Saturday, July 30, 2011

In Rhode Island

Blogging shall grind to a screeching halt as I watch various entertaining spectacles play themselves out at the Newport Folk Festival. Shall return on Monday.

Friday, July 29, 2011

800 Words: Vanya on 42nd Street

A theater director invites some actor friends to take part in a workshop on Chekhov. He enlists a fine playwright to make a new translation for them of Uncle Vanya; and over the course of three years, they burrow as deeply into the meanings of the play as they can. When do they meet? Whenever they have free time. After three years of rehearsals, they’re ready for performance. Where do they perform? Wherever they can: in black-box theaters, abandoned warehouses, in living rooms of friends. How do they play it? In their street-clothes, with barely any props. A year later, a filmmaker friend of the director sees one of their performances. He suggests that one of their performances would make a good movie. They find an abandoned theater, get the rights to use it, and film the staging exactly as they do it. Before the play begins, you see the actors arriving at the theater and greeting one another. During intermission, you watch the actors talk to the crew while they both sit down to eating dinner together.

In a perfect world, this is how performing would always be done. People who love the stage simply come together as friends and put on a great show for other friends. Why do they do it? For the sheer pleasure they derive, and for trying to share that pleasure with friends. This is something done far more often in music. It is why classical composers used to write chamber music and folk musicians used to write songs for the taverns. In the days before recording, the only music most people could hear is the music they made themselves. In contemporary life, it’s a situation almost impossible to recreate. Without weeks upon weeks of practice, how can it be any good? And in today’s ever-busy world, it simply isn’t possible for most amateurs, even talented ones, to make the commitment it takes to put on a great show. No one can deny that modernity has improved the lot of our lives, but at least a few wonderful things were lost.

This was exactly how Vanya on 42nd Street got made. The theater director was Andre Gregory, probably best known to you (and I) as Andre, the idealistic, manic talker from My Dinner with Andre. The filmmaker is the same director from that movie, Louis Malle. The actors included Wallace Shawn (the “My’ in My Dinner with Andre, and a much-beloved character actor in The Princess Bride and Clueless), Julliane Moore (you know), Larry Pine (a Woody Allen regular), Phoebe Brand (an original member of Group Theater), Brooke Smith (Dr. Hahn on Grey’s Anatomy), Lynn Cohen (Magda on Sex and the City), Madhur Jaffrey (a Merchant/Ivory regular), and George Gaynes (the Commandant in Police Academy). The writer was David Mamet, one of the pre-eminent living American playwrights. The abandoned theater was the New Amsterdam Theater, once home of the Ziegfield Follies. What a sad commentary it is that only professionals of this caliber could do something like this.

This movie so clearly should not work. There is no attempt to make us think we’re watching anything but artifice. We get actors in their street clothes, declaiming a stilted, formal language that sounds completely at odds with how people converse today. There is no attempt to suspend our disbelief, we are watching contemporary people act Chekhov on a bare stage. There is no attempt to blend the styles of the actors, which vary from George Gaynes’s hyper-honeyed elocution to Wallace Shawn’s nebbisher whine.

How could it possibly work? It works because it’s so personal. It works because each actor acts in a style so unique, so vivid, so distinct from one another that we can’t help identifying with each of them. It doesn’t feel like acting, it just seems as though people are talking and feeling and breathing on the stage as they would in real life. Each actor seems to play not only a character, but a version of themselves and, perhaps, a version of ourselves too. There may be no attempt at a plausible staging, but each of these characters plays an extraordinarily plausible character. Method Acting has produced a lot of crap over the years, but we watch this and realize, yes, this is how method acting should work!

(The finale. For me, the most moving scene ever written for the stage. It’s difficult to believe that Isaac Bashevis Singer didn’t have this scene in mind when he wrote the conclusion of Gimpel the Fool.)

The “Method” was, at least in embryo, the invention of Constantin Stanislavski - the Russian director who first staged Chekhov’s plays. His idea was that actors are like all of us, only charged with a task that requires much more vulnerability of them. Like us in the audience, actors will identify with a character because they see something of themselves reflected back. His method, in simplified form, was to ask the actor to think of a time in their lives when they were confronted with a situation similar to the character’s, and base the feeling, tone and energy of their performance upon how that situation made them feel.

It was a long way from the days of Shakespeare, when actors were merely asked to learn the lines of their scenes with good diction - and usually had no idea what else was happening in the play. What sprang up around Stanislavski and Chekhov was a Golden Age of drama. Strindberg and Ibsen preceded Chekhov in the North, Eugene O’Neill and Bernard Shaw followed Chekhov in the West. Together, they formed the backbone of a movement in drama that is (perhaps mistakenly) called ‘Realism.’ What these playwrights managed to do was to endow drama with some of the texture of people we would all recognize. Sophecles may have been unparalleled at displaying tragedy, but his characters are like cardboard drawings in a schematic (picture Antigone at a Walmart). Shakespeare may have been wonderful at portraying human emotions , but his characters are not recognizable to us (picture Othello taking out the garbage). Moliere may have been great at upending social conventions, but his characters had no real life outside of what they said (picture Tartuffe going to the DMV). In the plays of ‘realists’, and perhaps Chekhov most of all, we can picture the characters going through their lives, just as we do, with all the same unglamourous responsibilities we have.

(The Announcement. Comic or tragic?)

Chekhov called Uncle Vanya a comedy, which may be the joke itself. It’s not a comedy in the modern sense since there aren’t many laughs. And it’s not a comedy in the antiquated sense either because things don’t end particularly happily. Lots of issues are raised, gales of turbulence ensue, but nothing changes. If it’s a comedy, it’s only a comedy because life goes on, just as it did before. Perhaps that is the only triumph we have any right to ask of life, but all the same it’s still a triumph for every one of us.

The humor, if it’s humor, is very black indeed. Chekhov has an exceedingly rare ability that you only find in the very greatest artists. On every page, his writing is capable of expressing every human emotion of which you can think - sadness, joy, humor, disgust, apathy, wonder, despair, hope, pity, contempt - at the exact same time. The fights in Chekhov dramas aren’t really fights, because people bicker over things for which there is no reason to bicker. One character makes a suggestion for a change in people’s situation, which causes another character to fly into a rage and call up decades-long litany of resentments, words ensue that everybody regrets. But then everybody makes their peace, and life continues just as it did before, until the next argument.

This is how life unfolds for 99.999% of the human race. We are not the masters of our destinies, and life steers us far more often than we steer life. Life unfolds in a way for which we cannot possibly plan. And enjoyment can only be derived if we stop fighting it and cease our attempts to put ourselves in the driver’s seat.

Perhaps this is why Uncle Vanya is such a moving play. Not that it’s the exception in Chekhov. No writer’s work is so populated with people who wish life had turned differently as Chekhov’s. Whether it’s Vanya or Lyuba from The Cherry Orchard or Misail from My Life or Andrey from The Black Monk or Anna on the Neck, we watch people live their lives with the same unfulfilled expectations as we all often have. Each of these characters knows too many disappointments, occasional joy, and lots of boredom. But come what may for each, life goes on.

(Wallace Shawn...awesome)

Perhaps it’s a misnomer to call the play “Uncle Vanya,” because there is no main character in the play - he is only the most flagrantly emotional. And there are few performances in movies I find more moving than Wallace Shawn’s in this one. This is a man so aware of his own inadequacies as to put the viewer in a perpetual state of discomfort. We are watching a man so aware of his own failings that he feels a desperate need to point out the limitations of others - thinking himself invulnerable because life has thrown him every hurdle for which he has imagination. But just when he thinks his life at rock-bottom, life manages to throw him entirely new ones, and he loses control. His knows that his pretensions to intelligence might be nothing but bombast. He observes his own awkwardness with women, and recoils from it just as we do. Life has so worn him down that all he has left to offer is snarky observations about people whom he regards with poisonous envy. He has forfeited his ambitions, his dreams of love, his hopes for happiness or a meaningful life. He may be precisely the 'non-person' which he’s accused of being, but he’s a human being entitled to the same dignity as everyone else. And he will not let anyone forget it, not even for a moment. I don’t think I have ever seen an actor be so emotionally raw as Shawn is in this movie. His angry leer he gives during soliloquies to the camera, his shrill whiny rages, his desperate attempts at humor. This is a performance of a man who knows exactly how repellent he is, and makes no apologies for it.

