Cocktails with Chopin?

"Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” - Anthony Tommasini

In the December 30, 2007 issue of the NY Times Anthony Tommasini has some interesting comments on whether a patience to listen to classical music is alive and well.

He writes in part: Reports about the diminishing relevance of classical music to new generations of Americans addled by pop culture keep coming. Yet in my experience classical music seems in the midst of an unmistakable rebound. Most of the concerts and operas I attended this year drew large, eager and appreciative audiences. Classical music invites listeners to focus, to take in, to follow what is almost a narrative that unfolds over a relatively long period of time.

Length itself is one of the genre’s defining elements. I do not contend that classical music is weightier than other types of music. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it’s a whole lot longer. Even a 10-minute Chopin ballade for piano, let alone Messiaen’s 75-minute “Turangalila Symphony,” tries to grapple with, activate and organize a relatively substantial span of time. Once you accept this element of classical music, the reasons for other aspects of the art form — the complexity of its musical language, the protocols of concertgoing — become self-evident.

Structure in classical music is the easiest element to describe yet the hardest to perceive. Too often writers of program notes take the easy way and simply lay out the road map of a piece: first this happens, then that happens, then the first thing returns in a modified form and so on. But perceiving these structures as a listener is another matter. When I was around 13 and enthralled by Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I didn’t have the vaguest notion of how sonata form worked or what a rondo was. That I grew so familiar with these big pieces, though, does not mean I grasped how they were organized. Still, I intuitively sensed that they were monumental in some way, for the great classical works seemed to have an inexplicable and inexorable sweep. Years later, I tried to help students hear what seemed to me astounding similarities between, say, a song-and-dance from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and “America” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” I broke down symphony movements by Beethoven and Shostakovich into constituent parts. Quite a few students were openly resistant, others mildly curious; some were surprisingly engaged.

Once in a while someone would come back from a concert having had an epiphany. More often than not, though, these epiphanies did not turn the students into devotees of classical music. Why not? My guess is that the pieces played were simply too long. Taking in a concert involves a major time commitment. You sit in silence for extended periods and pay attention to live performances that, however viscerally involving and sonically impressive, are visually unremarkable. Operas, of course, tend to be even longer. But opera is a total-immersion experience, with characters and costumes, like going to the theater.

In an essay in The New York Times in June, Professor Kramer called for classical music presenters to follow the lead of enterprising art museums, which have had much success in presenting new and old art in interactive, stimulating and demystifying ways. A concert can offer pre-performance talks, interactive video displays in the lobby and spoken comments by the performers onstage. But at some point the talking stops, the performance begins, and the audience is asked to be quiet and pay attention.

Even so, the act of communal listening need not be reverential. And classical music has its “wow” factors too. What could be more entertaining than a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s shamelessly theatrical Third Piano Concerto, with its monstrously difficult piano part? And if your mind wanders during “La Mer,” by Debussy, and you start focusing on the kinetic playing style of an attractive young violinist in the orchestra, then, as Professor Kramer suggests, just go with it. Creating an atmosphere conducive to listening does not mean that concert halls have to be stuffy. Dress codes of any kind should disappear. Go ahead and replace some rows of seats at Avery Fisher Hall with rugs and pillows to recline on, if it helps. Much less drastic innovations have proved effective. Lincoln Center’s series A Little Night Music presents 60-minute programs beginning at 10:30 p.m. Only about 160 people can be accommodated. Patrons share small round cocktail tables and have free glasses of wine.

But to claim a listener’s attention, a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narratives. This, more than anything lofty about the music, accounts for the greater complexity, typically, of classical works in comparison with more popular styles of music. One reason “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” stunned my generation at its 1967 release was that this Beatles album was not just a collection of songs but a whole composition. I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room with friends, listening to the entire album in silence. That was a new experience in rock. “Sgt. Pepper” pointed the way to longer total-concept albums like Radiohead's
In Rainbows,” the big news in pop music today.

No one was better than Leonard Bernstein at drawing new listeners to classical music. When he presented his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he didn’t have music videos or PowerPoint, and didn’t need them. It was just our amazing Uncle Lenny explaining the content of a piece, conveying its character and revealing its secrets. But when the explanations were over, Bernstein would turn to his young listeners and say, “Are you ready?” The time had come to settle down and focus as the orchestra performed the piece in question. Instilling audiences of all ages with the ability — and patience — to listen to something long was crucial to an appreciation of classical music. It still is.

Cocktail bars for classical music?

Posted December 31, 2007

A Need For Atonement?

"Atonement” is an almost classical example of how pointless, how diminishing, the transmutation of literature into film can be" - The New York Times

"Atonement” is one of the few adaptations that gives a splendid novel the film it deserves." - The Los Angeles Times

An article in Wikipedia discusses how: "the word 'atonement' gained widespread use in the sixteenth century after William Tyndale recognized that there was not a direct translation of the concept into English. In order to explain the doctrine of Christ's sacrifice, which accomplished both the remission of sin and reconciliation of man to God, Tyndale invented a word that would encompass both actions. He wanted to overcome the inherent limitations of the word "reconciliation" while incorporating the aspects of "propitiation" and "forgiveness". It is interesting to note that while Tyndale labored to translate the 1526 English Bible, his proposed word comprises two parts, 'at' and 'onement,' which also means reconciliation, but combines it with something more. Although one thinks of the Jewish Fast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the Hebrew word is 'kaper' meaning 'a covering', so one can see that 'reconciliation' doesn't precisely contain all the necessary components of the word atonement. Expiation means "to atone for." Reconciliation comes from Latin roots re, meaning "again"; con, meaning "with"; and ultimately, 'sol', a root meaning "seat". Reconciliation, therefore, literally means "to sit again with." While this meaning may appear sufficient, Tyndale thought that if translated as "reconciliation," there would be a pervasive misunderstanding of the word's deeper significance to not just reconcile, but "to cover," so the word, 'atonement' was invented."

