A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back To Bach

(Above: Marika Kuzma, director of the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus and Community Chorus, conducts both groups in a joint performance of Handel’s Messiah at UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. Photograph by Kathleen Karn.)

One of the best concerts I've heard in a long time was a performance of Handel's Messiah by the UC Chamber Chorus and the University Chorus just before Christmas in 2013. I was totally blown away.
Well, they're back. And this time they're tackling an even more ambitious project: Bach's monumental masterpiece, the B Minor Mass, which they'll perform with a baroque orchestra on April 10 and 11 at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall.
It's the first time they've sung the B Minor Mass since 1999, and it might very well be the last because it's such a mammoth undertaking. It's so huge, Bach himself never heard it performed in his lifetime.
"With all those fugues, it's a real challenge to give each one a different personality," says Professor of Music Marika Kuzma, who conducts both the Chamber Chorus and the University Chorus.
But it's worth the trouble because the B Minor Mass is so gorgeous, especially the exquisite Dona Nobis Pacem movement, which is one of the true glories of Western music.
By the way, the "B Minor" in the title is a misnomer. Minor keys often imply lugubrious music, and this work is anything but. Most of the movements are actually in D Major.
"And nothing says 'joy' like D Major," says Kuzma.
Good thing, too, because the mass is two hours long, and that would be a long time to feel sad. Be sure and stay to the end because that's when the Dona Nobis Pacem occurs.
"We're saving the best for last," she says.
The B Minor Mass has special meaning for Kuzma because it was the piece that changed her career.
"I was playing violin in the student orchestra when I was a freshman at North Carolina," she says. "Then I heard the B Minor Mass, and it was so amazing I thought the ceiling had come off. I immediately dropped the orchestra and switched to chorus, instead."
It's impossible to overstate the high level of musicality in both the Chamber Chorus and the University Chorus, even though the members are still college kids. Many have gone on to sing with some of the country's finest baroque ensembles and choruses, including the Philharmonia Baroque, American Bach Soloists and the National Cathedral Choir.
Several of them will be flying in from as far away as New York, Los Angeles and Florida for the two concerts to sing some of the solos. Partly, it's a tribute to their love for the music. But it's also a tribute to their devotion to Kuzma, who has always gone out of her way to bring out her students' best.
She conducts the same way Seurat painted. Instead of making the singers twist their throats into pretzels to get the tonality she's looking for, as many other conductors do, she re-positions them strategically next to each other in such a way that the combination of their voices achieves the same effect, without trashing their larynxes.
Both concerts start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on a sliding scale, with discounts for students, seniors and retired Cal faculty and staff. You can get them at the door - assuming it hasn't been sold out, as it was last time - or ahead of time at tickets.berkeley.edu or by calling 510-642-9988.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Bibi's Blunder

No matter what news my grandmother, Myra Cohen, heard – whether it was "Grandma, there's been a terrible flood in India" or "Grandma, the Dodgers just won the World Series" - she always had the same response: "Is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?"
Well, last week's Israeli election was VERY bad for the Jews.
Before anyone accuses me of being a self-loathing Jew, my Zionist credentials are at least as good as yours.
My father, who was an Army surplus dealer in Los Angeles after World War II, smuggled guns to the Palmach, the forerunner of the Israeli Defense Force, during the 1948 War of Independence.
The State Department had issued regulations that made it illegal to ship weapons to the Jews in Palestine. But there was a loophole: The ban applied only to working weapons, and a rifle without a firing pin wasn't considered a working weapon.
So Dad would send a shipment of 10,000 surplus M-1 rifles without pins to the Palmach; and his business partner, Leo Fenton, would send them 10,000 firing pins via a separate shipment.
My brother Steve was a big supporter of Israel, too. If you go to the town of Hatzor, you'll see a cultural center, gym, school computer center and a soccer field, all named after him and his wife, Barbara, who raised the funds to build them.
I grew up watching movies like "Exodus," starring Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan (a thinly veiled portrayal of Ariel Sharon, BTW), and I rooted for Israel against her neighbors the way you'd root for David against Goliath.
Ironically, all that changed at the moment of Israel's greatest triumph: the 1967 Six-Day War that added Gaza and the West Bank to her possessions. All of a sudden, she didn't look so much like David anymore.
Worse, she now had responsibility for millions of new people who resent their subjugation and have a birth rate so high, it's only a matter of time before they're a majority.
The central question has always been: What is Israel, which was founded as a Jewish democracy, going to do with them?
Netanyhu's inflammatory warning on election day about the danger of Arab voters doesn't give much hope that they'll be granted equal political status, which means Isreal would no longer be a democracy.
The other alternative is giving them equal status, which means Israel would no longer be a Jewish state. It's a no-win situation.
The obvious solution is to create a Palestinian state that will take them off Israel's hands, but Netanyahu now says that's out of the question, too.
Meanwhile, he's busy building new Jewish settlements on the West Bank and burning bridges with the only ally that counts – the United States – by meddling in American politics and turning U.S. support for Israel into a partisan issue.
We know why the Republicans are doing this: It's a handy club to beat Obama over the head with. Besides, the reason a large part of their base supports Netanyahu so fervently is that they believe a Jewish state is a necessary prerequisite for The Rapture – to which no Jews will be invited, of course.
But why is Israel doing this? It breaks my heart to see her on such a suicidal path.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Vetter Was Right

