Friday, October 31, 2008

BEETHOVEN: Fidelio - review

    Hebert von Karajan paces Christa Ludwig's Leonore in an exhilarating 1962 performance of Beethoven's Fidelio, recorded live at the Wiener Staatsoper.

    The hyper-controlling Herbert von Karajan probably would not be pleased at the material the Vienna Staatsoper has been releasing from its archives, but who wouldn't trade the glossy sheen of some of the late maestros studio-perfect wares for the blood and guts and mess of a live show? The May 25, 1962 performance of Fidelio that furnished the role debuts of Christa Ludwig (Leonore), Gundula Janowitz (Marzelline) and Walter Berry (Pizarro) never would have satisfied Karajan sonically, with its booming double basses and timpani, its poor vocal balance (especially in the Act I finale) and its occasional slipups (a wrong entrance here, some rushing there), but for the listener there is plenty of dramatic excitement generated as the singers dig into their roles, and the conductor allows Beethoven's score to roar its message of hope and freedom.
    Janowitz and Waldemar Kmentt (Jaquino) don't let the tepid reading of the overture stand in their way but invest the first scene with a sweet urgency Both bring attractive, vibrant sound to roles often cast from the second string, and Janowitzs characteristically pure, dense and full-bodied sound (she went on to become a fine Leonore) brings special heft to Marzelline's lines. The Rocco of Walter Kreppel (even without his "gold" aria) is a warm, affectionate portrayal that grows vocally as the evening progresses.
    From Ludwigs first entrance it's clear she is firmly in control, placing her speaking voice low (she's in disguise as a boy after all) yet aiming for soprano position in a high-lying, dramatic role that would later become one of her signatures. As a child, she had seen her mother perform Leonore with Karajan, and Ludwig had recorded the role for Otto Klemperer in 1961 (still one of the legendary recordings of the century). She often spoke frankly of the treacherous scene and aria "Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?" and of the final exposed high B with its difficult approach. Here, her determination to keep Karajan from dragging is evident, and to his credit, he supports her in a stunning performance; her evident relief brings a soaring vocal freedom to the rest of the evening, and Ludwigs anguished vocal asides in the prison scene are especially moving.
    Walter Berry, Ludwig's husband at the time and also part of the Klemperer recording, makes a poor first impression in the aria "Ha! Welch ein Augenblick!" in which he is nearly inaudible under the crashing orchestra. The stage director (none other than Herbert von Karajan) must have placed him too far upstage for this important moment. Otherwise Berry's dark and bitingly intense sound makes of Pizarro a nasty, terrifying tyrant.
    The program booklet warns that Jon Vickers was somewhat indisposed, and the tenor struggles through Florestans first scene. But the rest of the act catches fire and culminates in Leonores determined shout "Töt erst sein Weib!" (First kill his wife) and the superb duet "O namenlose Freude," in which Vickers and Ludwig seem to be feasting on each other's energy.
    Predictably, the orchestral moments, except for the overture, are superbly shaped, and the inserted Leonore Overture III gets the evenings longest ovation. The booklet includes a few errors of translation and some mislabeled photographs.

by Judith Malafronte, OperaNews, Nov 2008, p60.
Ludwig, Janowitz; Vickers, Kreppel, Berry, Kmentt, Wachter; Chorus and Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper, Karajan. Text and translation. Deutsche Grammophon 477-7364

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why I Support Barack Obama for President by Don Jaycox

This is an outstanding statement from an individual who I have a tremendous amount of respect for. His thoughts are well-reasoned and insightful. Because he doesn't have a blog, I've posted his thoughts here to share with you....

"I truly believe this is the most important election of my lifetime, and that is why I strongly endorse Barack Obama for President. I have written this commentary to: (a) Express my strongly held view that the hopes and aspirations of our Nation will be best served by Obama's election, and (b) Persuade any who might still be undecided to vote for him. I write this for people who care what I think, but want to encourage all of you to really research the candidates from many angles. Don't take the easy way out and just digest what you are fed by CNN, NBC or Fox News. Democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate! So here goes...

John McCain
"It may seem odd to begin a declaration for Senator Obama with a statement about John McCain. First, I will say I respect John McCain's service to our country, as I do the other men and women who have served this nation in uniform. However, that service does not mean he will make the best President, or frankly even a good President. While I was a strong supporter of McCain in the 2000 election, I have followed him for the past 8 years with a growing sense of disappointment as I watch the steady erosion of the principles that once defined him: centrist politics, decency, bipartisanship, honesty, integrity, and little pandering to special interests. Unfortunately, his campaign this year has been shameful, and I am truly saddened given my prior admiration for him.

