31 May 2013

a preview of the preview

I seem to be falling behind at a faster pace than usual these days, so though I'm putting together my usual monthly preview for June, I thought I'd mention some performances of interest that are coming right up:

On Tuesday, 4 June, at 8:00 in the concert hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Curious Flights presents the second concert of its inaugural season. This one celebrates the centenary of Benjamin Britten with some of his rarer chamber music pieces, including the west coast premiere of  a reconstructed concerto for clarinet. I went to their first concert and enjoyed it tremendously. Tickets and more information are available here.

On Friday, 7 June, at 7:00, again at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Opera Parallele presents a workshop performance of Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, a new opera based on the lurid true-life story of, no surprise, Gesualdo, with music by Dante De Silva and libretto by Mitchell Morris. As usual Nicole Paiement conducts and Brian Staufenbiel is in charge of the production. The idea here is to make the opera sort of a living graphic novel. The workshop is free but the venue is small so tickets are limited and on a first-come, first-served basis (pre-reserved seating is available for donors). More information here.

And I assume I'll have my regular preview up by mid-month, but it doesn't hurt to remind everyone that from 12 - 15 June Cal Performances presents Ojai North, guided this year by Mark Morris – full information on the awesomeness here.

27 May 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/22

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday that began after the Civil War, when it was known as "Decoration Day" because southern white women began decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers who fell defending states' rights, or race-based slavery and white supremacy, or their homeland, or their "way of life," or just because they followed orders to fight, or for any number of other reasons. The holiday has since expanded to commemorate the dead American soldiers in all our wars, just unjust and mixed, with all their various personal motivations for fighting. It also has come to mark the informal beginning of the summer season, which means mostly that in our stuffy airless cubicles we complain about how hot it is outside, instead of how cold.

Here is a poem from the Civil War, from Walt Whitman:

Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night,
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach'd up as you lay on the ground,
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested battle,
Till late in the night reliev'd to the place at last again I made my way,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade, found your body son of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Bared your face in the starlight, curious the scene, cool blew the moderate night-wind,
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battle-field spreading,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night,
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh, long, long I gazed,
Then on the earth partially reclining sat by your side leaning my chin in my hands,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade — not a tear, not a word,
Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones upward stole,
Vigil final for you brave boy, (I could not save you, swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his form,
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet,
And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battlefield dim,
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding,)
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

Walt Whitman

This is not a poem about war, or even battle: we are given no information on who is fighting whom, or why, or even where (we can infer that these are Union soldiers in the American Civil War, based on what we know of Whitman's life and the context of the poem within the Drum-Taps section of Leaves of Grass, but if you handed the poem to someone without attribution or context that reader couldn't find this information within the poem itself). There are no mentions of generals or other commanders, or strategy, or what if anything is at stake, and no descriptions of the fighting other than that it is "even-contested." The speaker was presumably on the winning side, whichever it was for that battle, since he could return to where his friend fell and stay there all night and then bury the boy at dawn. Though he later calls the site a battle field, initially it appears in its more basic eternal shape as simply a field.

The dead boy himself is characterized enough to be vivid and his death felt as a loss – he is brave, he is dear, he is a comrade – but he's not so individual that he could only be one particular youth; he stands for all the young men cut off in their youth by war. His age is emphasized: he is referred to repeatedly as a boy and as a sort of son to the speaker (who is presumably a bit older, though still young enough to be a soldier as well). The language the speaker uses around the dead soldier evokes a rich complex of many types of love: that of a comrade, a friend, a parent, a caregiver, even a hint of the erotic: the first time we hear of the responding kisses, the youth is seen in a filial capacity ("son of responding kisses"), but the second time, he is simple "boy of responding kisses." The nineteenth century was in some ways more open to complicated emotional and physical relationships among men than our own supposedly more tolerant time, when all such relationships tend to be reduced to simply sexual ones, so I think it's important to read passages such as this with a view to complications, rather than deciding (as the simplistic tendency often is nowadays) that some predetermined social category of our own time is what the poem is "really" about. (There are too many references to the fallen boy as the speaker's son for a purely sexual reading not to be kind of creepy.) Whitman always and intentionally eludes our easy views. I think the important thing here is that all kinds of possible loves swirl around this figure – and all of them are cut off; in the chant-like nature of the poem, each time we hear of "responding kisses" there follows immediately the reminder never again on earth responding. In the last few lines, the speaker refers again to many of these past and potential identities – son, child, friend, lover, comrade – but they are all finally subsumed into that of soldier, which becomes the boy's final, official, identity. His death makes him an army statistic, though his individuality and the possible meanings of his death – vigil I never forget – remain alive in the speaker.