(Above: Karl Marlantes speaking at our last reunion)

I stopped by the Musical Offering Café in Berkeley last week to have one of their great Caesar salads, and who did I run into? My favorite teacher.
His name is Jan Vetter, and he's the professor at UC Berkeley's law school – which we old-timers stubbornly persist in calling Boalt Hall – who gave me the lowest grade I ever got (thoroughly justified, of course).
It was in his Labor Law course. The grade was so low, he was obligated to write an explanation. And this is what he wrote:
"Mr. Snapp demonstrates a remarkable command of legal rules and principles. Unfortunately, they are not rules and principles that are recognized by any jurisdiction of which I am aware."
Oops! Busted!
Professor Vetter was the smartest professor on the faculty, and that's saying a lot because law school professors are really, really smart.
He was also the nicest. And, as you can see above, the funniest. Those of us in the know made it a point to sit in the front row to catch the witty asides he muttered under his breath.
It's also because of him that I wasn't thrown out of school. During the Vietnam War I was hauled before the UC Berkeley Executive Committee for violating the University's time, place and manner regulations at a stop-the-draft demonstration.
Translation: I was in the lobby of Sproul Hall during a sit-in, leading the crowd in singing "Yellow Submarine."
But they didn't throw me out, thanks to Professor Vetter's expert lawyering.
Afterward, I thanked him for getting me off the hook.
"You're welcome," he said, "but I think you're on the wrong track about abolishing the draft. I understand what you're doing: You're using the draft as a club to beat the war over the head with. But I don't think you've thought through the long-term implications."
That was almost 50 years ago. And I've long since come to the conclusion that Professor Vetter was right, and I was wrong.
Look what has happened since the draft was abolished. Far from making war less likely, we've had decade after decade of almost non-stop fighting.
And the burden has been borne by only one percent of the population. For the other 99 percent, it's been business as usual. The pain never touches them, so why should they care?
It's not only unfair; it's undemocratic. One advantage of a draft is that it throws young people from all races, regions and regions together. And they have to learn to work together or they'll all get killed. That tends to broaden the mind.
And the greater the mobility between the civilian world and the military, the more each side is likely to understand the other, which is one of the reasons why we've never had a military coup in this country.
 Finally, as my college classmate Karl Marlantes, who wrote an award-winning novel called "Matternorn," about his experiences as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, pointed out at our last reunion, the last 20 years of non-stop war have been brought to us by presidents with no military experience who constantly defer to the top brass.
"We need people in the White House who have served in uniform," he said, "if only because they know enough to say '(bleep) you' to the generals."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Calming The Savage Breast

(Audrey playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 at the 2013 Midsummer Mozart Festival at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Photo by Meina Xu)

Audrey Vardanega of Oakland, the sensational 19-year-old concert pianist who has been captivating music critics, other musicians, and even grumpy old newspaper columnists ever since her smashing debut at the Midsummer Mozart Festival at age 14 – the youngest soloist, by far, in the festival's 41-year history – will return to the Bay Area from New York, where she is a sophomore at Columbia, for a concert at the Hillside Club in Berkeley on March 15.
She will play Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata, Liszt's "Valee O'Oberman," and Schumann's Symphonic Etudes.
"I guess for me, the most inspiring thing about the program is that all three composers were emotional wrecks," she says. "For example, the Beethoven piece is called 'The Tempest' because it's constantly changing. It starts with a storm, followed by a very sweet section. It's completely bipolar, just like Beethoven himself.
"Then we go on to the Liszt, which is about another emotional crisis. It's based on a German novel that was very popular in the 19th Century. The hero is stuck in a valley in the Swiss Alps, all by himself, and he doesn't know how to get out. He's having an existential crisis. As a Columbia student in my second year, still trying to decide what my major is, this is definitely a piece I can relate to!"
Finally, there's the Schuman etudes, a 30-minute-long set of variations on a theme.
"Schuman went crazy," she says. "It's very awkward to play, with chords spread out all over the place. You have to contort your hands to fit them. He doesn't make it easy.
"It's especially hard for me because I have small hands. My maximum reach is a ninth. He'll insert a fourth way below or add a third three octaves above."
But even more difficult is the basic paradox at the core of the piece.
"The bones are a simple pastoral melody, but it's very easy for a pianist to get caught up in all that jumping around and lose sight of that. It's hard to balance the physicality of it – a reflection of Schumann's own craziness and obsession with getting beyond the limits of what the hand can do – with the basic simplicity and lyricism of what he's trying to express.
"And that's the theme of the entire program: what I can physically do and what I'm trying to express."
But if all this makes it sound like Audrey's life is filled with sturm und drang, it's anything but.
To the contrary, she's having the time of her life soaking up knowledge and new experiences like a sponge, from reading Hegel, Hume and St. Augustine in her political science courses to hanging out in jazz clubs with her friends, many of whom are jazz musicians.
"I'm learning to embrace change and see it as growth," she says. "Look at my teacher, Seymour Lipkin. He's 80 years old, and he's still reinventing himself! I want to be like that. I'm embracing the fact that I'll probably look back in two years and say, 'Was I a horrible pianist!'"
The concert starts at 7 p.m. The Hillside Club is at 2286 Cedar Street in north Berkeley. Tickets are available at the door, and I'd get there a half-hour early to get a good parking space on the street.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tiny Trotters