(this doesn't feel finished but I have to get up early....perhaps I'll go back to it...probably not)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

800 Words: Isaac Bashevis Singer - The Literature of the Lost Six Million

Gimpel the Fool believes in the goodness of other people. His benevolence’s reward is nothing but humiliation and oppression from everyone he has ever met. Because Gimpel chooses to believe that people would never be so malicious as to lie, everyone he ever meets tries to fool him. The people of the town trick him into marriage with a woman who named Elka who had already been married twice and who may be a prostitute. In addition to a steady stream of lovers, Elka has a more permanent paramour whom she introduces as her ‘brother.’ She insists that the ‘brother’ not only live with them but also that Gimpel hire him as an apprentice in his bakery. Both Elka and her ‘brother’ are physically abusive to Gimpel, and though Gimpel and Elka may never have had sex, she has six children and assures Gimpel that they’re all his. Gimpel chooses to believe her. The town later decides that Gimpel must divorce Elka for the very reason they insisted he marry her. But Gimpel still chooses to believe his wife, and he refuses to divorce her. Gimpel and Elka live this way for another twenty years before Elka lies on her deathbed. Before passing, she makes a shocking confession: the children are not his. Sometime later, an evil spirit comes to Gimpel in his dreams, telling him to urinate into the bread he bakes. But Elka then comes to him and tells him that he shall lose his eternal life if he does not bury the bread. And so Gimpel buries the bread, and leaves his hometown of Frampol, forever. What follows is (to me) one of the most moving passages in any story ever written:

I wandered over the land, and good people did not neglect me. After many years I became old and white; I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make? Often I heard tales of which I said, "Now this is a thing that cannot happen." But before a year had elapsed I heard that it actually had come to pass somewhere.
Going from place to place, eating at strange tables, it often happens that I spin yarns improbable things that could never have happened about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like. The children run after me, calling, "Grandfather, tell us a story." Sometimes they ask for particular stories, and I try to please them. A fat young boy once said to me, "Grandfather, it's the same story you told us before." The little rogue, he was right.
So it is with dreams too. It is many years since I left Frampol, but as soon as I shut my eyes I am there again. And whom do you think I see? Elka. She is standing by the washtub, as at our first encounter, but her face is shining and her eyes are as radiant as the eyes of a saint, and she speaks outlandish words to me, strange things. When I wake I have forgotten it all. But while the dream lasts I am comforted. She answers all my queries, and what comes out is that all is right. I weep and implore, "Let me be with you." And she consoles me and tells me to be patient. The time is nearer than it is far. Sometimes she strokes and kisses me and weeps upon my face. When I awaken I feel her lips and taste the salt of her tears.
No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once re-moved from the true world. At the door of the hovel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away. The gravedigger Jew has his spade ready. The grave waits and the worms are hungry; the shrouds are prepared, I carry them in my beggar's sack. Another shnorrer is waiting to inherit my bed of straw. When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived.

Contrary to this story’s conclusion, Judiasm is not a religion about the afterlife. There are two-thousand years of Rabbinical musings about what the afterlife entails, but there is no canonical text to detail it. There are, however, no less than six hundred-thirteen commandments in the Torah for how people must behave in this world of ours. Judaism is firstly a religion of laws and ethics, and secondly a religion of scholarship, so that its adherents might interpret their laws fairly.

Gimpel the Fool may dream about the afterlife, but questions of what happens after death only surface in the final quarter of the story. Gimpel is as much a man of the present as any character in literature. He cares not at all for how other people treat him, only for how he treats them. He is a man who lives his life in the service of his ethical code, and the world rewards his efforts with unsurpassable cruelty; cruelty devised and enacted by his fellow Jews - the very same people who should unceasingly praise his ethical conduct. Perhaps we are meant to entertain the notion that Gimpel not the Fool, perhaps he is wisely good-hearted in the face of foolish cruelty. By choosing to believe the best in others, perhaps Gimpel was putting into practice a tract from the Avot d’Rabbi Nathan - a 1300 year old book of maxims which, as a Rabbi’s son, Singer probably memorized as a child. The tract says: “A man should not say, 'I will love the learned and hate the unlearned'; he should say, 'I will love them all.'

Gimpel may live among his co-religionists, but he is a Jew among Jews; hounded and hectored for living by an ethical code that sets him apart from his neighbors. He becomes so tyrannized by those around him that he must leave his home and live a life of perpetual exile.

This is the miracle of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer uses Yiddish, a deceased language, to write of a deceased society. Yet he uses this dead, homeless langugage to document the memories, worldview and questions of its final generation of speakers. Yiddish is a portable language, utterly without roots - varying from region to region, and everywhere a patois of every place where Jews have lived. Yet Yiddish culture flourished for a thousand years - well into the twentieth century. And at the moment when Yiddish was poised to finally come out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of European cultural life, it vanished without a trace.

The universe of Singer’s imagination is the one in which he lived until he was thirty - the Poland of medieval Shtetls and Warsaw’s separate-but-equal Jewish community. It documents the life of Eastern European Jews after the enlightenment, torn at the crossroads between its medieval traditions and the lure of modernity. These are very much the questions which haunt Jews in our day as well as his. Yet it’s still difficult for those of us who did not experience the Yiddish world firsthand to ever believe that a Yiddish world was there. For those of us who never experienced the Yiddish world (aka, soon to be all of us), the writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer is the best document we have to understand what being Yiddish meant.

It is still common in some literary circles, particularly Jewish ones, to dismiss Singer as a slick folk-storyteller who paints sentimental portraits of shtetl life completely at odds with the realities of what Jewish life once was. I wonder...have they read him?

Isaac Bashevis Singer is one of the least sentimental, most hard-boiled writers to pick up a pen. And the secret of his appeal was precisely that he refused to soften or prettify Jewish life. If anything, he darkened it for the sake of vitality. In the world of Singer, Jews are inveterate sinners who hold their own with the sleaziest of goyim. His stories are a non-stop parade of violence, sex and forbidden desire which are almost invariably punished in manners most foul; often at the hands of an all-powerful supernatural force, and sometimes at the hands of a totally indifferent universe. And those are just the stories in which people are allowed to experience happiness.

Yes, his stories have all sorts of pre-modern concepts like demons, imps, angels (and their Jewish equivalents: dybbuks, golems etc.). But those are all concepts which Jews believed in for hundreds of years. They are crucial to understanding what Yiddish culture was.

Singer’s stories are neither the chivalry-meets-monster formula of so much Fantasy Literature, nor does his work have the tacked-on whimsy of so much Magical Realism. The supernatural is always an organic part of the story, and exists within it as a means to illustrate larger questions. Like Dostoevsky, there is an over-reliance on the God-question. As though the question of God’s existence could clear up all other questions of existence. And there is an equal reliance
on the Supernatural. Though widely read in philosophy: particularly in Spinoza and Schopenhauer, he was distrustful of it. He thought philosophy a grand failure, and his work exists on a type of mystical - more things in the heaven and the earth - level that is well beyond anything which philosophy can dream. In many ways, the best equivalent to his stories are not found in literature, but in the early Renaissance paintings of Bosch, Breughel and Holbein; in which the supernatural is used as a visceral way of illustrating the most important points about morality.

Furthermore, unlike Dostoevsky, there was nothing of the fanatic about him. Singer was very much a believer, but often God seems like a bitter enemy at whom he would he would howl furiously. For he had as much anger about the state of creation as awe; and seemed to treat God as though He were (to use an old quote about Tolstoy) another bear in the same den.

His stories can also rival Dostoevsky in their orgies of suffering. Take a story like A Crown of Feathers, in which a wife is brutally assaulted for years by her husband, and then must live alone after he dies; working in ditches while living in filth. A Crown of Feathers ends with the woman’s death. But just before she dies, she tears open a pillow bequeathed to her as a wedding gift (given to her by a woman who may or may not be supernatural) to find a heavenly crown with a holy inscription written in it. It signifies to her, and us, that God was watching her suffering and it was never in vain. Or was it? From one vantage point, this is a heartwarming morality tale about how we must all bear our sufferings because God will eventually reward them. From a different point of view, God has let this poor woman suffer only so that she could increase His glory. At the moment of her death, he shows her a priceless relic which she has no time to appreciate. Some God.

Isaac Bashevis Singer claimed, falsely, to be a man of very narrow reading. He openly detested other Yiddish writers, whose writings he claimed were corrupted by the twin sins of ‘sentimentality’ and ‘socialism.’ Indeed, much of the dismissivenes of so many Jewish critics can probably be traced to his open hostility to his fellow Yiddish writers. Instead, Singer saw himself as operating out of the traditions of medieval Jewish folklore, Rabbinical wisdom writing, and particularly from the Bible. To be sure, the shadows of all three may readily be found on every page. But Singer’s influences were hardly limited to the often-anonymous writings of medieval scribes.

No scribe, no rabbi, no native-born American writer could have written as Isaac Bashevis Singer did. He was a very rare thing in the 20th century - an unjaded writer whose personality scorched through the page. There is irony aplenty in Singer, but it is always with lower-case “i.” Singer had no truck with the formal experiments of modernism, nor was he much interested in ‘alienation.’

In most matters, Singer was a pessimistic conservative who believed in the supernatural, yet he doubted the goodness of higher beings as much as he doubted the greatness of men. He believed enough in secularism to leave orthodox religion, yet he doubted the world would ever find a place for Jews in assimilated society except an invidious one. He immersed himself in pre-Modern texts and his language is paved through like a highway with biblical allusion, yet his stories are populated by characters who yearn for the sexual liberation of modernity. He is doubtful of mankind’s goodness, yet he makes all sorts of exceptions for those people who act with kindness. He believes that all will eventually turn out badly for mankind whether they are ruled by authoritarians or liberal democrats, yet he reserves a soft-spot for those who care enough to try to make the world better. He believes in writing about the largest possible questions in the clearest possible prose. All this means can only mean one thing: Singer is neither a medieval nor a modern writer.

Rather, Isaac Bashevis Singer is a 19th century writer of Eastern Europe. He just arrived late to the party. The concerns and preoccupations of all the non-Yiddish writers whose work he knew intimately - Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, Maupassant, Chekhov, Thomas Mann, Kafka - are to be found in Singer’s work. Most of the writers on this list are of the 19th century, and each of them is concerned predominantly with permanent questions: Who are we? Why are we here? How must we live? What is this world? Shall we live on after it?

These are questions which a vast majority of fiction writers have long since abandoned. Most modernist writers would despair in the face of the temerity it takes to tackle questions of existence with such earnestness. To modernism (though with plenty of exceptions), all a book can express is itself. Today, we see the ‘big questions’ asked more often in film and on television. To use the written word as a means of tackling problems larger than the written word has long since ceased to be fashionable.

Isaac Bashevis Singer arrived late to the party, but had he come any later he’d have never gotten there. Singer arrived in America in 1935, the younger brother of a much more famous Yiddish writer. He was thirty years old and confronted with a completely different world in which people did not speak his mother-tongue (American Yiddish, like all Yiddish, is a patois of wherever people have lived). For eight years, his creative gift froze. How was he supposed to write a living literature at a time when his language was dying?

