Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Opera Wednesday - Copland's The Tender Land

There are few composers more American than Aaron Copland, so on the eve of this most American holiday, here's part one of Michigan Opera Theatre's production of Copland's 1954 opera The Tender Land, conducted by the composer.  It's part one of 12, so if you like it keep following the links!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The future of religious freedom in America

I'm just catching up on things that have been sitting around for awhile, so the half-dozen or so of you who are regular readers might have already read this elsewhere, but I found it interesting.  Rod Dreher reported here on a conference regarding the future of religious freedom in the United States, sponsored by the magazine First Things.  This isn't the first time First Things has gotten into this kind of provocative discussion; many years ago, I recall them hosting a symposium on the end of democracy in America.

These discussions often seem extreme, and yet how many things that once seemed equally extreme are taken for granted today?  No, the time to discuss them is now, before they reach critical mass, but to look at them with a level head, rather than a Chicken Little sky-is-falling mentality.  Don't panic - but on the other hand, don't poo-poo it either.

Anyway, Dreher links back to a past article asking whether or not Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally irreconcilable.  It's a discomforting question, one that makes you uneasy regardless of how you feel about it.  It's well worth your time reading all the articles linked to here, and thinking about your response to it.  Despite the results of the elections a couple of weeks ago, which might broadly be considered a victory for conservatism - which, though not to be equated with religious freedom, nonetheless represents an ideology perhaps less hostile to religion - I remain vaguely pessimistic about the whole thing.  We already know that the America in which I grew up is gone forever, let alone the America that our forefathers remember.  The questions remain - how far gone?  And what, in fact, does America stand for anymore?  Can you stand for it as well, or do you feel like a stranger in your own strange land?

Make no mistake that I'm still thankful for living in this country, which may well have the worst system in which to live except for all the rest, but what will the future bring for us?  And are we prepared to make a stand for our beliefs?  Who, indeed, knows?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hamilton's big day

It was a good day in the sports world yesterday if your name was Hamilton.  It started early in the morning, when Lewis Hamilton took the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to win his second Formula 1 World Championship, and continued a few hours later when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defeated the Montreal Alouettes to advance to the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup Championship.

It was a good day if, like me, you're a fan of somewhat marginal sporting events.  American Formula 1 fans are a small but hearty group, and the title battle between Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg seemed destined to come down to this final race - as indeed it did.  The math was simple* - if Rosberg won the race, as he was favored to do, Hamilton had to finish second to take the championship.  Anything less, and the title was Rosberg's.

*Somewhat misleading, thanks to the stupidity of awarding double points for the season's final race.  Hamilton, winner of 10 races during the year, as opposed to Rosberg's five, would have had a much larger margin of error had the points allocation been that of every other race.  It goes to show that auto racing should not be treated like coupons at a grocery store.

Truth be told, I've found the season less than enthralling.  The duel between the Mercedes drivers didn't captivate me the way it did others; the Mercs were so dominant during the course of the season that one was tempted to think of the cars as far more important than their drivers.  Mercedes clinched the constructor's championship several races ago, and there was never any real threat from other teams.  I'm not in the minority in thinking this season a disappointment, and the continuing chaos about the financial status of the sport doesn't give one much encouragement for the future; nevertheless, there was a race to be run yesterday morning, a championship to be decided.

Hamilton ran a magnificent race.  He sprinted out to the lead from the start, getting a tremendous jump over the pole-sitter Rosberg, and was never headed.  I'd thought that Hamilton's best bet would have been to avoid Rosberg, tuck into second place, and run a safe race to the end.  It still would have been a smart strategy, but it's not what Hamilton did, and I'm in no position to disagree with his dominant performance.  Rosberg ran into mechanical difficulties in the second half of the race, eventually dropping out of the top ten, and Hamilton held off a late challenge from Felipe Massa to take his 11th victory of the season, and the World Championship.

Dominant car or not, there's no doubt that Hamilton is a fabulous driver, and yesterday's race proved - if any further proof was necessary - that the best man won.


Nearing the halfway point of the CFL season, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were mired in a terrible funk, with a record of 1-6.  It wasn't quite as bad as it might seem; the entire Eastern Division was so bad that 1-6 was still enough to be in contention for first place.  As if that weren't bad enough, the Ti-Cats' new stadium, Tim Horton's Field, was behind schedule, and the team had to play its first three home games at a small college field that afforded them - nothing.

