Saturday, 24 December 2011

Invisible music

Edmonton has a vibrant classical music community that operates almost invisibly thanks to the media's belief that only old folks and elitists are interested in reports on what's happening out there. My guess is maybe a half dozen concerts and operas get a review in a year. The local double A baseball club gets more coverage for games that draw a few hundred fans some days.
In the past several months, some of the world's most accomplished musicians, a few of them from right here, have filled local churches and concert halls. About 1,500 folks came out to hear Juliette Kang play the Brahms violin concerto at the Winspear Centre in late November. Twice as many heard a couple of excellent performances of the Messiah before Christmas. James Ehnes drew around 600 to a downtown church in October, and native son Jens Lindemann sizzled in front of two full houses at the Winspear this fall.
I like blues and and I love jazz, but unless B.B. King or Wynton Marsalis turn up at one of the larger venues in town, classical music attracts larger audiences to individual events than most jazz, blues or folk artists, and hardly anybody hears about it.
The premier newspaper in the city gives space to a year in review for blues, folk and jazz, and ignores the contribution that classical music makes to the cultural identity of Edmonton. The weird fact is that more people who read newspapers enjoy classical music than those who follow these other popular forms, including pop and rock, I'm guessing. The old folks and elitists are actual subscribers, not virtual ones.
At the risk of sounding like a whiny kid, IT'S NOT FAIR.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Chris Hedges on what America's response to 9/11 wrought

