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.