Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts

Monday, June 27, 2016

How to New York

Greetings and welcome to the Big Apple! For whatever reason you've come–a new career, social aspirations, or a pathological rejection of your upbringing–we're happy to help you transition from them to us, from Joe or Jane Q. American to a denizen of the capital of the world. Now before we get started with practical advice there is one super important premise that should guide your every waking moment: living in New York City is not about living well, but about being seen living like New Yorkers. Now wait just a moment!

Eager friend, you're about to commit the most common mistake among aspiring urban elites. So grave a mistake, in fact, that you'll be re-packing for Tulsa before you've had a chance to sip that organic, artisanal, gluten-free smoothie. So listen up! You–we, I think I can say we now right?–We don't take our social cues from actual New Yorkers. Crazy right? Let me explain.

You see actual New Yorkers are busy living in New York. Most of them are even part of these burdensome tribes called "families," which come with all sorts of obligations and traditions. More importantly to us, they don't care how people see them because they're too busy living in New York. They're weird like that because they're liberal, and yet not. We don't get it either. In fact they're creepily like the rest of America. Now if we imitated them, what fun would that be? We might as well be back home!

So where do we get our lifestyle cues if we don't get them from actual New Yorkers? From trendsetters. Who are they? It doesn't matter. It could be anyone–even you–at any moment. That's the thrill of the city. All that matters are the trend and the difference: that something is just catching on and that something is different from what came before it. You just need to spot it and hop on. That said, there are some do's and don'ts.

Let's start with what you should leave behind. This foremost means pesky domestic obligations and what is more obligatory than that old time religion? Yes, I know almost seven million New Yorkers identify as religious, but remember: New Yorkers are living in New York, we are New Yorking! Actually, you don't really have to disbelieve anything, you just can't openly approve of anything religious or any religion in particular. Except Judaism, which is fine. And Islam. And Hinduism. And Buddhism. Actually it's just Christianity that's kinda taboo right now, but if you belong to one of those denominations where you don't actually have to believe or do anything in particular, identifying with it will be just fine. Anything Catholic, however, is way off limits and to be avoided at all costs. There are two exceptions, namely that you're allowed into St. Patrick's (just don't say cathedral!) provided you bring tourists and comment sarcastically, and that you are allowed to attend church festivals provided they are sufficiently ethnic. (Favoring local cultures beats mocking Christianity. For more, see Hierarchy Table 4.2.) Otherwise, avoid the Catholic thing! It sounds easy, but on Ash Wednesday you'll be dodging sooty foreheads like potholes on 1st Avenue.

Actually, speaking of cars, it's preferable that you don't have one. This is not a hard and fast rule, and if you can find something suitably small, cute, dilapidated, or lacking in horsepower, it may pass muster, otherwise avoid. Why? Cars usually send the wrong signal. Luxury cars spell privilege, midrange ones spell bourgeois pragmatism, minivans ooze family, and any truck of any kind will drip so much blue-collar sap all over your New Balances that you'll be sprinting a brisk barefoot run to reclaim a new vintage pair before your next 5k. True, almost half of NYC households may own cars, but remember that we're New Yorking here. Getting it yet? Taxis are of course fine and services like Uber and Lyft are covered by the Silicon Valley Exception. If this is too complicated and you want a car just remember the Annie Hall Rule: buy a used Volkswagen Beetle and casually advocate that cars be banned from the city. (You'll probably want to check out Addendum #4 for the list of approved vacation destinations.)

Trust me, though, you don't want to drive in the city because you'll be advocating for every road-closing event you can find. Marathon, bike-a-thon, walk-a-thon, crawl-a-thon, they're all good. Farmers' markets are preferred weekly and cultural parades are Sundays between May and October. Protests are relatively rare these days, but never pass one up. If you find yourself in a position to occupy something, put on your Pampers and sit in, down, or on it! In short, if there is any slow-moving or preferably immobile vehicle or person we can plop in the middle of a road, we're for it.

That brings us to our last topic: causes. Since you won't be busy with bourgeois responsibilities like tending to your family and your community, you'll need something to fill what remains of your mind and time. The good news–not that good news, newbie, so put that  bible down!–is that you don't need a family or community in order to take care of people. In fact, taking care of people that you know is totally passé now. That's where causes come in. What's a cause, you ask? A cause is exactly like a responsibility, but you're not actually responsible for anything. By having a cause you get all the praise that responsible people get, but there's no accountability whatsoever.

For example, taking care of your ailing grandmother is a responsibility. It's time-consuming and risky. If you flake on driving granny to her doctor's appointment and she breaks a hip, then you bet you're responsible. So why take care of granny way out in Wilkes-Barre when you can take care of, "the elderly." Are you with me? Don't help your disabled neighbor mow his lawn, but take care of, "the environment." Now don't think you actually have to do anything significant here. We're not moving mountains, we're...that's right, we're New Yorking! Yeah, sure, you can recycle a few bottles and wheel a few meals around, but all you really have to do is advocate for your cause.

Why? Because advocacy is an activity and we identify ourselves by our activities. For this reason, though, you can never be at rest. Rest happens at home, and home breeds all sorts of pesky things. You only need a place, where you can occasionally show off cultural totems like expensive cooking equipment, transgressive art, or whatever your thing is. You, however, have to be out and about!

Sharklike you must ever swim the avenues of the city seeking experiences,

but more importantly you must be seen. Attend screenings, showings, tapings, viewings, fundraisings, samplings, readings, gatherings, signings, openings, closings, Q&A's, debuts, last performances and any other culturally-sensitive, preferably exclusive, pop-up activity that your keen eye may discern. While the native proles are taking care of their homes and raising their families in their oh-so-American manner, you'll finally be New Yorking. Have fun and welcome to the Big Apple!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Movie Review: A Most Violent Year

Directed by J. C. Chandor. 2014.

Pity the popular director. You might find your heart too hard to make room for Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and Martin Scorsese, but imagine the stifling layers of expectations that audiences heap upon their every movie, their every frame. No theme or symbol, sound or subtle comment is free a from dissecting comparison to their style. As you watch their latest piece you watch all of their movies and all great movies alongside. If you cannot pity the director, though, then pity the film-goer, bombarded by trailers, commercials, billboards, and award campaigns. There is liberty in anonymity for the director, and in ignorance for the audience. There is special excitement in the air, then, when you fold down your squeaky seat, nestle your soda in your hand, and sitting down to see a movie about which you know nothing, you wait for the language of film to unfold the story. It is a happy coincidence that every time I enter a movie in such blissful naiveté, I am not disappointed.

A Most Violent Year had me at its opening shot in which a man makes his afternoon run, stops, and turns around. Now even with the director unaware of me and I of him, we both know this gesture. Simple and clear, it is the whole story: Abel Morales is striving. For another movie this meaning would be the end of the shot's significance, a prefiguring of the plot, yet for A Most Violent Year this shot never dies. We know for what and with what and for whom and especially how–the how is the essence of the plot–but continually ask why Abel strives. It might seem an obtuse and overly subtle question because we observe an obvious story in which Abel struggles to grow his oil delivery business against the depredations of a corrupt city at the low ebb of its greatness, New York in 1981, but the why of a movie is its essence.

At one level of course A Most Violent Year is about Abel fending off predators from his fledgling company. Constantly at odds with him are the district attorney, who hopes to sue him for hiding funds, a cartel of competitors who are squeezing his territory, an unknown rival who is hijacking his trucks and assaulting the drivers, and finally the union boss who threatens a strike if he won't let his drivers carry guns. Yet as much as Able fights to preserve his business, he does so within a code of conduct, steadfastly refusing to breach his ethics even to preserve his lifelong enterprise and dream. He complies with the DA's investigation. He cooperates with his competitors. He seeks the police to protect his trucks. He refuses to arm his drivers with unlicensed weapons. Yet again and again at every turn Abel is stymied and subverted. No one cooperates and no one helps.

