this well in New York, which has never in its history been richer, how will the virus feast on hosts when it comes to Newark, Rochester, Hartford; Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia? It's come to Detroit, and Detroit hospitals are already at complete capacity! What will it do when it comes to the West Side of Chicago? And my god, what would it do when it comes to Puerto Rico??

In spite of the fact that Trump's abject stupidity was in front of us every day for four years, every progressive in America was focused on Trump's potential for authoritarianism,  and that occasionally includes me, when it was clear the whole time that his true destructive potential lay in his incompetence. And with incompetence Trump lays the track down for an authoritarian train with all of us tied to the tracks.

Trump, over and over again, was called Hitler. Conservatives, over and over again, were called fascists. Trump rallies, over and over, were compared to Nuremberg. But it's so clear that modern conservatives aren't Nazis, and Trump isn't even necessarily a fascist. But he is our Kaiser Wilhelm, our Louis XVI, our Nicholas II:  as resentfully tempermental as Willy, as spoiled as Louie, as stupid as Nicky. And the conservatives who support and enable him are as ideologically poisoned with venom and notions of honor and humiliation as the Kaiser's General Staff.

At this point, I have to venture a guess that the coronavirus and whatever events follow it may be, in some senses, our living memory's equivalent to World War I or the French Revolution: orgies of death brought about not by dictators, but by the blindness of rulers who could have prevented it at every single step, but the system which rose them to power was so old and sclerotic that it did nothing to stop the country's leaders from implementing their most destructive assumptions about how the world works. In both cases, the weaknesses that destroyed these powers, giants of the world who dominated their eras, were precisely the strengths that enabled their rise.

What destroyed Bourbon France was belief in the divine right of the sovereign: an inviolate belief which held sovereign word as law; and if the sovereign refused to listen to the demands of the French populace for reform until well past the time when demands for reform became demands for revolution, the sovereign's will must nevertheless be obeyed.

What destroyed Imperial Europe was their belief in honor: that a promise from one man of honor to another was as sacred as a blood oath, and an unfulfilled promise is the conduct of a man without honor. The ententes of nations to aid each other in wartime were considered so crucial to fulfill that if it entailed spilling battlefield blood of millions, the price of honor to their countries was nevertheless small.

What will ultimately destroy America is its unshakeable belief in liberty - the belief that United States of America is a country where freedom of speech, press, worship, movement, and money, must remain so completely inviolate that even if our country is beset by a plague that will never have an opinion on our first amendment rights, our freedom is so precious a commodity that tens of millions ought die for it rather than see it violated.

Trump is not the disease, he is just the latest symptom of this belief in liberty. Isaiah Berlin; along with Machiavelli my favorite political thinker, says that there are two kinds of liberty. Libertarians and objectivists often try to coopt the famous Oxford don into their ideological service, but when Berlin was speaking of positive liberty, he was speaking of people with beliefs exactly like theirs. They always seem to forget a few crucial quotes of his:
It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.
"Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows." Does the pike have the right to so much money of the sea that the minnows can't pay for fish food? Does the pike have the right to speech so free that when minows patronize his business he may refuse service? Does the pike have such right to freedom of worship that he may impose his views on social issues upon all of society? Does the pike have so inviolable a right to freedom of assembly that he can bring weapons to intimidate the crowds into enacting his bidding? Does the pike have the right to freedom of press so great that he can make death or rape threats to any minnow he wants?

Personally, I'm a pragmatist. I do not believe any belief so inviolate that it can't be discarded if the necessity presents itself. And I believe as Berlin believed:
If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.
99% of overarching systems of beliefs that apply to all situations will, by their very definition, lead us to doom. Maintaining balance in the torrential winds that blow through the world is an act of virtuosity, requiring endless reservoirs of flexibility and compromise. One more passage from the great don of Oxford:
The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution in which all good things coexist, seems to me not merely unobtainable--that is a truism--but conceptually incoherent. ......Some among the great goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.
And by not choosing some irreparable loss of freedom, the United States will lose all of its freedom, and eventually consign itself to history's dustbin just as every dominant civilization has before it. All memory of what we are and were vanished along with the memory of everything and everyone we ever loved.