Speaking of the elusiveness of Whitman, I almost restricted my note here to the use of the word "moderate" in line 8: cool blew the moderate night-wind. It's such a Whitman touch, and such a touch of genius. The tendency of most writers would have been either to make the wind a reflection of the bloody grief-filled mood and the human wreckage of the battlefield or, with sophisticated piquancy, to make the wind a complete contrast, a pleasant breeze over the slaughterhouse. Whitman chooses an exact but neutral word – it's a moderate wind – and you feel he is an accurate observer (a quality which lends credence to his other thoughts and experiences). The speaker's ability to remark the wind detaches him from his life as a soldier and as a mourner and connects him with a deeper world of Nature: not with other animals or living things (living things always cause noise – even trees and grass will sound, when the wind blows through them – but the speaker emphasizes the silent night, the stars silently moving aloft, and the lack even of a sigh or a sob), but with the wind, and the far-away stars, and the night and the sunrise, the mute indifferent unseeing companions of human suffering. There is a kind of peace in surrendering to these forces, and feeling their greater strength. The mourning here lies deeper than immediate sorrow. The self-prompted vigil is a "curious scene." Though the speaker grieves for the boy, the vigil is "wondrous" and "sweet" and the experience "strange" – different from what might be expected. (I'm reminded of the praise of "sane and sacred Death" in Whitman's great elegy for Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.)

This is not a poem about war, or battle; it is very specifically a poem about watching your comrade fall – fall before what should have been his time, and feeling as a result not just the deep human loss but both the indifference and the pity of the ever-renewing universe. Whitman's essential modesty deepens the spiritual effect of the poem; to clarify my point, let me contrast this with a poem I used to love but increasingly do not love, Plath's Lady Lazarus, in which some of the larger-scale and more terrifying world-historical tragedies of the twentieth century are subsumed into the narrator's self-aggrandizing descriptions of herself; depending on your mood and, I suspect, your age, you will find Plath's poem either striking and powerful or narrow and morally indefensible in its use of other people's horrific tragedies as decorative amulets. All poets tend to self-mythologize, but there is something longer-lasting about the detachment and larger awareness of a poet like Whitman.

I took this poem from the Library of America edition of Whitman's Poetry and Prose.

20 May 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/21

Richard Wagner's 200th birthday is on 22 May, two days from today. Here is a current American poet offering refractive tribute to his continuing cultural vitality:


Who are you, fair-haired lady,
Dissecting me with blue stares?
Why do you watch me only?

Here on the streets of Cologne,
Across the seats and peopled aisles
Of the Strassenbahn, alone

On evenings in the Alstadt,
Near the twilight Cathedral,
You probe and etch my dark heart.

Though Tristan clasps your prim form
As you navigate the crowd,
I rivet you. Am I charmed?

Is it my caramel flesh,
Or the black gloss of coiled hair,
The gnome's goatee – or anguish

In the eyes? Perhaps you see
James Meredith sprawl – shotgunned –
Or hear Dizzy Gillespie

When you watch me. Can I know
What I am beside the moon:
The darkness or a shadow?

I sing your beauty, lady.
For I can never touch one
Foreign as the moon to me.

