Thursday, November 17, 2011

Three Young Masters

I have been going to concerts at the Disney Hall in downtown L.A. more often these days. I find that as I grow older I need the live experience of music, and the hall is a wonderful venue for concerts of all kinds. Actually, I rather love the space, which is eclectic, welcoming, acoustically brilliant, and clad in wood, which, being a man of the 19th century, I enjoy.

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing three young masters of their crafts. The first was the wonderful Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, whose performance of the Bach Chaconne in D minor from the second partita for solo violin (which is my favorite piece of music), impressed me very much when I heard it by accident on the radio. I was so taken with her interpretation that I had to remain in the car long after I had turned off the engine to find out who the violinist was.

Now let me say that the great Chaconne is unique even among Bach's works. Each of the pieces for solo violin, the partitas and sonatas, is a dance form, and they average three or four minutes in length. Then there comes the Chaconne, which is nearly fifteen minutes long. It is breathtakingly complex and beautiful, and just given its length, it is clear that Bach knew that he was doing something special, something completely different from all the other pieces in those extraordinary suites.

What he was doing was paying tribute to his predecessor Biber's exquisite Guardian Angel Sonata, which is the capstone of Biber's Mystery Sonatas for violin and continuo, which Bach admired. In them, Biber - a truly great and much overlooked composer of the early Baroque - wrote one sonata for each of the fifteen mysteries of the rosary. He then added a passacaglia for solo violin as a tribute to the guardian angel, and this was his masterpiece. It was an evocation of the Guardian Angel Sonata, in the more complex and challenging chaconne form, that Bach intended when he wrote the great Chaconne in D minor for solo violin.

For me, the Chaconne is the litmus test for any violinist, and Janine Jansen played it masterfully on that radio performance which I listened to in my driveway. So when I heard that she was playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at the Disney I rushed to buy tickets.

She did not disappoint me. Much larger a woman than I had expected, she took powerful command of the stage, communicated expertly with Gustavo Dudamel and the orchestra, and played the Mendelssohn (one of the five great violin concertos) beautifully. Her size enabled her to muscle the instrument in a way I would not have expected. She is strong, clear in her voice, brilliant in her technique, and supremely confident. I have never heard the cadenza played more feelingly and touchingly, a real accomplishment for a violinist of her power. She could easily have bullied her way through it, but instead she expressed it with true reverence and delicacy. It was a wonderful performance.

A week or so later, I heard on the radio that Hillary Hahn was coming to Los Angeles. For several years, she has been one of my favorite violinists, and I jumped at the chance to see her perform live in concert again. I had heard her some years ago, on my birthday, play the Sibelius Concerto (perhaps my favorite violin concerto) with the L.A. Phil when she was still a teenager, and had been wowed by her talent. And her solo Bach, which I had heard several times on the radio, is among my favorite interpretations. I was looking forward to seeing her again, no longer a girl, but a grown woman.

Her program of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms was interspersed with pieces by contemporary composers - she announced from the stage that all had been written in the past few months, and some expressly for her. In each she was accompanied by a young Russian pianist who was also marvelous. It was a brilliant program, highly intelligent in its choice of material, provocative, and, at points, beautiful and moving. But I think most of us were there for the war horses, and especially for the Bach.

She played the first sonata for solo violin, which, she said, she had performed in part in her first major solo recital twenty years before (she is only 31!). It was flawless Hillary Hahn; perfect in technique, filled with reverence for the music but also with original ideas and personal insights. It was, in short, a joy. I said to my companion afterwards that hearing Hillary Hahn play solo Bach in person is one of the greatest artistic experiences we can have in our lifetimes. I compared it to taking my girls to see Ian McKellan's King Lear. I truly believe she is on that level; one of the greatest interpreters of Bach of our times.

I paid her the homage of waiting in line after the concert to have her sign my program for my son. My reason was simple: I wanted to look into the eyes of a genius. Now those who follow this blog will know that I use the word genius very sparingly. But I attribute it unhesitatingly to Hillary Hahn. She is a true genius of violin performance, and her playing of Bach is an experience not to be missed by anyone who appreciates great art.

She was much smaller than I expected - as petite as Janine Jansen was robust. Still with the allure of a teenager, she has, nonetheless, grown into one of the consummate artists of this age. Her program notes bespoke a keen intelligence, and her choice of program an enthusiasm for the modern as well as the traditional. She told me that she had graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; I mentioned that that was my hometown and that I had lived at 19th and Spruce. She smiled and said she had lived at 18th and Locust, just down the street. I must say that I was charmed.