I have family and friends who believe in American conservatism very deeply, and no matter what other kinds of fanatics say, you can't stop loving people just because they believe in bad things. In some ways you love them more because you wish you knew how to help them. You view them a bit like lost souls. Many beliefs, leftist beliefs held by other people I love, are similarly pernicious, and one day they will be vilified by the 'intelligentsia' too, whose fashionable beliefs always change like the wind. But the left is certainly not our immediate threat, however much they enabled it. 

The problem is certainly not that conservatives are evil people. Evil is everywhere, it's in everyone, and good people fall into evil's temptations all the time, usually without realizing it, and often mistaking evil for good. The problem is that American conservatism, like the vast majority of ideologies, believe in simple solutions to mysteries that will never stop remaining mysteries, and believe that their solutions apply to every situation. The only solution that applies to every situation is death. 

Passionate beliefs applied to every situation are how many people get through their lives. Everyone needs certainties, and the more certainties they have, the more willing they are to fight for them. So because ideologies believe that a solution applies to every situation, there is no action ideologists are not able to mentally justify. And because what they believe is inevitably wrong for many situations, it has a terrible effect on all the issues which ideological solutions are supposed to improve. And then the situations don't improve, so the fanatics double down and say that some of us haven't sufficiently committed to their vision of how the world is supposed to be.

This is how religion ends up burning heretics, this is how communism ends up shooting and starving millions, this is how Western countries end up enslaving millions from other parts of the globe and killing millions more, and this is of course how Hi....,

And this is how American conservatives let disease run rampant in a country with more scientific knowledge than any society in the history of the world, this is how American conservatives let companies pollute until the planet becomes so uninhabitable that millions of species die off and billions of humans among them, and this is how Republicans let corporations control more and more and more of American life until the private sector becomes the true government of the country - perhaps even the real dictators that inevitably rise in the chaos following a world power's decimating event. The poor become an expendable labor force at best, and at worst, a nuisance on their bottom line that must be disposed with.

The more true believers have free reign to deposit their toxic selves and instincts into their beliefs, the better-natured and nicer they are in their personal lives because their everyday interactions are not beset with the anguish of doubting that whatever they do is ultimately for the good. And if you're not doubting that all the time, there's something deeply wrong with your belief system.

Realistically speaking, I don't think there's a solution at this point, I'm pretty sure the only way out is for people to realize how tragically large the end result of their beliefs are, and we will have to lose so, so very much.

Underrated Classical Musicians: 3/27/20

I know we don't usually go with the big names, but it's been a rough week for us all. Let's just appreciate this magnificent movement from a symphony that sucks. This beautiful, perfectly composed, impossible to play movement is one of the best things Tchaikovsky wrote, and so deserves a better symphony. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 3/25/20