The language died more quickly than he could have known. The entire culture from whence he sprung vanished, in a manner as mysterious as how it ever could have existed. Hitler may not have killed Judaism, but he most certainly killed Yiddish - the language of diaspora. For over five-hundred years, Jews existed at the periphery of Eastern-European society. It was only after the enlightenment that Jews were allowed into the mainstream of cultural life, and then only in severely limited numbers.

At the pace of a trickle, Yiddish became an emancipated language with its own secular literature, its own politics, and its own philosophy. And at the very moment when its secular culture became the equal of any in Europe, it was killed off. And so began the career of its greatest writer, whose career was the culmination of Yiddish literature, as well as its end.

Monday, July 25, 2011

800 Words: Testimony of an American Assassin Chapter 1

The Final Testimony of The Reverend Shaw Alexei Saint-Simon:
A Messenger and Warrior from Christ on Earth as He Shall Be Thereafter in Heaven

It was at the end of that Sunday Night dinner when my grandfather made the most astonishing admission we’d ever heard him make. Perhaps it was nothing more than the offhanded way which he said it. But to hear my grandfather - the Very Reverend Vergerus Zosima Saint-Simon, Christ’s anointed Apostle on Earth and the Messiah whom the Prophets Isaiah and Elijah long awaited - casually mention that he could understand why Muslims hated America... Had we even thought of an insight so brilliant, none of us would dare make such an admission. But to hear it from my grandfather, The Prophet himself, was earth-shaking as though he had declared Judas to sit at the Left Hand of God.

As he did every Sunday, Grandfather had opened my eyes. But every gem of wisdom that poured from him now seemed like mere preparation for this one off-handed musing. Everything I knew I knew no longer. I wandered through the compound, and Christ in all His splendor followed me, trailed himself by the entire Kingdom of Heaven. The Holy Spirit had cleaved my heart from out my chest and in its place had rendered a sacred fire. Like a frightened eagle’s eyes, mine were open wide with God’s Will, and everything of the world once hidden was open before me. Christ, through his infinite mercy and the infinite wisdom of His Anointed on Earth, had deigned to give me the prophecy I had so long despaired that I would never receive. And the prophecy was this:

Muslims are the same as us. They see, hear, breathe, eat, drink, feel and love as we do. Through their veins course the same blood. Through their mouths is heard the same laughter. Through their organs is perpetuated the same life. And through their consciences are perceived the same wrongs. And as their consciences have been injured that much more greatly than ours, and by the same forces, so shall they pursue vengeance upon our enemies with so much greater a passion than can we summon.

We - the Descendants of Abraham, Believers in the One True God, in the Prophets of the Old Testament and the Prophecies of Christ our Redeemer - we must make peace because we are brothers-in-arms. Both our faiths see the terrible future that awaits a world gone rampant with fornication. We both see a world gone off the rails by those who would seat mankind in the Throne where only God may rest. We see a world torn asunder by the judgements of Man. Man, with his animal instincts and capacity for untold destruction. This ugly bag of dust, water and filth now presumes himself the King of All Creation; capable of deciding his own conduct when he cannot even control his urges to spread chaos. It is left to us, the keepers of the Mosaic Faiths, to create the path for Mankind’s redemption where Secular Man can never never hope to take us. If we do not stand united, we shall fall divided, hanging separately because we did not hang together - be compelled to love one another, or die.

Knowing I must wait for the proper moment to unfold my prophecy to the compound folk, I knew that there was one person to whom I must confide this blessed revelation if I hoped to stand in the winds I knew would blow back. Only my sister Agnes could be my general in our Army of Peace. There are only three years between us, yet I am as much her father as brother, and she my rock and my redeemer. When I was twelve, I had to leave public school to work in the mineshaft. No one told me I had to. But because I did, my poor mother knew that Agnes would always have enough to eat.

My poorest dearest Ma. I write this knowing fully well that merely the act of reading this will be yet another way I have caused you more suffering in a life that has known no joy. But you must know this, dear mother. No one. Not I, not Grandfather the Prophet, nor Christ himself shall be rewarded as you will in the world that is yet to come. You are the daughter of God’s Anointed Prophet, and the mother of Christ’s Messenger. You have born your trials with the patience of Christ Himself. And the humility by which you so often submitted to a fate only Satan could have planned shall be an example to all who follow us in our sacred pilgrimage. The entire world shall one day know you as the intercessor for all women who suffer as you have for so long.

Even in exile, it is the memory of you both which sustains me to do the hard labor which our loving Father demands. No matter how far apart we remain, I shall always love you. And I know that even if neither of you realize, you love me now more than ever.

Because I know that neither of you betrayed me on that fateful Easter weekend. You were mere Peters, forced to deny me so as to spare yourselves from the hands of those who demand we always say our Shibboleths correctly. But I know the strength of marrow that flows within your bones. And one day, your voices shall joyfully ring out the truth like Lionesses of Judah.

No, it was not you Ma, nor you Agnes. It was that ravening wolf in sheep’s clothing. How many times had I warned you both that an apostate could never be trusted? From the moment Charles Newton and I went our separate ways, I knew he had no better purpose on earth than to test your faith, and mine. Yet I love him, as I love all of God’s creation. He is a latter-day Judas, without which I could not be sent into the world to do the sacred work for which I was meant.

Quote of the Day:

Le Malon: so i am definitely watching anthony bourdain at 9
i'll check out the presidents speech after

Prom 9 Review

Sibelius: Scènes historiques - Suite No. 2
Sibelius: Symphony No. 7 in C major
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3
Janácek: Sinfonietta

András Schiff (piano)
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)


When András Schiff is the weak link of the concert, you know that's something has gone very right indeed.

The Halle Orchestra of Manchester is, has been, and shall be the greatest orchestra in England for a while longer. The London orchestras may excel them technically, but no British orchestra plays with more involvement or character than this 152-year-old ensemble. They are in the midst a second (third? fourth? fifth?) golden age under Sir Mark Elder. Simon Rattle gets plaudits abroad, but the less glamorous work Elder does in Manchester is every bit as valuable.

The concert began with a gem of a rarity: the second suite from Sibelius's Scenes Historiques. In our day, we're so accustomed to thinking of Sibelius as the titanic creator of larger-than-life orchestral works. We forget that in his own day, Sibelius's reputation was built just as firmly on charming drawing-room miniatures. Sibelius may have an unparalleled reputation for moodiness, but he was also a genius creator of light music - his light creations perhaps all the more ingenious for their having so much darkness contained within them. These are pieces that should be far better known, and the performances like these are of the type that will ensure a far more attention paid.

(Zen Sibelius, from Karajan)

After giving us some unfamiliar Sibelius came the familiar, larger-than-life-itself panorama of the Seventh Symphony. Sibelius's final symphony is the work to which he had been building for his entire career. Within its twenty minutes are contained world of cosmic expression, with every symphonic gesture distilled to its absolute essence. It is one of the very great essays in the genre, and requires the hand of a master on the podium.

Mark Elder is not a fleet Sibelian. He clearly likes thick textures, extreme dynamics and beautiful sounds. Few conductors more ably bring out Sibelius's debt to Wagner than Elder. His vision of Sibelius calls to mind great Sibelians past like Herbert von Karajan and Eugene Ormandy. The fact that the Halle can be compared favorably to super-virtuoso orchestras like Karajan's Berliners and Ormandy's Philadelphians should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the Halle's playing.

(Schiff doing the Adagio Religioso as no one else could. He's only gotten deeper since the hair whitened.)

András Schiff is one of classical music's gifts to the world. When he takes the stage, you know that he will take you to a poetic sphere where only the very greatest can. In this concert, we were presented with the most poetic, least virtuoso Bartok we will ever hear. The beautiful Adagio Religioso of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto has never sounded more spiritual than it did in the hands of this master. Unfortunately the more explosive, percussive, Lisztian bravado of Bartok was nowhere to be found. Without a bit of devil-may-care vibrancy, the more extroverted Bartok passages can never come off. Virtuosity for its own sake is not in Schiff's makeup, but without it, you can't capture the entirety of Bartok's essence.

(Ol'-fashioned booty-shakin' Janacek from Rafael Kubelik)

As the final offering, we heard a performance of Janacek's Sinfonietta so insightful that it changed my view of Janacek. Janacek, the ultimate savage among composers, does not lend himself well to musicians who refuse to grab his music by the throat and shake. Or so I thought...

I've never heard a performance of this work that concentrated so much on the little details: the fast double-bass figures in the final movement, the exact pacing of all those odd rhythmic sequences. Not once did Elder accelerate for effect in the music of a composer who practically begs the musician to grandstand. In place of pagan savagery, we had an almost Bruckner-like breath (or Sibelius-like). I don't doubt that this was the type of Janacek performance for which ultra-modernists like Pierre Boulez strive. But Elder is a far more giving musician than Boulez. Within the inflexible frame which Elder set, the Halle musicians managed to make hundreds of details sing with far more flexibility in shape than that which a Boulez-type avant-gardist would allow.

So far, the finest concert of the season. Easily.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Prom 8 Review

Dvorák: Cello Concerto in B minor
Smetana: Ma Vlast

Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiri Belohlávek (conductor)

B (A for the Dvorak, C for the Smetana)

What has happened to Jiri Belohlavek?!? I know that Dvorak and Smetana is the music of his homeland, but that alone cannot account for the sense of urgency we've heard from his performances at the Proms this year. Has he, at the age of 65, transformed into a great Maestro?