Leadership & Inspiration
"Leadership is my business. I try to practice it all the time, and I try to learn from great leaders. Leaders give you a sense of direction, purpose, inspiration, and confidence about the future. I see very few people who I view as truly gifted leaders, and Barack Obama is one of them. I think the number one thing America lacks today is confidence. Right behind that, hope. Right behind that, inspiration. Obama brings all of these things to America far better than any other candidate. That is why so many young people (and old ones like me) are so strongly behind him (see endorsements below). We need his leadership and inspiration very badly.

"Barack Obama is smart. Smarter than me and most of the people I know. He is a Constitutional scholar in an era when the Constitution and our civil liberties are under attack. He surrounds himself with smart, qualified advisors and then listens to them. No one is perfect, and no one knows everything. Smart, self aware people like Obama are keenly aware of both what they know, and more importantly what they don't know. That's why they try to surround themselves with other smart people to shore up their areas of weakness. In the last two elections, many Americans voted for a man they thought they'd like to share a beer with - a good old boy who can't pronounce nuclear and cuts brush for fun. That didn't work out so well for us. President of the United States may well be the hardest job in the world. I want the smartest person I can find for that job.

Judgment in General & The Iraq War in Specific
"McCain likes to slam Barack for not supporting the surge and for changing his economic / tax policy. He ignores the fact that Obama opposed this disastrous war from the start -- against the tide of American opinion at the time. He thought it would be a grave error, and his judgment proved to be dead on. As for the Surge, I agreed with it's purpose and tactics. The Iraq Study Group, (not McCain) made a compelling argument for the action, but keep in mind that the entire concept was to make the best of a bad situation. Obama disagreed. OK. It is understandable that he would be skeptical given the administration's track record up to that point. Look, we will never know how things would have gone without the Surge, but I do know that concurrent with the Surge was The Sunni Awakening movement, aimed at driving Al Qaeda out of Iraq. Many (including me) credit The Awakening with much of the reduction in violence. How much is anyone's guess. As for Obama changing his economic and tax policy on the fly -- I say BRAVO! Smart people with good judgment adapt to changing conditions. Ideologues do not. I have no time for ideologues - left or right leaning. Adaptability is one of the most important traits in good leaders. They watch, they listen, they learn, they adapt. That's a good thing! The "flip flop" attack used by Republicans is idiotic. A lack of adaptability contributed heavily to the gigantic mess we're in overseas.

Supreme Court
"The next President will appoint at least one and perhaps as many as three Supreme Court Justices. And they will serve for life! The Supreme Court is possibly the most important institution of government because they are the protectors of our Constitution and our civil liberties. When a President leaves office, their budget, tax and foreign policy legacy might endure for 2, 4, maybe 8 years, but their Supreme Court picks last a lifetime. The court must be balanced, and it's not right now. If it's too far left or right it's bad for the country. Bush has pushed the court from a centrist balance, with the likes of Sandra Day O'Connor casting tie-breaking votes (a Reagan appointee, btw) to a court that is now strongly leaning to the right. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is the next most likely to retire, and if McCain replaces her, the court will be unacceptably far to the right for a long time. Obama appointees are much more likely to bring the court back into balance.

The Economy / Taxes
"The Obama tax plan will cost me more money but will help the vast majority of people reading this. That's OK. As Warren Buffett said "I don't need a tax break. Others do." Barack's economic policy makes much more sense to me than McCain's and it is likely to spur economic recovery much more quickly. While I will be personally disadvantaged by it -- as will lots of other high income people -- and that's OK for America. It's not wealth redistribution, it's economic fairness, pure and simple. What a lot of people don't realize is that today's tax brackets are a comparative bargain for wealthy people. After WWI, the top tax rate for the wealthy was 77%. During the Great Depression it rose to 92% and remained there until 1964! It plunged to 38% in 1987 and today it's just 35%. And Capital Gains tax at 15% is a huge gift to wealthy investors. They don't make their money through payroll checks. They make it on investments. A regular person making $50,000 taking a standard deduction will pay 22% to 30% federal tax (depending on how you choose to count payroll tax paid by employers.) An investor making $1,000,000 on investments will pay only 15%. That's insane. Oh, and "Joe the plumber" will absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably pay less tax under Obama. Don't believe me. Read their plans for yourself on each candidate's web site. For a quick non-partisan comparison, see:

"Note: I do not agree with Obama's plan to raise corporate taxes on large corporations because in a global economy it may drive those large companies overseas. However, I believe Obama will reconsider this part of his plan once in office. He has good advisors on that front. However, the myth of Small-business-owner-Joe-the-plumber-getting-hurt is just that -- a myth. A sham.