But on Labour Day, the stadium finally opened, and the 'Cats fortunes changed.  They went undefeated at Tim Horton's, winning all six of their regular season games there, and went 8-3 down the stretch, including a must-win against Montreal in the final game of the season*, to finish at 9-9.  Not that impressive, perhaps, but good enough to finish in first place, earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.  Yesterday, their opponent in the East Finals, with a spot in the Grey Cup on the line, was again Montreal.

*Had the Ti-Cats lost that final game, they would have finished at 8-10, and the Toronto Argonauts would have slipped into the final playoff position.  It was that tight.

The game was played in Hamilton, before a sold-out crowd, and although Montreal jumped out to an early lead, the feeling was that this was going to be Hamilton's day.  More specifically, it was Brandon Banks' day.  The Hamilton punt-returner had one touchdown called back because of a penalty, but it wasn't enough to stop him, as he returned two subsequent punts for touchdowns in a tremendous performance that led the Tabbies to a 40-24 victory, and a trip to Vancouver for next week's Grey Cup.

It's the second Cup appearance in a row for Hamilton, which was routed last year by Saskatchewan, in a forgettable game.  They'll be facing the Western champion Calgary Stampeders, who finished the regular season with a league-best record of 15-3, blew off Edmonton in yesterday's nightcap (43-18), and will be heavy favorites to take the Cup next Sunday.  But for us Hamilton fans who believe in signs, we have a few things going for us.  The last time the Tiger-Cats won the Grey Cup, in 1999, they were also playing in their second consecutive championship, having lost the year before.  And that 1999 game was also played in Vancouver, against the same Calgary Stampeders, who were favored to win.  The Tiger-Cats defeated them 32-21 that year - will history repeat itself this season?

After all, if yesterday tells us anything, it's that you shouldn't bet against anyone named Hamilton.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Ben Franklin's America

If you've read any of my blogs for any length of time at all, you'll know that I'm constantly - well, surprised is not the word; maybe illuminated - to see how true it is that there's nothing new under the sun. H.W. Brands' brilliant biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American contains a very interesting quote, a passage (on page 218 of the hardvoer version) I find quite - illuminating:
Few of their children in the country learn English; they import many books from Germany. . . . The signs in our streets have inscripitons in both languages, and in some places only German. They begin of late to make all their bonds and other legal writings in their own language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our courts, where the German business so increases that there is continual need of interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our legislators what the other half says.
Now, you have to admit this is very interesting. I'm sure some will read Franklin's words and see comfort that our current immigration situation will amount to nothing. "After all," they might say, "we've always been worried about newcomers to America - even in Franklin's day. And everything's turned out all right." And I suppose there's something to that. The study of immigration in American is a fascinating one, as we see how different groups assimilated into American culture, gaining power, influence and acceptance.

But when I read this paragraph I see something else; the recognition that there actually was a distinctive American culture, even though at the time (early 1750s) America was a mere British colony. And that the Founding Fathers had, even before the founding of the country, an appreciation of that culture and a concern that it should be preserved. (And we shouldn't be surprised that Franklin would pick up on that, for in the debate about American independence he argued that "We're a new nationality . . . we require a new nation.")

With a few minor substitutions, Franklin's words could be spoken today by anyone with a mind to do so, and they'd be just as accurate. Yes, it's true we've faced this problem before - even predating American independence. But throughout the history of the country we've placed a premium on preserving that culture - enhancing it with contributions from other cultures, to be sure, but with a parallel process of assimilation. I know all the stories about German and Polish and Italian families where the native tongue was the only one spoken in the household, and where the sons and daughters became the first to learn the new language - but the point is, they learned it. There was an agreed-upon belief that it was a good thing for them to speak English, that it was essential to their chance to succeed in the "land of opportunity." I'm not sure I see a common belief in that today.