Scene after scene we see Abel pushed closer and closer into a corner until he has two days to pay of a massive loan and rescue his business. The tension driving the whole movie is the mounting burden on Abel wherein we wait for him to breach his code. Amplifying these external pressures is the strain from his demanding wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who as the daughter of a mob boss encourages Abel to break a few skulls instead of remaining within the boundaries of the permissible.

Much as we sympathize with Abel, we do grow with Anna to wonder whether he will ever prevail, if the nice guy can triumph. One evening Abel and Anna riding in their car strike a deer. Abel steps out and finding the animal writhing in pain grabs a pipe with which he will put it out of its misery. He stands there unable to commit until we hear gunshots and slowly realize that it is Anna who has remorselessly put the animal down. The sense is clear, that Abel is too weak, but the sense presents a false dichotomy: being unable to put down an animal and being unwilling to murder people and break the law are not parallel choices. When the couple returns home Abel forcefully but with great restraint chastises Anna for jeopardizing the family by carrying an unlicensed firearm. Her response that Abel is simply a wuss exposes her contradiction which we briefly shared.

Indeed Anna is herself a contradiction. She is at once supportive of Abel and then scourging him for his moderation. She desires the things which money and security buy, but is willing to risk their loss by flying off the handle. We see her both ruthless and nurturing, aggressive and patient. From her we see glimpses of both Lady Macbeth and Odysseus' Penelope. She ever lacks, though, any self-knowledge. Anna never comes to any greater realization, but merely waxes back and forth between extremes as her husband negotiates the family and business through the treacherous narrows.

The journey comes to a climax when Abel chases down one of the hijackers of his trucks and, interrogating the man, has the opportunity to kill him. Up until now Abel has been on the defense, a weak pawn progressing against prevailing and manipulative forces swirling around him. Before he had no power besides his resolve and virtue. Now he finds himself with the power of violence but also the potential to lose his moral authority. At length Abel relents and frees the frightened man who leaves him with a breadcrumb he can follow back to the culprit. Not only is Abel rewarded for abstaining from vengeance, but we see another contradiction: the violence would not have helped his cause. Moreover it would have damned it, as it would have before.

Parallel to Abel's success, though, is the path of one of his drivers, a young man named Julian, who after getting beat up in one of the hijackings is shaken to his core. Julian is afraid to go back out without a gun, but Abel responds with a moving heart-to-heart, part pep talk and part credo of courage and perseverance. Still fearful, though, Julian packs a gun and ,after pulling it in another attempted hijacking, must go on the lam from police. In the final scene, amid Abel's achievement overlooking his vast new storage complex and the New York skyline, Julian shows up, hysterical with fear and anger. He cannot understand how Abel succeeded where he failed. In another speech Able helps him see that it was his own weakness which failed him. Like Abel, he could have chosen another path, but unlike Abel, he gave into his fear. Here in fact the contrast between the men is most evident, for now when faced with the opportunity to lie and betray his virtue by flattering Julian to save his own life, Able remains firm and honest.

Is worth noting here that Abel is the most oratorical character I have seen in a while, eloquently arguing his case before thugs, union bosses, attorneys, his wife, and his employees. In each case he presents both firmness and moderation, arguing from principles with such steadiness that he disarms all of his opponents, who fly off the handle and double deal behind his back, but never disagree or disrespect him to his face, save Anna. Surrounded by aggression and temptation, Julian remains level-headed, never betraying his calm or cause with outbursts, even faced with ruin and death.

Yet while Julian's fate ends in tragedy and Abel's competitor's ends in humiliation and defeat, Abel's moderation leads him to triumph, right? Since we rebuked Anna for lacking self-knowledge, though, perhaps we should ask the same of Abel. Certainly he understands that he wants success, but why? When his advisor Andrew (Albert Brooks) asks him why he is doing all of this, Abel responds, "I don't even understand what you are talking about." This reply is nothing short of shocking: can Abel, ever articulate and full of principle, not explain the chief motive of his life? The answer could be to preserve honor, to provide for his family, to prove his virtue–all good motives–but how can he not know? The question of his motive and self knowledge becomes the central one when the DA tells Abel in the film's last line, "I hope it was worth it."

This question turns the movie on its head: is Abel a hero or a fool? Is the finale his moment of triumph or a monument to his blind pursuit? Yes he succeeded, but we really should ask whether it was worth the suffering. If he suffered in pursuit of something foolish then it is no triumph, nor absent any recognition or self-knowledge is it proper tragedy. This is an ingeniously chaffing and stimulating if not fully satisfying conclusion in which we cannot fully get behind a moral man and his valiant pursuit because we know only its form and not its substance.

So deep is Abel's commitment to success, though, that it is worth considering it in the light of ἀρετή, or excellence. Perhaps in Abel's world, excellence is a virtue and end in itself. He certainly seems to play by a different set of rules than everyone else, so good and steady is he that at times he looks a magnanimous giant among men, so perhaps it is fitting that neither we nor anyone can see his hidden virtue. Within only himself then is his ἀγών, struggle, not only explained but justified and praiseworthy. Still there seems no way to reconcile the fact, a detriment to the drama, that Abel never struggles with his belief. Yes he has many opportunities to change his mind, but save one we never for a moment think he is tempted to betray his principles.

Nonetheless this is a gripping story. It is directed with a light touch that lets the acting and events move the story, and though that story does not stitch together to perfection, it is so rich that we can scarcely complain. Chandor's script has crafted a conundrum in the sinews of Abel Morales, the cause of whose unflinching and scrupulously moral pursuit is either a mystery or self-evident. We are left asking, quite uncomfortably: what good is the virtuous, even successful pursuit of the unexamined life?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Music Review: Bachstock Marathon

Surprised the psychedelic vibe of Bachstock appealed to me? I am. The idea of naming a celebration of Bach's corpus of work–the apogee of spiritual, philosophical, and theoretical musical expression–after the deepest depths of sixties hippie-dom is not immediately attractive. The festival is more than its name, though, and there is little more rich than Bach, whose music WQXR has celebrated throughout November. Besides, and more charitably, I do like the idea of a season of Bach, of the music just filling the air for a time, and his music does in fact produce euphoria and despair, so you really could call it psychedelic.

The climax of the month-long festivities was Saturday's marathon of Bach's solo organ works at St. Peter's Church. From 7AM until midnight a troupe of organists consisting of Juilliard students and local organ directors led by organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs performed a nearly unbroken series of Bach's solo organ oeuvre. I managed to squeak into the 2:30 slot in which Benjamin Sheen, Assistant Organist at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, performed on St. Peter's Klais organ. If other of the day's organists cherry-picked the famous pieces like the F Major Toccata and Fugue and the Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor, Sheen had the pleasure and Herculean task to play a lesser known masterpiece, Bach's Third Clavier Übung.

Sheen brought a vital clarity to the pieces, from the more fingery works like BWV.688 to the austere grandness of BWV.678. A projector trained on the keyboardists hands showed helpfully for the eyes what could not have escaped the ears: the blistering complexity of some of the fugues, double and triple and variously complex. The program changed Bach's ordering of the pieces for a more traditional variation among large and small scale, fast and slow, but this did not diminish the pleasure of hearing various figures come and go in different guises. The pairs, however, which Bach wrote on the same chorales, one setting with pedals and the other for manuals alone, were performed together, a contrast which shows not only the fecundity of Bach's musical mind, but the patience which sees all ideas worked out to their utmost.

The orchestration was especially pleasing and refreshing, casting new light on pieces to which we have become perhaps too accustomed by our favorite recordings. How exciting to hear a familiar piece anew, waves once deep and ruddy now bright and clear. What shone forth most though, was the variety. Influences French, Italian, and German permeate this "most-consequential compositional project for the organ from the years of [Bach's] maturity" [1] alongside the Bachian array of polyphonic artistry, themes of every shape and length, and sizes from the little duets BWV.802-805 to the Trinity of BWV.552a.