(Fairyland animal caretaker Jamie Hammer introduces the park’s new miniature horses to young Adrian, 4, and his family. Photo by Maria Rodriguez.)

Almost all the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland live well beyond their normal life expectancy because of the TLC they receive. But there comes a time when they get too old or too frail to play with kids anymore, so they're eased into a luxurious retirement.
For Coco the pony and Bobo the sheep, that time came seven years ago when Coco developed arthritis. And when she retired, Bobo had to retire, too, because he was blind and totally dependent on her.
Fortunately, they found the ideal home at a way cool ranch in Orinda called Goats R Us. (It hires out goats to public agencies and private property owners to remove unwanted undergrowth and undesirable plant species.) And they lived there happily for the rest of their lives. 
Coco's successor was a pony named Dori, and Bobo was succeeded by two sheep named Oatmeal and Raisin. Over the last seven years Dori has been petted by more than a million children, but for the last few months it's been apparent that her time to retire had come, too.
So last Thursday Fairyland's animal caretaker, Jamie Hammer, drove her to Goats R Us. As they got close they could hear the horses in the stable whinnying. They were calling to Dori, who was whinnying right back.
As soon as Hammer let her out of her trailer she pranced over to the stable, head and tail held high, whinnying all the way. Once inside the stable she moved from stall to stall, nuzzling noses with each horse in turn. When she got to her stall, there was a bag of alfalfa – her favorite munchie – waiting for her.
I guess you could say her retirement is a success.
Meanwhile, back at Fairyland, Dori's successors arrived the next day.
They are two miniature horses named Pixie and Scamp, and I'm not kidding about the miniature part. They're no bigger than a Saint Bernard.
"They're Fairyland-sized!" exclaimed Fairyland's executive director, C.J. Hirschfield, when she saw them.
They are sweet as can be and terrific with kids, especially Pixie, who used to be a therapy horse. She runs right up to the fence when she sees them and nuzzles noses with them.
This is also going to be great news for Chiquita the miniature donkey. She has her own companion, another miniature donkey named Gideon. But she's only five, and he's a staid 27, and he's too old to play the games she loves, like kicking up her heels and running and playing chase.
But Pixie loves exactly that sort of thing, so everyone is excited to see how they react to each other when they meet sometime next week. (Hammer is sensibly breaking the newcomers in gradually to their new surroundings over the next few weeks.)
Providing medical care for the animals is part of Fairyland's budget, but there's always the occasional emergency that can't be foreseen, such as the time last summer when Oatmeal and Raisin got hold of some acorns, which are toxic for sheep, and had to be rushed to U.C. Davis.
So Fairyland is establishing a rainy day fund to cover such emergencies. If you'd like to contribute, visit fairyland.org or send a check to Children's Fairyland, 699 Bellevue Ave., Oakland 94610, with "Animal Fund" on the subject line.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

                                         (Photo by Uriah Duffy)