This was a concert of two enormous pieces. First was the most passionate, viscerally involving performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto heard in many a moon. The soloist, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, is a cellist with an enormous, gorgeous high-fat sound - a gorgeousness he is unhesitant to abandon when the music demands. All throughout, I was very much of the largeness of spirit you'd find from Heinrich Schiff or Lynn Harrell (who made a stunner of a recording of this piece thirty years ago with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia). The style was romantic to a fault, with more freedom and flexibility than most soloists ever dare. Belohlavek and the BBCSO matched him rubato for rubato, extreme for extreme.

Unfortunately, the greatness of this ever-fresh warhorse came at the price of a piece that should never be ventured lightly. This concert had the extremely dubious distinction of giving the Proms premiere of Smetana's Ma Vlast. It is one of the absolute zeniths of nineteenth century music, and it only took 117 years for the Proms to get to it.

There are certain pieces that require a masterful hand. Whenever you hear an orchestra other than the
Vienna Philharmonic play Johann Strauss, however expert, something feels missing. The placement of the second beat is off, the flexibility of the phrase doesn't feel natural, the sound of the orchestra doesn't have the mahogany Viennese timbre.

(How Ma Vlast should sound)

The Czech Philharmonic has the same patent on Ma Vlast. It's doubtful that any other orchestra ever played it 10% as many times. Whenever you hear other orchestras, Ma Vlast sounds weighed down by lead in comparison. You miss the razor sharp execution, those amazingly short Czech staccatos (it's a real thing), the woodland-sounding wind instruments, the thin and piercing brass. There is no orchestra in the world as airy and agile-sounding as the Czech Philharmonic.

But even if a performance is fated to be a second-tier copy of the original, they can at least try. This piece was just plain under-rehearsed. Instrumentalists missed their cues, at the opening the harps were simply not coordinated (in a passage for which Smetana would lost his temper if a conductor ever asked for two harps to play together), and the orchestra were not responsive to Belohlavek's attempts at tempo changes. At the climax of the entire piece there was a moment when the strings stayed in tempo while the other sections followed Belohlavek into an accelerando.

It was doubly a shame, because Belohlavek was clearly on top form, and when he takes his interpretation of Ma Vlast to Prague, it will be one to place alongside Talich, Jeremias, Ancerl, Neumann, Mackerras (as ever, the honorary Czech) and Šenja. But even so, there were great moments that. Time and again, Belohlavek managed to call attention to details that had escaped every other conductor's attention: the harp figures in The Moldau's Moonlight episode, the horns (for once) blended into the winds at the end of Sarka - in an otherwise especially raw sounding performance of that movement. The highlights of the piece were the performances of "From Bohemia's Woods and Fields" which had some marvelously quiet string playing; and the movement which followed, called Tabor. In Tabor, and sometimes in Blanik, the final movement, we heard playing from the whole orchestra of a precision and stylishness that could fool us into thinking we were hearing something from Prague. These are the least known movements of the cycle, and many think them the weakest. Belohlavek had clearly spent an abundance of time on them. But towards the end of Blanik, the concentration seemed to fade out as quickly as it had faded in, like an old transistor radio that selectively picks up the signal.

The whole of Dvorak's achievement easily makes him a greater composer than Smetana. But in his entire career, Dvorak neither attempted nor achieved a piece with the same ambition, scope and humanity of Ma Vlast. Smetana took Liszt's idea of Symphonic Poems, and put humanity into them. He then created a six-movement mega-symphony out of it. In reality, Ma Vlast is a four-movement symphony followed by a thirty-minute symphonic poem. It is one of the greatest, and strangest, extensions of Beethoven's challenge to let the symphony ask all the great questions of existence. Search for a similar achievement in nineteenth century music, and you will not find it again until Mahler. May it be far sooner before we hear another Ma Vlast at the Proms.

Walk Hard...

may be the greatest musical biopic ever made.

ET: Almanac

"Enemies never die out in this world. They are recruited from former friends."

- Hans Keilson: Death of the Adversary

Prom 7 Review

Schubert: Quintet in C major, D956
Belcea Quartet
Valentin Erben (cello).


(The Schubert Gene in action at last year's Proms)

You know it when you hear it. There are certain performers who possess the 'Schubert-gene' and certain performers, great performers, who don't. Alfred Brendel had it, Maurizio Pollini doesn't. Peter Schreier had it, Ian Bostridge doesn't. Sir Charles Mackerras had it, Claudio Abbado doesn't.

If one had to describe the 'Schubert-gene' it would mean that unique ability to remain comfortable in layer-upon-layer of ambiguity. Schubert's music is rarely comic, though it alludes to comedy all the time. It can often be tragic, but hardly ever so much that Schubert blatantly hits you over the head with a foul mood, a la Beethoven. There is no artist in classical music, not even Mozart, who was able to say so much with so few notes. A simple melody, a simpler harmony, and a perfectly placed modulation, modal shift or pause is all Schubert ever needs to take us to infinity. It requires a remarkable comfort in stillness which very few musicians possess.

The second cellist in this performance - the great Valentin Erben, formerly of the Alban Berg Quartet - knows perfectly well how to play great Schubert. This was a performance which sounded as though someone were trying to teach how to play great Schubert to people who never before understood that it was possible. Occasionally, for only a few measures at a time, the players would hit upon that "Schubert sweet-spot" in which music the players stumble into profundity simply by relaxing and playing the music with affection. But through the first two movements fo this piece, perhaps the greatest ever written for chamber ensemble, there was simply too much straining for effect. Phrasing was too self-conscious, rubato was calculated, and the vibrato was so wide as to draw more attention to itself than to the performance.

But something miraculous happened in the third movement. We suddenly stumbled into great Schubert. Rather than trying to capture Schubert, they let Schubert capture them. The result was an incredibly inspiring reading of the Scherzo movement which had both incredible energy and heart-stoppingly dark stillness in the trio.

What a pity that the finale reverted back to the strain of the other movements. They found the right tempo, but rarely the stillness nor the animation which the music requires. Rhythms were too soggy, and every time they captured a quiet mood they would spoil it by being too eager to get to the crescendo.

Is there anything in music more difficult than great Schubert playing? Even a single moment of inspired Schubert is worth a concert's worth of bad Schubert. Just one great moment is enough to tell you whether a musician has the Schubert gene (and one great movement is far more than enough). The Belcea Quartet does, let's hope they let it out to play more often.

Fleet Foxes

Oh My God....

h/t Le Malon

(3) 800 Words: Johnny Cash on How to Die

Other singers from the sixties seemed like kids, but Johnny Cash seemed all grown up. Other singers put on a ‘show’, but Johnny Cash onstage was Johnny Cash off. Other singers lost their identity through the maze of the music business, but Johnny Cash gained his identity through the same process. Few figures in American music managed to be so true to themselves for so long as Johnny Cash did.

Everything Cash was was on the stage for people to see: the humor, the menace, the pain, the fear, the fun. So many artists present an airbrushed image onstage that seem completely at odds with the human being beneath. There is simply no way that Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie is the same person offstage as when either is on. But Cash simply presented as he was. He put two feet on the ground and dared you not to like it.

Even if all those working class songs were a posture - no music star can understand what it means to be blue-collar - he spoke for those who were. He realized the fakery around him, and used it to the advantage of people of his origins, who were in no position to fake the fact that life hadn't dealt them a bitter, bitter hand. He was like the 40-year-old who’s been married twice, never went to college and pays child support, but goes on the weekend to his half-brother’s frat parties, drinks everybody under the table and goes home every weekend with the prettiest sorority sister at the party. Deprived of his virility in old age, forced to sit at home and contemplate his life; clearly depressed by its wreckage, and as usual, letting it all hang out for people to see. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards put on the same show they put on forty years ago, and as a result their music is still frozen in 1972. Cash was one of the rare singers influenced by rock who had the integrity to get old. And because of that he may have done his very greatest work at the end of his life.

Cash’s Indian Summer was all the more remarkable because like so many artists he seemed earmarked for a flameout. With Cash, the problem was not simply drugs or women, his lack of self-discipline carried from life to music. A Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen can sustain a steady stream of great work from the beginning of their careers to end. Their greatness is poured out on the page, and what we see on the stage is a poor shadow of the greatness you can bring yourself to their music with friends at a campfire. Never so with Cash, whose appeal was so bundled up in the vulnerability of his public self that without his delivery, so much of the music he sings would seem second-rate. Much of it is not even by Johnny Cash, or even Cash’s personal songwriters. And few great artists ever churned out as much rubbish as Cash did. Yet Cash’s entire self-image was built on being a survivor, and few went through more of the horrific paces it takes to earn survivor status than he. Furthermore, the more trash he made, the more determined he became when given the opportunities for greatness. He is one of the rare cases in which the bad moments seem to make his great moments greater.

It took guidance from the unlikeliest of sources to transform Johnny Cash from an artist with greatness into a Great Artist. Before their American Record collaborations, Rick Rubin was a producer of Hip-Hop and Heavy Metal, probably best known for collaborating with LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Yet maybe it wasn’t so unlikely. Rubin provided guidance in two genres where artists are notorious both for macho behavior and lack of discipline. He honed the inspiration of talented but lost musicians and gave them the framework they needed for their talents to flourish.

And so for ten years, Rick Rubin would record Johnny Cash from Cash’s home. They would record simple songs in simple arrangements with simple appeal. Many of the songs would be well-known, and Johnny Cash would sing them more movingly than anyone had ever heard them sung. The rest would be written specifically for Cash that would feature him in the best possible light. It transformed Johnny Cash from a sixties semi-rock star to one of the Post-WWII crooners of his youth. But it would hardly have been appropriate for Cash to sing the youthful romantic songs which you found in Frank Sinatra recordings until Frankie’s death. Cash became a crooner who sang about loss, ageing, pain and love. He became a true artist in a way the 40’s crooners neither aspired to be nor were.