America's Place in the Global Community
"I was in Europe on 9/11 and I can tell you that the outpouring of support and solidarity from our European allies was astounding. Even countries like Russia supported us. I was overwhelmed. You had headlines in Le Monde of Paris that read "Today, we are all Americans." In the last seven years we have completely squandered that good will and our standing in the world. We went from the assaulted party to the assaulters. A blinded Cyclops lashing out at anything within our reach. Whether or not this feels like a fair view of the US, it is now pervasive around the world. We went from the most admired country in the world to one of the most reviled. Whether we like it or not, we are in a Global Community and we can't "go it alone" -- it won't work. We need to restore the world's faith that we are a fair and just society internally and externally. The faith that in the US - perhaps uniquely in the world - anyone can aspire to be anything. Interestingly, much of the world is amazed and astounded that just seven years after 9/11 America could possibly elect a man like Obama -- a black man with the middle name Hussein, with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, raised partly in Indonesia by a single-parent struggling to make ends meet. Yet he can rise to the most powerful office in the world on the strength of his intellect, determination and unwavering sense of hope. It is the uniquely powerful story of America, and it makes everyone around the globe stop and rethink their view of our country. Maybe we've misjudged America. That opens the door to dialog, compromise, and global cooperation. Just what we need to fight global terrorism effectively. Obama will restore our ability to reassert leadership -- not by force of weapons -- but by the force of our ideals.

Readiness to be President
"Let's be honest: No one is qualified to be US president if they haven't already held the job. While the VP job comes close, there is no other job that is remotely close. Not even the Governor of California, (7th largest economy in the world) gains the experience needed to run the US. The job of Senator is vastly different from that of President, and being a Senator for 21 years is not appreciably more valuable than 4 years in my view. In the end you need to trust in intelligence, judgment, integrity and the ability to "learn on the job" as McCain derisively puts it. John F Kennedy entered the White House at age 43 after 6 years in the Senate -- a young upstart with nearly the same Senate experience as Obama. He certainly had no real experience to be President. But he was smart and surrounded himself with other smart people. Still, his first test was the Bay of Pigs and it didn't go well. (A huge mistake he inherited from Eisenhower). But he learned and adapted, and in doing so not only faced down Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also gave us the vision and commitment to put a man on the moon. An extraordinary achievement.

"I view Obama as having the superior intelligence, demeanor, judgment and temperament to assume the role of President and be successful. Do I think McCain would be a better Commander in Chief of our Military? Maybe. But it worries me that his philosophy on leadership is to: (a) Hang tough - a noble if bullheaded view, (b) Don't talk to our enemies unless they first agree to play by our rules - insane, and (c) Provide Iraq with an indefinite commitment on US troops. Our country cannot tolerate another 4 years in Iraq -- financially, culturally, politically, or socially. I do think that Obama has all the qualities that will make him better at all other aspects of running this country, and he will put in place the right leadership at the Pentagon - as Clinton did with Secretary William Cohen - and will keep our country safe.

"Most laughable to me is the notion that should McCain expire in office, Sarah Palin, the 16-month governor of Alaska, whose total state population is 20% the size of the San Diego metro area and equal in size to the combined suburbs of Chula Vista, Escondido and Oceanside, is somehow qualified with the requisite "executive experience" to occupy the oval office. For me, that huge lapse in judgment by McCain completely sealed the deal. He placed the country's future at stake for a calculated political stunt aimed at placating the right wing of the Republican party and attracting the small group of disaffected Hillary supporters who could be tricked into voting for someone who is at odds with most of what Hillary stands for. Picking Joe Lieberman would have been a masterstroke, but Sarah Palin was a blunder of epic proportions.
Obama is Endorsed by Many Non-Partisan National Leaders
Obviously, the party faithful will always endorse their own candidate. They are a given on both sides. These are more interesting:

Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, richest man in the world, considered to be the most savvy investor in the world.
Colin Powell, Former Secretary of State under GW Bush, National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (89–93)
Paul Volker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve under Reagan.
Paul O'Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury under GW Bush
Scott McClellan, former White House Press Secretary under GW Bush
William H. Donaldson, former Chairman of the SEC under GW Bush
Christopher Buckley, conservative writer and satirist, son of William F. Buckley
Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, former Harvard Economics professor, incredibly smart.
Robert Rubin, former Secretary of the Treasury, former Chairman of Goldman Sachs. Incredibly smart.
Fareed Zakaria writer and columnist on World Affairs. Incredibly smart and insightful. Read his analysis of world events.
Wesley Clark, former General, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
71 Nobel Laureates.
70 current and former Foreign Policy experts.
218 Major newspapers & magazines (compared to McCain's 80).

