Friday, October 22, 2010
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 1, 2010. The program began with a fanfare called “Up!” by Adam Schoenberg in celebration of Robert Spano’s 10 years with the Symphony. Aside from the title which sounds suspiciously like a movie, the piece was unremarkable. I forgot it as soon as it was played. Emanuel Ax was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. He is a master and the orchestra provided an appropriate supporting role. Balances were right on target. I was able to hear a bit of Ax rehearsing for the performance. Wow! The program ended with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. The ASO seems to be a very good Mahler orchestra. Mahler’s music seems to emphasize the various sections of the orchestra individually rather than the orchestra as an integrated whole. This suits the ASO’s style and the acoustic of Symphony Hall. Overall the concert was a winner.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 15. This concert featured the Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss. During the performance, I thought of two things: “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the fact that maybe it should be re-titled “The Red Danube.” This was followed by a 15-minute discussion of the Berg Violin Concerto, especially its use of music from a Bach Chorale. Julian Rachlin, the violin soloist, also participated. This little lecture did not make the Berg any more likeable. It is 12-tone or serial music that seems only designed for those who are in on the joke. I had hoped that I would finally find this music enjoyable, but it was not to be. It seems random to me- without melody and without rhythm. That is probably just what the composer intended, and if so, he succeeded wildly. The concert finished with Brahms Symphony No. 2. This may be one of the greatest of all symphonic works, in my opinion. Brahms took the symphonic form to its pinnacle, not only regarding form and development, but also melody. Unfortunately this performance was not outstanding. Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles did not seem able to obtain the smooth integration of the orchestra’s various sections that this music requires. For example, Brahms frequently uses the wood winds and French horn together. The horns should wrap around the winds and the sounds should be as though the two sections are one. I did not hear this sublimely warm integration with this performance. Maybe it’s Symphony Hall again.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, October 21. This performance, under Spano’s direction, was to begin with Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”- again used in Kubrick’s 2001. However, a last minute change resulted in the substitution of Arvo Part’s “Fratres.” This music is wonderfully rich and warm, like most of Part’s compositions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arvo_Part). They are immediately accessible, but undeniably modern. This piece featured a drone bass figure throughout. It provided a buzzing quality that could be both irritating and beautiful. The ASO strings performed the piece flawlessly. This was followed by Bartok’s “The Miraculous Mandarin.” For me, Bartok is a greatly underappreciated composer who has influenced many a film composer, but in spite of that, he is great. “Mandarin” is loud, grimy, aggressive, dirty music. I love it. It is gut- grabbing sound uses the resources of the full orchestra, from the bass drum to the celesta to the organ. This music is loaded with eroticism and danger. The dry acoustics of Symphony Hall were perfect for this performance. The program ended with Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass.” Janacek (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janacek) is another wonderful composer of the twentieth century. His music is full of brass flourishes and woodwind runs. It is frequently loud and not always subtle. The Mass is unlike any that most of us will hear. It is bold, masculine, and rapturous. The piece incorporates a large orchestra, including organ, four soloists, and a full chorus. I really liked the performance except regarding balances. The tenor, John Mac Master, struggled to be heard above the orchestra and chorus. He is a large man and he looked like he might blow a vein trying to be heard. The chorus was entirely too loud. At points, the sound level became uncomfortable. It is a skilled chorus, that sings with precision, and in this case, great volume. Again, maybe it’s Symphony Hall, but cutting back the chorus by about 30 percent of its members might have helped. But the Mass is great and satisfying music. I heard one patron say that she never heard a mass performed in a church like that- I say “indeed”- that’s part of the reason it was so good.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
It all started when 33 miners were trapped one half mile below the desert surface south of Phoenix, Arizona. The copper mine where they worked was in a hill composed of dense rock. The miners, five of whom were women and six of whom were African-American were employees of the Arizona Mining Company, one of the largest copper mining concerns in the world. The country was stunned by the plight of these miners and the cable news services provided non-stop coverage of the event. President Obama took time to address the nation about the tragedy. He spoke from the White House Rose Garden about the bravery of the miners and their families and was about to ask for everyone to pray for them, and to urge Congress to appropriate $10 million for the recovery effort and to compensate the miners and their families. Unfortunately, the presidential teleprompter malfunctioned so the President had to cut his comments about five minutes short. The noise of the presidential helicopter soon drowned out the proceedings, as the President and his family were whisked away to Andrews Air Force base, where they boarded their flight for a vacation in the south of France. Soon thereafter, Speaker Pelosi introduced legislation to appropriate the $10 million. It passed the House and made its way to the Senate, where debate over the measure was intense. Many Republicans argued that the portion of the bill designed to provide support to the miners and their families was simply another unnecessary government bailout. They instead moved to cap the liability of the Arizona Mining Company in this situation. As a result, each miner could sue to recover no more than $5,000 in damages.
