Thursday, March 23, 2017

Tale 5: Five in One - First Little Bit

In order to tell the tale of Clarissa Johansen, we must tell the tale of her great mentor, Bethany Katz, for Bethany's story is the story of love - spiritual love, humane love, physical love, public love, personal love, self love, the strength which love gives, and the bridges which love cannot cross.

"It's like you get five religions in one" is what Barack Obama's grandfather said about Unitarianism. Unitarian Universalism, that great leveler of Christ, the great hope that religion and modernity can mix, that you can tame religion and all its demands for Holy War into a domesticated pet that lets you experience the holiness of divinity while not recognizing its primacy, lets you feel connected to the oneness of all things while still feeling yourself important enough to love and be loved, that guiltlessly binds the best of all religions together without considering how the people to whom these practices are life itself might feel it desecration.

And yet, Unitarianism is the best of us: The Adamses, the Alcotts, Susan B. Anthony, Bela Bartok, Ray Bradbury, e. e. cummings, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Buckminster Fuller, Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Jefferson, Tomas Masaryk, Hermann Melville, Isaac Newton, Paul Newman,  Barack Obama's family, Keith Olbermann, Linus Pauling, Joseph Priestley, Christopher Reeve, Paul Revere, Benjamin Rush, Arthur Schlesinger, Albert Schweitzer, Pete Seeger, Rod Serling, Robert Gould Shaw, Adlai Stevenson, William Howard Taft, Kurt Vonnegut, Daniel Webster, William Carlos Williams, Joanne Woodward, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Wright.

There are less than 200,000 members of Unitarian Churches in the entire world, and less than 900,000 people who identify as Unitarian. No religion, not even Judaism, ever did so much in so short a time by such a large percentage of adherents to advance the causes of freedom and justice and beauty in the world. It is the religion of true miracles, in which the divine works are made manifest not in the skies, but here on earth - the place where in the end we find our happiness, or not at all.

At fifteen years old, few were happier than Bethany Felicity Katz. The younger daughter of Reverend Mary Katz, Senior Minister for the last three years of the First Unitarian Universalist Church and Center in San Francisco at the intersection of Geary Blvd and Franklin Street, herself the daughter of Matthew Williams, for thirty-seven years the Senior Minister at First Parish in Concord, himself the second son of Reverend Frank Williams, who was Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the flagship Unitarian Church on Farnsworth St. in Boston. After fifty-two years, Reverend Frank was succeeded by Reverend Frank Jr., who was Senior Minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in DC on Harvard St. and ran the Unitarian Lobby, DC Unitarians for Social Justice. The second son, Burke Williams, fried his mind with hallucinogenics in 1950's San Francisco and lived in a group home for thirty-five years for the mentally disturbed before Frank Jr. asked Mary to leave Boston for San Francisco to help look after Burke.

Bethany was also the younger daughter of Adam Katz, the most expensive, and therefore the best, invasive cardiologist practicing at Mass Gen, who left both his hospital and his still more lucrative private practice in Concord to live in a Victorian townhouse on Steiner St. across from Alamo Square Park that he joyfully repainted with bright primary colors when their new neighbors suggested that the Katzes turn the last remaining house on their block into one of the Painted Ladies. In his new practice, he worked thirty hours a week rather than seventy, he was paid handsomely, but he didn't need any more money than he had. His fiftieth was around the corner, and he had more than enough money to keep his family living handsomely in San Francisco's best neighborhood while his mother was safely in the Boston Area's best Assisted Living facility. If there was trouble,  his sister could drive down from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

When Adam started dating Mary Williams, his parents were livid. Not because they particularly cared whether or not he married a Jewish girl, but because they both knew their widowed mothers would be furious. Fortunately, Bob's bubbies: Flora Katz (born Blumeh Levinson) and Mildred Spivak (born Menukhke Braverman) - were elderly and sometimes confused. His parents thought they could keep both their mothers in the dark about the relationship which their goldene eynikle who attends Harvard Medical School embroiled himself. Eight months into the relationship, Blumeh passed away. On the first anniversary of their first date, the lovebirds announced their engagement. Menukhkeh passed away a week after getting the news.