Fallacies Directed Against Obama - from the merely Dubious to the Outright Absurd
(To be addressed in a later commentary)
· Obama is unknown, shady, can't be trusted.
· Guilt by Association - Ayers and Rev Wright.
· That he is a Muslim.
· That he hates America.
· That he strangles kittens for fun. (I'm pretty sure this one was intended as satire, but not the others.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

An American Who Lives Life On His Own Terms - Douglas Kennedy

Douglas Kennedy is the most famous American writer in Europe. His books sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Bookstores find it difficult to keep them in stock. Here in the United States, however, Kennedy is not so well known, boycotted by publishing houses. Why? Is it because he personifies a different America? Yet the man — haunted by the fleetingness of time and the emptiness of our consumerist existence — really has only one creed, and that is Art. We met at the Cafe de Flore, in Paris, in the neighborhood of Saint Germain des Pres. He was right on time for our 11 o'clock appointment. As he happily extended his hand, I noticed that he had rounded out a bit with age (in both senses of the term). He greeted me with a pleasant "Bonjour" with a slight American accent. Several young Parisians sitting at a nearby table in this legendary cafe could not believe their eyes. Douglas Kennedy, in person, sitting only a few feet away! (After he left, they came over to ask me if it was really him). Kennedy put his umbrella on a bench and began by apologizing while looking at his watch. "I don't have much time, only half an hour. Is that ok?" Seeing me frown, he took out his cell phone and dialed. "Hello. I will be late..." After hanging up, he cheerfully added, "Now we have one hour."

Assuredly, the man was in a hurry. Along with his success, time has become a precious commodity. To say he has become successful is perhaps an understatement. His latest book, The Woman in the Fifth, published in 2007, sold over 600,000 copies in France and 250,000 in London. Although he has not been published in his native America for more than a decade, he has triumphed everywhere else. Today, Douglas lives in London with his wife, Amelia, and their two children. He also has a pied-a-terre in Paris, in this same intellectual and Bohemian neighborhood. Over the last few years, he has learned French and now speaks it fluently. "France? I like it here, and the French adore American culture... but yes, it's a damned shambles here," he declared, seeming to delight in the last phrase. For him, life is elsewhere, away from the famous "daily existence" that he writes about in his books. Death? "It doesn't scare me," he answered, brushing the idea away with a flick of his wrist. What really concerns him, however, is the cul-de-sac (also the title of one of his books) of daily life — a detestable job, a failed marriage, trapped in personal problems. It is for these reasons that he can only live "elsewhere," somewhere between his homes in London, Berlin, Malta, and Paris.

"My books have been translated into 18 languages," he continued with a smile. "I have a publisher in all those countries." Then the smile disappeared. "But yes, it does hurt me that I don't have a publisher in my own country." The reason for this lack of support is not because he has ignored America. On the contrary, the many facets of this nation make up the subjects of all his books. Among his thrillers are The Pursuit of Happiness, which portrays a journalist caught up in the web of McCarthyism, and A Special Relationship, in which a young woman dreams only of a quiet life with her husband, children, and a 4 x 4. George Bush's decision to go to war and the resulting events shatter her dream. "Since Bush became President, America's image has become disastrous around the world. The only positive thing to come out of this mess is that I have met many interesting people, artists for the most part, who, like me, were anti-Bush." Kennedy is more than a clever author of thrillers. He incarnates a part of the American subconscious, revolted by materialism and the blindness that it produces.

Kennedy admits to being somewhat of a schizophrenic — he criticizes his country while also adoring it. He loves it so much that, after his long 20-year exile, he purchased a home in Maine. Surprising, don't you think, for a man who recently mused, "Hell? It is living in a small town in the middle of Maine where shopping at the mall is the main cultural activity."