Even though I had stopped in for a mere 75 minutes of the marathon–for the absolute steal of $10 admission–I caught the fervor of what was really a one-day festival. Yes, I could have lived without the kitschier element, the "I got your Bach" t-shirts and puns on the radio, but there was a lot of merry, expert music-making. Too I found it a pleasure to see a festival with its namesake at the center, unlike that of a certain Salzburg-born composer.  It may have only been one church and one radio station, but with queuing lines, people buzzing about, web streams, and Bach's glorious music contrapunting to the ends of the eternity, it felt like Bach was everywhere, if only for a little while, and that's a dear satisfaction in itself.

[1] Horn, Victora. "French Influence in Bach's Organ Works" in J.S. Bach as Organist. ed. Stauffer George and May, Ernest

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Tourism

Giving voice to unrestrained scorn is one of the chief pleasures of life. No need to moderate or burnish one's arguments and no caveats, no exceptions are required. It's with no mild excitement then that I can express my extreme disdain for what is today called tourism.

What a waste of a good word, though. The Greek τορν- stem revolves around woodworking and lathing, like Latin's tornare. With their extended definitions of fashioning and finely finishing off, you couldn't seek a better metaphor for cura pursonalis. Yet this has nothing to do with tourism, which involves no philosophy of betterment or understanding but borrows a baser meaning from its linguistic roots, namely that of going in circles.

Now by tourism I don't mean mere travel, for clearly there are many reasons which necessitate a change of locale, so many and obvious we need not discuss them. Nor by tourism do I even mean mere sight-seeing. Foolish as I think sight-seeing may be, there is much in the world worth seeing firsthand. True, people don't prepare themselves by study to appreciate these sights, but it's not inconceivable that the sight of a great work of art or a natural wonder might prompt appreciation and insight which mere study did not. Ever the generous optimist, I pass over these practices.

By tourism I mean the crass acquisitiveness with which some people idiotically prance around foreign lands–any place not their home–and locust-like desiccate the environment of its natural splendor. Tourism uses the native land and people for entertainment, for mere amusement. It seeks to suck and siphon the experience of the denizen and citizen without contributing to the society of which it is visitor. Tourism merely tosses off those coveted, crisp dollars to the shopkeepers and guides so the tourist can play native for a while in a counterfeit experience calculated to sell a lifestyle as a commodity. This is to say nothing of the endless kitsch stamped to bottle and sell every virtue of the land.

As if this vulgar imbecility were not offensive enough, consider the degree to which the tourist is untutored and unprepared for his travel. He is ignorant of customs, geography, transportation, and far too often, of his host's language. Preparations not withstanding, the tourist invariably mocks its hosts, either by mimicry, presuming he's mastered his host's manners, or by the effrontery of refusing the customs of the land.

The heinous combination of ignorance, arrogance, and abuse we find in the tourist is the antithesis being a guest. This much preferable title descends  from Latin's hostis, meaning both foreigner and enemy, and the Indo European ghosti-, meaning strange. How kind is it of a guest to concede his status as stranger and walk with some humility among his hosts. How gentlemanly is he to regard his presence as a favor from his hosts. What a humane concern, his desire to contribute, thank, and reciprocate. If the contrasts sounds harsh or extreme consider this:

While a guest stays at your house he helps wash dishes, listens to grandpa tell stories, follows your manners without being obsequious, thanks you, and departs with gratitude. The tourist pays you a fee and demands tours and that you speak his language, and before he departs photographs all of your most valuable possessions. The guest walks as a gentleman, in gratitude, and the tourist with head held high as a conqueror. He peers over the visited lands and peoples, mere trophies bagged by peregrinate, pecunious huntsmen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Heard at Holy Innocents

Since the Archdiocese of New York's parish consolidation initiative spurred speculation about the closing of Holy Innocents, much has been written in praise of the parish. Least numerous and most necessary among this esteem is the appreciation for the priests who come from throughout the boroughs to say mass there in the Extraordinary Form. These are not idle priests who pop in from next door to say mass, but busy clergy who make time for the Holy Innocents community. They come with good spirit, prepared and thoughtful sermons, and full voices to offer not just a beautiful, but a consistently beautiful liturgy from week-to-week. Such praise doesn't diminish the work of the resident priests at Holy Innocents, who beside the work of their visiting brothers offer the indispensable before every EF mass, confession.

I'll pass over the uncommon grace and decorum of the altar servers to mention what is for me the most extraordinary offering of the parish, its music. From the small, dedicated schola flows week-after-week of glorious polyphony and chant. It's such a mainstay that even I began to take it for granted until, perusing the mass journal which I began a few months ago, I saw just how many pieces I'd noted in the margins.

Classical settings, renaissance polyphony, plainchant, homophony, preludes, fugues, motets, the choices are both varied and complementary, consistent and prudent. This is no small feat, finding such a wide variety of excellent music, rehearsing, and then performing it at the most appropriate mass. To praise just that is even to overlook the sung propers each week, with which I'll occasionally follow with my gradual. And they are indeed sung every week, never skipped because they're particularly florid one Sunday.

Nothing is ever skimped on or supplemented with inferior efforts. There's nothing added and there's nothing taken away, there's just the mass. Its loving, lively, traditional celebration at Holy Innocents makes it feel as it should, the most important thing in the world.

I list just a small sampling of what has been sung at Holy Innocents in the past two months. Again, this is putting aside all of the chant both ordinary and proper.

1. Vorspiel in D minor. Anton Bruckner [YouTube]
2. Missa Quarti Toni. Tomas Luis de Victoria [YouTube]
3. Tantum Ergo. Tomas Luis de Victoria [YouTube]
4. Ave Verum Corpus. William Byrd [YouTube]
5. Fugue in A, BWV.536. J.S. Bach [YouTube]
6. Missa de Virgine. Christobal de Morales [YouTube]
7. Panis Angelicus. Claudio Casciolini [YouTube]
8. O Crux Benedicta. Francisco Guerrero [YouTube]
9. Messa da Capella a quattro voci. Claudio Monteverdi. [YouTube]
10. Plein Jeu. Louis Marchand. [YouTube]

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Fools of Gotham

You can surely learn much about someone by the way he conducts himself, but you can perhaps learn even more by examining his expectations of others. Gothamist ran a piece yesterday titled, "Pushy Crown Heights Sign Urges You To 'Please Dress Modestly.'" One hopes they broke a smirk when writing that headline. The author, at any rate, is outraged by some local signs.

First, in a city utterly festooned with signs for parking, towing, loitering, standing, idling, sitting, honking, speeding, turning, stopping, signaling, crossing, and walking, it's a little hard to take umbrage with a few more.

Second, in a city where each and every one of those signs is backed by the threat of force–either fines or arrest–and where many of these signs are under video surveillance or are manned by armed officers, it seems an overreaction to take great issue with a sign that threatens no penalty for ignoring it. The Gothamist author adds an ominous, "Or else?" to the sign's statement to suggest there's a veiled threat, and she even italicizes it because fonts, but is her fear reasonable?

The sign is itself in no way aggressive, it even reads "please" which is something I can't say for the peremptory postings mounted by the city, and it does not come from a group known for violence. It's not as if, for example, we have any reason to be incredulous of their gesture of politeness because they are known to be disingenuous or prone to assault. Violence is not explicit, implied, or reasonably suspect.

Third, theirs is a community. It's a community because there are only communities. The fact that a coercive political entity forcibly extracts taxes and monopolizes land which they maintain does not obliterate the fact that a community, i.e. a small society, lives in its boundaries. Following from that, whenever you have a society, you have norms. Even if the larger political body is perfectly legitimate and everyone in the community assents to its rules, there is no way to stop people from having opinions about you and asking you to do something, which is what these signs do.

