Sam Harris on Trump vs. Clinton

trump-clintonToday’s post  is the first – and very likely the last – political post of my blogging career.  The reason for this is simple: I am one of the most apolitical people I know.  Ever since 1964, when Goldwater ran against Johnson, I’ve tried to avoid political discussions, which to me seem unproductive at best and divisive at worst.  Whenever I hear a political argument, or am tempted to advance one myself, I hear a little voice inside me saying, “But what about this?” or, “What about the other hand?”  The closest I come to a personal political philosophy is a paraphrase of Newton’s Third Law: “For every political argument, there is an equal and opposite rebuttal.”

So why have I chosen to turn my back on my apoliticism now, after more than half a century?  The answer is two-fold.  First, the upcoming presidential election here in the United States is, to a greater extent than ever before, more about character than about issues, and I feel on much more solid ground evaluating the candidates’ personal strengths and weaknesses, which are on display daily for everyone to see, than their political positions, which are subject to endless debate.  Second, I recently discovered Sam Harris: American author, neuroscientist, and philosopher.  Harris sees clearly – and articulates precisely – what most of us see only dimly and cannot articulate at all.  He has strong opinions on the subject of Trump vs. Clinton.  I’m convinced he’s right, and am happy to let him speak for me.

Harris regularly publishes a podcast, “Waking Up with Sam Harris“, and the video below is taken from his update of June 15.  While there is obviously more that could be said about Trump vs. Clinton, what follows is enough.  As Harris says, a lesser-of-two-evils argument makes perfect sense here.  Take a few minutes, listen to what he has to say, and judge for yourself.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on July 27, 2016 at 2:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Book Review: The God Delusion

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; A Mariner Book, New York, 2008

“I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”                                                                              Attributed to Mark Twain

The God DelusionRichard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was first published in October 2006.  According to Wikipedia, Dawkins had wanted to publish a book critical of religion for a long time, but was advised against it by his publisher.  By 2006, however, Sam Harris had already published The End of Faith, and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great would follow early in 2007.  The public was clearly receptive to their underlying theses.  The God Delusion quickly reached number four on the New York Times Hardcover Non-fiction Best Seller list, and to date has sold more than three million copies.

In his preface to the hardback edition, Dawkins defends his use of the word ‘delusion’:

The word ‘delusion’ in my title has disquieted some psychiatrists who regard it as a technical term, not to be bandied about.  Three of them wrote to me to propose a special technical term for religious delusion: ‘relusion’.  Maybe it’ll catch on.  But for now I am going to stick with ‘delusion’, and I need to justify my use of it… The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder’.  The first part captures religious faith perfectly.  As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity.  When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.’

What was Dawkins’ purpose in writing The God Delusion?  What did he hope to accomplish?  I’ll let Dawkins himself speak to that:

As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave.  Years later, when she was in her twenties, she disclosed this unhappy fact to her parents, and her mother was aghast: ‘But darling, why didn’t you come to us and tell us?’  Lalla’s reply is my text for today: ‘But I didn’t know I could.’

I didn’t know I could.

I suspect – well, I am sure – that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option.  If you are one of them, this book is for you.  [The italics are mine.]  It is intended to raise consciousness – raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one.  You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled…

He goes on to say,

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.  What presumptuous optimism!  Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design).  Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.  But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.  Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.  At the very least, I hope that nobody who reads this book will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I could.’

Nobody will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I could.’  What a modest aspiration, yet how important!  How does Dawkins go about it?  What exactly will you find if you do open this book?  In the interest of full disclosure, here is Dawkins’ own summary of what lies between its covers:

Perhaps you feel that agnosticism is a reasonable position, but that atheism is just as dogmatic as religious belief?  If so, I hope Chapter 2 will change your mind, by persuading you that ‘the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analyzed as sceptically as any other.  Perhaps you have been taught that philosophers and theologians have put forward good reasons to believe in God.  If you think that, you might enjoy Chapter 3 on ‘Arguments for God’s existence’ – the arguments turn out to be spectacularly weak.  Maybe you think it is obvious that God must exist, for how else could the world have come into being?  How else could there be life, in all its rich diversity, with every species looking uncannily as though it had been ‘designed’?  If your thoughts run along those lines, I hope you will gain enlightenment from Chapter 4 on ‘Why there almost certainly is no God’.  Far from pointing to a designer, the illusion of design in the living world is explained with far greater economy and with devastating elegance by Darwinian natural selection…

Perhaps you think there must be a god or gods because anthropologists and historians report that believers dominate every human culture.  If you find that convincing, please refer to Chapter 5, on ‘The roots of religion’, which explains why belief is so ubiquitous.  Or do you think that religious belief is necessary in order for us to have justifiable morals?  Don’t we need God, in order to be good?  Please read Chapters 6 and 7 to see why this is not so.  Do you still have a soft spot for religion as a good thing for the world, even if you yourself have lost your faith?  Chapter 8 will invite you to think about ways in which religion is not such a good thing for the world.

If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about.  The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination… The whole matter of religion and childhood is the subject of Chapter 9…

Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.

One of the things I like best about Dawkins’ writing is his precise use of language.  A good example of this appears in Chapter 1, A Deeply Religious Non-Believer:

…The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him.  One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is our better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’  Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like.  If you want to say that ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.

Another example is Dawkins’ clarification of the differences among the terms theist, deist, agnostic, and atheist.  I won’t repeat it here, but it may well help many readers understand where they, and others, stand on the subject of the existence of God.

One of the most compelling (to my mind, at any rate) passages in The God Delusion is the account of Douglas Adams’ (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) conversion to atheism.  As related by Dawkins…

In an interview, reprinted posthumously in The Salmon of Doubt, [Adams] was asked by a journalist how he became an atheist.  He began his reply by explaining how he became an agnostic, and then proceeded:

And I thought and thought and thought.  But I just didn’t have enough to go on, so I didn’t really come to any resolution.  I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place.  But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking.  Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’ books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place.  It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life.  The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it.  I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

The concept of stunning simplicity that he was talking about was, of course, nothing to do with me.  It was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser.

This account by Adams is remarkably similar to Dawkins’ account of his own abandonment of religion, as related earlier this month in an interview with Naga Munchetty on the BBC’s ‘Sunday Morning Live’:

Q: When did you stop believing in God?

A: I realized at the age of about nine that there were lots of different religions and they all couldn’t be right, but then I carried on believing in some sort of deistic God, some sort of divine creator, and that disappeared when I finally understood Darwinism and the fact that you don’t actually need any kind of designer whatsoever in order to explain the beauty, the elegance of life, and the apparent design of life.

Interested readers can watch the entire Dawkins interview here.

Whether or not you actually enjoy reading The God Delusion may depend in large measure upon the set of beliefs you bring to it.  If there are some sections, or even whole chapters, that don’t hold your interest as much as others, I’m sure Dawkins wouldn’t mind if you page through them quickly.  I’m one of those who do enjoy it.  I particularly appreciate Dawkins’ light-handed, even humorous approach to subjects which are likely to ruffle some feathers.  As I have indicated, I also appreciate his carefully nuanced language.  You won’t find any sloppy English in The God Delusion, which is usually a good indicator that you won’t find any sloppy thinking either.

Anyone who wants to debate Dawkins on these matters had better bring his A-game.  He’s been doing this a long time, has heard all the arguments before, and is well prepared to meet them.  And to anyone who may be be feeling the vague yearnings mentioned at the beginning of this review – to leave their parents’ religion – but who needs help putting their philosophical house in order, I say: Take heart; in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has done much of the heavy lifting for you.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2016 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mendelssohn: Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor The Van Baerle Trio

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn

In my recent post featuring Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Festival Easter Overture, I spoke of composers whose music has been largely under-appreciated, at least by me.  Certainly Rimsky-Korsakov is one such composer; Felix Mendelssohn is another.