They moved to San Francisco when Bethany was twelve and her older sister was sixteen. Bethany's older sister, Marian, was bitter about the move let her parents know in no uncertain terms. She had a boyfriend in Boston she had to leave, seemingly hundreds of school friends, and was determined to hate every minute of her years in San Francisco. When it came time for college, she applied only to schools in Boston, and chose Northeastern. Six months after graduation she married her high school sweetheart, had four children, stayed at home to take care of them, and is now that the younger two are teenagers is wondering what to do when everybody leaves the house. Maybe she'll get involved with politics - she fancies that she always wanted to care about things, or maybe she'll just take an art class.

Bethany, however, was the type who knew how to be happy wherever she went. Like Marian, she was the most popular girl in her class at Cambridge Friends School, but unlike Marian, her popularity was not based on fear, and when she enrolled in San Francisco Friends School, she quickly became the most well-liked girl in her class - the teachers commenting on what a lovely effect she had on the other kids. A relatively unruly class of kids was suddenly nicer to each other, better behaved in class, and even the picked on kids who were falling behind were accepted by others because Bethany accepted them. In the case of the most particularly picked on and learning disabled kid, she would cheerfully volunteer to partner with him on group projects class and gently ministered with patient help and explanations to get him caught up with the class.

If Bethany's parents always figured that Marian would become a doctor, it seemed absolutely obvious that Bethany was destined for a life of service.

There was no third sibling, but as seemed tradition from time immemorial in every branch of the Williams family, the Bob and Mary would board a new student every year. In generations past, it would be divinity students, but in Jet Age of the late 20th century, it seemed especially exciting to host foreign exchange students. So every year, the Adam and Mary Katz would host a new foreign exchange student to Cambridge Friends School, and when they came to San Francisco, promptly founded a foreign exchange program at San Francisco Friends School.

Marian was, perhaps understandably, a little bitter about the experience of having to learn to communicate with strange people. One particular male exchange student from Argentina would make a pass at her every day while living under their roof, and twice was waiting in her bedroom for her when she came out of the shower. Her parents never seemed to take her particularly seriously, but after that experience they generally made it a practice of taking female exchange students when possible.

Bethany though, would take it upon herself to learn as much as she could about her new siblings' language, their cultures, their hometowns, their families and friends back home, and would stick to them like glue in public to make sure that their transition to America ran as smoothly as the day is long. After they went back to their home countries, she would write them long letters full of hearts to make sure they knew how much they were missed and how much love they added to the Katz family, inevitably ending with ample promises to visit them back home.

When Bethany was fifteen, the exchange student was Kristina from Dresden. A new adventure. Blond, five-feet eleven, friendly and outgoing, characterful English, and charmingly unable to get jokes. Every attempt to turn her smile into a laugh would be met with a brow that frowned while the smile stayed pasted on, and two seconds later an explanation as to why the statement Bethany just made was not true. It caused Bethany no end of delight. Kristina's father was once a member of the Communist party, his father before him a member of the Nazi party. Other various indirect ancestors were members of the Deutsche Reichspartei, the SPD, the Stazi, and the Waffen-SS.

But you would never know from such a troubled past by looking at Kristina, who resembled life itself. Nothing was too adventurous for Kristina, who insisted on taking Bethany, indeed the whole Katz family, all along the trails and rivers of Northern California.  . . . . (the Katz's thought they were an outdoors family until Kristina took them to a new outdoor habitation every weekend)

It was during one of these outdoor habitations that a series of a dozen-and-a-half vans pulled up to the next door house. Driving through the entire block is prohibited, and traffic is blocked for a half-mile in each direction. Ten children emerged with two parents, and forty other men and women helped them move into the house parallel to the Katzes. The men wear dark suits and black hats which they only take off for the severest of labors, the women never take off their long sleeves or their long dark dresses or the hats atop their heads. The few women who show any hair look as though their hair is completely synthetic.