During the debate, TV commentators opined about the maneuvering in Congress. Pat Robertson said that the mine disaster was God’s retribution for the recent federal court action that ruled “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” unconstitutional. Glenn Beck decried the notion that the government would involve itself at all in what was essentially a private sector matter. He urged Christian churches to open their pocketbooks to assist the miners and their families, and urged members of Congress to defeat the aid bill. Ed Shultz, on CNBC, was outraged that the government wasn’t doing more. He urged that $20 million be appropriated with no liability cap. He also interviewed both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who accused the Senators who did not support the bill of being racist, given that some of the miners were African American. Similarly, Rachel Maddow interviewed attorney Gloria Allred who, on behalf of the female miners, accused the recalcitrant Senators of sexism. On the O’Reilly show, Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio said that he had reviewed the employment records of the miners and found that two of them may be in the country illegally. He announced that he would station two of his deputies at the mining site these undocumented workers should they be rescued. Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for senate in AZ, announced that several Caucasian miners, who were also employed by Arizona Mining, had been found beheaded in the desert. She urged all Americans to pray that this would not happened to any of the miners now entombed below ground, although she would not address reporters’ questions about whether she was saying that the allegedly illegal immigrant miners posed a threat to their colleagues.
Tea Party members demonstrated night and day in front of the Capital with signs saying “Another Obama Bailout” and “No more deficit spending, even for miners” and “No government funds for Health Care for Miners.” An elderly couple had to be rushed to the hospital when their oxygen concentrators shorted out in the rain. Another demonstrator was seriously injured when his electric scooter tipped over. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that her department would do all it could to expedite payment for new medical equipment for these brave Americans.
After two weeks of debate the Senate was poised to vote on a $4 million appropriation to help rescue the miners and support their families. The Administration signaled that it was happy with this bipartisan compromise. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) ultimately filibustered the bill and it died. No money was to be forthcoming from the government.
The Arizona Mining Company had worked feverishly to drill a hole into the stone to enable it to regain contact with its workers. Everyone was elated when the drill broke through and contact was again made with the miners. Seemingly in good spirits, the miners asked for some of their favorite food to be sent down. Thirty three Big Macs and supersized fries and cokes were carefully delivered down the new shaft and the miners were heard cheering to celebrate the arrival of food. The McDonald’s crporation offered to provide an unlimited supply of it menu to be delivered to the miners every day.
Mining company officials began to drill a two foot in diameter shaft that would enable them to send a rescue capsule to bring each of the miners up one-by-one. After two months of drilling, the new shaft was complete. The capsule was introduced to the public at a news conference held by Harry Pennington, CEO of Arizona mining. The rescue vehicle was about six feet long with a diameter of just less than two feet. After the unveiling, the capsule was lowered in a test run, where all seemed to go well.
After about a day, Mr. Pennington announced that there were some major technical difficulties with the plan. Apparently, only about 13 of the miners would fit into the capsule because of its limited size. He said that his company would do all it could try to address the issue. Unfortunately, it would not be possible to increase the size of the new shaft without endangering the integrity of the shaft itself. The unionized miners, in a show of solidarity, said that none of them would return to the surface unless all of them could.
Today, the New York Daily News announced in its headline “Game Over for Dead Miners.” President Obama, at a photo op with Hamid Karzai, expressed his sympathy to the families and announced that violence on the ground had been reduced in Afghanistan. He also declared that, in its pursuit of Afghani peace, America shows itself again to be the greatest country in the world. He ended by saying “God Bless America.”