Apart from his Violin Concerto and a few of his Songs Without Words, I know almost nothing by Mendelssohn.  I’m not sure how he escaped my attention.  Perhaps it was because history has assigned him a place just below the summit of classical music’s Mount Olympus, and I was unduly influenced by that verdict.  Or perhaps it was because his music occupied such a small place – if any at all – in the repertoires of two of my favorite pianists, Van Cliburn and Vladimir Horowitz.

In any case, I’ve recently begun to explore the Mendelssohn oeuvre, especially his chamber music, and I feel like I have stumbled upon a gold mine. A case in point is the Piano Trio No. 2 presented here, which I recently heard for the first time on Seattle’s KING-FM.  Written in 1845, just two years before Mendelssohn’s untimely death, this trio was the last of his chamber works published during his lifetime.

Having listened to it many times now, I find myself simply in awe of Mendelssohn’s achievement in this piece.  The first movement opens ominously, imparting a sense of turbulence and foreboding. The second movement is of surpassing sweetness, and the third conveys a feeling of unalloyed cheerfulness.  A noteworthy feature of the fourth movement is the inclusion of the melody of a sixteenth-century chorale known as “Praise to You, Jesus Christ”, a tune churchgoers (and former churchgoers) may recognize as the Doxology.  The first appearance of this melody (at 23:18) lends a solemnity to this movement, while its final, triumphant re-entrance (at 26:10) is an expression of unqualified joy.

I’m also in awe of this performance by the Van Baerle Trio, which is comprised of pianist Hannes Minnaar, violinist Maria Milstein, and cellist Gideon den Herder.  Their performance combines uncommon technical precision with a passion worthy of this extraordinary work.  The name, incidentally, was taken from Van Baerle Street in Amsterdam, the location of the conservatory where the three of them met as students.

Published in: on May 31, 2016 at 6:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Leoš Janáček: Sinfonietta

janacek

Leoš Janáček

Leoš Janáček (pronounced LAY-oash yah-NAH-chek) was born on July 3, 1854 in Hukvaldy in the Czech Republic.  He showed a talent for music early on, but following his graduation from the Prague Organ School in 1875, he labored for many years in relative anonymity as a music teacher and choirmaster in Brno.  He was almost 50 before his first major work, the opera Jenufa, was performed, and 62 before he became really well known.  In the last 12 years of his life, however, he turned out masterpieces with astonishing frequency, including the symphonic poem Taras Bulba, the opera The Cunning Little Vixen, and the Sinfonietta presented here.  He died in 1928 at age 74, an inspiration to late-bloomers everywhere.

Regarding the Sinfonietta, we learn from Wikipedia that…

The work is typical of Janáček’s tight construction, the material of each movement deriving from the opening motif.  It features several variants based on Janáček’s original fanfare.  The first movement is scored only for brass and percussion.  The second movement begins with a rapid ostinato from the wind, but later has a more lyrical episode.  The third begins quietly in the strings, but is interrupted by a stern figure in the trombones, leading to another fast dance-like passage.  In the fourth movement, Janáček celebrates the newly liberated Czechoslovakia with a joyous trumpet fanfare.  The finale begins in the key of E-flat minor with a calm retrograde version of the opening melody.  However, this quickly moves into a triumphant finale, the return of the opening fanfare decorated with swirling figures in the strings and wind.

I was introduced to this piece through a 1966 recording featuring the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.  While the orchestral writing is brilliant throughout, the majestic, triumphal fanfares in the first and last movements especially made a lasting impression.  Truly a glorious introduction to Janáček.