Let's talk about Tugan Sokhiev.
The new generation of conductors has it in them to be particularly extraordinary, perhaps more extraordinary than any generation...- I mean this -...than any generation born after 1900, and perhaps particularly the eminent conductors whose life stories center around the former Soviet countries: Kirill Petrenko, Andris Nelsons, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Teodor Currentzis, Vladimir Jurowski, Vasily Petrenko, Jakub Hrusa, Christian Macelaru. These are all talents who have the potential for true greatness - some, like K. Petrenko and Jurowski, are clearly pretty much there already. And of course are other names who could get to the front of the line: Netopil, Urbanszki, Slobedeniouk, Karabits, K. Jarvi. But I'm pretty sure that of these new Eastern Europeans, the one who deserves the most recognition in proportion to how well known he yet is is, without a doubt, Tugan Sokhiev.
Don't get me wrong, he's definitely a name who appears on the calendar of most of the world's major orchestras, but then he disappears. Nelsons is a year younger, and he's already been in Boston for more than six years, Petrenko is suddenly catapulted to Berlin, Deborah Borda is already measuring Jaap's coffin in New York to get Mirga at Lincoln Center, and Currentzis is selling out every venue. But Sokhiev is so good that he easily excels some of the names on that above list, and yet you wouldn't know he was anywhere at all. And in the meantime, he is the music director of the National Orchestra of Toulouse, France's fourth city, the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin, which is one-third of a three-way tie for Berlin's third-most important orchestra, and the Bolshoi Opera, a job so impossible in post-Soviet Russia that Rozhdestvensky walked away after a single year.
The problem is obvious and all too simple. We are so saturated with his countryman, for like a certain other conductor who is truly great but not quite as great as his starry reputation, because Sokhiev is not Russian, he is Ossetian.
Valery Gergiev is a red supergiant, larger than life, a fact of music who gives performances of a lifetime in one half of a concert and delivers embarrassments in the other half, who appears everywhere, with everyone, all the time, and if he conducted less he would be a better musician. He is, perhaps, a Furtwangler of the Russian repertoire, the giant of the whole thing. Furtwangler, it's forgotten now, could also really suck. But his larger-than-life best speaks for itself, and like Furtwangler before him, Gergiev's performances at his best are out-of-body, legendary experiences that no Soviet or Russian conductor has ever equaled. Not Kondrashin, not Koussevitzky, not Golovanov, not Svetlanov, not Temirkanov, not Rozhvestvensky, not Mravinsky...
But we are all sick of waiting for the best of Gergiev to show up. He has again and again given so many bad performances, he has again and again used his prestige to advance the position of Vladimir Putin's Russia - the most dangerous regime on earth, he has again and again cancelled, shown up late, his ambition taken up so much space in the musical ecology that musicians of better will can take up who are only a hair less exciting. The terribleness of Gergiev is as much part of the mystique as his greatness.
Gergiev is so synonymous with Russian music in the minds of the old classical public that at this point, he IS Russian music. But Gergiev is not even Russian. Many actual Russians like Jurowski and Petrenko are very very careful not to be pigeonholed in Russian music and severely limit how much they conduct it, the same goes for a conductor like Currentzis who works mostly in Russia. But Gergiev and Sokhiev clearly have an outsider's desire for acceptance. I could be wrong, but I don't think Sokhiev ever studied with Gergiev, but even his conducting technique look almost exactly like Gergiev's extremely unorthodox one. They both have a penchant for wayward originality in their interpretations. They both cultivate the same orchestral sonority: bass-heavy, raw brass, deliberately imprecise and weighty in the strings. And they both perform Russian music much more frequently than actual Russian musicians usually do. Seemingly every major young conductor has already recorded the Pathetique. Some of them, like Kirill Petrenko and Currentzis have been praised to the skies. Both of them are quite good in completely different ways, but Sokhiev is better. In ten or twenty years, Sokhiev will have a Pathetique to stand alongside the very best (at least in my opinion): Kondrashin, Fricsay, and yes,... Gergiev.
Perhaps Sokhiev has the same relationship to Gergiev as Eugen Jochum does to Furtwangler. Superficially, Jochum and Furtwangler sounded very much alike and they had a similar podium technique. But the truth is, Jochum was probably the better conductor - his best was nearly as great, and he was reliable in a way Furtwangler never was, and in a much larger repertoire. I don't know yet if that's true about Sokhiev, I think few people who don't live in a city where he appears all the time know the truth yet. But there used to be a superb Mahler 3 from Sokhiev on youtube. Gergiev's Mahler runs the gamut from incredibly exciting to an embarrassment, but he never exhibited the perception into Mahler's soundworld Sokhiev did there. If you watch Sokhiev conduct, knowledgeable listeners will notice the similarities to Gergiev immediately, but Sokhiev - while at times employing tempi daringly extreme, has little of Gergiev's actual recklessness, and supports the orchestra with as much information as he can possibly give to help them in a way Gergiev does not. Gergiev is a great conductor by the force of his personality, Sokhiev is a great conductor.
Sokhiev may have half-a-century still to make his mark. His time has not come, but it most definitely will. His star may have to wait to rise to its true altitude until Gergiev's star truly falls, but there is no doubt in my mind that he will be in the pantheon. He may not be Gergiev, but Gergiev, like Furtwangler, can continue to be worshipped by the cultists, Sokhiev will be listened to by music lovers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What Bubbie and Zaydie Would Have Said