The result was one of music’s great tragic statements. Over the span of six (though maybe seven, or eight?) albums, we listen to a man gradually prepare to die. He contemplates life, regrets, afterlife and love.

It begins with American Records. This is hardly a death album, but it is most certainly a summation of life; mostly in its sour moments. The third track, “The Beast in Me” by Nick Lowe, gives us a new Cash - vulnerable on a whole new level. Just Cash and a guitar, in which Cash declares “The beast in me has learned to live with pain/And how to shelter from the rain. And in the twinkling of an eye/Might have to be restrained. God help the beast in me.” It is already one of the most shockingly frank portrayals of regret in music. But three songs later we get “Thirteen” by Glenn Danzig in which he declares “ Got a long line of heartache/I carry it well. The list of lives I’ve broken reach from here to hell.” The earlier Cash seemed like one of the most dangerous presences on the stage, but try to imagine such introspection from similarly dangerous stage animals like James Brown or Elvis.

And then comes two songs that are less songs than prayers for forgiveness. First, “Oh Bury Me Not,” a traditional folk prayer collected by Alan Lomax which Cash declaims rather than sings. “Let me be easy on the man that’s down. Let me be square and generous with all. I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town. But never let them say I’m mean or small.” Then comes Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” “Like a baby, stillborn/Like a beast with his horn/I have torn everyone who reached out to me./But I swear by this song/And by all I have done wrong/I will make it all up to thee.” The first was a prayer to God, the second, a prayer to love.

American II, Unchained, is the weak link of the series. Rubin brought in Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers to back up Cash. But the band simply cannot adjust itself credibly to Cash’s vulnerability. Cash brings an incredible intimacy to songs like “Spiritual” and “Meet Me in Heaven”, but the country/bluegrass cliches which accompany him keep the album more earthbound than it ever should have been.

It is in American III, Solitary Man, that Cash takes the bold step which leads him from promise to the promised land. He is audibly beginning a physical decline. But Cash, his voice weakened, his diction imprecise, is captured doing the one thing which no other rock artist has yet done. Be old.

Time after time, Cash endows all sorts of famous songs with far more weight than the originals ever did. When Tom Petty sang “I Won’t Back Down”, it was in response to the difficulties life throws at us. When Johnny Cash sings “I Won’t Back Down”, it is against life’s ultimate difficulty. When U2 sings “One”, it’s Bono’s usual ersatz statements about healing the world. When Cash sings it, it’s feels as though it’s about the wisdom acquired after a lifetime of hardship. When Cash sings ‘Nobody’, a song by 19th century singer Egbert Williams about the loneliness of being a person at the bottom of society, Cash turns it into a song about the loneliness of being at the top.

But the masterstroke of American III is in Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat.” Cave’s original is pure punk-psychadelia. It presents us with the bad-trip experience of being executed. Berlioz got there 165 years earlier. As rock’s patron saint of prisoners, Johnny Cash is the perfect person to transform this song. And the lyrics are eminently transformable. “I began to warm and chill to objects and their feels/A ragged cup, a twisted mop/The face of Jesus in my soup/Those sinister dinner deals.” In Cash’s version, it becomes the Death Row to which we all are sentenced. It could as easily be a painful death as experienced in a hospital bed as in an electric chair. What is meant to be macabre in Nick Cave’s version beomes bitterly, bitterly tragic. It is perhaps all the more horrifying for being so much truer to life’s experience. Personally, I picture the singer sitting in a hospital bed, watching and feeling himself die. It is one of the most lacerating songs ever recorded, made all the more unbearable because of its perfect arrangement with bass guitar, organ, hammer dulcimer and piano all together. The song is one of music’s great moments. And prepares us for the hour-long trip into the agonized wrestling with death which is American IV.

By the time of American IV, The Man Comes Around, Cash’s aim for something larger than life is immovable. We are now subject to an hour of wrestling with death from which there is no relief.

It starts with the title track: "The Man Comes Around." Much of Cash’s less compelling work, like so many pop artists, has to do with his religion. It’s impossible for those of us who don’t believe with his fervor or in his religion to relate to all the prattling on about Jesus. But this song, with its Book-of-Revelation and revelation-like incantations, and its refusal to use religion for comfort, is something else entirely. There is no consolation, no hope, only awe. This is the kind of uncompromising music which can inspire a true religious experience - a song of a man resigned to the afterlife, come what may. There is no pleading for forgiveness: "Whoever is unjust, let him be unjust still/Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still/Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still/Listen to the words long written down/When the Man comes around.” Cash is no longer addressing the merciful God of the Gospels. This is the angry, retributive God of Revelations and the Old Testament.

When we hear: “The needle tears a whole/the old familiar sting.” The Mercy Seat prepares us for what’s coming. We are faced with a piece of industrial rock, once again psychedelic in intent but far more dignified even in Nine Inch Nails’s original than Nick Cave’s original was. When Trent Reznor sang "Hurt", it was clearly about being in the throes of heroin addiction. If Johnny Cash had sung it fifteen years previously, it would probably have been about heroin. But a year before his death, what could it possibly be but an iv-needle? This is now a song about the indignities of ageing. When Trent Reznor sings “Everyone I know, goes away in the end.” sounds as though it speaks of the painful transience of friendship with addicts, or even about the ability of drugs to clear one's mind. When Cash sings it, it is about nothing less than the inevitability of death. The video which accompanied this cover made this Cash’s swansong to the music public (and the anthem of my friends’ college years). But this song is hardly a swansong. It is a song full of a white-lipped, youthful anger.

Cash’s cover of “A Bridge Over Troubled Water” would absolutely be preferable to Art Garfunkel’s original of this song if not for Fiona Apple’s slightly tacky sing-along. When Simon and Garfunkel recorded it, it seemed to be about simple friendship. But it takes on an extraordinarily different quality if one views it in a different light. This is, perhaps, the message every dying person wants to give to those they love when they go. And more than anything, the message every parent wants to give their child when the time comes. When one realizes that the song which precedes it is "Give My Love to Rose" - perhaps meaning his famous daughter, Rosanne Cash, the potential for it to be moving becomes that much more.

When Cash sings “I Hung my Head” by Sting, I find it extremely moving and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s the arrangement, perhaps it’s the somber mood of the other songs, but I think this song taps a reservoir of guilt which no other song in the series can tap, not even The Beast in Me. This song could easily be viewed as yet another of those Johnny Cash pretends he’s on Death Row songs. But like all addicts, Cash must deal with the guilt of lives wrecked: not just one’s own but the lives of others. The understated dignity of Cash's delivery lets you read whatever emotions into the song you wish. But I can’t get around the thought that this is a song about terrible guilt. The trial is always being conducted by those whom we love and who love us.

But for me the emotional core, not just of the album but of the entire project, is what follows. “The First Time I Saw Your Face” by Ewan MacColl is delivered as though in a dream state, just guitar, cello and sustained organ chords. It is not a song as such, it sounds like a narration with melody. It is as though we are seeing glimpse of heaven. It’s probably meant to be addressed to his recently departed wife, June Carter Cash, but maybe it is about entering heaven and seeing the face of God. There is no way of knowing. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of music’s great moments.

A bit later, we treated to a weird light-and-dark experiment. First comes The Beatles’ “In My Life.: And once again, the cover supersedes the original. When The Beatles sang it, it was a light-hearted, somewhat sentimental ballad. Even if they never meant it that way, The Beatles couldn’t help if the song is interpreted as nothing deeper than ‘you see people? success hasn’t spoiled us,’ when it soon became abundantly clear that success did precisely that to them. But how much more does this song mean when sung by a singer who publicly wrestled with so many demons and can still look back on his life with affirmation and joy?

But then comes “Sam Hall” by Tex Ritter, and we encounter a tone that is the complete opposite. Here we have a flash of the macho, defiant Cash of yore. ‘I hate you one and all/I hate you one and all/Damn Your Eyes!’ It is as though we are watching the singer feel, as we all often do in our lives, reproachful of the softness and vulnerability we felt just a moment earlier and that much more desperate to banish fearful thoughts.

Yet the Cash’s most vulnerable moment is yet to come. He had recorded Danny Boy once before. But this is my favorite of all the covers on this album. Just a great singer, a solemn organ and an eternal song. The simplest of all the songs on this album, and second only to “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” in its ability to move us. Danny Boy's original appeal lies in that it is a parent addressing a son who goes off to war. People have found Danny Boy a heartbreaking song for a hundred years because the parent is assuring the child that it is the parent that will soon be dead, not the son. But neither the parent nor the son has any way of knowing. Therefore we must, in part, read the song as a bargain with God or fate, to offer the parent's life in exchange for the child's. In Cash's life, there was no such bargain to be made, because his fate was already sealed. He could only hope that others would keep going and live lives full of happiness.

The album ends with another unsurpassed cover, this time of a British music hall standard. No doubt, Vera Lynn’s original of “We’ll Meet Again” is great, particularly when accompanied by footage of nuclear explosions in Dr. Strangelove. Though written for a light musical film, it became an anthem of wartime Britain as a song displaying resolve in the face of battle. But when Cash sings it, it is an expression both of Christian faith and of ambivalence. ‘Don’t know where, don’t know when.” Heaven or hell? In the Resurrection or when we’re cloned? We simply don’t know.

American IV, The Man Comes Around is one of music’s great statements about death. It is not an acceptance of the inevitable but a haunted, wrenching struggle with it. We listen to a man wrestle with the demons dying brings out in everyone, and the singer only resolves his doubts by asking still more questions. The classical music lover in me is put in mind of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: a similar mud-wrestle with death which ends with far more questions than answers.