In this extraordinary live recording from the 2011 London Proms, we hear the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England conducted by Sir Mark Elder.  The tempo indications for the five movements, together with their subtitles and start times in the video below, are as follows:

  • I. Allegretto — Allegro maestoso (Fanfare) (0:06)
  • II. Andante — Allegretto (The Castle, Brno) (2:26)
  • III. Moderato (The Queen’s Monastery, Brno) (9:05)
  • IV. Allegretto (The Street Leading to the Castle) (14:51)
  • V. Andante con moto (The Town Hall, Brno) (18:13)

Published in: on April 30, 2016 at 12:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The Russian Easter Festival Overture by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is yet one more example of music I heard for the first time on KING-FM, Seattle’s sole surviving classical music station.  I listen to KING-FM almost every weekday, and though their daily music schedule is always posted online, I never check ahead of time to see what I’m likely to hear.  Thus, every piece is a surprise, and though I’m familiar with a lot of what they program, I’m continually exposed to music I never heard before.  Much of that music was written by composers I never heard of, or if I have, whose music is largely under-appreciated, at least by me.

Time and again, that music has enriched my life in a way that only lovers of classical music can understand.  My first impulse when I hear such a piece – one that grabs me by the vitals and says, “Pay attention, Derrick; you need to listen to this” – is to look it up on YouTube and listen to it again.  My second is to share it with readers of this blog, in the hope that it might enrich their lives as it has mine.

One such piece is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, which is known in Russia as The Bright Holiday.  Written in 1887-88, I heard it for the first time last year.  Though I was struck at once by its vitality and melodic richness – and soon after by the brilliance of its orchestration – I waited for the better part of a year to share it with you during the Easter season for which it was written.

The following description is taken from Rimsky-Korsakov’s own analysis, as it appears in his autobiography, My Musical Life:

During the summer of 1888 I finished The Bright Holiday, an Easter Overture on themes from the Obikhod [a collection of Russian Orthodox Church music].  The lengthy, slow introduction on the theme, ‘Let God Arise!’, alternating with the ecclesiastical theme, ‘An Angel Cried’, appeared to me in the beginning as Isaiah’s prophecy of the resurrection of Christ.  The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the resurrection…

The beginning of the Allegro, ‘Let them also that hate Him flee before Him’, leads to the holiday mood of the Orthodox church service on Christ’s matins.  The solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells, alternating with an evocation of the sexton’s rapid reading and the chant of the priest’s reading the glad tidings of the Evangel.  The Obikhod theme, ‘Christ is risen’, which is the subsidiary part of the Overture, appears amid the trumpet-blasts and bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda.

In this Overture were thus combined reminiscences of the ancient prophecy, of the gospel narrative, and also a general picture of the Easter service with its pagan merrymaking…  The legendary and heathen side of the holiday, the transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking on Easter Sunday morning, is what I was eager to reproduce in my Overture.

You too can enjoy KING-FM, no matter where in the world you are.  If you are beyond the reach of their broadcast signal, you can listen through your computer or smart phone any time of day or night.  But now, it’s time to sit back, turn your speakers up or put your headphones on, and enjoy the Russian Easter Festival Overture as Dmitri Kitajenko and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov put the Danish National Symphony Orchestra through its paces.

Published in: on March 31, 2016 at 5:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Johann Sebastian Bach (and Bach-Busoni): Chaconne in D minor; Jascha Heifetz, Violin and Hélène Grimaud, Piano

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s Chaconne in D minor occupies a place of honor as the fifth and final movement of his Partita No. 2 for solo violin.  It also has a life of its own as a stand-alone composition, both in its original scoring and in numerous transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles.

The great Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”, and Johannes Brahms, who wrote his own transcription of it for piano left-hand, said of it:

On one stave, for a small instrument, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.  If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

In this video from 1970, we hear the original version of the Chaconne, as performed by the legendary Jascha Heifetz.

In 1892, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the prolific Italian composer, pianist, and conductor, wrote what has become the most famous transcription of the Chaconne.  His arrangement, for solo piano, was described by Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the N.Y. Times, as follows:

Ferruccio Busoni

Ferruccio Busoni

“This 15-minute score, composed in 1892, is no mere transcription, but Mr. Busoni’s visionary re-conception of the music.  He reveals the implications of Bach’s keenly dramatic piece, a set of variations on the stern theme in the manner of a chaconne (an early Baroque dance in triple meter).  The piano writing is thick with counterpoint, outbursts of octaves, long stretches of chromatically unstable chords and elaborate figurations that spin Bach’s notes into keyboard-spanning passagework.”