I find myself thinking all the time about Bubbie and Zaydie Tucker and what they would say through all of this. They survived both Stalin and Hitler, they survived World War I and the Bloodlands that followed World War II, they just barely made it out in time from Bubbie's home shtetl when the Jews of Wysokie were rounded up to be massacred - she literally heard the gunfire that killed her mother. When Stalin came in 1939 with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, it was expected that Zaydie, as a businessman, would be arrested and carted away, maybe to Siberia, maybe to a mass grave. But he was beloved of his workers, who vouched for him so heavily that he was spared, so the story goes. When Hitler finally came into Eastern Poland after the breakdown of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1941, they had to go into hiding in barns and fields for nearly three years, living on a diet of raw potatoes. They were also hiding with Bubbie's sister Rochel and had to leave their daughter in a convent. Rochel was the architect of their salvation. Like me, she had red hair that didn't look Jewish, she was a passionate leftist, and she would risk going into town without a yellow star and buying whatever little supplies she could when she could easily have been recognized, and god knows what else she might have done to keep them safe. But they were perhaps the only married couple anyone had ever met who survived the whole experience together. When it was over, they picked up Zipporah from the convent and went back to Zaydie's shtetl of Bransk. 3000 Jews lived in Bransk before the war, 37 came back. Zaydie, being head of the only coherent family unit, triumphantly led the Rosh Hashana service with little Zippora at his side. By Yom Kippur she was dead from typhus. Shortly thereafter my aunt Rochel, who seemed to have connections with the partisan resistance, was killed in the riots of Poland's Nazi-sympathizing Endex Party which followed World War II. I've heard conflicting accounts of her murder. I've both heard that she was deliberately assassinated and also that she was caught in a crossfire and shot in the back. But given the nature of those times, I wonder if the real truth is not still much more disturbing. 
In January of 1946, there was a big question about what would be done when the first Jewish child was born in that city, Bialystok. Leftists encouraged the parents to embrace the Soviet Union because God had clearly abandoned us. But they elected to have a Bris, to keep going as Jews, and every Jew in the entire region came to celebrate it. The name of the baby was Yaakov Ticocki, who soon became Jack Tucker, my father. 
They'd be 110 and 105 now and were both suffering from dementia by the time I was 10. There's obviously plenty of time to write real, better reminiscences of them now if it seems like an appropriate time. But what they would say now, what they would do, what their goals would be, how they lived, became so abundantly clear to me in the last few weeks. 
We are about to undergo enormous struggles, struggles that will probably not end with coronavirus. America is so overdue for problems that beset the rest of the world, and a Pandora's box has now opened that may only begin with coronavirus, but also may include a depression as bad or worse than The Great Depression, hyperinflation, a world economy that may only be reignited by war between rising powers and declining powers, or a true dictatorship of emergency power in which the Trump administration delays the election or a war between the two factions of America, and after all that, global warming which takes out huge swathes of coastal populations, and hundreds of millions of migrants coming to our border who must flee from countries whose lands are no longer arable and have even less functional governments than they have now. Will all of this happen? Probably not. But it's all possible, and much more possible than it was six months ago. Even if only two of those events were to happen, it will be the single worst crisis in American history, worse than the Civil War, and to a tragically large extent, whoever survives what comes next will be arbitrary - a mixture of skill and luck. 
Bubbie and Zaydie lived for their family, and they lived for what they called 'simchehs' (slightly different than the Hebrew pronunciation). A 'simcheh' is a momentous life event. They lived for Friday Night Shabbos dinners, they lived for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, they lived for births and brisses, they lived for reunions where surviving relatives would come from all across the globe, and events would be a bewildering melange of English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, even Polish, where everybody would update everybody else on thirty years of family news in each other's barely comprehensible foreign accents. 
And they did not live for the High Holiday services, they lived for the lunches and dinners afterward. Their family's security was literally all they cared about, because every other part of their family who didn't make it out no longer existed. We all take for granted what we have until we can lose it. 
If the worst is truly coming, it ultimately does not matter which of us makes it out of all this so long as those who do can keep this all going, rebuild, and give us all more things to have simcheh about. More births and bar mitzvahs, more holiday dinners, more weddings, more reunions with whomever is left. So long as there are still people left, there is always hope that these events will never wipe so many of us out again, and life goes on, sometimes with agony, sometimes with joy, and lots of mediocre and frustrating times that make us question the value of it all. But what matters is that all the institutions that make us us, the continuity of everything that we were, will still remain, if we keep them going, because otherwise, in moments like this, there's no reason to keep fighting. Institutions can always evolve to include new people and concepts, evolving is how to prevent these events, but they must stay here through anything and everything. 
Bubbie and Zaydie did not endure all that, their families did not endure even worse, for it all to stop here. Everything they did in their lives was to make sure that here, in Amerikeh, what happened to them, what happened to so many generations before them, would not happen to us. On some level, they clearly knew it was possible. Zaydie did all kinds of crazy things like bury silver dollars in the back yard just in case he had to dig it up to bribe someone for help if society broke down. We never figured out where he buried them but it suddenly doesn't seem so crazy. 
The point of life is not happiness, it's not achievement, it's not power or money, all those things disappear and many of them are clearly about to. The point of life is to live it, and everything short of survival is secondary and fleeting. But when it becomes clear that some of us can't survive, then the things which make life worth living become much more important to cling to with every bit of our grip, because otherwise, why keep going?
Bubbie and Zaydie did not live through all that for us all to not be mindful of what's possible. This may well be the moment that comes to every civilization and to every place this family has ever been. The storm of 2020 is going to capsize the ship, and those of us who try to stand upright will be taken down by the water. This is a year without simcheh. And this is a year to get everybody to safety whom we can, beginning with those we love, and then those they love, and then those deserving of love. We all need to decide what our priorities are, and Bubbie and Zaydie's example lights the way to mine.