Moreover, paying taxes doesn't give you some infinitesimal percentage ownership of everything on which the taxes are spent. Do you think you own a percentage of use for highways, a quantity of soldiers' bullets, some of Central Park's leaves, and 10 grains of Libyan sand? This is a liberal, positivist, fantasy which seems true on paper, but whose logic does not extend to reality. In practice property is owned by those who maintain it, by those who live there. Yes, there's a logical problem here, but the problem is not that man feels like he owns what he uses, but that government gives and takes what it ought not. In this case, the government brought together two people, you and the maker of that sign, who probably wouldn't get along. You are still a guest in their community. Sorry you paid for it?

Now I agree that these signs are offensive insofar as all signs are offensive. Signs always to me betoken a society in which people do not communicate face-to-face but via the fiat of law. They betoken societies too large to know by familiarity and too fearful of their people to trust to common sense. These signs seem reasonable in what and how it asks, but suggest an inability of the members of the community to interact with one another. For all their absurdity and squabbling, there's a pragmatic and attractive element to the town hall meeting in which people peaceably and personally address their concerns. Besides, how much more reasonable are we when resolving a dispute face-to-face?

Fourth, the personal element here is perhaps the more disturbing. A statement from the woman who sent the pictures to Gothamist:
I wear what I want to (what is most comfortable and appropriate) and have done so since I was old enough to purchase my own clothes. "Modesty," as defined by others, is not a ​​​​consideration as I dress myself to face the day. I am capable of pulling together appropriate and flattering attire on my own, using my best judgement and taste. 
If one finds oneself offended by my attire, that's not my fault or my problem. Signs printed with demeaning and insulting subtext that my "immodest" attire is offensive to a particular group to which I do not belong are offensive to me.
This is precisely the kind of liberal and libertarian statement which drives conservatives batty, betraying as it does a complete disregard for common sense. You have to love the quotations around modesty, suggesting that any concept is automatically artificial and therefore has no objective credence or authority. You can hear the argument now, "There's no such thing as modesty. It's just whatever you think is right."

More important, though, is the fact that it is indeed your problem if you offend someone. Likewise theirs if they offend you. Latin's offendere means to strike, quite appropriate considering that offense in our modern sense is still violence. Yes, the violence is subject to a concept about which people may disagree, but it still needs to be dealt with lest we live in a violent society. Perhaps this violence is very slight, but a society of petty violence seems a sad thought to me. Who wants to walk around assaulted by violent sights, thoughts, words, and petty aggressions which make you regret your community with others?

I'm not suggesting we bow to the wills of the most easily offended, but rather that 1) self-righteous self-indulgence not govern expression, 2) coercion and pride be absent from expectation, and 3) imprudent political bonds not artificially make hostile neighbors of peaceable aliens. Gothamist's liberal prescription, however, is simply to be content trading trading offense. It is precisely the gentleman who seeks to avoid causing pain to others, and a society of offense is a barbarous one.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Central Park in Spring

Yesterday was the first of the vernal season on which the sun and wind could both agree to warm us in their springtime hands. The Central Park promenade teemed with travelers and citizens alike, all teased out of doors by the sun and sweet air. The trees, though, more budding than blooming, were not yet persuaded from their winter seclusion and so the lively mall at the heart of the city bathed in unhindered light.

Cyclists streamed through, dodging pedestrians, dogs, and strollers. The restful natives sunned themselves on the lawns while cameras, occasionally attached to fleshy humanoid stands, snapped pictures of the germinal fauna. Blowing about were bubbles of all sizes, vast but short-lived ones emanating from the sudsy ropes of the professionals and thousands of tiny spheres flitting up the woody canopy from the soapy plastic pistols of little kids. One squirrel, who had the distinct air of having overslept and whom I named Phil, scampered about the daffodils beneath a tree for twenty minutes before concluding, I assume, that his winter store had been stolen. Cave furres!

Down by Shakespeare and Columbus, violinist Susan Keser, The NY Violinist, played with aplomb a crowd-pleasing selection of romantic and baroque pieces with generous helpings of Bach and Vivaldi. She even played the solo to some recorded concerti, bringing a big ensemble sound around her fine playing. I also caught quite by chance a few magic routines by The Magic Bald Guy, aka Mick Stone, who brings hilarity to polished and delightful legerdemain. It's easy enough, I hope, to appreciate good technique and fun magic at a theater, but when the performer has also to woo and charm a crowd who can walk away at any moment, tune out passers by, and improvise humor, well you have to applaud that beyond the usual. Talented performers like these, whose work lights up the city with fun and flare, deserve not only thanks but a little coin too for so liberally sharing the fruits of thousands of toilsome, lonely hours perfecting their crafts.

Certainly I can't forget Willie G., The Poet of Central Park, self-proclaimed poet, I believe, who sells his poems in the park. With regrets I didn't have enough cash to afford one of his books, but I gave a small donation to his poetical cause and in thanks he gave to my girlfriend a poem about happiness. I haven't read the poem yet, but I'll be pleased to find it half as charming as its author. And kudos to Flicker photographer Pete Considine for his great shot of Willie.

So that was Central Park in yesterday's spring, at least in my corner. Squirrels and daffodils. Sun, music, and magic. Happiness.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thanks for All the Fish

New York is supposed to be a rough and tumultuous place. In my experience it has not been so and in these twenty eight years of Big Apple citizenship I can count on one hand the times I've been rudely treated. This number excludes, it goes without saying, curses and epithets hurled from vehicles en passant. Of course you never see an object with so much clarity as when it stands in relief, and hence these instances figure prominently in my mind.

I found myself amidst the third of these spasms of rudeness today, surprisingly at the venue of the city's great gem, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In retrospect my surprise seems unreasonable, for the unruly exist everywhere, but I like to think that great art has a humbling effect on the disposition, and what is rudeness of not the affectation of superiority? It was perhaps a naive thought, but I didn't expect Ugolino to be the most tortured in the museum today. Nonetheless today's experience, in which the group sales associate accused me of lying and threatened to inform my employer that my party hadn't given them sufficient warning for my party of ten, conformed precisely to the pattern of my previous encounters with exemplary rudeness.

The first shared trait is the presence of the raging party's inability to control the outcome. Today's ticket taker knew she couldn't turn away so few students with three chaperones and, as is often the case, impotence in one area expresses itself as aggression in another. The military strategist Sun Tzu struck upon this fact when he wrote that violent language is a presage not to attack, but retreat. As our inevitable entry pressed upon her, the taker grew more imperious, you were told, and admonitory, they'll be contacted, and scolding, as I just said, until at last she grudgingly acquiesced.

The second trait is that the affair was altogether frivolous. Even the dullest people know, it seems, when to be serious, but the timid heart makes a stand when the stakes are low. They plant flags on nameless molehills for petty glories, not Iwo Jima and the Hot Gates. In this case our party, which was barely large enough by their own standards to qualify as a group, could have easily split up into three small groups of four. What havoc would we have wreaked, we little platoons!

The third common element was the breaking not of morality, but policy. Policy, what the managerial mind confuses with law–ius, the fruit of jurisprudence–is quite handily defined as a definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency or facility. Unlike law which is inviolable because it is grounded, theoretically, in morality, policy exists for the sake of another cause. It can be broken if upholding it will contradict a higher cause or if breaking it won't undermine the cause for which the policy was adopted.

Take a few examples from my own profession, teaching. Having office hours saves me from constant interruption, but students are welcome to drop by. A grace period of two days prevents students from copying returned material, but I don't turn down good work from good students. As Aristotle shows, 1374b, these are circumstances of prudence, in which we arbitrate by equity and do not judge by law, considering more the man than the law, more what is meant than what is said, and the big picture rather than one detail. The museum's policy is obviously designed to prevent the exhibits from being swamped by large groups, a threat which we didn't pose.