I arrived in Times Square around 9:30 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. A large crowd was transfixed by the huge Jumbotron screens. Billows of smoke could be seen on the screens above us, pouring out of the two World Trade towers. Two planes, I was told by people in the crowd, had plowed into the towers. I walked quickly into the New York Times newsroom at 229 W. 43rd St., grabbed a handful of reporter’s notebooks, slipped my NYPD press card, which would let me through police roadblocks, around my neck, and started down the West Side Highway to the World Trade Center. The highway was closed to traffic. I walked through knots of emergency workers, police and firemen. Fire trucks, emergency vehicles, ambulances, police cars and rescue trucks idled on the asphalt.
The south tower went down around 10 a.m. with a guttural roar. Huge rolling gray clouds of noxious smoke, dust, gas, pulverized concrete, gypsum and the grit of human remains enveloped lower Manhattan. The sun was obscured. The north tower collapsed about 30 minutes later. The dust hung like a shroud over Manhattan. 
I headed toward the spot where the towers once stood, passing dazed, ashen and speechless groups of police officers and firefighters. I would pull out a notebook to ask questions and no sounds would come out of their mouths. They forlornly shook their heads and warded me away gently with their hands. By the time I arrived at Ground Zero it was a moonscape; whole floors of the towers had collapsed like an accordion. I pulled out pieces of paper from one floor, and a few feet below were papers from 30 floors away. Small bits of human bodies—a foot in a woman’s shoe, a bit of a leg, part of a torso—lay scattered amid the wreckage. 
Scores of people, perhaps more than 200, pushed through the smoke and heat to jump to their deaths from windows that had broken or they had smashed. Sometimes they did this alone, sometimes in pairs. But it seems they took turns, one body cascading downward followed by another. The last acts of individuality. They fell for about 10 seconds, many flailing or replicating the motion of swimmers, reaching 150 miles an hour. Their clothes and, in a few cases, their improvised parachutes made from drapes or tablecloths shredded. They smashed into the pavement with unnerving, sickening thuds. Thump. Thump. Thump. Those who witnessed it were particularly shaken by the sounds the bodies made on impact. 
The images of the “jumpers” proved too gruesome for the TV networks. Even before the towers collapsed, the falling men and women were censored from live broadcasts. Isolated pictures appeared the next day in papers, including The New York Times, and then were banished. The mass suicide, one of the most pivotal and important elements in the narrative of 9/11, was expunged. It remains expunged from public consciousness.
The “jumpers” did not fit into the myth the nation demanded. The fate of the “jumpers” said something so profound, so disturbing, about our own fate, smallness in the universe and fragility that it had to be banned. The “jumpers” illustrated that there are thresholds of suffering that elicit a willing embrace of death. The “jumpers” reminded us that there will come, to all of us, final moments when the only choice will be, at best, how we will choose to die, not how we are going to live.  And we can die before we physically expire.
The shock of 9/11, however, demanded images and stories of resilience, redemption, heroism, courage, self-sacrifice and generosity, not collective suicide in the face of overwhelming hopelessness and despair. 
Reporters in moments of crisis become clinicians. They collect data, facts, descriptions, basic information, and carry out interviews as swiftly as possible. We make these facts fit into familiar narratives. We do not create facts but we manipulate them. We make facts conform to our perceptions of ourselves as Americans and human beings. We work within the confines of national myth. We make journalism and history a refuge from memory. The pretense that mass murder and suicide can be transformed into a tribute to the victory of the human spirit was the lie we all told to the public that day and have been telling ever since. We make sense of the present only through the lens of the past, as the French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs pointed out, recognizing that “our conceptions of the past are affected by the mental images we employ to solve present problems, so that collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present. … Memory needs continuous feeding from collective sources and is sustained by social and moral props.” 
I returned that night to the newsroom hacking from the fumes released by the burning asbestos, jet fuel, lead, mercury, cellulose and construction debris. I sat at my computer, my thin paper mask still hanging from my neck, trying to write and catch my breath. All who had been at the site that day were noticeable in the newsroom because they were struggling for air. Most of us were convulsed by shock and grief. 
There would soon, however, be another reaction. Those of us who were close to the epicenters of the 9/11 attacks would primarily grieve and mourn. Those who had some distance would indulge in the growing nationalist cant and calls for blood that would soon triumph over reason and sanity. Nationalism was a disease I knew intimately as a war correspondent. It is anti-thought. It is primarily about self-exaltation. The flip side of nationalism is always racism, the dehumanization of the enemy and all who appear to question the cause. The plague of nationalism began almost immediately. My son, who was 11, asked me what the difference was between cars flying small American flags and cars flying large American flags.
“The people with the really big flags are the really big assholes,” I told him.
The dead in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania were used to sanctify the state’s lust for war. To question the rush to war became to dishonor our martyrs. Those of us who knew that the attacks were rooted in the long night of humiliation and suffering inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians, the imposition of our military bases in the Middle East and in the brutal Arab dictatorships that we funded and supported became apostates. We became defenders of the indefensible. We were apologists, as Christopher Hitchens shouted at me on a stage in Berkeley, “for suicide bombers.” 
Because few cared to examine our activities in the Muslim world, the attacks became certified as incomprehensible by the state and its lap dogs, the press. Those who carried out the attacks were branded as rising out of a culture and religion that was at best primitive and probably evil. The Quran—although it forbids suicide as well as the murder of women and children—was painted as a manual for fanaticism and terror. The attackers embodied the titanic clash of civilizations, the cosmic battle under way between good and evil, the forces of light and darkness. Images of the planes crashing into the towers and heroic rescuers emerging from the rubble were played and replayed. We were deluged with painful stories of the survivors and victims. The deaths and falling towers became iconographic. The ceremonies of remembrance were skillfully hijacked by the purveyors of war and hatred. They became vehicles to justify doing to others what had been done to us. And as innocents died here, soon other innocents began to die in the Muslim world. A life for a life. Murder for murder. Death for death. Terror for terror.
What was played out in the weeks after the attacks was the old, familiar battle between force and human imagination, between the crude instruments of violence and the capacity for empathy and understanding. Human imagination lost. Coldblooded reason, which does not speak the language of the imagination, won. We began to speak and think in the empty, mindless nationalist clichés about terror that the state handed to us. We became what we abhorred. The deaths were used to justify pre-emptive war, invasion, Shock and Awe, prolonged occupation, targeted assassinations, torture, offshore penal colonies, gunning down families at checkpoints, massive aerial bombardments, drone attacks, missile strikes and the killing of dozens and soon hundreds and then thousands and later tens of thousands and finally hundreds of thousands of innocent people. We produced piles of corpses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and extended the reach of our killing machine to Yemen and Somalia. And by beatifying our dead, by cementing into the national psyche fear and the imperative of permanent war, and by stoking our collective humiliation, the state carried out crimes, atrocities and killings that dwarfed anything carried out against us on 9/11. The best that force can do is impose order. It can never elicit harmony. And force was justified, and is still justified, by the first dead. Ten years later these dead haunt us like Banquo’s ghost. 
“It is the first death which infects everyone with the feelings of being threatened,” wrote Elias Canetti. “It is impossible to overrate the part played by the first dead man in the kindling of wars. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It needs not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death; and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one: his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.”
We were unable to accept the reality of this anonymous slaughter. We were unable because it exposed the awful truth that we live in a morally neutral universe where human life, including our life, can be snuffed out in senseless and random violence. It showed us that there is no protection, not from God, fate, luck, omens or the state.
We have still not woken up to whom we have become, to the fatal erosion of domestic and international law and the senseless waste of lives, resources and trillions of dollars to wage wars that ultimately we can never win. We do not see that our own faces have become as contorted as the faces of the demented hijackers who seized the three commercial jetliners a decade ago. We do not grasp that Osama bin Laden’s twisted vision of a world of indiscriminate violence and terror has triumphed. The attacks turned us into monsters, grotesque ghouls, sadists and killers who drop bombs on village children and waterboard those we kidnap, strip of their rights and hold for years without due process. We acted before we were able to think. And it is the satanic lust of violence that has us locked in its grip. 
As Wordsworth wrote:
Action is transitory—a step, a blow,
The motion of a muscle—this way or that—
’Tis done; and in the after-vacancy
We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed:
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And has the nature of infinity.
We could have gone another route. We could have built on the profound sympathy and empathy that swept through the world following the attacks. The revulsion over the crimes that took place 10 years ago, including in the Muslim world, where I was working in the weeks and months after 9/11, was nearly universal. The attacks, if we had turned them over to intelligence agencies and diplomats, might have opened possibilities not of war and death but ultimately reconciliation and communication, of redressing the wrongs that we commit in the Middle East and that are committed by Israel with our blessing. It was a moment we squandered. Our brutality and triumphalism, the byproducts of nationalism and our infantile pride, revived the jihadist movement. We became the radical Islamist movement’s most effective recruiting tool. We descended to its barbarity. We became terrorists too. The sad legacy of 9/11 is that the assholes, on each side, won.