Within seven hours, all the furniture was properly deposited, along with an extra sink properly drilled and plumbed, two refrigerators installed, an extra oven installed with the previously installed thoroughly cleansed, two microwaves, two toasters. All able to be done because the wall between the two townhouses was thoroughly knocked down so that two townhouses become one large townhouse in the middle of the San Francisco Victorians. The multicolored hue of the Victorian paintjob was next thing taken care of, repainted not as a many-colored cloak but as a simple Blue and White, with a painting on the third floor of an old man with a very long, almost completely square beard with four Hebrew letters underneath that read "Mem, Shin, Yud, Khet." Moshiach.

The protests began immediately. The block was immediately wrecked, the

Friday, March 17, 2017

It's Not Even Past: Episode 2 - Beginning

As I said at the beginning of the last podcast, if I was being harder on the Left than I'm being on the Right, it's because I assume that it's mostly people of the Left who will listen to this podcast, as they do to podcasts generally. Educated people in our day and age generally tilt to varying degrees of Left, and the problems of the Right in American life are so unbelievably obvious and present and fecund that they need no enumeration from me. Dominance by the American Right is a simple fact of modern American life, now more than ever, and the nearly the only questions about it are under the rubric of how to defeat it. And to defeat it we have to talk a little bit about imperialism. 

Unless you feel that a person's quality of life is of truly equal importance to a person's right to life, it is very difficult to say that imperialism is a crime quite on the same level as Nazism and Communism. Imperialism is the oldest of all political crimes, the most difficult and dangerous to eradicate by far, and one crime in which every person in the modern world has to one extent or another been complicit.

And if you feel strongly that a person's quality of life matters as much as his or her right to life, then I'd ask you to seriously prioritize in a world where a person's mere right to stay alive is still so often questioned. Quality of life is surprisingly difficult to define without context, but whether or not a person dies of natural causes is generally a question whose answers are binary. But even if you disagree with that any of what I've said so far, this is, after all, my show, so for the moment let's take it as a given that the a person's right to life is more important than a person's quality thereof for the simple reason that a right to life is the obvious first step in achieving quality of life.

If a person's right to life is the most important of all factors, then the single greatest justification for lancing the boil that is imperialism until full drainage is that even with all its attendant evils, is not the inequalities of imperialism within themselves, but the near-apocalyptic events which such wealth inequalities almost inevitably seem to foretell. And in that sense, yes, imperialism is absolutely an infected limb that requires amputation. But the problem is that theft and exploitation and plunder of one civilization to the detriment of another - which as Modern China's current plunder of Africa proves, and just seventy years ago, Imperial Japan's plunder of Manchuria - is not merely a Western problem, and perhaps less an exclusively Western problem than in more than a hundred years.

Imperialism, both in its causes and its results, is so complex that the vast majority of marginal attempts that history has yet made to eradicate it have resulted in their own attendant disasters. Not only were Communists who attracted so may followers over two centuries with their championship of anti-Imperial struggles, more prolific artists of death than Hitler - albeit both over two decades more and much greater square mileage, but so by and large were second rank left-wing dictators of the quote-unquote Third World who so often perpetrated their bloody deeds in the name of fighting against imperialism - left wing dictators who were still quite a bit more bloody in their statistics than their right-wing nationalist counterparts.