I'll leave it for you to determine whether flash mobs of patrons are plaguing large museums today or whether the third largest museum in the western hemisphere can't handle facilitate, say, a few thousand patrons per hour. If the Met cannot, perhaps its custodians can contact the thousands of arenas, theaters, and schools which do this every day, most without two million square feet of real estate. I'll also not consider whether the inconvenience, and it's nothing more if it's anything at all, of showing up in a group warrants mandatory appointments and, by charging a mandatory special fee, an abdication of the museum's founding principle. Passing over that naturally necessitates I not inquire just how if at all the surcharge is spent to compensate for the alleged inconvenience of being part of a group. In charity I won't even wonder why school groups need appointments and other groups do not. Too I'll put aside–because I'm not agitated at all–a fact esoteric to this episode, how the same individual had previously informed me that she realized giving advance warning wasn't always possible and that it would be acceptable simply to show up a tad before the group and pay at the separate counter.  Finally, I won't in generosity even wonder about what mind would with such tenacious gusto and disregard for the obvious cling to such a policy. But I digress...

The final characteristic common to these outbursts was a sense of righteous indignation. These folks all felt entirely justified chewing out your humble blogger, a fact which should cause any balanced individual to pause. Mature people tend to react with moderation because they harbor some doubt about whether they're justified to react as they wish. There's a reason, though, that shooting first and asking questions later is called being trigger-happy, and that's because, as the phrase suggests, there is a mania attendant the abstention from use of senses and intellect. The Greeks had ἔκφων, literally out of one's φήν, or mind, but also carried away, without usual senses, or frenzied. (Speaking of which, a review of the brilliantly-titled late Hitchcock masterpiece, Frenzy, is forthcoming.)

We would be remiss to ignore the Latin origins of rude though, which are plentiful and revealing. The adjective rudis means both uncultivated and in its natural state. Of animals it means unbroken and of skills it means ignorant of. Is not the rude man, or woman, all of these things? Inattentive or ignorant of convention, unshaped by experience and thought, stuck in bad habits. The verb form rudo can refer with no small measure of humor to both the bellowing of an orator and the braying of an ass.

With no doubt the museum could issue an expedient and exculpatory explanation as to why their policy is both necessary and sufficient. With even less doubt will any external independent party be unable to corroborate their justification. The bottom line isn't museum policy, though, but that staff there, and in many places, have changed from old timers who judged by common sense over to the degreed, pantsuited, professionals who flashing their plastic badges prance through the morning line of patrons on their way to serve as the lesser stewards the greatest treasures, they less the patrons of culture than the patronizing custodians of peremptory bureaucracy.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mostly Mozart, 2013: Closing Night

Avery Fisher Hall. August 23, 2013. 

It is often boasted that the arts are for everyone and likewise touted that more young people ought to attend concerts and too that music brings people together. This is at least partially rubbish, and I would like formally to wish the two young women who jabbered to their mortified boyfriends during six of the night's twelve symphonic movements, some period of banishment to the most beshitted pits of Tartarean hellfire and there to enjoy the tantalizing torment of hearing, amongst the rattling chains and spinning wheel and serpentined fury, the echoes of Elysian peace and, now and then, some fading chord from spurned Parnassus. (Henceforth known as The Curse of the Philistines.)

What those philistines missed was an agreeable if flawed performance of Mozart's final three symphonies by the Mostly Mozart Orchestra under the baton of Louis Langree. The same strengths and shortcomings pervaded all the symphonies of which the minuets came off the strongest. There, Langree's firm strokes brought the dances to shaped and lively, if not nimble, life. The syncopations of the G minor menuetto were especially off-balancing thanks to the basses who weighed in heftily there and the whole night. Sometimes their energy supported the piece, as in the their responses in the E-flat finale and their snarling kickoff of the G minor's 1st movement exposition fugato, other times they swallowed the other lines as they did at points in all the fugal sections.

Right on target the whole night, though, were the winds, especially during Symphony 39. There, whether for their spot-on dynamics or  punctuation during the first movement, for floating aloft the fleeting canonical passages of the andante, or cheekily chiming in during the symphony's finale, they earned their section's special applause. The songful lines of the menuetto were especially soft and sweet.

Though the fugatos lacked the ideal separation between voices, Langree brought off the slow movements of the last two symphonies with a special romantic fullness which didn't collapse into languor. The concert was well worth hearing these two slower movements, often hurried over in favor of their flashier bookends, treated so well. Concluding, the Jupiter finale traded in some articulation for exuberance, but not to the point of laxity. The movement's themes were well-shaped and thwacking around until they joined each other in the great polyphonic coda which brought deserved smiles and vigorous applause.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Case of Anthony Weiner

New Yorkers are __________ that Anthony Weiner is running for mayor. Your choices are: outraged, insulted, stupefied, or shocked. They're all correct, of course, and they're all irrelevant as far as I can tell. Why? Because disgrace is a fickle condition.

The word implies the status: a fall from honor. So to fall from grace you need to have some to begin with. The worse your crime, the more honor you'll need. Only by this calculus can many of history's Great Men come out smelling so good. Julius Caesar may have exterminated Gauls, but that little paragraph of "reforms" that comes at the end of the text book chapter makes it all better. Napoleon might have plunged Europe into war, but the Napoleonic Code was so progressive. In American history, Lincoln suspends habeas corpus and fights a war against Americans, but he supports the 14th Amendment. Wilson lets the Versailles Treaty get well out of hand, but he dreamed big: a League of Nations.

John Adams is an interesting case. He passed the abominable Alien and Sedition Acts, but all he did for the better was avoid war with France. Priorities.

Bill Clinton is another interesting example. Here we have an unremarkable administration led by a man who is charged by the House of Representatives with perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton would seem to have had no capital to expend, right? Well, not in terms of objective accomplishments or virtues. He did however benefit from his own charisma and the appearance that the charges against him were motivated by political maneuvering and not the law. His case suggests that by honor and dishonor we don't mean anything necessarily involving virtue so much as favor. For many, Clinton never fell from grace and to this day people casually throw around how he was impeached simply for sexual impropriety.

Which brings us to Anthony Weiner, everybody's favorite politician-cum-photographer, portraits a specialty. Why has Anthony Weiner sunk to Caligula's popularity level while Slick Willie's a hit everywhere?

First, he didn't do anything exceptional which might have let this miasmatic funk waft by. The emperor is deflowering virgins? Well, it's better than civil war, and oh look at the pretty buildings!

Second, like Eliot Spitzer, Weiner looks like a loser. People will tolerate, it seems, dishonest and even abusive behavior, but one whiff of the pathetic and you're out.

Third, Weiner is an easy target. He's not in office, so no one has to call for a resignation. There's no need for special laws or elections or procedures. We don't need to question the system. Everyone just gets to poke fun. Right now, amidst so many problems we refuse to deal with, castigating this man feels like an easy way to exercise power and regain confidence. We'll tolerate incompetence, corruption, deceit, and mayhem at every level of government, but his line we will not cross.

No, Anthony Weiner is not a great or virtuous man, but his failure should be at the ballot box. Meanwhile, the finger-waggers would do well themselves to take responsibility for the city and nation's runaway problems, risk their own fortunes and reputations, and suspend their incredulity at the audacity of a failed fool's hope.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fine or Beautiful

Something curious happened to many NYC neighborhoods during the last five or so years. Houses once characterized by aluminum awnings, concrete steps, and little patches of green underwent a sudden process of prettification. Aluminum awnings were replaced with shingled ones, concrete driveways were ripped up and replaced with spiffy paving stones, and iron fences yielded to chromed replacements, because you always want your front yard to have that cozy, automotive feel. Many lawns were paved over in part or whole in deference Convenience, queen of the modern Pantheon.

Unfortunately, most of these upgrades proceeded in poor taste, resulting in prettification instead of beautification. The chrome is shiny and garish, and where once yards sported subtle sections of green, they now extend a sea of paving stones, dizzying and offensive to the eye. The materials are finer, but they're no more pleasing. The pictures over here are a prime example.

Look at all of the beautiful decorative work around the windows and doors. How subtle, pleasant are the detail and decoration, and how loud and flashy the chrome. And that deck...

