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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Glorious Fourth

Twenty score and 18 years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
They knew the odds against them. They were taking on the greatest superpower on the world, the British Empire.
And they knew that if they lost, they would be hanged as traitors – if they were lucky. The standard punishment for treason in those days was drawing and quartering, the same torture Mel Gibson's character suffered at the end of "Braveheart."
The largest signature on the Declaration was John Hancock's, who exclaimed, "There! Now King George can read it without his spectacles!" Then he gave a little pep talk to his colleagues, saying, "We must be unanimous. There must be no pulling different ways. We must all hang together."
"Yes," cracked Benjamin Franklin. "We must hang together, or we will be pretty sure to hang separately."
Not only their lives, but their property was at risk, too. As traitors, all their goods would be forfeit to the Crown, turning their children into paupers.
But against all odds they won the war, so none of them were executed, although a few were killed in battle. But many of them still suffered grievously.
Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire – yes, that's where "The West Wing" got the name – saw his house burned to the ground by Loyalist arsonists.
William Floyd of New York was forced to flee with his family to the Connecticut woods, where his wife died a few months later from exposure and stress. When he and his children were finally able to return home two years later, they found their fields and timber stripped, their fences destroyed, and their home ransacked and burned.
Another New Yorker, Philip Livingston, lost both of his homes to the invading British, who turned one into barracks and stables and the other into a Royal Navy hospital. By the time he returned after the war, they were unfit for human habitation.
William Hooper of North Carolina lost his home and property, forcing his family to wander the countryside, destitute as well as homeless. It was ten months before he was able to find them again.
Richard Stockton of New Jersey and George Watson of Georgia were captured and imprisoned in horribly unhealthy conditions. When Stockton was finally released he returned to find his home destroyed. He died a broken man less than two years later.
All told, one percent of the American population died during the war. If the United States were to lose one percent of its population today, the toll would be 2.5 million dead.
So as we celebrate the Declaration, we have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: Are we worthy of the sacrifice they made? Or are we throwing it all away?
We now live in a country that is divided almost 50-50, with each side convinced that the other side is not only wrong, but downright evil. Some Americans hate other Americans more than they love their county. As Yeats said, the worst are full of passionate intensity.
We are the most powerful military superpower the world has ever seen, and I've never felt weaker. Al Qaeda may not be capable of bringing us down, but we are.

Wall-To-Wall Mozart

                                         (Above: Maestro Cleve)

One day 40 years ago, Maestro George Cleve and a few of his musician friends were kicking back with a few beers during a break from rehearsals for the San Francisco Spring Opera's production of Mozart's "The Abduction From The Seraglio."
"This really is the best music, isn't it?" said one.
"Yeah," said another. "Wouldn't it be great if we could play nothing but Mozart?"
"Let's have an all-Mozart festival!" said a third.
"Well," said Cleve, "I'm not very good at organizing these things, but if you organize it and want me to conduct it, let me know."
And that was the end of that – or so he thought. But a couple of months later they called him and said, "OK, it's organized."
Thus was born the Midsummer Mozart Festival, the only all-Mozart festival in North America. There are a lot of "Mostly Mozart" festivals, but this is the only one that's all Mozart, all the time.
That first year, the musicians split the proceeds among themselves. It came to about ten bucks apiece.
This year, as the festival celebrates its 40th birthday, it has grown to the point were the musicians are paid union scale.
But to tell the truth, they're not in it for the money. They're in it for the Mozart.
"He's the best," says violinist Robin Hansen, who is celebrating an anniversary of her own – her 20th year as the orchestra's concertmaster. "No one else can delight your senses while at the same time touching the deepest places in your heart. I often find myself with a smile on my face and a tear in my eye, both at the same time. He's so much fun to play!"
And to listen to. You can't ask for anything more fun than the overtures to "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Abduction From The Seraglio." Or more majestic than the great Symphony No. 40 in G minor. Or more delightful than the Divertimento for flute, oboe, bassoon, four horns and strings, which he wrote when he was only 16.
All these, and a lot more, will be featured at this year's festival, which will run from July 20 to 27 with two completely different programs.
The first concert - July 20 at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall and July 21 at First Congregational Church in Berkeley – will feature the 40th Symphony, the overture to "Figaro," and two arias sung by mezzo-soprano Tania Mandzy.
The second concert – July 25 at St. Marks's Lutheran Church in San Francisco, July 26 at First Congregational Church in Berkeley and July 27 at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford – will feature Seymour Lipkin playing the Piano Concerto in D Minor, mezzo-soprano Anna Yelizarova singing "Parto, parto" from "La Clemenza di Tito," and the San Francisco Boys Chorus singing the delightful Spatzen Mass ("Sparrow Mass").
All the performers are world-class musicians, but the real draw is Cleve himself.
"Definitely the highlight of my career is playing Mozart with George," says Hansen. "I've been fortunate enough to work with Leonard Bernstein, Herbert Blomstedt, Zubin Mehta and Michael Tilson Thomas. George is one of those musical giants. You're very lucky if you get to work with someone of his caliber in your musical career."
You can find a complete playlist at midsummermozart.org and order tickets at 800-838-3006, x1.