But if we experienced a struggling soul in American IV, then American V, A Hundred Highways, gives us a picture of a serene man who smiles at his situation, come what may - more Mozart’s last year than Mahler’s. This is a man who has received one last burst of energy, and is determined to use it. Robert Christgau referred to this album, not quite fairly, as “Dead Man Singing.” This album is, in fact, full of life. The traditional hymn, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” has enough energy to be a gospel setting in a Baptist Church (black or white). But a surprising number of many of these songs are about love. We get an old man’s folly in love with Gordon Lightfoot's “If You Could Read My Mind.” The original is probably about a breakup, but in Cash’s voice it could be anything from impotence to a story of two old lovers (and there were many to whom it could have been addressed). We have “A Legend in My Time”, which was written for Roy Orbison. Contrary to the title, it’s not about fame. It’s a song about the heartache of love. “If they gave gold statuettes for tears and regrets/I’d be a legend in my time/But they don’t give awards and there’s no praise or fame/For hearts that are broken for love that’s in vain.” We even have an old Sinatra song, “Love’s Been Good to Me.”

But then there is American VI, Ain’t No Grave. If America IV was the anguished coming to terms with the end of Mahler. If America V was the playful thankfulness of Mozart. America VI is the matter-of-faith certainties of Bach. A grim darkness descends upon this music, and the grimness gives us hope, as though we are experiencing a higher form of happiness - happiness on a plain that we first heard at the beginning of American IV. Just as American IV seems to grow out of the germ of “The Mercy Seat,” American VI seems to grow out of the germ of “The Man Comes Around.” We have listened to Johnny Cash prepare to die through the finest of increments, and we now hear him firmly concentrated on the beyond, singing in a manner that reminds us of the Old Testament prophets.

The title track, “Ain’t No Grave”, begins the final journey. It’s a song written by Claude Ely, who was not only a musician but a Pentecostal healer. This is a religious song with the incantations of the deep south surrounding it: “Well, look way down the river, what do you think I see?/I see a band of angels and they’re coming after me/Ain’t no grave can hold my body down."

By American VI, Cash has confronted his demons and now looks to the suffering of others. “Redemption Day” by Sheryl Crow is a plea for understanding. In Cash’s voice, it becomes a prayer. A lifetime’s worth of experience and suffering makes it that much more meaningful when somebody turns his thoughts to the suffering of others. It begins “I’ve wept for those who’ve suffered long/But how I weep for those who’ve gone/In rooms of grief and questioned wrong/But keep on killing.” It’s another way of saying Auden’s famous lines from September 1st, 1939: “Those unto whom evil is done, do evil in return...we must love one another, or die.”

It’s that spirit that makes “A Satisfied Mind”, “It Don’t Hurt Anymore” and “Cool Water” so....peaceful. Just as Cash dies, we see the birth of a new singer. The serenity for which he searched so long comes to him just as he is dying. So many artists, from Verdi to Rembrandt to Welles seem to find an entirely new style in their final works. A lifetime of trodding the same path lets a great artist master his material, and once that artist achieves mastery, he can turn it to completely different things than he ever dreamed of making.

Aloha Oe, or “Farewell to Thee” is the unofficial anthem of Hawaii. You've heard it a million times, even if you don't realize it. And thus far, it has a still greater claim to fame, as it appears for the moment to be Johnny Cash’s true swansong. Cash, his voice barely able to carry the tune, lightly brushes the notes. Like “We’ll Meet Again”, it is a song that might express a Christian message (“Until we meet again...), but we’ll never know. All that we know is that the Johnny Cash of this album has made peace with himself, and has never seemed as in love with life as he does in the months before it ends.

There are even rumors of an American VII album. Not for nothing was there a Saturday NIght Live skit with Horatio Sanz playing Johnny Cash recording albums from beyond the grave. I’d like to think that Rick Rubin is pointing a microphone at Cash’s cemetery plot with some studio musicians standing over it while Cash sings from below the ground.

The accomplishment of those final years was monumental. Johnny Cash was the first singer even remotely influenced by rock to take us through the whole process of ageing, decline and death. Other musicians are hitting 70 and still putting on the same show as they did when they were in their twenties. It might do something for nostalgia’s sake, but it does nothing for art. Only an artist who not only was true to life, true to his music and true to himself could have done this, but also experienced enormous failure, frustration and pain all throughout his life, and the fierce integrity it takes to let us see it all.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Prom 8 Review

What has happened to Jiri Belohlavek?!? I know that Dvorak and Smetana is the music of his homeland, but that alone cannot account for the sense of urgency we've heard from his performances at the Proms this year. Has he, at the age of 65, transformed into a great Maestro?

This was a concert of two enormous pieces. First was the most passionate, viscerally involving performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto heard in many a moon. The soloist, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, is a cellist with an enormous, gorgeous high-fat sound - a gorgeousness he is unhesitant to abandon when the music demands. All throughout, I was very much of the largeness of spirit you'd find from Heinrich Schiff or Lynn Harrell (who made a stunner of a recording of this piece thirty years ago with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia). The style was romantic to a fault, with more freedom and flexibility than most soloists ever dare. Belohlavek and the BBCSO matched him rubato for rubato, extreme for extreme.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Solidarity with Norway

(Percy Grainger piano role of Grieg's Piano Concerto, he plays both the solo and the orchestra....)

Quote of the Day:

The McBee: well if you want to go to a folk/rock festival where you can wear tweed and expound upon Proust, than newport is the one for you.

800 Words: Harry Potter and the Magic of Money - Part 2

For Part I, go here.

(Evan wakes up tomorrow morning. He is already standing. He is in an enormous waiting room that looks vaguely like King’s Cross Station, staring face to face across the station with somebody too far away to be in focus. The person is in blue robes and has an enormous gold-grey beard. Gradually Albus Dumbledore comes into focus and comes up to Evan. He does not say anything for a time. He simply looks at Evan, enigmatically. After a few minutes of this...)

Evan: So am I dead?

Dumbledore: Aren’t we all a little dead inside?

Evan: Some days more than others. Does this mean I’m Harry Potter?

Dumbledore: We are all Harry Potter. He is a force that surrounds us and penetrates us. He b...

Evan: Alright, stop right there. That’s from Star Wars. And hearing a 150 year old man talk about Harry Potter penetrating is creepy.

Dumbledore: ….So that’s why McGonnegal didn’t want me to buy the ice cream truck.

Evan: Bravo. The Dumbledore ex machina comes through again.

Dumbledore: I sense you don’t fully believe in our universe.

Evan: My parents inoculated me early against elfin whimsy.

Dumbledore: A shame, not to let your imagination roam.

Evan: My imagination roams fine. An elf bit me when I was three.

Dumbledore: Ooof.

Evan: I started smelting gold at night.

Dumbledore: Truly, they were wise.

Evan: My father wanted me to keep smelting, we can thank my mom for getting me to the ER.

Dumbledore: Well..there is an old gobblin proverb, ‘Whoever smelt it dealt it.’

Evan: …....Not bad Albus.

Dumbledore: I try.

Evan: So why am I here?

Dumbledore: Mr. Tucker. The greater question is, why am I here?

Evan: Well it’s my blogpost.

Dumbledore: Seriously, I have appear at a birthday party in Akron at 10.

Evan: The kids can wait. You can tell them you were hunting horacruxes. And can’t you just evaporate or whatever it is you call it?

Dumbledore: I was hoping to stop at a Stuart Kitchens first.

Evan: Alright, I’ll make this quick. It only has to be 800 words.

Dumbledore: Your answers are but a question away.

Evan: 450 million copies sold. 68 languages. A billion dollars!!!

Dumbledore: None of those are questions.

Evan: I know, I’m just saying them out loud before I hurl myself into a fire with everything I’ve ever written.

Dumbledore: Considering that your writings, such as they are, are only on hard drive, that would not be an impressive funeral pyre.

Evan: Is it so wrong to want people to line up for blocks and blocks for something you write?

Dumbledore: My dear sir, I suppose it should go without saying that you’d be lucky to ever write something merely underappreciated. If you even have talent.

Evan: Oh who cares about talent?! I want that money!!

Dumbledore: Then might I suggest a different industry with better prospects? Janitorial work for example.

Evan: Seriously. You have that beard so you must be wise. Is it so terribly wrong to resent fantasy literature?

Dumbledore: Why would you dislike something that has given such pleasure to so many millions?

Evan: I don’t dislike fantasy literature, I just resent it.

Dumbledore: Precisely what about it do you resent?

Evan: Where do I even begin? (Evan spends an hour listing all of his problems with fantasy literature, ending with the fact that in spite of all of them, he still sometimes manages to like the books)

Dumbledore: You make a convincing case Mr. Tucker. I shall consider blotting all fantasy literature out of existence.

Evan: You don’t have to go that far Albus. Just beating the shit out of Gandalf would be perfectly fine.

Dumbledore: What do you have against Gandalf that you do not hold against me?

Evan: I can skip your bits of cliched wisdom because they always come at the end of the books. I can’t skip Gandalf’s because they pop up at every point in Lord of the Rings. It’s like Tolkein had a fortune cookie factory in his cellar. And besides, why do you or Harry or Gandalf or the Pevensies need my approval? You have the world’s!

Dumbledore: Which world?

Evan: The real one.

Dumbledore: I’ve never been fond of that one.

Evan: Neither have I. But it’s what we got.

Dumbledore: We can still escape from time to time.

Evan: Well how can I escape the real world when the smartest people in the real world are reading almost nothing but fantasy literature?

Dumbledore: A fair point.

Evan: They’re all getting away from the real world. Together! This is how every false utopia gets started. Pretty soon they try to make the real world as much like the fake one as they can. That’s not escape, that’s collective delusion. This is how bad things begin: like Soviet gulags, and Renn Faires!

Dumbledore: Oh dear. I wouldn’t start insulting Renn Faires in public. People might get angry.