My thinking is that the impetus came not only from new, younger residents bringing newer fashions but from older residents, having just paid off their mortgages, not knowing what to do with accumulating dollars. One often hears the conventional wisdom of "adding value" to one's house. Is this notion not perverse? Houses are for living, not profiteering.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila explained the phenomenon:
The bourgeoisie is any group of individuals dissatisfied with what they have and satisfied with what they are. [1]
I hope that the home of my senile self is more a simple, kept, library than a collection of congealed frippery. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Masterworks, $1

Reflecting again on my recent Met excursion, I recall another telling moment which occurred upon entry.

As the first of the party to arrive I stepped onto one of the lines to purchase our admission pins. It was a slightly misshapen line, actually, and while the asymmetry first irked me, my position to the right of those ahead me proved useful, for I spied their donations. From these two people who each purchased two pins the museum made a whopping $4. Despite that I handed the teller my own donation whilst beaming with pride, I was aghast.

Consider, though, that you'll find no one with more qualms about state-funded anything than me. Too, the Met has been fairly lambasted of late for being less than forthcoming about the voluntary nature of the contributions. I don't here see those as the issues though, since either way, I want the museum to have funds to operate. Now I don't know an awful lot about its finances and whether it is efficiently run and who of its employees makes what salary. I would prefer to  know soI could give a more precise donation, be it more or less, but the suggested donation is not so implausible as to concern me.

I suppose one could take a principled stand and pay a paltry sum if the museum were known to be corrupt or grossly mismanaged, but to my understanding, the Met is neither, and I hope it continues to exist. Too, I would prefer it to run without tax dollars, therefore I see my contribution as more, not less, important.

Still more to my point, though, I wonder precisely what thought goes through the mind of an individual with a Coach handbag around her shoulder and an iPhone in one hand as she hands the teller at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a $1 bill. Was it for the Tiepolo? The Monet? Was everything she saw worth precisely that to her, or did she determine that what she paid to the Met in taxes was exactly the proper amount? Perhaps she knows what the museum needs to run? Who can say, but I find it hard to believe that your average couture-wearing gadget-toting bourgeois can't spare a little more.

For my part, even if I had some objection to its funding or existence, I would find it hard to walk amidst the masterworks had I made such an infinitesimal contribution to their preservation.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review: Sleep No More


I step into a room built of cardboard boxes. At its center stand two tables, for cards and pool, and making my way between I investigate the far corner. A bar. No sooner do I peek behind than its tender vaults from the shadows. The figure backs me around the bar and once more behind, pours drinks for the two men now beside me. They step over to the card table and with drink, deck, and hammer in hand, begin to play. A king. One man stands, picks up the card, and nails it to a board covered with dozens of others. They continue. A king. The hammer. Now the bartender's bumped the hanging light and it swings like a pendulum, searing my eyes with each pass as it slices the darkness. Before I regain my senses I'm against the wall and two of the men are pushing at one another. They rant and rave and begin to brawl, thrashing one another against the walls and atop the pool table until behind the bar, with a raging rictus of revenge, the tall man cudgels his quarry with the hammer.

I'll forgive you if the scene doesn't conjure an image of Macbeth, but Punchdrunk's production of Shakespeare is less the form of the play than the primal essence. Gone are the tripping words of the Bard, alas! alack!, but so too the trappings of the theater: the acts, scenes, stage, seats. In place of a linear performance we have parallel staging not of scenes but of various moments from the play. One murder is realized as a saloon fight, another a street brawl. A scene of dialogue becomes a sojourn through a silvery midnight wood or a ballroom dance. Instead of seat and stage, masked audience members are free to wander amongst the performances. The twisting, twirling, and hurling dance of the actors supplant Shakespeare's words.

Stitching these elements together is the ruse that we're not patrons at a theater but guests at the mysterious McKittrick Hotel, whose twisted entry corridors shake up the everyday order and lead you to a smoky lounge of peak 1920s elegance. Sip. Mingle. When your number's up you're masked, hushed, and sent on your way through the McKittrick's five floors. The novelty and detail of the sets catch you first. The detail is exceptional and immersive. A room of headless dolls suspended over a crib. (Whose room could this be?) Another of rolled maps with Creasey's history open on the desk. A nurse's room with a lockbox of keys.

You stumble upon a tailor primping himself in his shop. An angry man walks in and a chase ensues. They grapple and now the tailor's walking up the... shouts in the distance?

You see, while the stagings are parallel they're not discrete. You follow the performers around the hotel, intersecting with other performers followed by other guests. On the one hand this adds the frisson of the live and unpredictable, on the other it results in wandering amongst rooms with little knowledge of their purpose. Pretty and jarring as they are, their significance is often more apparent than actual, contributing less to theater than to tone.

Losing the linear structure also jettisons the structured climaxes of recognition and denouement in the Shakespeare. The result is a scramble whose effect comes not from the controlled ebb and flow of thought in verse but from the visceral. There is, however, an exceptional unity of effect owing foremost to the ferocious aplomb and expressive dexterity of the performers and second to the set design. Much is simple curiosity, but the effect is a disjuncture from the ordinary which in in amplifying, immerses you in the boiling emotions.

As a technique, though, the sensually immersive does not engage the spirit as much as the dramatic perfected by Shakespeare. Absent the traditional form and the words of the Bard, Sleep No More doesn't stand so much on its own as, with different tools, amplify certain dimensions of Shakespeare's masterpiece. As that, it's an engaging thrill.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Architecture of Justice

This week I spent three days on jury service. It is of aesthetic crimes, however, that I wish to speak. The court sits a horrendous glass-and-steel monstrosity (lower right) next to its sibling, the Family Court, a horrendous concrete monstrosity (lower left.)

These buildings replace or expand their Neo-classical predecessors built 1914 (left) and 1934 (right).

Each design is typical of its time. The 1914 building is a mix of traditional elements, hearkening back ultimately to Greece and Rome. The 1934 building is stark and intimidating with an authoritarian overtone, although it ultimately nods to the past with its friezes, columns, and symmetries. The 1977 version is a $30,000,000 concrete slab, and the 2006 is just as ugly but carries the pretension of improvement. The design of this new building, unfinished but opened over-budget and over-time in 2007, however, comes with a philosophy. Architect Rafael Viñoly,

What interested me was transforming the public’s perception that the building represented an institution that was seen as closed and in need of protection from the community. The [new] building speaks to the participatory and the democratic nature of the judicial system and its fundamental and constructive mission in our society. [1]
One might append, "So I made it glass," which apparently fulfills the above criteria. Never mind that you cannot at all see inside from the ground floor, or into any court rooms at all. Never mind either any question of scale or form

I always find it interesting when you can't find a flattering angle of a building, when there's no place from which its shape and purpose feel unified and wholly expressed. My local church is like this. Two sides stand flat brick walls, one a vast pointed protrusion, and the fourth a series of stained glass panels, obscured by trees, oblique to the entrance, tiny doors beneath vast, brown, steel, rectangular columns. There is not a single point, and I have sought it, from which the exterior is intelligible. The Bronx County Hall of Justice shares this fate.

Above the jury room, whose design owes more to the "War Room" of Dr. Strangelove than the town halls of Franklin or Jefferson, sits, well, this (right). On the arc is inscribed,

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
My take was that the chairs represent the jurors and the lone figure is the judge pulling the trigger of the crossbow of society, aiming at justice. Apparently, the lone figure is the accused and thus I have no idea what he's standing on. Also, the little doohickey beneath the lone figure reads "state" and "country," although I have no idea how its shape and placement fit in.

So why are the jurors on the bow? Does that imply some of them are further away from justice? Why is the accused so far away from justice? Aren't the jurors technically in the way, then, or are they leading him to justice? And what about the judge? What does the quote even mean?

To my understanding, the statement implies activity, motion towards justice, but individual acts can only occur at a finite time so mustn't they occur at a finite place on the arc? The only alternative is that the acts move along an arc, but if you're moving along an arc wouldn't you eventually hit justice and then start moving away from it again? Unless you stop at justice? Then why does that have to be an arc? Why is the piece titled Equilibrium? Does that mean there is an average of justice? How can there be an equilibrium if things tend one way? I give up.