D L Crockett-Smith

The poem starts with a basic evocation of the public spaces in the German city Cologne, with the hint of a possible romantic encounter with an interested stranger, but as it begins its second half (in the fifth of eight stanzas), we become gradually aware that it's more about alienation than union. Even in a foreign country the narrator cannot escape his American experience and his consciousness that it shapes the assumptions made about him by others. He feels himself marked out, set permanently apart, by the eyes of this European woman (or women; he mentions several locations in which he has been "dissected with blue stares," so either he's running into the same woman several times or, what seems to me more likely, "she" is a stand-in for all the ultimately unknowable German women with whom he's had such fleeting ocular encounters). Her gaze turns out to be mostly clinical, a dissection, with a curious assumption that his "dark heart" is reflected in his dark skin. Like the Volsungs, his race sets him apart.

Yet he is also projecting his cultural assumptions on to her – she ultimately remains "foreign as the moon" to him. He assumes she is prim (it is actually her "form" he calls prim, but form can imply essence and conduct as well as shape, and the word hangs over her trim figure). But he also associates her, since she is German, with the music of Wagner (just as he is associated, in his own mind and, he thinks, possibly in hers, with the black American jazz of Dizzy Gillespie, though he clearly has knowledge of other kinds of music), and the association with Wagner connects her, despite her primness, with the erotic possibilities of Tristan. But even more than Tristan, it is the Ring that hangs over this poem: not just in the narrator's being set apart like the Volsungs, but in his association with Alberich, the gnome who could be seen as having "anguish in his eyes," the "schwarz [black] Alberich" forever cut off from the love of his desired Rhinemaidens.

Collections by D L Crockett-Smith may be found here; I took this poem from The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad.

13 May 2013

mass magnificence

Last Saturday I was at Davies Hall for the San Francisco Symphony's mass double-header: excerpts from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli (the Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus Dei) and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. I had heard the latter at the Symphony's most recent performance of it, which was, I am kind of horrified to realize, not last year but two years ago. My thoughts on that performance are here, in the second half of the entry. I think I have performances on my list of things to write up that are almost as long ago as that one. And the horizon keeps receding before us, ever azure in the distance, doesn't it?

There was a lot of discussion swirling around that earlier performance; I liked it more than some others did. But even so last Saturday's was superior: just a really magnificent display of flexibility and power – but technical details miss the point. A successful performance has to hit the heart, and elevate us towards an emotional – a spiritual – mood that seems like the place in which we should always dwell, no matter how quickly it slips away in the after-concert crush of aimless chatter and slow-moving patrons and the general dirt and noise of life. I'm sure there were things the performers wished had gone differently, but the onward struggle is part of the piece's magnificence.

The quartet of soloists was different from last time, featuring some lighter voices, particularly Laura Claycomb (two years ago the soprano soloist was Christine Brewer), though bass-baritone Shenyang also had a lighter voice than I had expected (I think this is the first time I've heard him). The mezzo-soprano was Sasha Cooke, who has been so good in so many things here, and the tenor was Michael Fabiano, last seen here in less spiritual circumstances as Lucrezia Borgia's long-lost son. All four were very fine, though maybe a bit recessive, but that might have been because I was sitting much farther back in the hall than I usually do, and Davies in my experience is not particularly kind to vocal soloists. I wondered what the effect would have been if I were closer. But in a way the slight recessiveness of the soloists added to the power of certain moments when they are highlighted, as in the Benedicturs with its accompanying violin solo (once again exquisitely played by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik), when the mighty chorus pauses around an oasis of meditative calm.

The chorus throughout was just stunning, as they were in a different way in the preceding Palestrina. There's something about Palestrina's music that just cuts through the frazzle. He reminds me of Gluck, in that both have a certain purity and clarity that admittedly some will find a bit dull but that for others will have the sort of strength and stripped-down beauty that Georgia O'Keeffe found in skulls bleached by the desert sun.