Underrated Classical Musicians 3/24/20


So we're going to do something very different today and talk about our first non-classical musician: Manu Dibango who died today of coronavirus. One of the truly great creators of Afro-Jazz, which is one of the truly epochal movements of music in the late 20th century, in many ways picking up the reins from Miles and Coltrane when Jazz began a long decadent period in the late 60s that it only seems to be coming out of recently. Decadence can, of course, produce fascinating things, but there was a time when decadence was taken to mean the breakdown of consensus, so even if so much modern jazz, like so much modern classical, is not indulgent or self indulgent as so many critics claim, instant communication will never be its great strength. 
But the rhythms and timbres of Afro Jazz, of Manu Dibango, Fela Kuti, Hugh Maskela, Geoffrey Oryema, Mulatu Astatke, Abdullah Ibrahim, communicates instantly. Is it the jazz tradition, gumboed in the 300 year American tradition, and then re-connected to the folk roots of its origins in a joyful reunion. 
What I'm about to do is so heterodoxical that it might piss off some people, and after I do it, I'll try to say something else that pisses off everybody else...
Dibango's most famous piece, Soul Makossa, was Billboard No. 1 in 1972. It was, in fact, one of the first disco hits, in the era just before Disco became the most evil music that ever took a shit on America. But this, and so much else by Dibango, is so much better than the crap we generally call dance music in America. More lively, more complex timberally, and seemingly without any use of drum machine, rhythmically precise in ways that defy human mechanics, and therefore could be exciting as very few dance musicians ever could be. But I prefer Sun Explosion. The precision of the musicianship on here is literally awesome. This is 'light' music, there's no question, not too different in its way from Offenbach or Rossini. But light music, like comedy, is if anything harder to do well, because there is no gravitas to give the subject weight. The enjoyment is provided by the pure dexterity of the performer, and they have to work literally every day for decades to be skilled enough to do it right. 
I was a semi-pro non-classical musician for a number of years, and while I was something resmbling an artistic populist before I went in, I came out of the experience a hardened back into artistic elitism. The sentiment of artistic elitism has absolutely nothing to apologize for. The right to appreciate whatever music you want is of course inviolate and remains inviolate in all circumstances, but to believe that all music is equal is not democratic, it is cultural libertarianism, directly connected to willful incuriosity about ideas and history which has currently brought the country to the precipice of what is potentially worst event to befall the entire American experiment. Democracy only works with an educated populace, and the cultural incuriosity of modern Americans is connected at the umbilical cord to its incuriosity about science, and its deep curiosity about authoritarianism. In previous generations the ignorant public could be explained away as having no opportunity for better education. Today, it can only be explained as willful ignorance that is completely intentional, a dodging of responsibility to learn human thought so that the world may not fall under the spell, yet again, to destructive thoughts. 
But we in the 'high' world of artistic canons must do our part in a world where interconnection is exponentially expanded to admit a hundred times more great art (and it is great) into our sacred canons, and in music, these names and pieces are to be found both in the traditional 'classical' forms, and in what was until now thought of as popular music. 
Is Manu Dibango as great as Beethoven? Of course not. Are there non-classical musicians who are? There are a number about which you could at least make the argument, even if the argument isn't necessarily true, the achievement is such that it would be a valid belief. And we will talk about them in due time. 
This is music that has become classical. It is most certainly light classical music, in its own way in the spirit of Arthur Sullivan and Johann Strauss, but the quality speaks for itself.