Lastly, though, why didn't the artist give the figure of the accused some arms? I understand that he didn't want to portray any specific individual or group or gender, but everyone has arms. I mean, I guess some people don't, but some people don't have legs either. Hey, if you were sitting in that room for 13 hours you'd start thinking a few odd thoughts too.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: Gardiner Conducts Beethoven

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The Monteverdi Choir.
Conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. 
Carnegie Hall. November 17, 2012.

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis holds a well-earned reputation for taxing singers with its tessitura, dynamics, and length. Period players like those of The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique run against additional challenges, with horn players swapping bits and violinists fiddling delicately against gut strings. Tonight even Sir John Eliot sweat up a storm as he led his ensembles through Beethoven's massive missa. The humble audience, however, receives little credit for following this exhausting piece for its duration. I did commit this time, and as close to fully as ever I have. Such may sound strange, "this time," but we fallible, distractible, humans, even music lovers, scholars, and aficionados, even performers, don't live in the whole piece every time. Cares intrude, fatigue sets in, wrappers are crinkled. Last night, however, Sir John Eliot, his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and The Monteverdi Choir were in full form. They made something special, and I went right along, note-for-note, now toe-a-tapping, then water-eyed, here a goofy grin on my face, there jaw agape. It was quite a night.

The woodwinds shone throughout, first bringing the Kyrie to intimate life, a life of presence but not activity, from their tender, luminous opening and the warm halo they add to the invocations of Kyrie, to the doom they herald and to which the soloists reply in imperiled urgency, Christe. Sir John Eliot meticulously shaped the remainder of the Kyrie giving weight and height to the impeccable declamation and intonation of the soloists, in particular Tenor Michael Spyres and Bass Matthew Rose. Without explication or philosophizing we heard what it means to call someone Lord and Christ.

The soft, tapered end of the Kyrie throws the forte opening of the Gloria into relief sharp enough to raise the hairs of the most casual listener. The dynamics here are so controlled that one never dulls to the forte or gets stuck in a rut of loud alternating with soft. The dynamics are rich and unified by a firm sense of forward movement, moving from the soft, fragile pax hominibus to an adoramus te of such power and volume I winced, then to a fleeting, pious adoramus te, and ending with the brazen glorificamus te.

After the four praises the winds again set the tone, this time with the oboes hollowing out a warm and gentle space for the gratias agimus tibi within this massive, rollicking movement. What the woodwinds shape in tone Gardiner shapes in time, and with this shaping the gratias becomes a discrete, personal prayer within a larger more grandiose movement. The same applies to the sections Qui tollis.
Gardiner keeps the finale, a flourish of fanfares and entrances of in gloria Dei Patris, full but not ponderous, and always finely articulated. This dense section easily collapses into a a brassy avalanche but Gardiner kept it light yet forceful.

The brass and winds launch the Credo in exceptional form. The bassoons were particularly nimble, neatly shifting from sprightly steps and walking lines to tortuous counter-melodies and plosive fortes. They not only gave the movement, especially its opening, a full, almost brusque bottom, but also, under Sir John Eliot, brought out figures that often remain on the page.

The glories of the Credo are twofold, though. First are the vigorous rhythms which give confident, joyful expression to the faith declared. From the steady, petrine Credo figure itself to the agressive de Deo vero and non factum, these figures animate the movement and bring to vivid life the text, in this case the faith itself, reaching an apotheosis in the dauntless, even strident fanfares ending with the great fugue on et vitam venturi saeculi. The courageous playing here adds a veritable sense of risk and pride in the growth of this timid figure from its humble origins nestled up with the sopranos through its brassy, celebratory climax.

Second is the incarnatus est, one of the glories of all music. It's also another wicked shift of dynamics and mood, from the swift descending figures of descendit de coelis to the soft basson pulse. We move in the space of a few bars from literal word painting, a descending figure to represent descent, to re-creation. While we perceive much of the movement as depiction, the symbolic language of this scene, the coming-into-being in the flickering bassoon, the hovering flute trill and the glimmer at de Spiritu Sancto, and the departure to the ethereal world of the Dorian mode, not only mimics but makes. We feel as if we have borne witness, and hence the power of the epoch-ringing declaration, et Homo factus est. The solo vocalists here were so soft and tender I leaned in as if trying to hear the news as it spread from part to part.

The winds and horns again made the moment in the opening to the Sanctus, which was as peering into a cloud waiting for someone to step from the mists, a wait fulfilled in the Benedictus. Here Concertmaster Peter Hanson coaxed a pure tone and a sweet, songful prayer from his instrument over the soft footsteps of the drums and strings in the highlight of the evening.

While the prayer for peace and military music are rightly said to characterize the Agnus Dei, its opening struck me the most tonight. The steps of the Benedictus continue on, but here as the lamb and through the cries of miserere and peccata. Gardiner's balanced touch and forces kept the two elements in joint relief, never overshadowing one another.

In the pre-concert talk Sir John Eliot noted how the score is only part of the piece and that the instruments themselves hold much of the music. The score, he said, is the butterfly pinned to the board, and music is the cloud of them in the sky. Last night, they took flight.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mostly Mozart, 2011

Iván Fischer
I just stepped in from my first Mostly Mozart concert of the season. I do not know who programmed the Ave Verum Corpus, Symphony KV.551, and Vespers de Confessore into one concert, or why, but the evening was terrific. The utmost credit to Iván Fischer. The Ave Verum was delicate and affecting and the final symphony came to glorious life. Jupiter's first movement fugato was especially vigorous yet never bombastic. Well-balanced forces brought out Mozart's extraordinary writing for winds and interplay between strings and winds in the allegro cantabile. The winds were especially beautiful in their fleeting moments of the menuetto.

With finely articulated rhythms and crisp fugatos Fischer brought out the ecstatic energy of that famed last movement. So much, in fact, that one acutely sensed the counterpoint keep the whole affair from bursting apart even as it amplified the energy by way of synthesizing the themes. The contrapuntal coda pushed the whole experience over the top, as it should. A most stirring performance of the symphony.

Lucy Crowe
Soprano Lucy Crowe made her Mostly Mozart debut tonight with Mozart's second set of vespers, proving she's not just at home in Baroque, Classical, and Romantic opera and oratorio but Viennese sacred music too. She brought a delicacy and restraint to the potentially operatic writing, gently covering the wider intervals of the Laudate Dominum and even the octaves of the Magnificat. Fischer's rather swift tempo for the Magnificat took away some of its heraldic grandeur but Crowe let that "Et Exultavit" out and Mozart's lively rhythms were in good hands for a spirited finale.

Last but not least, James Bagwell and the Concert Chorale of New York did a fine job with all of the counterpoint and Latin, especially the great and grave fugue on Laudate Pueri.

This concert, the Mostly Mozart debuts of both Fischer and Crowe and one of the few all-Mozart concerts of the festival, was a great success.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mostly Mozart Festival, 2010

I just finished reading Jay Nordlinger's New York Chronicle review of the 2010 Mostly Mozart Festival in the  September issue of The New Criterion. Regretfully I cannot share any of my own opinions of this year's festival as I did not attend any of its concerts. My reasons for abstaining are not new but are quite simple: there is not enough Mozart and the concerts are not sensibly programmed.

As an exercise I have taken the liberty of assembling a few concerts which I believe do not share those defects. I have attempted to pay attention to practical matters of length and instrumentation.

Each grouping has a particular theme, so to speak: the evolution of the string quartet, a contrast of  harmonic practices, song and lyricism, counterpoint and liturgical style and evolution, influences on Beethoven, evolution of the concerto, and so forth.

Now I certainly do not expect these programs to be deliberately performed at the festival any time soon, but perhaps the complementarity of the pieces in each group will be to your edification and listening pleasure. Feel free to make your own suggestions in the comments!