John Mortensen, professor of piano at Cedarville University, had this to say about the Busoni transcription:

Busoni’s arrangement draws upon the power, resonance, and polyphonic capabilities of the piano to elucidate ideas which Bach outlined on the violin.  Bach’s violin piece is the book; Busoni’s transcription is the movie.  The compositional integrity of the original is strong enough that it transcends musical style, working just as well as Busoni’s extroverted, demonstrative Romantic work.

In the video that follows, Busoni’s transcription is performed by the wonderful Hélène Grimaud, whom I have featured twice before on this blog in concertos by Beethoven and Brahms.

 

Published in: on February 28, 2016 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Movie Review: “Pulp Fiction”

The truth is, you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo, I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.” – Jules Winnfield

PulpFictionThere are undoubtedly people somewhere in the world, even here in the USA, who have never seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.  There may even be some who, having heard about the violence and language in the movie, have made it a point not to watch it.  But no one can consider himself a true cinephile if he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s breakthrough movie from 1994, any more than if he has never seen CasablancaPsycho, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Pulp Fiction is just such a landmark film.  Following hard on the heels of Tarantino’s first effort, Reservoir Dogs – maybe the best first film since John Huston’s The Maltese FalconPulp Fiction premiered at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival, where it walked away with the prestigious Palme d’Or.  Later that year it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and snagged the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, an honor that comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with Tarantino’s masterful handling of dialog.

In the twenty-plus years since, Pulp Fiction has spawned more critical analysis (and out-and-out speculation) than any other film of its era I can think of.  It is not my intention to add to that analysis here; I just want to share my enthusiasm for this movie, and to encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a try.

So, what is it about?  Briefly, Pulp Fiction tells four interrelated stories, beginning with the story of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two small-time thieves we meet in the first scene.  Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) have decided that robbing bars, liquor stores, and gas stations, their primary stock in trade, has become too risky.  “Restaurants, on the other hand,” theorizes Pumpkin, “you catch with their pants down.  They’re not expecting to get robbed, not as expecting anyway.”  Inspired by this reasoning, the two of them decide to rob the coffee shop where they have just finished their breakfast.

The second story concerns Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), two loquacious denizens of L.A.’s underworld on a mission to retrieve a mysterious briefcase that belongs to their boss, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Their mission is successful, after a fashion, and when they deliver the briefcase to Marsellus, we meet Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a boxer to whom Marsellus is offering good money to throw an upcoming fight.

Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) are the main characters in Story No. 3.  They are looking forward to a major change in their fortunes, one that could mean a move to Mexico or Bora Bora.

Finally, we have the story of Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s wife.  Marsellus has asked Vincent to take his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for the evening while he, Marsellus, is out of town.  Despite some initial awkwardness, their dinner goes very well, as does the dance contest that follows.  But, to paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, “The evening ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

These four stories are woven together in masterful fashion by Tarantino, and sequenced in a way that continues to challenge viewers more than twenty years after the film’s release.  Every single member of the cast delivers a performance that stands the test of repeated viewings, but three deserve special mention: Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are simply extraordinary, and Bruce Willis will never give a fuller, more subtle, or more credible performance.

I have some parting questions for those who have already seen Pulp Fiction.  What happens to all these people after the events of the film?  For example, what happens to Jules Winnfield after he renounces the gangster life and decides to just “walk the earth”?  Whom does he meet, and what adventures does he have?  What happens to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny after they leave the Hawthorne Grill?  If I had been in Pumpkin’s place during his confrontation with Jules, I might have felt as Jules does after the events in Brett’s apartment: like I had dodged a bullet.  Does Pumpkin feel the same need that Jules felt to take his life in a completely different direction?