Poem of the Week 2013/20

No Swan So Fine

"No water so still as the
    dead fountains of Versailles." No swan,
with swart blind look askance
and gondoliering legs, so fine
    as the chintz-china one with fawn-
brown eyes and toothed gold
collar on to show whose bird it was.

Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth
    candelabrum-tree of cockscomb-
tinted buttons, dahlias,
sea-urchins, and everlastings,
    it perches on the branching foam
of polished sculptured
flowers – at ease and tall. The king is dead.

Marianne Moore

[Moore's endnotes:]
A pair of Louis XV candelabra with Dresden figures of swans belonging to Lord Balfour.

Lines 1-2: "There is no water so still as the dead fountains of Versailles." Percy Phillip, New York Times Magazine, May 10, 1931.

The art-forged swan stands tall, and the earthly king lies low. I love the tangy shock of "The king is dead," coming in unexpectedly at the end, when we thought we were looking at a profuse description of a swan amid flowers, or rather, a profuse description of a statue of a swan amid sculptured flowers – a triumph of Art rather than Nature; or, to tighten our terms again, a triumph of Art over Nature, since the poem declares that no living swan (with its suspicious, slanted dark looks and its bandy legs working the water) could be as splendid as the one perfected by the artist. This may seem like a simple assertion of the lasting power and superiority of Art compared to haphazard Nature and ephemeral Kings. But this haunting poem offers more ambiguous suggestions. The presence of the king has been suggested all along: first, the appearance of Versailles, then the sculptured swan's gold collar "to show whose bird it was," and then the reference to the Louis Fifteenth style. Any mention of Versailles along with a later Louis is bound to bring to mind for a contemporary reader the world-historical convulsion of the French Revolution. Whatever your opinion of the ancien regime, even if you rarely spare it a thought, it does possess the poignancy of all vanished things – that's why no water is so still as the water that no longer sparkles through the great fountains of the empty palace; its presence is felt most strongly in its absence. It was Nature that inspired the candelabrum, and the King who, directly or indirectly, ordered the artist to create it, for his amusement and and as a display of power, wealth, and skill. The created object – Art – grows out of both Nature and political and economic systems, yet stands everlastingly outside of them. But the statue is also linked inextricably not only with the natural world but with the specific time and place and manner of its creation; it is a talisman of memory, nostalgia, and reverie, carrying an inseparable association with long-gone worlds.

The poem is from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore .

06 May 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/19

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
    And finds too late that men betray;
What charm can sooth her melancholy,
    What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,
    To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
    And wring his bosom – is to die.

Oliver Goldsmith, from The Vicar of Wakefield

Recently, out of the blue, I had the admittedly bizarre urge to re-read The Vicar of Wakefield, a novel I had not read and had barely thought of for probably over forty years. All I remembered of it was that it contained a song that became celebrated on its own: "When lovely woman stoops to folly."

So I picked up a copy of the Oxford World's Classics edition, which was fine except the annotations give away, early on, a key point that a reader really wouldn't want given away. I understand that it's a bit silly to issue spoiler alerts for a novel first published in 1766 (and be warned I'm going to give away some plot points here), but it's all new if you've never read the book before (or read it over forty years ago and have forgotten most of it), and surprises should be revealed by the author, not the Kinbotish annotator. I'm still extremely bitter about reading the Penguin edition of Felix Holt the Radical years ago and having a crucial relationship revealed long before George Eliot wanted it revealed. This seems to be a thing academic annotators do, and seriously, what the hell?

Anyway, the tale of the Vicar Mr Primrose and his family is a very enjoyable and strange little book, part philosophical parable in the style of Rasselas or Candide, part nostalgic picture of country life, part protest against class and gender power inequities, part satire of the Vicar and his family, and part praise of them, and usually it's several of those things all at once.