And I realize how controversial that statement still is, and perhaps especially is today, but to take a few obviously selective examples: no amount of Mussolini blood in Italy's occupation of Ethiopia could spill a tenth of the blood spilled by the anti-Imperial Mengistu, no amount of French and American greed or incompetence or delusion could unleash on Cambodia what the anti-Imperial Pol Pot did. No amount of Chinese nationalism could spill blood with the joyful alacrity of Mao - no one ever has and hopefully no one again ever will. Right wing dictatorship is often not quite as bloody, and perhaps for the simple reason that the innate predisposition of right-wing pathology with its veneration for institutions and tradition is a predisposition to authoritarianism and violent law enforcement.  Dictatorship does not do as much to upset the natural right-wing order of things because conservatives already respond with veneration to authority. On the other hand, the Left, with its pathological predisposition toward upending tradition and institutions, has a natural predisposition to chaos and terror. Generally speaking, a right-wing dictatorship tries to uphold the law by the most extreme of measures, while a left-wing dictatorship, as happened most obviously under Mao and Stalin, and perhaps even to a small extent under Hitler's National Socialism - remember that Hitler was still as much a socialist as a nationalist and conservatism is different than illiberalism - will always break the law, change the law, subvert the law, to make even and perhaps especially their most loyal citizens live under the profoundest terror. The best way to do it is to kill their neighbors, kill their friends, kill their families, and finally kill them. And furthermore, when one hears about Steve Bannon's veneration for the American working class, your tentacles for detecting a national socialist philosophy should immediately go off.

Again, as we said at the beginning of the last podcast. One of Art's great secrets is its societal tremors, Art is a societal seizmograph. The relevance of this will, hopefully, make sense in a few minutes. With obvious exceptions of course, a secure era always seems to be dominated by secure Art in which the rules are clearly defined. The vast majority of the 18th century, with its intricate and unbreakable monarchical hierarchies, was the archetype of a society in which art was created with extremely distinct rules so as to not upset the precarious balance of an incredibly intricate societal structure. All official European and American buildings seemed to be designed with the kind of columns one finds in Ancient Greece or Rome, with heights determined by mathematical ratios found in nature so as to provide the most harmonious possible surroundings. Nearly all pictorial art was designed by schematic before the schematic was painted over. All music ends in the same key in which it begins, and the phrase-lengths are inevitably kept in multiples of four. The poetry was almost inevitably kept in strictest possible couplet form. The expectations of what art was supposed to be were ironclad. But as anyone who grew up in the suburbs can tell you, predictability can at times feel like a kind of prison, and when the prison walls come down, the chaos is that much more explosive because nobody remembers what chaos feels like.

By 1789, France, the kingdom well-known for having the most intricate of all Europe's monarchical hierarchies, was beset by a revolution. First came a financial crisis, then collapse, then the rise of the Jacobins and the guillotine, then the execution of a few hundred noblemen, then the rise of Robespierre who executed most of the other Jacobins and eventually was himself executed for having been responsible for the execution of 20,000 Frenchmen, then came the ten year French Revolutionary War which killed somewhere between 300,000 and 1.1 million French, and then came Napoleon to unite France under his dictatorship and who decided he needed to put the rest of Europe under an Empire united under his rule, and somewhere between 3.5 and 6 million died for the cause of his ambition to conquer the world. When there is too much order, the ensuing chaos become all the worse. It was an avalanche of death that claimed ever more lives for twenty-six years before it finally stopped.

