Wednesday, February 27, 2013

RIP Van Cliburn

Pianist Van Cliburn performs for a packed house in the Great Hall of the Moscow Coservatory in April 1958 during
the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. Associated Press file photo via Dallas Morning News

The man who put Fort Worth in particular and Texas in general on the fine arts map of the world has died at the age of 78.
Van Cliburn's talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Mr. Cliburn's fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.

Mr. Cliburn was "The Texan Who Conquered Russia," according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Mr. Cliburn's unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.
It was an iconic moment. Not just in the Cold War, but in American classical music, demonstrating that American home-grown talent in the highly competitive world of the piano did exist.

Per the New York Times obit, he wasn't alone.

Read more here:
At the time, America had produced an exceptional generation of pianists besides Mr. Cliburn who were all in promising stages of their own careers, among them Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis, Gary Graffman and Eugene Istomin. 
Like Rachmaninoff, one of the Russians he played in Moscow, he could span 12 white notes with his hands, allowing his technique, described like this:
He developed a commanding technique, cultivated an exceptionally warm tone and manifested solid musical instincts. At its best, his playing had a surging Romantic fervor, but leavened by an unsentimental restraint that seemed peculiarly American.
That said, I also agree with this portion of the Times' assessment:
But if the Tchaikovsky competition represented Mr. Cliburn’s breakthrough, it also turned out to be his undoing. Relying inordinately on his keen musical instincts, he was not an especially probing artist, and his growth was stalled by his early success. Audiences everywhere wanted to hear him in his prizewinning pieces, the Tchaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Third.

His subsequent explorations of wider repertory grew increasingly insecure. During the 1960s he played less and less. By 1978 he had retired from the concert stage; he returned in 1989, but performed rarely. Ultimately, his promise and potential were never fulfilled.  
Van Cliburn himself said he felt like he "had been at this thing for 20 years already" by 1958, and that in part explains why he didn't develop further.

It's a shame. Prokofiev and other moderns could have well stood the attention of a more mature Van Cliburn.

However, he did, through starting the Van Cliburn Competition, give another gift to American classical music -- its further development. For that alone, we should all be very grateful.

Scott Cantrell at the Dallas Morning News, an email acquaintance of mine from my days in Dallas describes the start of that, as well as his life in Fort Worth:
He already had many friends in Fort Worth, where in 1962 the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was inaugurated in his honor. He served as an artistic adviser to the competition, to be held again in May and June 2013, and he took a keen interest in its winners’ careers.

With the aura of an old-school Southern gentleman, with a velvety baritone voice, Mr. Cliburn became Fort Worth royalty. He was as warmly gracious to the youngest piano student as to the city’s movers and shakers.

“He was a true, true gentleman,” (Richard Rodzinski, former executive director of the Van Cliburn Foundation) said, “genuinely modest, self effacing, always surprised at people remembering him, appreciating him. Generosity, modesty, gentleness, incredibly loyalty as a friend, great, great kindness — these were the attributes that made people so terribly fond [of] him.”
That said, Cantrell reflects what the Times said about his later career:
In 1989, Mr. Cliburn started to revive his concert career, and he performed that September at the opening of Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center. He again appeared with major orchestras and continued to draw rapturous audiences, but the old magic appeared only intermittently. The rich tone of his earlier years had hardened, his memory and technique had become less reliable and his interpretations had become fussy, mannered. A couple of onstage fainting spells made headlines.

“Something died there,” Bryce Morrison, a British critic specializing in piano performance, said in a 2004 interview. “I do think he was a victim of his own success, a victim of a commercial thing that can make you and destroy you at the same time. It wasn’t a very long career before things started to crack.”
No matter. He continued to grace the Cliburn Competition with his presence, his self.

Here's a performance, from 1962, of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto that won him fame in Moscow in 1958:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Paul of history and the Christ of faith

Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed ChristianityPaul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity by James D. Tabor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not much new here for those of us already critically informed by things, but some tidbits.

Tabor shows how Paul took personal visions of Jesus, merged them with what must only be considered his conception of a Hellenistic mystery religion, used this to invent the Eucharist and his idea of Baptism, and got either his direct followers of the next generation, or those directly in his orbit, to write most of the Christian New Testament that's not directly attributed to Paul. In doing so, he gave James (Jacob), Jesus' brother, the back of his hand at best and possibly worse. And even more so with Peter, Tabor argues.