The song is sung by the daughter Olivia, who has indeed stooped to folly, succumbing (partly through vanity and a desire to rise socially, and partly through genuine affection and interest) to the blandishments of wealthy and powerful Mr Thornhill, the local young rakehell. It seems a bit strange under the circumstances to have her sing such a song to entertain her family, but its gentle melancholy has a therapeutic effect on her spirits, much as if she were a young woman today encouraged to speak about her feelings by sympathetic or at least curious friends.

Through the machinations of Mr Thornhill (here come the spoilers) the Vicar is imprisoned, and his daughter does indeed go through a kind of death: while her father is imprisoned, he is told that his languishing daughter has died. He has never held the Thornhill episode against her, and is devastated, but it turns out that not only is she still living, but Thornhill was outwitted by one of his confederates, who wanted something to hold over him, and his marriage to Olivia is in fact legal. The accomplice confesses this out of affection for the naive goodness and spirit of the imprisoned Vicar (I'm sure that Dickens had these prison scenes somewhere in his mind when he wrote the great scenes of Mr Pickwick in debtor's prison at the end of The Pickwick Papers.)

Even at the time it was clear that woman, particularly lovely woman, had a few options other than death after she had stooped to folly; in fact, in Goldsmith's other famous work – though perhaps, like The Vicar of Wakefield, it's less famous than it once was – when she stoops, She Stoops to Conquer. I haven't seen or read that play in years, but if I'm remembering correctly, the plot concerns a woman who disguises herself as a barmaid because the guy she likes is free and easy with lower-class women but tongue-tied and bashful around women of his own more elevated social class. There's a lot of class and gender stuff in these works, but, you know, how could there not be?

This song, in the context of the novel, is an artistic expression of a simple, old-fashioned sort of morality, and as such is part of the novel's play on nostalgic longing for what was perceived as a simpler time, because there's always the impulse among us to consider the past a simpler time. In the nineteenth century, a novel such as Cranford filled this role, and in our own day, it could be filled by something like a BBC-TV adaptation of Cranford. It should also be noted that the song is presented not as the view of "Society" (those around Olivia take very different views, often of indignation against the wealthy and powerful man who abandoned her); it is Olivia expressing her own personal view of her condition. She is, of course, the creation of a male author, and the tendency nowadays would be to assume he's expressing some sort of patriarchal "male-gaze" blah blah blah, but there's really no reason besides our own preferred thinking to assume he's basing this scene on anything but accurate observation from life, and indeed Goldsmith is too eccentric and complicated a writer for any such simplistic theories. It's also useful to keep in mind that historically novel-reading, and this is particularly true of the eighteenth century, was seen as a (middle-class) female occupation, and there's no particular reason to think those women readers were so easily persuaded by male authority (just as in this novel, Mr Primrose's wife and daughters feel free to dissent from Mr Primrose's husbandly/paternal/clerical guidance).

Despite what she sings in her song, Olivia does not really die of her folly. Even so, twenty-first century readers are unlikely to be satisfied with her ultimate fate, though it occurs to me that my own preferred resolution, in which she grows into a cheerful and sturdy independence in a country cottage, raising chickens, vegetables, and bright flowers, is in fact more sentimental and less realistic than Goldsmith's ending, in which she lives apart from but pines for her seducer/husband, longing to return to him once he shows any sign of acceptable repentance, while he, having lost his money and social position due to his uncle's anger at his misbehavior, tries to ingratiate himself as a companion to another, still-wealthy, relation, and endeavors to learn the French horn.

This song was once well-known enough, and symbolic enough of an old-fashioned, sentimental morality, to warrant parody; here is TS Eliot to do the job. Before he gained his current world-wide renown as lyricist for the smash-hit musical Cats, Eliot was perhaps best known for a number of high-modernist poems, chief among them The Waste Land, published in 1922, from which this excerpt is taken. (To explain the reference to "the Bradford millionaire": according to a footnote in the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, "Bradford is a manufacturing town in the north of England. A millionaire from that town would have made his money in trade or manufacturing. Hence, nouveau riche.")