War did not rage throughout the supposedly civilized part of the world for another hundred years, when it broke out again in 1914, it took thirty-one years to stop, and in the meantime, if we go by the estimates of R. J. Rummel, probably the best known scholar of state murder who has an easily accessible website if you can stomach such a thing, we lost somewhere between 17 and 18 million to World War One, somewhere between 20 to 50 million in the Spanish Influenza which broke out because of the unsanitariness of the battlefields, an estimated seven million who starved to death in various countries during the Great Depression, another estimated 5 to 9 million deaths due to the Russian Civil War of the early 1920s which broke out after the collapse of the Czar, and the four million deaths for which Lenin was directly responsible after he consolidated power, and the 5 million killed by Imperial Japan, the 20 million dead in the Chinese Civil War of the 30s and 40s, for which the Communist party led by Mao in the few years before he assumed power was responsible for 4 million deaths alone, the four million Chinese Deaths for which Chiang-Kai Shek's right-wing nationalist government was responsible, the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by Turkish generals which killed roughly 1.8 million if one counts a few hundred thousand non-Armenians also murdered, and the nearly million people killed by the allegedly great Ataturk who is still revered by American neoconservatives as the model of an incorruptible secularizing dictator, the well over a million killed in quote-unquote minor European dictatorships, another roughly 20 million killed in various ways by Hitler's Nazis for which we needn't elaborate, and the probable upward of 50 million people killed by Stalin's various orders and policies alone. It is macabre at best to list these totals and then add all of them up, but let's just say that the wars of the early twentieth century killed so far over a hundred million people that it's probably closer to two-hundred million. One then adds up the stupefying death tolls of the Cold War and the quote unquote Third World upon whom it was mostly perpetrated, the roughly twelve million Soviets for which dictators after Stalin were responsible, the 2 million dead in the killing fields of Pol-Pot's Cambodia, the roughly 1.7 million killed by North Korea, another 1.7 million killed in the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the 1.5 million dead in the Polish Civil War which killed my great-aunt after surviving the Holocaust, the 1.5 million killed by the various Pakistani military dictatorships, the 1.1 million killed in Yugoslavia, yes, the 6 million dead from United States actions in the Cold War. And worst of all, the roughly seventy-seven million killed in Mao's China, for which no truly reliable total is possible, and some estimates go up to a hundred twenty million people. While estimates are obviously unreliable, evidence would seem to point to that five hundred years of traditional Western mercantile Imperialism with all its attendant mass murders cannot equal the total number of deaths engendered by thirty-one years of advanced warfare, let alone the seventy five years of it from the outbreak of World War One until the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In fact, for five hundred years of Western Imperialism to reach anything even resembling the equivalent death tolls of the twentieth century one would have to not only accept the very highest estimates - such as putting the total Native Americans killed rather than felled by disease at 120 million people higher than than the 15 million that is generally supposed, but also include the casualties of Islamic Imperialism.

Even the single greatest death toll of vaguely recorded modern Imperialism which admittedly boosts arguments of moral equivalence significantly, the mass famines of Indians in the British Empire, and killed what's generally regarded to be somewhere between 12 million and 29 million people, have to be considered in the context that these were acts of starvation. Acts of starvation which the great tyrants of the 20th century were in no way beneath, but still, when compared to the mass murders of Auschwitz, The Great Terror, and the Red Guards, pale in comparison. Furthermore, as the British developed technologies to mitigate the worst of famines, the famines decreased. These were clearly grisly matters of unspeakable contempt and incompetence and horror, but it was not premeditated murder and even the most contemptible of British officers issued orders to give the subjects just enough wages to keep them alive. Some would consider this all the worse, and there's certainly merit to that argument: because it shows that people of color did not even factor into the decision making of imperial rulers who plundered a century of wheat crop from a land they ruled for the joy of ruling, and shows that they were willing to tolerate the long, drawn out suffering of those who were clearly destined to die when a bullet to the head might have been more merciful. And yet, I would also ask you to particularly consider one Emperor of the Mughal dynasty, which controlled the vast majority of the Indian subcontinent for the three hundred years before British dominance. Auranguzeb, ruling for forty nine years between 1658 to 1707, was considered to rule somewhere in the area of a hundred to a hundred fifty million people. He brought the Mughal Empire to its largest dominance, 3.2 million square miles, which held for fifty years after his death. He required from his subjects a yearly tribute of nearly 3 billion rupees, which was roughly 38 million pounds in 1700, which means roughly 10 billion pounds in today's money, which means he commanded a yearly tribute of 12.5 billion dollars, much of which was collected from penniless peasants.

In Auranguzeb's lifetime, 4.6 million were said to have been killed from war. One has to imagine that with the unreliable records kept in the 1600s all over the world, the total may be much, much higher. When one considers that in 1900, the population total of India was 280 million, it would seem that the British Empire's crime is roughly on par with the most expansionist of the subcontinent's own leaders when there was no meddling from the West, and with far less premeditation. Whether from the East or West, Man is a tyrannical animal, given to imaginative flights of crushing fellow humans as though the rulers are children learning they have power of life and death over insects.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review Dump 5

January 20th: Johannes Debus and the Baltimore Symphony:
Barber of Seville Overture

It was Inauguration Day, and I desperately needed a musical balm which perhaps my favorite symphony would give me. In so many words, it sucked. Johannes Debus is a superficial conductor who played Brahms with all the depth of a generic symphony by an unknown composer. This was 'revisionist Brahms' that copies all the superficial qualities of Weingartner with none of Weingartner's ability to get across the essence that belies the elegance. I was so disappointed that I nearly drove up to Pittsburgh a few weeks later to hear Manfred Honeck doubtless show how the piece should be done. The concerto soloist was the extremely French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who has seemingly recorded every piano work ever written. Except for a very few gorgeous pianissimo sounds in the cadenza, his contribution was barely more inspiring. 