The Founders believed in a unified language, a common culture. They might be Virginians or Pennsylvanians or New Englanders, but they were also Americans. And there was something specific about being an American. Franklin was famous for saying that if we didn't hang together, we'd all hang separately. I wonder what he would think today; would he see a nation that, despite its political differences, was held together by common threads - shared language, culture, memories? Or would the vision be that of the Balkanization of America, a country being divided along cultural and ethnic lines, people with little in common and even less desire to have anything in common? We aren't hanging together anymore, it seems; but we certainly do know how to hang separately. If he could see us today, I don't think he'd be pleased.

For all his world travel, being an American was precious to Ben Franklin - even before there was an America.

More precious, apparently, than it is to many of today's leaders.

Originally published November 7, 2005

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wish I'd written that...

It was a cinch I'd be behind on all the urgent social issues of the day because I'd quit watching the news on network TV, not being a big fan of socialism, and I wasn't walking around with a pile of degrees in Communism from Berkeley and Harvard. I was just a simple patriot. And unlike your silly lefties, I wanted to see my country protected from the swarms of raving, subhuman assholes who want to kill us because they hate cheeseburgers, golf, football, soap and water, toilets that flush, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, clothing stores, and women who don't smell like donkeys.

It would also be helpful, I'd mention, if we could delaminate all the dunce-cap university professors who want to 'diversify' this and 'globalize' that, provide air-conditioned condos and SUVs for illegal aliens, healthcare and satellite dishes for armed robbers and serial killers, and can't wait to blame the United States for all the bad shit that happens in the world. They could globalize this. That was my basic message."

Dan Jenkins, Slim and None

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Remembering when the band played on

Awhile back, Terry Teachout posted a meme that, as I recall, had something to do with books that had made an immediate and lasting impact on you after you'd read them. Now, I think it's an automatic reflex that the mind starts working every time you read about that kind of list, and it didn't take me long to realize that I might have a very difficult time coming up with ten or so titles that would fit the description. It's not that I haven't read a lot of books, nor is it the case that I'd classify most of those books as forgettable.

It's just that the bar is set pretty high on this. We're not necessarily talking about favorite or best-loved books. There are many books that pack a wallop when you've just turned the final page and closed the covers; it's the rare book that lasts beyond that, causing your mind to return to it again and again. For me, a writer as well as reader, it might involve characters so memorable that I start speculating on how I'd write the continuation of their story. It could be a line or two that sticks in the mind, a line that you find yourself pulling out and using frequently. Or it could be one scene that haunts you, burns itself into your memory like a photographic negative. Whatever the case, I think a list of such books, like a list of one's closest friends, is probably quite short.*

*My own list wound up being short enough; eight titles. Maybe someday we'll discuss them all, but of course that isn't what today's piece is really about.

The point of this is to set up the video clip we're about to look at. One of the books that made my list is Psalm at Journey's End, Erik Fosnes Hansen's remarkable novel about the members of the famed band on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. As you know, I'm something of a Titanic buff, but fictional treatments of the Titanic have rarely risen to the level of the drama of the real story.  Psalm at Journey's End is the exception, and though the characters' names and their personal stories have been fictionalized (and, in fact, the Titanic itself is merely the vehicle, so to speak, through which their stories are told), Hansen's melancholy tale tells of the passion, the triumph and tragedy of the Titanic better than any recent movie could hope to.

The moment of truth comes on the novel's last page. Folklore has long supposed that "Nearer, My God, to Thee" was the piece which the band played as the ship went down. Walter Lord's definitive A Night to Remember rejected that tradition in favor of the Episcopal hymn "Autumn." Lord based his assessment on the eyewitness testimony of wireless operator Harold Bride, who was on the ship until the very end. However, in Lord's follow-up The Night Lives On, he addressed speculation that the piece to which Bride had been referring was actually "Songe d'Automne", a popular song of the time. Lord acknowledges the plausibility, indeed the probability, that this was in fact the final piece, but he concedes that we will probably never know for sure. Other historians have other opinions, the point being that such conjecture has long been part of the lore of the Titanic, and probably always will be.

Hansen, too, has his own theory, only his is far different, and adds to the poignancy of the ship's last moments. Recalling a memory from his childhood, bandleader Jason Coward asks the other musicians to join him in Handel's Largo.  The Largo is the popular name for the aria "Ombra mai fù" from Handel's opera Serse. Not only is it the most famous aria from this seldom-performed opera, it comes right at the beginning - a real rarety. Imagine Bobby Darin starting every concert by singing "Mack the Knife" (which he did, incidentelly). Or, since we're discussing Handel, suppose he started Messiah with the "Hallelujia Chorus." Nothing like leading with your strength.