None of that is new to me, other than thinking more clearly about Paul creating a mystery religion. What was a bit newer is realizing just how much Paul transformed crudely corporeal Jewish ideas of a bodily resurrection into something creative, somewhat along the lines, perhaps, of middle Platonism, but without any school of Platonism's antithesis to matters bodily.

That said, the book has a couple of weak points. While it generally rejects the gospels for historical value, Tabor still accepts conventional datings of Jesus' birth and death. Alternate ideas, such as "Jesus" perhaps actually being the Pharisee leader crucified a century earlier by a Maccabean king, don't cross Tabor's mind.

And, Tabor is not one to psychologize Paul, namely on the "why" this persecutor became a zealot.

I'd say this book is a four-star for people with little familiarity of the actual development of the New Testament, but just three stars for those who know more.

(Sadly, Tabor is an Eisenmann/Baigent-crowd "Jesus dynasty" guy, per another book of his.)  The third star is probably too much.)

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lorin Maazel just made me throw up

I'm listening to the start of this week's New York Philharmonic broadcast.

Opening work? The Brahms First Piano Concerto. Lorin Maazel's got the stick.

And, the opening was HUGELY slow. Draggy. Tired. Tired far beyond Romantic-era drama. And, the rest of the first movement isn't much better. It's a waste of Yefin Bronfman at the keyboard.

This has to be the worst NY Phil performance I've heard since Lenny Bernstein's Berlin Wall performance of Beethoven's Ninth, and for similar reasons.

I won't keep listening to this. I'm afraid the Sibelius Second will get butchered just as badly.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

So, how good is #Faitheist? What’s it about?

Chris Stedman/Via Center for Inquiry
If you’re not familiar with that name, it appears to have been something  largely developed by Chris Stedman, now the recently published author of a book by that name, which is what this blog post is all about.

First, some personal identification by me.

Regular readers of this blog, or at east the part of it that deals with religion, philosophy and metaphysics, know that I normally don’t have a lot of use for the New Atheist, or Gnu Atheist, “movement.” I've written about my issues with Gnus on many occasions, most recently here. I consider them too confrontational, for one thing. I consider them too … fundamentalist, to be wry, secondly. Third, unlike them, I have no desire to “evangelize” the religious, let alone conduct an intellectual browbeating quasi-jihad.

Well, that same angle is where Chris generally comes from.

That said, is Faithiest the book about branding Faithiest the idea as well as telling Stedman’s own quite interesting journey, which includes his gay sexuality and coming terms with that while spending part of his time growing up in a conservative evangelical church?

Well, two different reviews have two different takes. Which I will get to in just a bit, because, first, I'm going to give you my own answer, now that I've read the book myself.

Here's a list of observations, going generally in order of the book, but also somewhat, in the later ones, in order of imporance once I get to the meet of the book. First, those observations on the book, then the rest of my original post, followed by other, earlier updates at bottom.

1. He doesn't use the phrase, but Chris clearly was an "old soul" as a kid. I relate. He was also naive as a kid, at times, it seems. Maybe even clueless. I also relate.However, he also doesn't always seem aware of that in hindsight, which is a bit different, and relates to his joining that church. On the other hand, maybe he is aware of today. Maybe it's part of a persona. Yes, my thought is going more that way.

2. The first time he visited, he talks about how felt "moved" by the embrace from the "welcomer," and he later notes that was probably a budding gay sexuality issue. However, he never explicitly says that that was part of why he joined the church. Is this an ellipsis of deliberateness of some sort? Or has it not occurred to Chris?

3. He joined this church for community. Only later did social justice drives arise. Since he had gotten his mom more interested in church then, why didn't they go back to her family's Methodism? We're not given any story here. Nor, if we want to find out more, are we given the name of the presumably nondenominational conservative evangelical church.

4. His dad gets almost no mention. Yes, his parents divorced, but it seems Chris as at least 10 when that happened. What was, and is, their relationship? Good, bad, nonexistent? Simon Davis, in one of the longer reviews mentioned below, faults Chris for not telling how any of his academic religious background influenced him, as far as naming particular religious names, etc. I'll go further. I'll ding him for not discussing in any way relations with is dad. Per other comment by Davis, it makes the book more depersonalized. Sorry, Chris, and please, don't even give the "Minnesota nice" excuse as to why you didn't talk about him. 