January 21st: The Threepenny Opera - Spotlighter's Theater

The less said, the better. 

January 24th: Philadelphia Orchestra & Yannick Nezet-Seguin - Kennedy Center

It doesn't get much better than this. Note for note, there hasn't been a better concert I've gone to in this concert-filled month. The Philadelphia Orchestra is not the Philadelphia Orchestra of old, it still sounds like Riccardo Muti's orchestra - Stokowski or Ormandy would never have allowed for those whip-crack fortissimos pummeling you between the eyes. Except for its virtuoso excellence, you wouldn't be able to pick the Philadelphia Orchestra out of a lineup. The orchestras of Cleveland and Boston still retain something of their old sound, but it seems that the velvet of Philadelphia's golden era is lost to history. 

Yet everything, even so, was a thing of wonder. Perhaps the Philadelphia Orchestra, probably the first American orchestra to achieve a worldwide reputation, is undergoing a second golden era, entirely different from its first. When you hear the very best performers, you remember precisely what it is that the live experience gives that recordings never can. There are certain musical colors that you can never hear on a recording. Neither the Baltimore Symphony or the National Symphony, good as they both can be, give you those numinous moments with any frequency. You can only hear this kind of music making in the flesh. For the second time this season, the Philadelphia Orchestra provided them for these ears in spades. From the very first notes of Lili Boulanger's all too rarely heard music, you knew that you were in the presence of a musical greatness. It continued even continued with Louis Lortie's Chopin. I am no fan of the Chopin piano concertos, but Lortie made a 40 minute concerto seem like 25 minutes. The accompaniment of the Philadelphia Orchestra was such velvet that you think to yourself that maybe, just maybe, they still have that velvet in their veins that made Rachmaninov himself swoon. 

But even music lovers less ambivalent about Chopin don't drive an hour and a half to hear the First Piano Concerto. I went to hear Petrushka, and it was damned magnificent. The numinous moments where everywhere - the huge eruptions of bass, the all-too-spooky entrance of Petrushka's ghost, the organgrind whose piccolo decorations sounded exactly like squeaky gears, the whiz-bang orchestral kaleidescope in which every note and dynamic nuance registers precisely at Yannick Nezet-Seguin's top speeds. At times, you wished that YNS would, as Dudmel did in his very different performance, shape and bend the phrases more. Petrushka can be a human statement, much more affecting than a showpiece, and yet what a showpiece! No recording can thrill like this!

January 26th: National Symphony - Christoph Eschenbach
Weinberg Violin Concerto Gidon Kremer Soloist
Shostakovich Symphony no. 8

There was simply no way that this concert, good as it was, will register in my memory in the same manner which do the concerts which bookended it. The National Symphony is a decent orchestra, and Christoph Eschenbach, when on his game, is as good as any conductor in the history of music. But with revelations on either side of this, a very good Shostakovich 8 (a work I adore) just doesn't measure up.

Even the presence of Gidon Kremer doesn't do much to liven things up. I highly doubt that Moises (I'm not going to look up the spelling of his Russian name...) Weinberg as great a composer as people begin to allege, and yet, even if it sounds almost indistinguishable from Shostakovich, it's not truly bad Shostakovich. Few composers do their best work in their violin concertos - even a lot of immortals phoned it in. So I look forward to making the acquaintance of a composer whom, were I a Soviet citizen in the 1960's, would have probably seemed to me a perfectly legitimate candidate of the pantheon.

