Monday, January 22, 2007
In the last month I went to great lengths of trouble to be able to view two Icelandic films, absolute masterpieces by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (Friðrik Þór Friðriksson). Neither was available as a region 1 DVD. One, “Cold Fever”, I obtained from a source in Florida, as a version aimed at the European market, and the other, “Children of Nature” came from a store in Japan, with only Japanese subtitles. Having a background in Scandinavian languages I was able to follow the plot in Icelandic, which has changed very little from the Old Norse of a millennium ago. The latter film had been a candidate for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film in 1991, and yet it had never been issued as a DVD here. Someone was trying to sell it online as a used VHS cassette for $100 which is ridiculous, of course.
Sometimes a foreign film becomes an unexpected success here, usually through word-of-mouth advertising, as was the case with “The Gods Must Be Crazy” which ended up running in theaters for an amazingly long time. But most often the very films that the Europeans or Asians flock to see remain totally unknown here. In a lucky break, a foreign producer or distributor may be successful in selling the product to Netflix, or IFC on cable may pick it up. The rest of us have to import our discs from abroad and purchase a region-free DVD player, or as I first did, a software conversion program. I found an excellent one, DVD X Player, which will play just about anything recorded on a disc. I got the Professional version, but the regular one works as well for most needs.
Critical success the U.S. does not translate to commercial success. There are wonderful writers trying to get their manuscripts published. If they are eventually successful the books end up having only a few thousand copies printed. The battle for shelf space at Barnes & Noble is just as fierce as for products at the supermarket. Only books that have been heavily promoted on television shows make it, most of them talking about a scandalous subject or being autobiographies written mainly by ghost writers. Yes, there is Oprah whose stamp of approval usually guarantees success, even when she promotes old classics or something written on a topic close to her. But a good book should be able to make it on its own, even if it’s not called Harry Potter.
A music critic may praise a recording of William Schuman’s symphonies, but there is no rush to buy these compact discs (where do you find them anyway these days?), and if such a work is scheduled in a symphony orchestra’s program after the intermission, a large part of an audience will head for home at the break. Perhaps in Europe a contemporary musical work will create excitement, such as a composition by Kaija Saariaho, or there is a market for new works in certain Asian countries, such as Japan and Taiwan. With the new restrictions for travel we don’t even get to hear star instrumentalists from the rest of the world, not to mention the new repertoire they might bring with them. If an orchestra manages to come to New York from across the ocean, they often have the same soloist, or even guest conductor, that the New Yorkers are all too familiar with already, playing the same war horse compositions that are performed in the city, time after time during any given season. Likewise, Europeans know very little of American composers and our superstars don’t necessarily get that kind of reception over there. Instead of the world becoming smaller, we have managed to make it a place with barbed wired fences, a globe deeply divided.
Perhaps we can reach an agreement with the Iraqi government that all the denizens of Baghdad are obligated to come and hear American music, performed by either the mighty Iraqi National Symphony or an American free-lance orchestra (Halliburton Freedom Players?). I have made up a list of suitable works and guest artists already, just in case my opinion would be required. Many of our composers of today use percussion instruments rather heavy-handedly, so they might be able to drown out the usual background noise or perhaps even incorporate it into their works. A brand new “2007 Overture”, anyone?
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
History often forgets about true heroes and geniuses, and credits the wrong people. One of these forgotten ones was a Schwarz who should have been famous but whom people now know very little about.
This Schwarz, a Croatian Jew with a first name of David, was the inventor and builder of the world’s first rigid all-metal airship. This credit is usually attributed to Graf (Count) Ferninand von Zeppelin, but although he had made some theoretical plans, they never materialized until he bought detailed papers from David Schwarz’s widow, after the all too early death of the wood merchant and inventor. The first test flight in 1896 near
Count von Zeppelin had his own bad luck with the many crafts he built and it wasn’t until after his death that Dr. Hugo Eckener improved the design and was able to start a passenger service across the
As the Zeppelin should have been called the Schwarz, perhaps the Led Zeppelin (the ‘a’ was dropped from the band’s name to prevent Americans from pronouncing it ‘leed’) would have become a Lead Schwarz.Thanks to bringing this trivia to my attention belongs to my daughter Anna, who as a regular fan of television’s ‘Jeopardy’, frequently comes up with her version of ‘Jewpardy’ for her school’s Hillel.
Tuesday, January 02, 2007
Year 2006 saw
No, neither Ralf Gothóni nor Joseph Silverstein lost their artist management, but the programming, especially in the Music Director’s case, might have been too sophisticated and unfamiliar for the graying audiences. This is a town, after all, where going to hear an orchestra play means going to a pops concert, or seeing a ballet equals the annual favorite Nutcracker. There is nothing wrong with enjoying either, but it would be nice to be able to play and hear ‘new’ serious music, too, something composed within the last 75 years or so, whether American, European or from another continent. The fact that an ‘inferior decorator’ can write about performing arts for many decades without having an ear or an eye for the art form doesn’t help matters any. Even in
The year for me ended unexpectedly positively though, as I was taking part in a Viennese Night celebration. People were not confined to their seats, and they were actually taught how to dance properly in the Viennese fashion. The capacity crowd was having genuine fun, and the faces of both young and old people were glowing. What more could an entertainer wish for?
I watched CNN’s footage of ‘rejoicing Iraqis’ hours after the hanging and it wasn’t until later that the viewers were told this celebration was not taking place in Baghdad but in Dearborn, Michigan. Libya’s leader Qaddafi, with whom we have just started to normalize relations, declared a three-day mourning period and cancelled the celebration of Id Al-A’dha. Even though we now claim that our military tried to delay the execution, in the world’s eyes it was an American lynching, done in a hurry to justify our president’s reasons for the war and give badly needed support to Iraq’s present ‘government’. Even the Dutch ask if Saddam’s death was a blow for Middle East democracy. The initial circus-like reporting of the hanging soon gave way to sobering news about our military deaths exceeding 3,000. The only ones happy about the unfolding of events have been our sworn enemies in Iran. Will this reduce violence? Only a fool would agree. Now, instead of worrying about ‘if’ there is going to be another serious terrorist attack against America and its allies, the question now has become ‘when, where and how’.
President Bush and some others keep on insisting that there is no civil war in Iraq and they are widely ridiculed for not facing reality. I, on the other hand, tend to agree for once. There is indeed nothing ‘civil’ about the war in Iraq: it is complete anarchy and chaos of unseen magnitude. In the northern areas matters are not quite as bad yet, as the Kurds have managed to isolate themselves from the rest of the country. Curiously this trial and resulting verdict were all about the Kurdish minority. Of course these people have suffered a lot, in the hands of more populous neighbors. But interestingly the oppressed here have become oppressors as so often happens: go on the many web sites that tell the story of the Assyrian ‘holocaust’ in hands of the Kurds and others. One of the world’s oldest civilizations hasn’t done very well in its ancient homeland. But then, no glory lasts forever. How long will it take before people start referring to America as a civilization that could have been?