Douglas Kennedy, the writer who creates nightmares throughout his books, continues his own pursuit of happiness, which takes him, in a strange twist of fate, towards America.

by Marie-Pierre Valli, Watch Your Time, Oct 2008, p9

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Choice

We cannot expect one man to heal every wound, to solve every major crisis of policy. So much of the Presidency, as they say, is a matter of waking up in the morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. In the quiet of the Oval Office, the noise of immediate demands can be deafening. And yet Obama has precisely the temperament to shut out the noise when necessary and concentrate on the essential. The election of Obama—a man of mixed ethnicity, at once comfortable in the world and utterly representative of twenty-first-century America—would, at a stroke, reverse our country’s image abroad and refresh its spirit at home. His ascendance to the Presidency would be a symbolic culmination of the civil- and voting-rights acts of the nineteen-sixties and the century-long struggles for equality that preceded them. It could not help but say something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the country, about its dedication to tolerance and inclusiveness, about its fidelity, after all, to the values it proclaims in its textbooks. At a moment of economic calamity, international perplexity, political failure, and battered morale, America needs both uplift and realism, both change and steadiness. It needs a leader temperamentally, intellectually, and emotionally attuned to the complexities of our troubled globe. That leader’s name is Barack Obama.
the Editors, New Yorker magazine, Oct 13 2008, p51

Friday, October 10, 2008

Crisis-speak: a glossary

Illiquidity - If you owe someone a dollar and you don’t have one, you are illiquid.

Insolvency - If you owe someone a dollar and you don’t have one, and if you sold everything that you own and you still wouldn’t have one, you are insolvent. (But as long as you own something that’s hard to put a value on, no one can prove that you’re insolvent. Upon this rock stands the entire financial system.)

Moral hazard - Economistese for “It’s only a rental.” You get to party, and someone else cleans up the mess. It turns out that the banking system was only a rental, except that after taxpayers rebuild the engine, the bankers expect it back for another spin.

Risk - In Victorian times, what investors were paid to bear. Thanks to recent innovations in financial engineering, however, risk can be so finely sliced, traded, and transferred that no one even notices when it ends up in Aunt Millie’s bank account.

Mark-to-market valuation - The antiquated notion that a thing is worth what someone else is willing to pay for it, its current market value. Okay in rising markets, but when prices fall, techniques such as “mark-to-model” or “mark-to-myth” better support investor confidence.

Hold-to-maturity valuation - A financial asset represents a bunch of promises by someone to pay you money in the future. If you pretend you know how well those promises will be kept, you can pretend you know the value of the asset.

Libor - An interest rate that London bankers charge one another to borrow money. Important, because whatever bankers have to pay, the rest of us have to pay and then some.

TED spread - Not a condiment. A measure of stress in the credit markets, defined as the difference between what your average bank and Uncle Sam have to pay to get a three-month loan.

Counterparty meltdown - The biggest, most secret fear of the credit crisis. Suppose Alice owes Bob a million dollars, Bob owes Sue a million dollars, and Sue owes Alice a million dollars. Since Alice, Bob, and Sue each owe and are owed a million dollars, these big obligations wash out, they are all okay. But suppose Sue has huge gambling debts and declares bankruptcy. Now Alice owes a million dollars to Bob, but no one owes Alice anything. Alice doesn’t have the money, now that she can’t take it from Sue, so she declares bankruptcy too. Bob still owes money to Sue, and Alice is gone, so he is broke as well. In a network of interlocking debtors, one bankruptcy can force many to go down.

Depression - An implicit threat by way of which financial institutions are able to extort ransom to the tune of seven hundred billions.

by Steven Randy Waldman, New York, Oct 13, p.12

Thursday, October 09, 2008

How about a little loyalty?

Here's the evolution of loyalty in the Bush years:
1) Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety, turns down a five-year, $9 million offer from the Rams to stay with his original team, and then, after September 11, turns down a three-year, $3.6 million offer from the Cardinals in order to join the Army, and then he is klled by friendly fire in Afganistan, his means of death covered up by the U.S. military.
2) Scott McClellan willfully aids the president in misleading the public about the war in Iraq, and then turns on his ex-boss, write a successful book about his failures, and tours.
The connection between these two narratives? The kind of loyal man that great countries are built from dies an unncessary death, while the kind of worm that can never be of use to anyone thrives and prospers. Betrayal grows ever more grotesque while loyalty seems increasingly futile.
- Stephen Marche, Esquire, Nov 08 p.34