Eschenbach was, apparently, his usual slow self. 75 minutes by the clock. You could have fooled me. I was expecting things to feel much slower than they were. The slow movements went by in no time. The soft dynamics he got in the first half of the opening were truly breathtaking. It was only the middle scherzi which were a bit ragged. You can always tell in an Eschenbach performance which sections get all the rehearsal time - and it's almost always the slowest movements. Eschenbach is, for all his many weaknesses, a recreative musician of the pantheon who brings insights to everything he touches. In Eschenbach's presence, I finally felt as though I got a handle on the troublesomely incoherent last movement, in which the snare drums seem to signal an air bombing interruption of what sounds like people resuming normal life with its enjoyments. The final passage, which Ken Woods called the bleakest C-Major in the world, seemed to me like gratefulness, perhaps the gratefulness of a man thankful to have lived through another day. In a week without the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Staatskapelle Berlin, I'd have been thrilled to take these priceless (for me) insights home and leave it there. But this was no normal week.

January 27th: Staatskapelle Berlin - Daniel Barenboim
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante
Bruckner Symphony no. 7

Forget about that lackluster Sinfonia Concertante except to say that the very attractive principals from the Berlin orchestra who played the solo parts made me wonder how many couples have had sex in the auditorium of Carnegie Hall.

I doubt I will ever hear a Bruckner 7 to match that in my life. Barenboim's newest recording of Bruckner 7 is, along with #5, the highlight of the cycle (at least in the symphonies I care about). The Carnegie performance was even better. Of course, a few quibbles here and there - particularly the fact that the cymbal player was slightly off on his crash (You had one job!!!), and of course, even in the Staatskapelle Berlin, the brass are too loud, occasionally I wish Barenboim would have allowed for still more tempo flexibility in the Adagio (as is his wont). And yet, everything else... The flexibility of tempos, the way sections of the ensemble phrased as one, the gemutlicher warmth of the sound. Barenboim, in his greatest performances, is an artist of improvisation. He paints with dabs of orchestral color, a little more violin here and less there, signaling to a wind player to play as though they are interrupting the thought of a string section. He hears the harmonic tensions in a score on such a fundamental level that he knows how to guide Measure 40 of the opening to obtain a better result in Measure 220 of the finale.

There were so many numinous moments throughout the performance, but there was one particular type of numinosity that was so revelatory that I question if I ever understood Bruckner until I heard (rather, felt) these moments.

Why is the brass in Bruckner so loud? What purpose does it serve to drown out the orchestra as he does? It's not enough to say that Bruckner created an organ-like orchestra, though that gets us a part of the way there. When you hear the brass in the lower octaves on recordings, you all too rarely hear the high winds peaking out in the octaves over them. The high winds are there to shape the overtones. You don't so much hear them as you feel them. In truth, you have no idea if you're actually hearing what you think you're hearing, or if it's psychosomatic. All you know that the winds are there, and it creates a kind of psychedelic hallucination, as the high notes of the winds peak out from the mass of sound like beams of light.

January 28th: Staatskapelle Berlin - Daniel Barenboim
Bruckner: Symphony no. 8

As boring as the night before was lifechanging. I don't want to talk about it...

February 6th: Budapest Festival Orchestra: Ivan Fischer
Beethoven Symphonies 8 and 9

Ivan Fischer is not a natural Beethoven conductor - he wants Beethoven to be Mozart or Schubert. He does not have the killer instinct, the wild animal willing to forego subtlety - if you don't subscribe to Beethoven's metronome markings, and Fischer's clearly happy to follow the old Austro-German ways, then the blunt force which the Austro-German greats brought to Beethoven becomes even more important. When the great unreformed Beethovenians: Szell, Karajan, Klemperer, Wand, Schuricht, the Kleibers, Bernstein, Masur, Tennstedt, Blomstedt, Schmidt-Isserstedt,  even Furtwangler (some would say especially) conducted Beethoven, they knew that the force of Beethoven depended not on originality of conception, but the unwillingness to pull even a single punch. If you were not going to generate momentum through the quickness of tempo and articulation, you have to have not just an enormous, deep, bass heavy sound - which the Budapest Festival Orchestra possesses to a level that equals nearly any orchestra of the German-speaking world, but the willingness to use all of it. Fischer, known for his unorthodox seating arrangements, put the timpani at the front of the orchestra between the violin sections for both symphonies. The timpani has an extremely prominent part in both pieces, but Fischer put the timpanist in front only for the timpanist to play his instrument with the delicacy of a triangle. The spirit with which the timpani gives the rhythmic momentum to Beethoven's music was completely lost. It might have been more to the point to place the timpanist offstage and have him wail on his instrument at a consistent fortississimo.