The third artist whom I went to see was the young Chinese pianist Lang Lang. I had heard about him and had once heard a recording of his playing a Liszt rhapsody, but I had not thought much of it as it seemed to me rather exhibitionist. However, a dear friend was in town and there was nothing else to do, so we went.

I learned a good deal from the experience. Lang Lang is much more than the Liszt recordings and video for which he has become a sort of Asian cult figure -- he is an excellent pianist. He played solo Bach, and did so respectably, though not with great insight or originality. Then he turned to one of the late Schubert sonatas, and acquitted himself with great aplomb and feeling. I love the late Schubert, and was, frankly, anxious about what he would do with it. He did wonders. His technique was exquisite, admirably suited to the Schubert, and his ideas and feelings were spot on.

What came across to me especially was his deep love for the music, and his intense personal involvement with it. In performance, he gives everything to the piece, which is clear from both his playing and his body language. He is very enjoyable to watch, and since he never makes a false gesture or plays a false note, one can relax and enjoy the music with him. The Schubert showed me that he is, indeed, a genuine master of his art.

But it was in the second half of the program that he came truly into his own. He played twelve Chopin etudes, and played them about as well as anyone could, expressing himself with tremendous confidence, skill and feeling. The Schubert had been wonderful; the Chopin was his element. He was at turns delicate and soulful, powerful and bombastic. But all was measured precisely to the music; nothing was gratuitous, no matter how far he took the material. The audience loved it, and with good reason. Lang Lang is a master of Chopin.

In his encores, too, his peculiar talent shone. He played Liszt, for which, I think he is especially famous; and a piano transcription of Paganini's Campanella, which was exuberant and delightful in its unvarnished virtuosity. Though I knew little about him beforehand, it was clear to me that it is with the late romantics that he feels most at home, and it would be difficult to imagine anyone more in tune with them aesthetically and temperamentally than he.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blaming the Victims

I listened in dismay the other night as the lawyer for the Penn State pedophile declared that the allegations of the children made against his client are false, which was only to be expected. What troubled me in that interview, however, which was conducted by a photogenic young TV reporter, was that, when the reporter asked why eight boys would all claim falsely that the coach had molested them, the lawyer replied: 'Why does anyone make false allegations? You wouldn't; I wouldn't.' He then went on to accuse the boys of wanting fame and money, thus making exactly the kind of allegation he had just claimed he would never make. And the handsome young TV reporter was too stupid to call him on it.

The same sort of blame game, observed by the media with bland indifference, is being played by President Obama. First it was George W. Bush, then the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, then the Arab Spring, then the Tea Party, then the financial crisis in Europe, then "bad luck," then "messy democracy," and now, presumably having run out of things to blame for the failure of his economic policies, Mr. Obama is blaming us. That's right: The president says it's our fault, the fault of the American public, because we are unimaginative and lazy.

Which raises a few questions that seem to have escaped the mainstream media: When will this president take responsibility for his own failures? (Never.) When will he change his ideologically-driven course and try to correct the situation? (Never.) When will the blame game stop? (When he is removed from office.)

Meanwhile, this affable incompetent wanders the nation campaigning for re-election at taxpayers' expense, while the so-called Super Committee deadlocks, and a further downgrading of the U.S. credit rating looms. (And on the point of the Super Committee: What led anyone to suppose that an elite group culled from among the very political hacks who presided over the collapse of the American economy would be able to resolve it?) Earlier this year I heard a report that Belgium had for some time been operating without a government; well, we are doing the same. I think that it was Woody Allen who quipped that Dwight Eisenhower proved that America could function without a president. Mr. Obama is offering further proof.

Has anyone alive today ever seen such a woeful abdication of presidential leadership? Mr. Obama has spent more time on vacation than any other president. He has spent more time campaigning than any other president. And he has spent virtually no time actually governing. This is because he does not like the business of governing. And that is because he has no talent for it. He is good at campaigning, good at making speeches (when he has a prepared text), good at smiling and shaking hands. But where has he been during the many economic and international crises that have confronted his presidency? Why was he absent and silent during the alleged debt ceiling crisis? Why is he not leading the Super Committee in its deliberations? Where the hell is he?