Evan: The people who go to Renn Faires are often the smartest America has to offer. And they’re using time they should spend curing cancer to find a tighter corset.

Dumbledore: Tight corsets have their place in the world.

Evan: So does cancer. Both involve lumps.

Dumbledore: Mr. Tucker. Pleasant as you are, I’m afraid must interrupt you. I believe I have located the source of your Potter Envy.

Evan: Again, don’t say things like Potter Envy. You’re a super-centenarian who works with kids.

Dumbledore: You have told yourself the lie to which all with pretense to artistic ambition are vulnerable. You have convinced yourself that suffering for art must be an indication of quality. The fact that your ambitions have led you to dependence on employment in your father’s business to preserve you from penury leads you to resent those who have pursued what you covet more successfully.

Evan: Actually...Aside from the run-on sentence that makes a lot of sense.

Dumbledore: All of the most eminent fantasy authors have far more readers than the most successful writers of more traditional literary forms. They make more money. They have the adulation of millions. They bestride your literary time like colossi. And you petty man...

Evan: Alright I get it. Don't bring Shakespeare into this.

Dumbledore: You must learn the ways of fantasy literature, if you are to...

Evan: Don't say accompany me to Alderaan! Is there a single line of yours that isn't cribbed from another source?!?

Dumbledore: Not really. Most of Harry Potter comes from other sources. But it's still a fine series, don't you think.

Evan: Alright. YES! YES I DO!!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Proms 5&6 Reviews

Prom 5:
Messiaen: Les offrandes oubliées
Pascal Dusapin: Morning in Long Island - Concerto No. 1 for large orchestra (BBC co-commission with Radio France; UK Premiere)
Beethoven: Concerto in C major for Violin, Cello & Piano (Triple Concerto)
Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Gautier Capuçon (cello)
Frank Braley (piano)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung (conductor)

Prom 6:
Weber: Oberon - overture
Brahms: Concerto in A minor for Violin and Cello (Double Concerto)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Gautier Capuçon (cello)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung (conductor)


There are things Myung-Whun Chung does so extraordinarily well that you're caught completely off-guard by the many moments when he seems bored to death.

If there's one thing Chung does better than any living conductor, it's Messiaen. Listening to him conduct Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliées, you wonder how people could ever fail to see the genius of Messiaen's music. No other conductor has ever made Messiaen sound so natural, so elegant, so beautiful. It was, simply, a stunning performance. Messiaen was still only 22 when he wrote the piece, and clearly under the influence of Honegger and Debussy. But the piece is so clearly indicative of the inimitable genius he would become that one can only marvel that people would be more intimidated by his music than they would by anything of Poulenc's.

After the high of the Messiaen, the more's the pity that the rest of the concert was so pedestrian. A dull, meandering piece by Pascal Dusapin and a flat, uninspired performance of Beethoven's Triple Concerto.

The next day we hear another concert full of see-saws. Beginning with a fleet, sharply defined performance performance of Weber's Overture to Oberon. And then an unforgettable, deeply personal reading of the Brahms Double Concerto by the Capucon brothers. The only problem with it is the orchestral accompaniment. While the Capucons are giving raw, vulnerable performances, Chung has the National Radio Philharmonic of France giving a high-calorie, smooth Brahms performance that sounds utterly without commitment. But then Chung comes back after intermission and delivers a sleek, virtuoso performance of The Rite of Spring. The performance is hardly the last word in depth, but one can't deny the beautiful shading of the quiet playing, or the athletic excitement of a good orchestra playing so precisely at top speed.

A total enigma that Chung.

Quote of the Day:

Der Fersko: Well I have a question
Is Ravenclaw where they put minorities ?


J.S. Bach: 'Goldberg' Variations BWV 988

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)


If you could point to one thing that diffused the momentum of Mahan Esfahani's performance of the Goldberg Variations, it was the pause between each variation. Rather than treating this greatest of keyboard works as a single whole, with every variation growing organically from what preceded it, each variation was treated as its own entity. It came off as a pedantic choice that did little for his performance but kill the cumulative momentum.

Still, it's difficult to find fault otherwise. Mahan Esfahani is an Iranian emigre harpsichordist who has adopted America as his homeland. His playing is full of exceptional technique and brio. His performance was full of the types of effects that can make your hair stand on your head and he phrases with exceptional imagination. Shame about those pauses.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

800 Words: Broken China

It’s November 2008. The global economic slowdown is clearly becoming a crisis. Yet Hu Jintao is on CNBC, announcing that China is still growing on the same schedule. The world slows down, but Chinese production never stops. Meanwhile, a story is buried on the back page of every business section that that a Chinese agency reports a decrease in energy consumption. Around the same time, China announces - much more quietly - a 4 trillion yuan ($602.27 billion) stimulus. It just doesn’t add up, but if China doctors its economic numbers, how would we ever know?

Twenty-five years ago, it was taken for granted that the twenty-first century belonged to Japan. Fifteen years ago, it was taken for granted that the next century would belong to the EU. Now it’s allegedly China. In both of the previous cases, production seemed to grow exponentially...until it stopped. How could the economies of such productive, industrious world powers suddenly screech to a halt?

Because the economies of Japan and the EU are fundamentally different than the US, and we in the US never accounted for those differences when we took their eminence for granted. The United States’s prosperity is based (at least until this recession) on an economy ruled by startups and dynamic renewal, in which any company can soar or crash at any moment. Traditionally, if a US company has outlived its usefulness, it will fail and a smarter company with a (hopefully) better product will take its place. But this kind of renewal is virtually impossible in countries where a few conglomerates can control everything that is made. If somebody made a better product than Sony or Toyota, the biggest Japanese companies could simply buy the rights to it, or crush it in the marketplace (remember Betamax?).

China’s economy is, in a sense, even less dynamic. No matter how many startups come out of China, they are all still subject to the whims of the government’s Central Committee. When a new city springs up, it’s not because of a burgeoning startup or industry. It’s because the government commands thousands of engineers and workers to build it.

A large part of how China’s economy grew so smoothly was the government’s one-child policy. Since 1979, the Chinese population has only grown 0.5% (India grew 13% in the same period). When population numbers stay constant, it becomes much easier to raise the standard of living because the government knows precisely for how many people it must plan. But after a certain point, it is inevitable that the one-child-policy will outlive its usefulness. Once the average Chinese person attains a certain degree of wealth, two options are possible.

1. The better availability of birth control will shrink Chinese birth-rates in the manner of most other first-world countries. In such a scenario, the young generation would be faced with the burden of providing for a far more populous older generation.
2. The Chinese people will demand an end to the one-child policy and have enough wealth to effectively oppose the government. If this happens, the Chinese government will have to provide jobs for many more people in the coming generations.

The Chinese Government knows that it will soon face a reckoning from which there is no easy escape. If the standard of living goes down, the people will demand change. If the standard of living goes up, the people will demand change. The only potential way out of this conundrum was to find a “sucker” country who could pump money into the Chinese economy by spending all of their own.

Even at its weakest, the American dollar was always the best hope to improve the Chinese standard of living. The Central Committee instructed their banks to buy up as many American bonds as they could fit in their vaults. As America continued spending as though there was no limit to their credit, the Chinese bought as much American credit as they could find. As a result, Americans now own Chinese products, and the Chinese own American money. The problem is that the Chinese economy still doesn’t have enough money to let its citizens live well, nor can they spend whatever money they have. Because if America’s credit runs out, it’s China who owns most of it. They will have to help the United States pay its debts, which now total almost 14.3 trillion dollars.

The wealth created by China is not created by private speculators. Chinese wealth is created by its government, who may instruct their investors to buy whatever the government deems necessary at any time. To this day, the result of the government’s efforts is that the average Chinese income is now roughly $4500 a year - still only one-half of the per-capita income of the poorest first-world country. At the same time, China is attempting to ease itself out of American bonds, but what will replace it? The Chinese economy is based on a weak currency that allows other countries to hire Chinese workers cheaply. But if China wants to raise the standard of living, they have to find a way to strengthen their currency. This cannot happen without buying still more credit from other countries.

In thirty years, China has never had a recession. Perhaps this is good news, but probably not. We simply don’t know what would happen when China experiences one. In a Western Democracy, you can vote out a government. In the Chinese autocracy, you must either submit to the will of the rulers, or plan a revolution. The Soviet Union lasted 72 years. The People’s Republic of China is now ten years younger than that. Like the late-USSR, the Chinese government is a gerontocracy - full of wrinkled bureaucrats determined to retain power without resorting to the Totalitarianism of their youths. One of the results is that each province is run by a regional governor like a fiefdom. China has a long history of devolving into regional warfare when the central ruler is too weak.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Not 800 Words: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan writes high literature of dirty vitality. During his career, he has been censored by the BBC and accused of plagiarism from a pornographic novel. In his writing, you can find portrayals of castration, bestiality, incest, transvestitism, sadism, child abduction, stalking, mutual poisoning, wrongful prosecution, rape in front of family, mannequin love, and underage sex with a lesbian midget. The most depraved parts of human nature find their way into McEwan’s books and are then rendered with beautiful prose.

The unpleasantness practically sears the pages of Amsterdam. I had to stop reading a number of times just to collect myself after a particularly sour page. This is black humor of the nastiest variety; full of unsympathetic characters whose desire to be virtuous is continually punished by characters still less deserving of sympathy.

Is it great literature? Probably not. I yearn, I thirst, I hunger to glut myself on more books about bad people. But the threadbare interior lives we’re given here make for a surprisingly meager meal. Instead, we feast on a slightly lesser pleasure; watching bad people do bad things. And that is friggin’ delicious. The selfishness of these characters is palpable, all the moreso for realizing that we might be more like these people than we want to admit. If this is great literature, it can stake its claim on the way which spiteful, evil acts grow so organically out of the story that we’re coerced into an uncomfortable pang of recognition: in our worst moments we might have done the same.