This is the original web address. Try it. Let me know if it's alive.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Lillian again

The remounting of John Estacio and John Murrell's Lillian Alling at the Banff Centre last week is most remarkable not because it's a solid piece of musical art that deserved a new audience but because it shows once again just how vibrant Alberta is as a place where new opera is nurtured. The performance I saw on Saturday night at the Eric Harvie Theatre was done by the Banff Centre's Opera as Theatre participants, a group of well-trained singers whose work was as entertaining as the original professional production I saw in Vancouver last fall. Several of the singers are clearly ready for prime time.
Kelly Robinson wasn't doing anyone any favours in selecting Lillian Alling as one of the two operas for this summer's program, along with Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Mozart and Estacio. That's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it? The issue isn't whether Estacio's name will be around as long as Mozart's. The issue is that Banff and Robinson, head of Banff's theatre program and director of the Vancouver production, aren't afraid to promote Canadian work that is substantial and unique. He gave his aspiring opera singers a worthy test. The ensemble delivered a result that clearly pleased the nearly 800 listeners in the theatre on Saturday. What other test is there?
Isn't that the main reason some companies avoid new Canadian work? What will the audience think? Will we lose our shirts? Valid concerns, for sure, but Estacio and Murrell have proven that Canadian audiences will come to hear them.The Vancouver run was a critical and popular success, and so has been the Banff production. Filumena, their first collaboration, started in Calgary and made it to Edmonton and Ottawa. The CBC even showed a film of it.
The intricate narrative Murrell has constructed in Lillian Alling, and the rich orchestral score, played brilliantly by the Banff student orchestra, that Estacio has written, stand up as opera worth producing on any stage, anywhere. I know serious music critics who can't stand Nixon in China. It garnered enough interest though to make it into the standard repertoire, not because it's great.
The title character of Lillian Alling moves westward on her quest for justice. The opera Lillian Alling is moving eastward. It has made it over the mountains now. Its goal should be to make it at least as far as Toronto, where the COC is venturing into contemporary Finnish opera, set in the Middle Ages next season. Contemporary opera is not the COC's usual domain. Risky business, even for an opera that has mustered promoters sufficient to give the Finnish composer's Life from Afar life after its premiere.
My guess is Toronto opera lovers could find some of the same tolerance the city's hockey fans have for their haplessly predictable Leafs to come to hear a made-in-Canada opera that was good enough for Vancouver.
Some operas don't make history. Most of Mozarts 22 haven't. Terrific that Kaija Saariaho’s has beaten the odds. But it would be doubly terrific if audiences in Canada's largest city had a chance to see something built right here at home. Lillian Alling is worth the gamble.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Placido Domingo and Rigoletto

I just finished watching the BBC production of Rigoletto, starring Placido Domingo in the title role. It's a sexy and moving production set in the actual historic locations the Duke of Mantua lived and indulged in. The larger point about this production is one John Doyle has repeatedly made in the Globe since the CBC decided Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy are the sorts of programs the public broadcaster should be investing in, not the arts like this British public broadcaster's unique opera commission.
The people with the power to dictate what we see on Canadian public broadcasting should be leaders, not followers. The kind of producers who are willing to use taxpayer's money to present the kind of quality programming represented by this Rigoletto are clearly not afraid of what the majority who prefer soccer or game shows think about seeing real art on TV, and that clearly isn't the kind of leadership behind CBC's programming decisions. I'm not one of the Canadians Harper refers to when he talks about Canadians, and there are thousands of us who are denied quality shows like this Rigoletto because they are timid followers, not leaders. Fortunately, we still get PBS from the U.S., where this BBC production was offered.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Malcolm Forsyth