I know these are unanswerable questions, but I think about them anyway, which strikes me as a testament of sorts to Tarantino’s uncanny ability to bring his characters to life.  I invite the reader to share his or her thoughts on these or other pulpy matters in the Comments section below.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on January 31, 2016 at 5:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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Stravinsky: The Firebird

The Firebird by  Lev Lominago

The Firebird by Lev Lominago

Has there ever been a more fruitful collaboration than the one between Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, and composer Igor Stravinsky?  Between 1910 and 1923, they brought to life no fewer than five ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, and Les NocesPetrushka and The Rite of Spring have already appeared on this blog, and one day I may decide to feature Pulcinella and Les Noces as well.  Today, however, I want to go back to the beginning, to The Firebird, the first collaboration between these two and Stravinsky’s first work of lasting importance.

Stravinsky began composing The Firebird in the fall of 1909 in response to a commission from Diaghilev, who was eager for a new work for the upcoming season of his Ballets Russes.  He completed it in April 1910, and it premiered in Paris on June 25.  That premiere was a resounding success; indeed, I can’t imagine anyone not being swept away by the combination of Stravinsky’s dramatic score and the dancers of the Ballets Russes.

The story of The Firebird has been nicely summarized by Phillip Huscher, Program Annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as follows:

Fokine’s adaptation of the fairy tale pits the Firebird, a good fairy, against the ogre Kashchei, whose soul is preserved as an egg in a casket.  A young prince, Ivan Tsarevich, wanders into Kashchei’s magic garden in pursuit of the Firebird.  When he captures her, she pleads for her release and gives him one of her feathers, whose magic will protect him from harm.  He then meets thirteen princesses, all under Kashchei’s spell, and falls in love with one of them.  When he tries to follow them into the magic garden, a great carillon sounds an alarm and he is captured.  Kashchei is about to turn Ivan to stone when the prince waves the feather; the Firebird appears.  Her lullaby puts Kashchei to sleep, and she then reveals the secret of his immortality.  Ivan opens the casket and smashes the egg, killing Kashchei.  The captive princesses are freed, and Ivan and his beloved princess are betrothed.

My own introduction to The Firebird was a 1962 recording by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stravinsky himself.  In the liner notes to that record, Stravinsky writes at length about the origins of The Firebird, and gives his own assessment of its strengths and weaknesses:

Though the orchestral body of the Firebird was wastefully large, I was more proud of some of the orchestration than of the music itself.  The trombone glissandi in the Kastchei scene produced the biggest sensation with the audience, of course, but this effect was not original with me – Rimsky had used trombone slides, I think in Mlada, and Schoenberg in his tone poem Pelléas und Mélisande, to site earlier but less popular examples.  For me the most striking effect in the Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando [at 1:56 in the video below] which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine’s wheel.  I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky’s violinist and cellist sons.  I remember, too, Richard Strauss’s astonishment when he heard it two years later in Berlin.

This video, recorded at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, goes a long way toward capturing the excitement and presence of a live performance.  Visually, if not aurally, we have the best seat in the house.  The many close-ups of the soloists in the Vienna Philharmonic reveal a thousand small details that we might otherwise miss, and make it easy to understand Stravinsky’s pride in his orchestration.  We see firsthand the concentration on the faces of the musicians and the extraordinary involvement of the conductor, Valery Gergiev, who, conducting without a baton, seems to employ a sign language all his own.

 

Published in: on December 31, 2015 at 2:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Sergei Prokofiev: “Peter and the Wolf” Narrated by Itzhak Perlman

Peter and the WolfAfter eighteen years of self-imposed exile in Europe and America, Prokofiev returned to his native Russia in 1936.  Shortly afterward, he was approached by Natalia Satz, director of the Moscow Musical Theater for Children, with a proposal to write a play that would introduce children to the instruments of the orchestra.  Prokofiev embraced the idea wholeheartedly.  He wrote the music to “Peter and the Wolf” in just one week, and orchestrated it the next.  He dedicated the work to Ms. Satz, and it was introduced to the public in May 1936.