Joseph Haydn
String Quartet Op. 33, No. 2 in E-flat

String Quartet in G major, KV.387
String Quartet in D minor, KV.421
String Quartet in E-Flat major, KV.428

Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 84 in E-flat

Overture to La Clemenza di Tito, KV.620
Symphony No. 35 in D major, KV.385
Symphony No. 36 in C major, KV.425

Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, KV.492
Arias from Figaro: Porgi amor & E susanna non vien!. . . Dove sono
Rondo in D major
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat, KV.456
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, KV.488

Misericordias Domini, Offertory in D minor, KV.222/205a
Kyrie in D minor, KV.341
Adagio and Fugue in C minor, KV.546
Requiem in D minor, KV.626

Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat, KV.595
String Quintet in E-flat, KV.614
String Quintet in D, KV.593
Clarinet Quintet in A, KV.581

Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat, KV.364/320d
Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, KV.361/370a

String Quartet in A major, KV.464

Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet No. 5 (Op.18) in A major
String Quartet No. 15 (Op.132) in A minor

C. P. E.  Bach 
Concerto in F minor

J. C. Bach
Concerto in A

Piano Concerto in E-flat, KV.271
Piano Concerto in D minor, KV.466

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Thoughts on the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival

So passes another summer and so another Mostly Mozart Festival, now in its 43rd year. Being a relatively young man this was but the second summer I attended the series, but it was also the second time I had difficulty in choosing a concert to attend since, you see, I am quite fond of Mozart. An exaggeration, perhaps, but I do believe there is a bit of a dearth of Mozart at his namesake festival. The NY Times[1] declared the festival, “not so long ago, a fresh idea gone hopelessly stale” and New York Magazine[2] assures that “Centered on the past and bound by self-imposed constraints, the festival has nevertheless found a way to grow young again.” I am not so enamored with the program and while I have not performed a tally, I suspect if one were to hold the festival to a literal interpretation of “mostly,” it would just barely be true.

Now I do not dispute Mozart’s influence on the other composers who share his stage during the festival, nor do I begrudge them their honors. One need not tear down other composers in order to elevate Mozart, but the composer does seem to be getting crowded out of his own show and the festival coordinators themselves seem at pains to emphasize Mozart's primacy and the relevance of the periphery of other composers. Take their “Six Degrees of Mozart Campaign:

Cute and well-intentioned, but rather shallow. (Although if you visit the interactive version on their website you will learn that “Flowering Tree=Magic Flute” and “Chopin was a piano whiz too!")

My observation is that the Mostly Mozart Festival has fallen victim, however obliquely, to the mistaken premise that more can be gained in from so-called “comparative studies” than from intensive and focused studies on a specific topic. If the music is as brilliant as we so readily acknowledge, if it indeed touches us, how can a festival that solely focuses on it be deficient? The music is the festival, and I suggest anyone bored by the latter is in fact bored by the former. Yet it is the context, we are told, that is the key to enjoying Mozart. Now surely a comparison of Mozart and his predecessors (J.S. Bach, D. Scarlatti), contemporaries (J. Haydn, early Beethoven), and followers (Mendelssohn, Brahms) is rewarding. We do appreciate Mozart as a composer more when we notice his uniqueness and when we understand the traditions he inherited and transformed. Yet such an insight first requires intimate knowledge of the individual composers. One must know Mozart qua Mozart and Beethoven qua Beethoven before one starts comparing them, lest one run the risk of making foolish analogies. Facile comparisons of structure and taste in the absence of understanding are apt only to do violence to the composers. The Mostly Mozart Festival is supposed to be an in-depth look at Mozart. When we hear Brahms and Mendelssohn and Wagner elsewhere throughout the rest of the year we may conduct our comparisons, if we so wish. Those composers, especially Brahms and Beethoven even more so, have the rest of the year to shine and they get far more attention from the NY Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall than Mozart. (Although this year we are graced with eight performances of Mozart from the NY Philharmonic and performances of Die Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro from the Metropolitan Opera. Still, Haydn and Beethoven figure quite prominently in Carnegie Hall’s season, which is wholly sans Mozart.)

Now I don't advocate scrubbing all other composers from the festival. I would suggest, though, that the show be "Overwhelmingly Mozart" with specific pieces of other composers added to highly specific aspects of Mozart, e.g. concertos by C.P.E. Bach and by Beethoven, choral pieces by Handel, et cetera. To highlight and discuss all of the pieces, the festival could include seminars, lectures, amateur performances, informal talks, and question and answer sessions with conductors and musicians. The festival presently offers five “keyboard masterclasses” which is a fine start toward a more scholarly and more Mozart-centric festival. At the concert I attended this summer pianist Robert Levin gave a short talk before his performance of the Piano Sonata No. 18 in D, KV.576. In addition to being a brilliant pianist he is gifted teacher and discussed the unique aspects of the 18th century piano: how it is tuned, how it is made, how it sounds in contrast to modern pianos. He said something that must be said more: that the greatest composers reward the most careful listeners. We have grown accustomed to the brief ditties of today, too used to bulleted lists on websites and snippets on blogs to focus on a long and complex piece of music. Sometimes even music lovers get too bogged down in scholarship and reading about the music, instead of listening. He isolated some of the major themes beforehand and discussed how Mozart moves material around, giving us one thing when we expect another, giving us something unexpected and unusual, and as only he can, finally giving us what we want, but better than we could have hoped.


Part I - Part II - Part III

Note: Jay Nordlinger has also reviewed the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival in the September issue of The New Criterion. It is good music criticism and overall a fine review. He seems far more sanguine about the far-flung festival than I am. He does say, though, of the festival administrators’ claim to focus on Mozart’s predecessors, contemporaries, and related successors, “That would be just about everybody, no?”


Monday, September 7, 2009

Highlights of the Metropolitan Opera's 2009-2010 Season

The 2009-10 season at the Metropolitan Opera promises great things.
After a hiatus, the Met is again performing a German-language version of The Magic Flute, re-using Julie Taymor's production. I've only seen the production on the computer screen, but what I saw impressed me. The Magic Flute, with its improbably fantastic plot and its ethereal music, offers the gifted producer an opportunity to explore new scenic possibilities and remain faithful to the letter and spirit of Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto.

In a similarly whimsical but eminently musical vein, the Met offers again its English-language production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. 

Last year's production was my first time hearing and seeing Humperdinck's minor masterpiece, and I was pleasantly surprised by the real musical virtues of this fairy tale opera. I was, however, non-plussed by the production; it certainly compares unfavorably with Taymor's Magic Flute

Exaggeratedly grotesque, the production lacks the essential faerie quality that inspires Humperdinck's lyrical music. All in all, it seemed a missed opportunity to create a production as stunning and faithfully original as Taymor's Magic Flute. The Met also intends to reprise what I deemed a serious artistic mistake: the use of a tenor, rather than a soprano, for the role of the Witch. Philip Langridge, an otherwise talented singer, seemed uncomfortable in the role. And if the Met intended the production as child- and family-friendly, the mistake seems all the more unfortunate.

Despite these reservations, I cannot recommend the opera itself highly enough. It's too easy to assume a haughty attitude to works as whimsical as Humperdinck's fairy tale, but it would be a serious mistake to do so. 

The Met is also staging Richard Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander, with Deborah Voigt singing the role of Senta. The first of Wagner's operas to lodge itself in the canon, Der Fliegende Hollander is famously difficult to stage, so I look forward to seeing how the Met's creative team resolves the difficulties. With Voigt at the helm, we can confidently expect a stunning musical performance.

The last production I'd like to highlight is the Met staging of Leos Janacek's From the House of the Dead. I've never heard the opera, but in preparation for hearing it at the Met, I've ordered a copy from the New York Public Library. I am cautiously pessimistic about the production itself, if only because it is the work of the iconoclast Patrice Chereau, designer of the infamous Bayreuth Ring cycle of 1976. 

Janacek is a favorite of my favorite contemporary philosopher, Roger Scruton, and so I anticipate hearing something quite marvelous.