Some of the best news to come out of Oakland lately has been the city's emergence – especially in the Uptown and Koreatown/Northgate (KONO) districts - as the hub of the East Bay art scene. And the hallmark of that emergence has been the monthly Oakland First Fridays street festival that drew over 150,000 people last year.
But First Fridays has hit hard times after recent rainouts. So to save money, KONO Community Benefit District, which owns the festival, told the Oakland Tribune that it has ended its contract with the woman who ran the show for the past year, professional event producer Sarah Kidder, and will go back to using volunteers.
This is causing consternation among First Fridays' participants, who say Kidder was the key factor who made the whole thing work.
"We got our start at First Fridays, and I've been a big fan of the event for years," says James Whitehead, owner of Fist Of Flour Pizza Co, a mobile pizza kitchen. "But there were too many people who didn't know how to manage trying to manage it, and it was getting crazy. So we bailed out on it.
"Then, in March of 2014, I got a call from another former vendor who said, 'Hey man, you should come back. There's somebody organizing it who really knows what she's doing.' So we did. Sarah spent a lot of effort organizing something that really didn't have much structure, and we're all wondering what's going to happen now."
Painter Erin Crawford adds, "Before Sarah, you had to get there as early as possible and claim your spot, and then fight to keep it. But she set up a system where I can go online, pay for my spot, know exactly where it's going to be, and I won't have to fight for it when I get there.
"But the biggest difference is that I didn't feel safe before. As a vendor, you feel very vulnerable, especially at night when the festival is over. After Sarah took over there was much more security present, and security actually came by throughout the evening. Sarah herself would walk up and down the street checking in with us, asking how we were doing and what could be improved upon. I felt like I had a voice with her."
"Before every event we would meet and discuss any issues that were anticipated," says Lieutenant Christopher Bolton, Oakland Police Department commander at First Fridays. "Even more importantly, after every event we had a discussion about how things could be better. It's a good example of what community policing should be."
"We didn't go to her; she came to us," adds Captain Howard Holt of the Oakland Fire Department. "And she came with a detailed plan and made it work for all of us. She showed a lot of leadership out there."
I'm not worried about Kidder. With many events to her credit, including working on Mayor Libby Schaaf's inauguration festival, I'm sure she'll land on her feet.
I wish the same thing for First Fridays, too, but artist Tony B. Conscious – aka The Ghetto Van Gogh – is skeptical.
"It was chaos before Sarah," he says. "She organized the structure and created the environment for us to really succeed. I don't know anyone else who can do that."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Reading For Fun

(Above: Two Glenview students reading at last year's Read-A-Thon inside a "fort" they made out of blankets and chairs.)

While you're reading this, students at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland are fanning out through the Glenview neighborhood and knocking on doors.
The kids are vowing to read 30 minutes a day, over and above their regular homework, for the next two weeks and asking the neighbors to sponsor them by donating to the Glenview PTA.
And the money is badly needed. There once was a time, back in the 1950s, when California's schools were the envy of the nation.
Then came Prop. 13, and people started thinking, "Who cares? They're not my kids." State and municipal governments slashed funding for public schools, and the voters routinely turned down tax hikes for education.
Today, California students score 47th in the nation in both math and reading. And it's even scarier in other subjects.
So each school is left to scramble for itself to make up the gap.  At Glenview, the money raised by this annual fund-raiser – dubbed the Read-A-Thon – will be used to fund science, technology, music, drama and arts programs.
When I was these kids' age, such programs were deemed essential. But they wouldn't exist at Glenview nowadays without the Read-A-Thon.
I really admire the parents in the Glenview PTA who put so much effort into this fund-raiser every year, but I can't help asking: Why should they have to? Why are these enrichment programs not a matter of right for every kid, without their having to go out and beg for them?
And what about schools that are poorer than Glenview, where the parents are already working two jobs and don't have the time to raise money for their PTA?
But for now it is what it is, and the parents at Glenview should be commended for making the best of a bad situation.
They spare no pains to make the fund-raising fun and safe for the kids, who are only allowed to knock on doors of people they know personally. And they must be accompanied by an adult they know personally.
At the end of the two weeks, on March 6, they'll be rewarded by a all-day party at school, when they will be allowed to do nothing but read, read, read for pleasure to their little hearts' content.
As added incentive, principal Chelsea Toller has promised to let them watch while she kisses a snake – Eeee-uwww! – if they raise $65,000.
And teacher John Miller has promised his third-graders that if 100 percent of them log a half-hour of reading every night, he'll let them watch while he gets his head shaved.
If you'd like to support the Read-A-Thon, you can do it online at glenviewelementary.org or by sending a check made out to "Glenview PTA" to Glenview Elementary School, 4215 La Cresta Ave., Oakland CA 94602.
Some Oakland firefighters, student athletes from Cal, and local writers (including me) will be on hand to read to the kids; and we get to choose what we read.
I'm going to reprise my triumph from 2014, when I read a book by children's author/illustrator David Macauley, whose specialty is explaining the way things work. Some of his best-known works are "Castle," "Cathedral," "Pyramid" and "Ship."
So last year I announced that I was going to read them his latest book: "Toilet."
The kids went wild.