"Ombra mai fù" is a wonderfully evocative piece (although if you look at the lyrics, you'll find that it's only a song about the shade provided by a tree), and coming as it does at the end of this very sad book, telling such a sad story, it makes a powerful impact. The following is not taken from Serse; even though it comes at the beginning, you still have to get through the opening credits and the overture. There are plenty of concert versions to choose from, sung by mezzos, baritones, countertenors. I'll give you this filmed performance by Jennifer Larmore - I know, there's no apparent reason for it to have been shot in a shipyard, but in our context it seems quite appropriate.

Uploaded by Vanhacker.

Originally published July 8, 2009

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Paul Greenberg's "The Death of Opera" and art's sad turn

We have discussed here the Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer, built around the 1985 seajacking of the Achille Lauro that lead to the death of 69-year old Leon Klinghoffer by Arafat-aligned Palestine Liberation Front terrorists.  Paul Greenberg has made serious comments about the pro-terrorist angle of the opera.

It would be right in line with our morally neutral era, with its aversion to the judgmental, its fear of taking a stand between right and wrong, good and evil.

(T)hose of us who are disgusted by its taste in this instance, and its willingness to lend itself to the most dehumanizing propaganda, have a right to speak up, too. As crowds of New Yorkers have done outside the Met. We have more than a right to speak up when evil is cosmeticized, even romanticized. We have a duty.

Mr. Greenberg's column also compared the opera to the works of pro-Fuehrer filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and had serious words at the end that had me thinking seriously about our nation's future.

Those of us disgusted by this libretto can only echo the accusation that the opera's Marilyn Klinghoffer hurls at the captain of the Achille Lauro, who's been respectfully and even sympathetically negotiating with the murderers aboard his ship. When the ever-neutral captain must tell her that that her husband has been murdered, and his wheelchair-bound body thrown into the sea, she shrieks at him: "You embraced them!" Which is what the Metropolitan Opera now has done, too.

Art seemingly has become a propaganda piece to advance certain causes embraced by a tiny minority that few support, but they are using their platform of the stage to advance the propaganda.  It is working well in various leftist issues, whether it is cannabinoids or criminalising Christianity, or other social causes.  The Bohemians are sadly in control.  That is the a thought considering what the creator of three popular ABC dramas that air on Thursday night is promoting.  It's everywhere on HBO, Showtime, and Netflix.  They need the propaganda to advance what most oppose.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cannabinoids but still advancing their push?

If it isn't clear that 1960's liberalism is running amok in this country with courts become tyrannical dictators by overturning constitutions in an attempt to ram down a nation based on their feelings while overturning majorities on any number of issues, including trying to criminalise the Bible in favour of their own feelings, you can see it with the victorious push of cannabinoid legalisation.

As we've documented this year, the Canandigua Motorsports Park 360 cubic inch sprint car incident in August resulted in a fatality, and the toxicology report proved the driver killed tested positive for cannabinoids, which is a prohibited substance in WADA drug tests. Cannabinoids are prohibited in drug testing for most places of work.  We recently learned the Ferguson incident also had a case of cannabinoids in the deceased, who is being deified as innocent despite his actions that led to the shootout, and racial animosity in that area, with threats of massive looting should the policeman, who came close to being defenceless by the cannabinoid-positive thug, be acquitted.  Once again, the writing is on the wall -- cannabinoids created this incident.

But the elections proved sadly, those urban hippies want to remake the country in their own mould.  Already victorious in Colorado (Denver and Boulder) and Washington (King County), the push for cannabinoid legalisation has scored victories in Alaska, Oregon (Portland city-state), and the Washington DC area.  What are these people thinking?  The values of a generation that hates every standard seemingly has won at every bend thanks to such stupidity. Why are people demanding cannabinoids everywhere?  Do they understand the health hazards?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Mediocrity isn't good enough

In the interests of full disclosure, let me state at the outset that I consider myself a tried-and-true capitalist. If there's a better economic system functioning right now, I haven't met it.