He is, apparently, enjoying himself on the golf course and in Hawaii and at basketball games and on Martha's Vineyard. Is this what we elected him to do? Has he said anything profound or to the point recently about America's worsening economic crisis? His own party in Congress did not want to bring his sham of a jobs bill up for a vote. His own party voted unanimously against his budget. And his own party members seem to be distancing themselves from him as the 2012 election nears.

It is time for even Mr. Obama's most fervid supporters to admit it: He has been an unmitigated failure as a leader. The lone accomplishment of his presidency has been the forcing through Congress (without a single Republican vote) of the health care bill, which most Americans do not want, which most of his union supporters have opted out of, and which more than half of the states have challenged in court as unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has now agreed to take up that challenge, which turns on the relative relation of the federal government's power to that of the states and the people. At stake is the question of individual liberty, the very principle upon which this nation was founded. A lower court has found that the general welfare trumps individual liberty, and this is a terrifying prospect. It does nothing less than cancel out America's philosophical birthright; and if that decision is allowed to stand, America, as we know it, as we inherited it from past generations, will be finished.

I will say it again: If the Supreme Court decides that the power of Congress to promote the general welfare trumps the people's right to individual liberty, the experiment which we call the United States of America will be over. And Mr. Obama may well win re-election on the shambles of its demise.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

And Now Penn State

Those who have followed this blog will be able to anticipate what I am going to say about the child abuse scandal at Penn State University. All of those involved, both in the molestation and in its cover-up, must be punished. It matters not what positions they held nor how long and distinguished their service. Everyone who committed the acts and knew about them and said and did nothing to put a stop to them - and by that I mean intervening directly or alerting the police - are equally guilty.

What astonishes is the similarity between the Penn State scandal and that involving the Roman Catholic Church. In both, boys were being systematically molested and raped, persons in authority knew about it - had even witnessed it - and the hierarchy conspired to contain the truth and cover it up. What struck me as different is the statement by the Pennsylvania Attorney General, who declared that no one in any position of authority who was complicit in the abuse should be sheltered from the law. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than I was shouting at the television: Arrest the bishops!

This has not been done, though the pattern and longevity of the abuse and the conspiracy to cover it up by the Church hierarchy far exceed those of the authorities at Penn State. If the university officials are not beyond the reach of the law for their silence and lies, then neither should the bishops and cardinals be. The Attorney General is being praised for her courage in not allowing herself to be intimidated by the prestige of the university and its football program. Yet so long as she remains intimidated by the Catholic Church, she should be branded as a coward. I, for one, demand that she apply to the Church in Pennsylvania the same standards which she enunciated regarding the Penn State scandal.

But let me go farther... The underlying point here is that nothing is more important than the safety, innocence, and well-being of children. Not the football program at Penn State, not Joe Paterno's legacy, not the reputation of the university. Neither is the hierarchy of the Catholic Church more important than children, nor the liturgy, reputation and power of the Church. And neither is feminist ideology, liberalism, and a woman's right to choose. NOTHING is more important than the life, safety, welfare, and innocence of children.

Now in the last case - a woman's right to choose - apologists will argue that the fetus is not a child. Of course they will; they have to. In order to protect themselves from being charged with a great moral wrong, they will pretend, they will lie, that what we are talking about is not a child. They do this precisely to insulate themselves from the knowledge that they are doing evil. It is a hideous reversal of Pascal's famous wager. We cannot prove that God or the afterlife exists, he wrote, and so we should act as if they do. Because otherwise, if they do not, we lose nothing, but if they do, we stand to lose everything. And so, he argued, we should bet that God and the afterlife exist. That is only rational.

The abortionists make the opposite wager. We cannot prove that the fetus is or is not a child, and so we should act as if it is not. This is irrational. Reason demands that we act as if the fetus is a child because, if it is not, we lose nothing, and if it is, we avoid a great moral evil. The pro-choice position, is, therefore, absurd, and yet its advocates wish to codify it in the laws of the nation. That is, they wish to incorporate into our body of law the possibility of committing a great moral sin without punishment. This, too, is absurd.

Let me repeat: NOTHING is more important than the health, safety, welfare and innocence of children. Nothing. Jesus said that those who violate children should be thrown into the sea and drowned. I would not go that far; but they must, whoever they are, be punished as severely as the law allows. And in the case of abortion, we must act as if the fetus is a child if only to avoid the possibility of committing a grave moral evil. That, it seems to me, is only rational, and humane.