This is not to say that Fischer's Beethoven was ever any less than exquisite, and sometimes truly brilliant in its insights. The sheer proliferation of nuances was mindboggling, the way he accelarated into the beginning of the eighth's scherzo, the thunderous way he made the strings roll their thirty-second notes in the 'metronome' movement - if only he did the same at the piece's climaxes... It particularly became a problem in the last movement of the 8th symphony, which Fischer took at a tempo that by the standards of 2017 was shocking in its leisure.

But there were two insights into Beethoven's Ninth that I would have travelled much farther afield than New York if I knew I'd gather them. The first was Fischer's brilliantly unorthodox treatment of the first movement's gigantic recapitulation into the tonic. Conductors of a spontaneous disposition tend to slow down to capture the full weight of the orchestral sound, but Fischer sped up. It was brilliant, shocking, utterly unexpected, and felt completely inorganic - which I suppose was the point. The episode did not feel like a logical extension of what came before, but an utter interruption - completely apiece with the Storm movement of the Pastoral Symphony. As far as I was concerned, it was an absolutely revolutionary way to view this passage and an absolutely valid one. I will never look at Beethoven's Ninth the same way.

Fischer is a musician given to lots of spontaneous sounding moments, but he is precisely the opposite of a spontaneous musician. Every interpretive nuance is clearly long thought over, rethought, tested in rehearsal, performed, then retested in a different manner. He's like a musical chemist, trying to find the precise formula to get a magical chemical change.

And the chemical compound he came up with for the finale was so extraordinary as to seem like alchemy. Even before the Ninth began, I heard audience members say 'Where the hell is the chorus?' Having read old reviews of Fischer's Ninths I had a vague idea of what was coming. I imagined that the chorus would be sitting in the first few rows. But I did not expect for the entire chorus to be completely dispersed around the concert hall (if you can call Geffen Hall that...), because there are no words for the risk it takes for a chorus to do this with a touring orchestra when they must have had one rehearsal at most to get it right.

It was a gambit of foolhardy courage, and the payoff was transcendent in a manner that the rest of the concert was not. No doubt, the symbolism of this was apparent to all, this this music of humanity was not meant as a ritual to enact on stage but an inspirational challenge to live more valuably for ourselves and those we love. But in practice, it felt different than that, and still more valuable. This immersion felt less like a traditional performance of Beethoven's as it did Tallis's Spem in Allium, as though angels and ghosts of humanity were bathing us in benevolence and forgiveness. It felt not just like an embrace by humanity, but an embrace by the beyond (Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen...) At first, I was so amused that I was half-temped to stand up and sing the bass part myself - nobody knows me in New York concert halls so it's not like I'd have embarrassed myself in front of anyone, but the sound was far too beautiful to spoil - both utterly intimate because of the dominance of the singers' voices nearest to us, and completely choral because of the blend of the chorus's voices in the background.

Fischer is a detail conductor. He rarely, in my experience, gives a front to back reading in which every single detail feels wholly convincing in the manner that a conductor like Mariss Jansons does (or used to...). He does not go for 'ultimate performances', he trusts that eventually his conception will win you over emotionally, and in the meantime, searches for intellectual nuances to point up. He is an incredibly odd mixture of good taste with eccentricity, and he is avant-garde as only a thoroughgoing traditionalist can be. There has never been nor ever could be another conductor quite like him.