He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit. . .

    She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
"Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

TS Eliot, from The Waste Land, Part III, The Fire Sermon

01 May 2013

symphonic variations

I've been distracted for the past couple of months by a number of things that lie outside the purview of what I discuss in this space, so the strike at the San Francisco Symphony came and mostly went before I had a chance to post (for what they're worth) my thoughts. They've continued to swirl around in my head, along with other half-written entries I haven't had time to write yet, and so I figured I might as well unload them, since they are less about this specific strike than about things going on in America in general, and besides, as I implied above, I need some distractions.

I was initially surprised by the strike, and then by its bitterness, but sadly I was not surprised by the reactions to the musicians: mostly contemptuous dismissals and reprimands for being insufficiently grateful for management's gracious largesse (check any comments section for any story about the strike over at SFGate.com). They were told that their specialized skills and years of training could easily be replaced, that they'd be lucky to get a similar situation anywhere else, that they had no idea how lucky they were to get anything at all – the usual sneers and jeers that accompany any worker protests in the United States. The flip side of that was also depressingly in evidence, with management repeatedly congratulated for its wisdom, prudence, foresight, and so forth, in steering the symphony through these economically fragile times (you remember the crash the finance industry brought about, don't you? Of course you do! You're still suffering from it, even if those who caused it are not).

I have no doubt that the management of the Symphony has been excellent in many ways. I am sure Symphony management is made up of thoughtful, conscientious, and capable administrators (more or less). But the heart and soul of an orchestra is its musicians. And if you, as a manager, have reduced them to such a state of frustration and anger that they embark on a strike that they must know will be widely savaged, then – and this seems to me a really obvious point – when it comes to perhaps your most important responsibility, you, as a manager, have failed. (But perhaps I am underestimating management's passive-aggressive prudence; why shouldn't they sit back and count on the American public's bizarre CEO-worship to take over and eliminate the troublemakers for them?)

I understand that Symphony management plays a crucial role in making it all happen. I understand the poignancy of making it all happen and then watching others receive the applause, and the irritations and frustrations of dealing with temperamental, self-important people (according to your preferred prejudices and favorite stereotypes, you may take that to refer to wealthy patrons, headstrong artists, or anyone in between). But it's completely possible to have a rewarding artistic relationship with the San Francisco Symphony without having any idea at all who any of the managers are. If, as the musicians were often told, they could be replaced, well, so can management: that's how organizations work. Anyone can be replaced at any time. The replacement might be worse in some ways, or better, or just different, but the organization goes on. (If someone is irreplaceable, what you have is not an organization, it's a cult.) So why tell the musicians they can be replaced, and not tell the managers that? Why jump to attack them? Why not at least withhold judgment, on the assumption that maybe the musicians (who are competent adults, and live in the same world as the rest of us) are the best judges of what their particular situation is?

The deference to executive power shown in many of the strike-related comments is evident throughout American life. People love to sneer at "government bureaucrats" while allowing Presidents insane amounts of power and deference. Wages and benefits have stagnated or gone backwards for decades, while CEOs and others at the very top are given insane amounts of money. Think of all the tax breaks given to the obscenely wealthy in this country – and then we're told that their privileges must be paid for by slicing benefits to the poor and struggling or anyone else who can't buy political influence. During the latest crash you may have heard the expression "privatize profits, socialize losses." On a smaller scale, it looks as if this dreary pattern was also playing out at the Symphony: benefits and large bonuses (and, increasingly, press) go to those at the top, while sacrifices are demanded of those at the bottom (and what used to be the middle increasingly looks like part of the bottom).