The movie “Atonement” is based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. The story is a look at the way one childhood lie tragically wrecks several lives.

The Christian Science Monitor in its review said: Set primarily in 1930s and '40s England, it's about the British class caste system and the tragic consequences of a lie. Thirteen-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is the precocious younger sister of Cecilia (Keira Knightley), who is powerfully drawn to Robbie (James McAvoy), the caretaker's son. Thanks to her well-to-do family, Robbie has attended Cambridge and plans on a medical career. Bewildered and angered by the obvious mutual attraction between these two, Briony commits an unspeakable action that eventually annihilates all three lives.

BeliefNet continues: This immature mistake is raised to the level of Shakepearean tragedy as Robbie is sent to jail and then to war, separating him from Cecilia. Cecilia breaks all ties with her family -especially Briony - and waits with longing for Robbie to return to her. As the story cuts back and forth through time, different versions of different events are given, and the audience only finds out the true story of what happens to these three characters at the very end of the film. Problems with “Atonement” lie almost entirely in the second half of the film, when it switches to Robbie’s time at war and to Briony’s search as a young woman for forgiveness for her childish actions. There is the symbolism of Briony working in a hospital as a form of penance, and there is a confession of sorts at the end of the film, it becomes obvious that Briony continued to make cowardly choices in her adult life that only added to the suffering of herself and others. She wants reconciliation with her family and craves for mercy to cover her sins, but she doesn’t seem to grasp that the cost of receiving both will take great courage on her part.

The New York Times was singularly unimpressed with the movie saying in its review that “Atonement” is fundamentally about guilt and the attempt to overcome it, and about the tricky, tragically imperfect power of art to compensate for real-life crimes and misdemeanors. In sharp contrast, The Los Angeles Times said that as an assured and deeply moving work, "Atonement" is at once one of the most affecting of contemporary love stories and a potent meditation on the power of fiction to destroy and create, to divide and possibly heal. It is the kind of novel that doesn't get written very often or, if it does, rarely gets transferred to the screen with the kind of intensity and fidelity we find here. For this is one of the few adaptations that gives a splendid novel the film it deserves.

Christianity Today felt that the film raises "important questions about the relationship between honesty and kindness, between truth and grace, between memory and wishful thinking, and it ends on a surprisingly powerful note that asks whether there can ever be true mercy without truth. Can one find redemption in a lie, if it is told with kindness? "Atonement" seems to be about people who cannot let go of the past, and are indeed haunted by the past and their knowledge that it can never be undone. Briony, in particular, is searching for grace and forgiveness, and the fact that she can't quite find it makes Atonement one of the more devastating films in recent memory".

Can there be mercy without truth or redemption in a lie?

Posted December 14, 2007

Essential Reading For Nonbelievers?

"Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes." - Christopher Hitchens

The Publisher of Christopher Hitchens' latest book writes:

From the #1 New York Times best-selling author of God Is Not Great, a provocative and entertaining guided tour of atheist and agnostic thought through the ages—with never-before-published pieces by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Christopher Hitchens continues to make the case for a splendidly godless universe in this first-ever gathering of the influential voices—past and present—that have shaped his side of the current (and raging) God/no-god debate. With Hitchens as your erudite and witty guide, you'll be led through a wealth of philosophy, literature, and scientific inquiry, including generous portions of the words of Lucretius, Benedict de Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Emma Goldman, H. L. Mencken, Albert Einstein, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and many others well-known and lesser known. And they're all set in context and commented upon as only Christopher Hitchens—"political and literary journalist extraordinaire" (Los Angeles Times)—can. Atheist? Believer? Uncertain? No matter: The Portable Atheist will speak to you and engage you every step of the way.

Publishers Weekly said:

Hitchens, an avowed atheist and author of the bestseller God Is Not Great, is a formidable intellectual who finds the notion of belief in God to be utter nonsense. The author is clear in his introduction that religion has caused more than its fair share of world problems. "Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes." The readings Hitchens chooses to bolster his atheist argument are indeed engaging and important. Hobbes, Spinoza, Mill and Marx are some of the heavyweights representing a philosophical viewpoint. From the world of literature the author assembles excerpts from Shelley, Twain, Conrad, Orwell and Updike. All are enjoyable to read and will make even religious believers envious of the talent gathered for this anthology. What these dynamic writers are railing against often enough, however, is a strawman: an immature, fundamentalist, outdated, and even embarrassing style of religion that many intelligent believers have long since cast off. It could be that Hitchens and his cast of nonbelievers are preaching to the choir and their message is tired and spent. However, this remains a fascinating collection of readings from some of the West’s greatest thinkers.

A fascinating collection of readings?

Posted December 05, 2007