In the place of inner thoughts, we have the processes by which these characters go about their jobs, and McEwan writes with uncanny accuracy about how they work. McEwan takes us into the creative process of composer, Clive Linley. Every composer will immediately recognize the euphoria of coming up with a great idea, followed by the inevitable depression that follows in trying to develop it; or how fatal an interruption can be to creativity. Anyone who has ever led a foundering organization will immediately recognize the predicament of Vernon Halliday, editor of the struggling broadsheet ‘The Judge’, who must resort to extreme measures to keep his paper afloat; and must be politic with an uncooperative staff hunting for his head.

If Amsterdam can be said to have a theme, it is friendship, and the ease with which its bond can come undone. The strongest portions of Amsterdam are the ones which deal with the relationship between the two protagonists, and the flawless demonstration of how easily forty years of close friendship can turn into bitter enmity from the smallest passing remark. In McEwan’s later masterpiece, Saturday, he portrays a protagonist whose assumptions that he is a civilized man are consistently being threatened by everyone from family, friends, co-workers and random strangers. If Saturday succeeds as great literature where Amsterdam fails, it is probably because Henry Perowne’s sense of civilization never completely deserts him, however tempting that urge becomes.

At least Amsterdam makes no apologies for breaking civilization’s veneer. McEwan turns these characters into animals with relish. No elusive poetic truth lies beneath, only the all-too-common realization that beneath our wishes for good sense, we are all capable of beastliness. Fortunately, beastliness can be very, very entertaining.

Some Damn Good Vaughan Williams

It's not the Proms, but Radio3 has a truly magnificent performance of Vaughan Williams's London Symphony by the BBC Scottish Symphony available for streaming here. Conducted by Andrew Manze of all people. If you love Vaughan Williams, and nobody who hears him ever doesn't, you owe it to yourself to hear this concert.

Henry Wood's pioneering 1937 recording. Performances of this piece just get slower and slower.

800 Words: Baltimore-Washington - The Special Relationship

Nearly every Great American City has a smaller second city as a neighbor - a shadow city into which is poured as much of the Great City’s darker nature as it can possibly manage; its permanent underclass, its industrial sludge, its crime, its diseases, its drunks and junkies, its functional architecture. New York has Newark, Boston has New Haven, Chicago has Gary, San Francisco has Oakland and Washington DC has Baltimore.

No matter where life takes me, I am a Baltimorean. My family came to Baltimore at various points of the twentieth century, and mine is the first generation for whom Baltimore always felt like Home. It is more than a place where I lived or went to school, it is the place of which the sights, sounds, faces and smells will always feel the most familiar. Try as I might have to escape, Home will never be anywhere else.

And as I’m sure most Baltimoreans do, I grew up viewing Washington with a mixture of awe, envy and smugness. Washington had the exact same problems as Baltimore: murder, drugs, AIDS, venereal disease, teen pregnancy and illiteracy chief among them. Yet there was something about DC which could not help but gleam. Every year as a kid, my father used to pack as many of my friends would fit into our Ford Taurus station wagon and take us on a tour of Washington. It was the ‘social event’ of Christmas vacation among our friends - and believe me, the only one I controlled.

I suppose it was on those trips that I developed the kind of fascination with Washington which a Brooklynite would have with Manhattan. Baltimore is the city of my heart, but Washington is the city of my dreams. I may be the only person to ever live in Washington who also romanticized it, but I’d also be hard-pressed to believe that America has a more beautiful city.

To most people, especially Baltimoreans, Washington is a synthetic city - a city of transplants, social climbers, egoists and fanatics who built a city on the dime of taxpayers whose cities declined while DC flourished. It is a city full of segregation where people engorged on white privilege are served at every counter by those who’ll never experience it.

But to me it was also the city where aspirations torrentially flowed. Baltimore may be the city of my life, but Washington is the city of my youth. I came to college in 2001, three weeks before 9/11. I arrived a horrendous student in American University’s learning-disability program. I didn’t expect to last through my first year. Four years later, I graduated an honor student with special tassles and a medal. No matter what else happened in my life, nobody can ever take those years away from me.

Once, Washington was the city of cherished possibilities. Now, Washington is the city of cherished memories. For me, Washington will always be the city of drunken escapades, late-night conversations, believing in causes and in love, mostly unrequited, and both with a passion I will never again experience. It is the place where I discovered on some cigarette fueled night that I could write, and the next sleep-deprived morning that other people might enjoy reading it.

Baltimore is a place to go if you want to be realistic about life. Washington is a place for romantics. It is not for nothing that every survey names Washington DC the top city in America for young professionals. DC is a machine forever powered by youth. The young are the only people who believe in what they do so fervently that they grind themselves the bone in service of their cause. The DC of suburban bureaucrats is far away from their DC. The DC of young people is a small village, it’s own kind of movable feast; full of happy hours in which everybody stays until closing time to discuss the minutia of every political issue. It’s the only place in America where young people still dress as though they live in a Mad Men episode, and perhaps the only place where it’s acceptable to act as though they do.

Less than two weeks ago, I came to DC for the first time again. Living now in Bethany Beach Delaware, it was my first time as a visitor since before college. And DC, ever surprising, came alive for me in a way it never did before. I barely entered the ‘safe’ confines of the North-West quadrant. I was everywhere else, but the furthest I ventured into North-West was First and Rhode Island. At four o’clock in the morning, I walked alone from 14th and Maryland in Northeast to 13th and S in Southeast; and at no point did I feel unsafe. DC was no longer a small village, it was a full city in which the possibilities were too large for any one person to experience all of them.

Unfortunately, the expansion of my DC comes at a price. The price is paid, as usual, by the black community. Gentrification jacks up the prices, and the poor can’t afford to stay in their homes. And yesterday came the news that DC was no longer a majority black city.

Washington is a city built by blacks, maintained by blacks and native-rooted by blacks. Except for a few pockets of over-privileged Wasps, the roots of Washington DC that go more than a generation deep are almost entirely African-American. Whites come to DC in search of work, particularly in an economic downturn when government jobs are the only unaffected source of employment. But the black community made DC work for well over a hundred years.

All around America, we’re beginning to see something which looks like Urban Flight in Reverse. Whites are beginning to move back into the cities, ‘gentrifying’ neighborhoods and raising prices to the point that poor blacks have to move into the suburbs. Who knows? In twenty years it’s possible (though unlikely) that every one-bedroom apartment in Gallery Place might cost more than a five-bedroom house in Rockville. Richard Florida, the urban studies theorist and guru at the University of Toronto, believes that this is how America is going to be re-formed for the twenty-first century. The small towns, suburbs and industrial cities which were so crucial to sustaining middle-class America in the twentieth century are no longer able to do so. According to Florida, the best hope to maintain America’s middle class is for educated young people to move back into cities with viable twenty-first century industries. And that is precisely what is happening (among other places) in San Francisco for technology, New York for finance and media, Boston for education, Los Angeles for entertainment, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for research, and Washington for government.

But there is still reason to hope that this isn’t just another form of Urban Flight, at least in DC. There is no stopping governments from growing, neither Reagan nor George W. Bush were successful in that regard. But one of the upsides to this is that the DC metropolitan area has an unemployment rate of only 6.9%. Compared with the national rate 9.4%, the city is a Mecca of possible employment.

Since families that once had reliable employment in rustbelt towns like Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati no longer have such things, they must look for other towns to place roots. For a long time, the rust-belt was good to American families. They made more than enough to make ends meet, and many families sent their children to college. Unfortunately, these children must make new roots in a new city.

The Obama era is a watershed moment in American History for many reasons. Not least of which is a Coming of Age for Washington DC. The Obamas are perhaps the first ‘first family’ to take Washington DC to heart. If DC were a city for upper-class transients, it would not have been worth their time. The Obamas have woken us up to a new vision of DC: A multicultural place where black and white intermingle freely.

This is paralleled with a new growth which you can see all around America. The growth of the Black Middle Class. In 1980, 50% of the African American population had graduated from high school and eight percent graduated from college. By 2006, 86% of blacks under the age of 29 graduated from high school and 19% had completed a bachelor's degree. If you combine this with the 48% of African Immigrants who have bachelor’s degrees, this is an enormous step forward. It is a new phenomenom in America: a black middle class so large as to be a demographic of its own. Not even the largest economic recession in 75 years can destroy it.

As America becomes more blind to race, its upper, middle and lower classes will all be less race-bound. DC will never be more segregated than it has already been, and it is entirely possible that it will shortly become one of the most multicultural cities in America. The poverty within DC will exist for a long time yet, and it will hardly be exclusive to the black community. But at least some, perhaps many, within the Black community stand to taste much of DC’s coming prosperity.

And as I move back to my hometown to become a Baltimore businessman, watching DC gives me new hope for what Baltimore will accomplish. A number of government agencies have already moved to Baltimore - Social Security being the largest. Johns Hopkins Hospital is both the #1 hospital in America and the #1 employer in the State of Maryland. The government has a variety of reasons to collaborate with Hopkins and it might soon make sense to bring the government’s medical facilities to Baltimore. Around Johns Hopkins sprouted the beginnings of a thriving bio-tech industry. Furthermore, many workers in the Federal Government are attracted by Baltimore’s cheaper housing - they simply buy houses near I-95 or Penn Station and commute to DC every day.

Baltimore may no longer have many industries of its own to offer, but it is gradually getting an influx of the better things from Washington. Just as the three cities of the research triangle in North Carolina are equally important to one another, perhaps Baltimore can develop a more modest but similarly symbiotic relationship to DC for government. Baltimore would no longer be DC’s shadow city. Baltimore and DC would be cities to stand alongside each other.