A quote in the Edmonton Journal obit today of Malcolm Forsyth from Malcolm's friend Rayfield Rideout that included the sentence, "He would listen." underscores what I will remember about the several conversations I had with Malcolm. I always felt he was genuinely present whenever I had the pleasure to meet him or to interview him. He was almost always in teaching mode, which meant it paid to be a good listener too.
His intellectual curiosity is also something I admired. One time I phoned him for an interview and during the start of our chat he told me he had just been reading Descartes' theory of the pineal gland being the seat of the human soul. What a cool way to spend your free time, I thought, knowing how much of mine I waste. I'm happy I knew Malcolm just a little, and know there are many others who knew him far longer and far better than I who will miss him for a multitude of reasons. I have a few reasons too.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Calling all opera fans

Edmonton Opera can only afford to stage three operas each season, and although they do what they can to attract people like students on a limited budget, the fact is a night at the opera is seen as a pricey proposition, even if it's peanuts compared to a night at an often barely entertaining Oilers game. Well, The Journal on Friday did what it can to give opera lovers the heads-up about two opera productions that are economical and from my experience always pretty entertaining.
Opera Nuova's Timms Centre productions of Rusalka and the Marriage of Figaro next week are real opera with really good singers, and for almost anyone with a little discretionary income for arts outings, the productions should be seen as an obvious opportunity.
There's no doubt the average opera-goer has means and isn't a penurious student, which brings me to my main point. I've been to a few Banff International String Quartet Competitions, where young string players perform their hearts out, just like the Opera Nuova singers do, and the people, many of them from as far away as Europe, who fill the Eric Harvie Theatre three times a day for a week are typical middle-aged and elderly classical music buffs. They're sort of like a throng of appreciating grandmas and grandpas who love the art, and really love it when young people are doing it well. That's the way the opera supporters of Edmonton should see the Opera Nuova Vocal Arts Festival, and in particular, the fully-staged operas on  the Timms stage all next week. Subscribers to Edmonton Opera have an chance to get more live opera next week, and folks who would like to hear some opera but can't normally afford it should check out the well-trained young singers' efforts starting Monday.

Monday, 13 June 2011

A dumber CBC

John Doyle's column in the Globe and Mail today says what he's been saying for years and what many Canadians who love the arts have been saying since the public broadcaster decided people who actually listen to CBC Radio 2 can bugger off because people who don't listen to CBC Radio 2 deserve a radio network that can give them what they can get in a hundred different places, oh, but without commercials. Doyle's point about how the arts are ignored on CBC is poignantly illustrated by a comment a reader made on Colin Eatock's excellent story last Wednesday's on the NAC's performance of Malcolm Forsyth's new work.

Here's the pertinent bit: "But it is a particular shame that CBC Radio, which has the option to record and broadcast this and other performances by the NACO, chose to deny A BALLAD OF CANADA to Canadians beyond the Ottawa and Edmonton (where it will be performed by the ESO next Remembrance Day) areas. Indeed, this piece should have been slated to be the cornerstone of a Radio Two Remembrance Day broadcast. But this is not the first time our national public broadcaster has passed on bringing Forsyth's accessible music to more Canadians. Wynnyk and I had a development deal with CBC Arts TV to create a television version of Forsyth's cantata, EVANGELINE (also featuring Carl Hare reading from the original Longfellow poem), a truly iconic Canadian story, but were quite dismayed when that network decided to scrap serious arts programming altogether, and thus ended the project. It is truly sad that Canada no longer has a public broadcaster committed to serious programming particularly television."

Harper would say all is well since the "majority" of Canadians don't want arts on TV, just like the majority (40 per cent) wanted him to tell the rest of us what's good for us. Isn't that almost a definition of Conservative? If I remember correctly, it took two people who objected to telling the government about how many pets they have to get the long form census killed?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Opera Nuova's profile

Opera Nuova presented its last performance of Light in the Piazza Saturday night. I usually see the final two operas that end the Vocal Arts Festival, but last night's modestly staged performance at the University of Alberta's Convocation Hall makes me want to hear more of  the fine young singers who come to Edmonton each year to hone their skills in hopes of developing a professional singing career. Most of them will not make it the way they imagine, but what they accomplish in the month they study in Edmonton will give them a really clear idea of where they're at at this moment. How they build on that will depend, of course, on native talent and loads of luck. Shorter term, there wasn't any singer who wasn't solidly entertaining. That's one accomplishment no amount of future struggle and 'failure,' can take away from them.
Try to get to one of the final opera performances later in the month: Marriage of Figaro and Rusalka.