Having said that, longtime readers of this site also know my healthy skepticism (read: contempt) for "Corporate America," which I consider more of a culture or a way of thinking than I do an economic entity. Suffice it to say that Corporate America, in my opinion, is its own worst enemy, and in many ways an enemy to all of us.

It was, therefore, with a great deal of interest that I read a piece by David Goldman (aka "Spengler") entitled "Mediocrity and Corruption in Corporate America." If there's anything in this piece I didn't agree with, I haven't been able to find it. A few choice bits:

Mediocrity breeds corruption. The business world is crawling with affable, industrious, intelligent people with nothing to distinguish them from ten thousand other affable, industrious and intelligent people, but who very much would like to be rich. . . These are the people most inclined to cheat, for they know that they have nothing unique to offer the world, and their ascent depends either on luck or unfair advantage. They cheat in every way possible, whenever they have a chance. One way they cheat is to steal from the stockholders by front-loading profits and back-loading risks. That is what destroyed the banking system. At the top of the market in 2006-2007 when risk compensation was stupidly low, bank managers made their return-on-equity numbers by adding leverage on top of leverage. Every one of them knew that it was a dumb and dishonest thing to do, but they all hoped that they would be promoted by the time the problem blew up in someone else's lap.


Dogged-as-does-it, steady-as-she-goes, unimaginative CEO's of the sort [David] Brooks' praises sat in front of spreadsheets, demanding that their subordinates make their numbers. Without keen insight, they simply piled on risk just as the portfolio hit the fan. The most imaginative, intelligent, and daring firm on Wall Street, namely Goldman Sachs, took out massive short positions against the subprime market. So did J.P. Morgan. Wonder why they are coming out on top? About those who came out on the bottom, a respectable silence is appropriate.

There is only one truly effective way to control corporate corruption, and that is through creative destruction. Let the wild men, the warped geniuses, the chip-on-the-shoulder mad entrepreneurs loose on the established corporate world. Let big corporations go bankrupt right and left. Drive out mediocrity with the scourge of innovation. Let new companies emerge, and then go bankrupt when something better comes along. Real genius, as Heinrich Heine once rhymed, pays cash at the bar. The oddball entrepreneurial types don't cheat. They see life as a game and want to play it by their own rules. They are out to prove that they are smarter than their peers, and to cheat would be to miss the point of the game.

And I'll add that this is by no means limited to what we think of as "Big Business." It can be found throughout the business landscape, from non-profits to small companies to - oh, say, automakers. Goldman is spot on in saying that mediocrity has to be driven out - there's far too much of it at every level of management for as far as the eye can see. As Pat Buchanan once famously said, Corporate America has to "worship at a higher altar than the bottom line." Mere competence would, at least, be a start.

Originally published June 2, 2009

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Opera Wednesday: The Manchurian Candidate

I will admit that I was more than a little skeptical when my former home-town Minnesota Opera announced plans a few years ago to produce an operatic version of the classic political thriller The Manchurian Candidate.  Besides the almost-impossible task of living up to the original Frank Sinatra movie version (does anyone really remember Denzel Washington's remake?), the imaginative camera angles that were used by director John Frankenheimer (the famous tearoom scene, for example) seemed to suggest that this would be yet another example of opera companies commissioning productions that would be seen once and then (if one was lucky) forgotten forever.

But, in one of those cases I always hate to admit to, I may have been wrong about this.  The opera doesn't premiere until next March (and I won't be there to see it anyway), but some of the things I've heard and read about it are causing me to reassess my original opinion.  The synopsis that I've seen suggests a story quite close to the original (a slightly built-up role for the Janet Leigh character, but if you're going to have a female lead, that's to be expected), and the clip below indicates some quite interesting music that not only advances the plot but creates an atmosphere in tune with the story.

The jury should still be out on this until the production actually hits the stage, but I've moved from being a skeptic to having an open mind.  Perhaps I should have been there already, but given the track record not only of new opera but the Minnesota Opera in particular, you can understand my uncertainty.  At any rate, next year we should know if we have a new masterpiece on our hands, or just one more opera to forget.  I'm hoping for the former - if I were still living in the Twin Cities, I'd be certain to check it out.  As it is, if it's good, and if it goes on the road and winds up in Dallas, I'll stand in line to see it.