I don’t remember my own introduction to “Peter and the Wolf”, but my brother Mort informs me that in 1952, when I was but four years old, he was given a set of 78 rpm records of “Peter” that quickly became one of his favorites.  That recording of “Peter and the Wolf” may well have been the first classical music I ever heard, and may have fostered not only my love of Prokofiev, but of classical music as a whole.

If so, then I owe a great debt to “Peter”, one I will attempt to repay here.  Through this post, I hope to continue to introduce young people to the instruments of the symphony orchestra, to Prokofiev, and the world of classical music.

This video has everything!  First, of course, there is Prokofiev’s magical score.  Who can forget the optimism of Peter’s theme, the menace of the Wolf, the grumpy Grandfather, cheery Bird, stealthy Cat, and plaintive Duck?  We also have Jörg Müller’s loving illustrations.  Children will learn not only the instruments’ distinctive voices, but also what they look like.  And for the music student, we even have the musical notation for each of the characters’ themes.

The narration in this video is by the great violinist Itzhak Perlman, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is led by Zubin Mehta.  Share it with your children, or grandchildren!

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor The New York Philharmonic Orchestra Leonard Bernstein, Conductor

Shostakovich (L) and Leonard Bernstein in 1959.

Shostakovich (L) and Leonard Bernstein in 1959.

In 1936, Dmitri Shostakovich, who had been the pride of the Soviet Union ever since the premiere of his First Symphony ten years earlier, suffered a dramatic fall from grace.  In January of that year, Joseph Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, and, as the saying goes, he was not amused.  Within days, a devastating polemic – some say penned by Stalin himself – appeared in Pravda denouncing both the opera and its composer.  Overnight, Shostakovich went from the darling of Soviet music to composer non grata and in fear for his life, as this occurred during the Great Purge, when official disfavor could quickly get one exiled to Siberia, or worse.

Shostakovich’s response to this criticism took the form of his 5th Symphony, which he composed in 1937.  This symphony is more accessible than “Lady Macbeth”, and both its public and critical reception were overwhelmingly positive.  Shostakovich was restored to official favor, at least for the time being, but ever since, critical opinion has been divided on whether in the 5th Symphony he acquiesced to political pressure, or only appeared to, while in fact composing a veiled protest against the totalitarian regime under which he labored.  Much of the controversy concerns the triumphal 4th movement: Does it convey real rejoicing or is the rejoicing meant to be seen as forced?

It’s impossible to know for certain what was in Shostakovich’s mind when he wrote this symphony.  I like what Herbert Glass, long-time music critic of the L.A. Times, wrote about it:

One can ramble on forever about the meaning and intent of the Fifth Symphony – and whether or not it is entirely straight-faced, or disingenuous, or self-serving, although there can be no doubt that the first and third movements are profoundly serious.  What it ultimately comes down to is that, without disregarding the harmonic language of the 20th century, Shostakovich succeeded here in recalling the grandeur and the weight of the late-Romantic statements of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, without for a moment sounding like those composers.

Personally, I don’t detect even a hint of irony in the 4th movement, which is as unequivocal an expression of triumph as any piece of music I know.  I’m inclined to take Shostakovich at his word when he writes in his preface to the score, “The theme of my Symphony is the stabilization of a personality.  At the center of this composition – conceived lyrically from beginning to end – I saw a man with all his experiences.  The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living.”

Perhaps Zoya Leybin, violinist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and former citizen of the Soviet Union, put it best.  She said, “Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – to me it’s a mirror which represents the life and the era in which he lived.  He was the messenger, and I think his music is a hymn to all of us who lived, survived, and passed on.”

Like so many other pieces I’ve featured on this blog, I was introduced to this symphony during my student days, through the famous 1959 recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  In the video that follows, we again hear Bernstein and the New York Phil, but twenty years later, in a compelling performance from 1979.  The tempo indications and start times for the four movements are as follows:

Moderato (00:21)
Allegretto (18:12)
Largo (23:32)
Allegro non troppo (40:04)

Published in: on October 31, 2015 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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