Yes, the musicians are well paid (which is not at all surprising or unwarranted, given their years of training, exceptional skills, and the extremely expensive area we live in). But I think what we have here is one of those situations in which facts get in the way of the truth (that is, certain too easily understood and easily publicized facts, such as the players' salaries and benefits, overshadow less tangible but no less real matters of attitude, communication, and treatment – and when you try to explain those things, even you, as the words fly out of your mouth, realize how trivial and petty you seem when these tiny incidents are taken out of the vast and crushing and ultimately ineffable flow of circumstance and occurrence). What matters is not that the musicians receive salaries and benefits worth X number of dollars, but what percentage they receive of the total salary-pie (I didn't hear nearly as many attacks on management's large salaries and bonuses), and how much of the organization's income depends on them (nobody goes to the Symphony to listen to its management). And even more than the money, what matters is how they – as I said, the heart and soul of the organization – are treated.

We hear similar attacks whenever some young athlete complains that his multi-million dollar offer is "an insult" and that "it's about respect." Yes, most of us claim we'd love to be "insulted" in such a manner. But an offer, even if it looks generous to outsiders, really can be an insult, and it really is about respect. Don't most people know this, at some level? Is it that difficult, even given differences of scale, to make the connection between similar situations in our lives and the complaining athlete (or musician)? I was once asked at a job to pick up someone's dry-cleaning, but the executive was so apologetic and gracious, and so clear about the work-related reasons for the request, that I didn't mind going out (in the rain!) to help her out. On the other hand, I've been thanked in ways that left me seething with rage. It was the underlying attitude, of respect or of being considered a second-class citizen, that made the difference. Haven't we all been there?

Those complaining athletes are frequently young African-American men, and the Symphony musicians are artists, and neither group is much respected in American society, but I can't think of anyone who doesn't understand what it means to be taken for granted or treated with condescension. But instead of reacting with support, or at least indifference, people go straight into Day of the Locust mode: not just towards athletes and musicians, but increasingly towards teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, and others who used to be called public servants and are now seen as entitled and uppity because they fight back against the increasing consolidation of money and power. People who attack these workers are asking the wrong questions: instead of "Why should they get generous raises? Why should they get job security? Why should they get generous amounts of vacation time? Why should they get pensions?" they should be asking, "Why don't we have these things? Why have we allowed them to be taken away?"

Yes, I am fully aware that there are problems associated with unions (the BART union is an obvious case in point), but there are also problems, ones that affect more people more profoundly, with unopposed management power. Back when I worked in the dining commons at Cal someone explained to me that the reason I had a surprisingly decent salary for an unskilled student worker was that the full-time workers were unionized – and ultimately, we all benefited from the higher salaries their union had won. There were students who couldn't have put themselves through college on a lower wage. Sure, a few of the unionized workers were lazy, or seemed so to my eighteen-year-old eyes. So what? There are lazy and incompetent people all over (even in management). Most of the full-time employees were hard-working and conscientious and deserved everything they got and more. I wonder if their children have been able to make the same sort of life in this era when unions are regularly jeered at by people who don't realize how many union-related benefits they take for granted.

This dangerous trend of increasing money, power, and respect to the few at the top while life becomes more and more difficult for the growing number at the bottom has been going on for my entire adult life, but it is neither inevitable nor irreversible. That's why even though the striking musicians already made what most people would consider a very generous salary, I supported them, as a step, however small or insignificant, towards correcting the balance of American society. When the strike was settled, the musicians released a statement that was criticized for – well, I'm not sure what. I for one applaud their refusal to back down, to play nice, to pretend that they were bad children who didn't appreciate their wise and benevolent managers. I thought they very appropriately made it clear, in a professional and dignified manner, that management had failed in some key ways and they were holding them accountable for their mistakes. Good for them. Why do we attack people who stand up for the same things we say we want?

Ultimately we all benefit from the social stability and cultural ambition produced when people know they will be treated fairly and with respect. The song tells us that The People United Will Never Be Defeated, but I wonder if we'll ever start moving towards that sort of sympathetic solidarity, or if human nature dictates that that will remain yet another piece of difficult music wafting above a puzzled and resentful public.