5. Another family issue. If Chris had gotten his mom more involved at that conservative evangelical church, how did she know to have him talk to this particular liberal Lutheran minister immediately after she read his journal? Did she already suspect he was gay? Chris gives us no background.

6. This too, reflects an odd "depersonalization" of the book. None of his siblings are named. None of their reactions to his "journey" are related to us. For that matter, neither is his mom's reaction. The more and more I think about some of the "depersonalization" aspects of the book, not just vis-a-vis his family but primarily there (see blogger Davis' comments about Stedman seemingly so detached from his academic influences), I wound up dropping my Goodreads review rating by a star.

7. Was Chris really "that much" of an atheist in his early years after "coming out"? Several things in teh book tell me now. He says that, at the end of his undergrad time at Augsburg, he felt jealous of progressive theologians, and he felt angry that he couldn't be and believe the same. He went to a graduate divinity school. And, after getting to Chicago, he only discovers "atheist community" after a full year of active involvement with Interfaith Youth Core? (One great blog review, below, picks up on that.)

Chris, Minneapolis is a big and diverse enough place that, had you done some simple Googling, you surely could have found something there. Considering that "community" was the primary reason you joined that conservative evangelical church, I find another disconnect here, to put it a bit mildly. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you. And, related to that (and before any interaction with folks like American Atheists) we have:

8. A comment like this, page 130, my emphasis at end:
Anyone who looked remotely religious ... was given a suspicious sideways glance by my nonreligious friends as they went outside for their continual cigarette breaks.
Sorry, but I find that last clause gratuitous, and you're a good enough writer I can't quite believe that just somehow got there. I wouldn't quite call it snide, but it's gratuitous with baggage, let's say that.

9. Per the branding angle, I'm wondering if Davis isn't right about Chris' claim to be "fashionably underdressed" at the secularist event in Chicago in chapter 1 of the book. I see that claim to be possibly "branding" related, if it's not totally correct. As in, "Look at my, the green around the ears kid." Other parts of that incident are ... interesting, too. Chris never says why he took his shoes off when he entered the apartment hosting the post-event soiree, and if others did or not.

10. Per the branding angle, in another way. It sounds like "atheist community" was not that important to you, at least not until after extensive involvement with Interfaith Youth Core; is there a marketing/branding related issue? This is about the time that Eboo Patel gets you on the Washington Post religion pages blogging, about the time Greg Epstein of Harvard gets in touch with you, etc.

Some of this may have been luck, fortuitous circumstances, etc. Some of it may have been a conscious decision, as in "I need to investigate atheism as community as part of my next steps and moves." But ... there's little discussion of that. (Yet another illustration of how the book is relatively "thin." Or, per the "story" issue below, of how the story telling is selective.)

11. Like Davis, below, Chris' use of the word "queer" is a bit interesting, especially in light of his criticizing Gnu Atheists for, among other things, being a bit too much in the faces of the religious. From what I know of the LGBT world, perhaps not to the same degree, but I think "queer" has a bit of that itself. It's interesting that he starts using the word in his story (go near the bottom for more of the "story" angle) just after accepting that he's gay, and disengaging from that conservative church.

12. Finally, there's the matter of luck, and hard work/drivenness. Chris merely hints at it, but, below his Minnesota Nice, there seems to be a Type A personality scrambling to climb ladders. There is also a definite bit of luck, like landing the position with Interfaith Youth Core, then having the likes of a Greg Epstein contact him back, after his Type A "push" started. This all ties in with the marketing/branding angle I see in the book.

At least one FB friend common to Chris and I probably won't like the review. But, it is what it is. And, with a strong marketing push for the book, and it getting a lot of attention in the atheist and skeptic blogosphere, and me having seen some of that (like the reviews below), it was going to get a close read from me. And, not just the book, but the Faitheist brand, and the brander, were going to get that close look too.

Beyond critiquing the book as it interacts with branding, and a particular way to do non-Gnu atheism, the "depersonalization" makes it not a very good memoir coming from wherever, whomever, for whatever reasons. If it didn't have the Faitheist angle, would it get any buzzplay at all?

Anyway, to other reviews, detailed below the fold (and yeah, I may post just book review comments separately, since this has become as much a review of Chris Stedman as of his book):