Monday, June 28, 2010

Harry Weininger 1933-2010

IT'S NATURAL AND NECESSARY that we die in appropriate circumstances, therefore no cause for lamentation. When an exceptionally good man dies, though, even after an incomparably full and useful life, we can't help but mourn the loss while celebrating the man.

Yesterday a large and interesting group met to review the life of Harry Weininger, who died May 31, a few days after a cardiac arrest. Lindsey and I were there; we knew Harry "in the old days," back in the 1960s and '70s, when his business The Carpet Center was across the street from David Goines's shop on Grove Street, as I will always call it.*

Harry and David were fast friends; David and we were also; somehow Harry and we never fully completed the triangle. We had few close friends in those days; our lives were too full of immediate family, work, and selfishly intellectual pursuits to accommodate many — one of the few things I'd change about my life, given the opportunity. But we knew Harry, that is were acquainted with him and his interests, and were always happy to see him when he popped up, as he so often did, at a concert, or the restaurant, or, very occasionally, a social gathering of one kind or another.

In the late 1990s I ran into him somewhere for the first time in a number of years, and was shocked to find him badly gripped by Parkinson's Disease. I think this was upstairs in the café at Chez Panisse: he had lunched and was on his way to the stairs, accompanied by his loyal and loving Yvette, whom we'd never really met. I think I only saw him once or twice after that, and then in large groups, at intermissions I suppose, and not to talk to.

Yet when he caught our eyes on these occasions the flash was always there; that curious, direct engagement of eyes, both observational and inquisitive, not really challenging, but as if asking Shall we not talk? Don't we have things to discuss together? And among the many regrets that begin to pile up neatly in a corner of my aging mind there's this one: that among so few opportunities, on even fewer occasions — much fewer — was I able to or ready to respond.

Harry was born, I learn on reading the obituary,
in the Carpathian Mountains, a region in the Ukraine that has at various times been in Austria, Romania, and Moldavia. He emigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1950. They initially settled in Chicago, and in 1963, Harry moved to Berkeley where he lived for the next 47 years.
He was sixteen or so when he came to this country, that means; he'd grown up Jewish in Soviet or Soviet-influenced society during the worst of Stalinist-Fascist times. Grown up rural, too, I think, or at most a villager, though we never talked about such things; how I wish I could now!

There were nearly twenty speakers at yesterday's memorial service, testifying to Harry's many facets: a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army; a matchmaker; a chess player; a businessman; a loyal follower and generous supporter of such local cultural institutions as Berkeley Repertory Theater and the Berkeley Symphony; a trencherman with taste; a traveler; a politician; a walker; a conversationalist, bon vivant, friend, father, grandfather, mensch. His overwhelming enthusiasms seem to have been community, culture, and the cultivation of intelligent and informed conversation. (Come to think of it, that last item includes the previous two.)

In a town where, as Narsai David put it in a final toast, all the men are intelligent, the women inarguable, and the conservatives vote progressive, Harry was able to listen to every side of an argument, then contribute his own view. The others always listened; they knew he would have something to say worth hearing. He was interested in every aspect of any subject, but he was dedicated to the possible, particularly to the perhaps previously unsuspected possible. He was a very graceful, witty, engaging, friendly, cheerful, uncomplaining, generous, enthusiastic, and grateful man; I wish I'd known him better.

*Not out of disrespect for Martin Luther King jr., but out of respect for the Berkeley I was born and spent much of my childhood in, and its Grove Street, whose name still resonates with the prewar tranquillity of the town. The Berkeley I knew, in those days, was Republican, dry, and churchgoing; its mayor, Laurence L. Cross, was also the minister of a local Presbyterian church. He and his immediate predecessors were politically conservative but socially liberal, concerned about and active in the defense of rights for then marginalized groups of people.

Perhaps they would not object to the re-naming of Grove Street: but my opinion was and is that it was more a politically expedient manner of honoring the martyred activist than a true commitment to a continued honoring of his goals. But then, I went to a school whose name memorialized James A. Garfield, the second president to fall to a murderer's gun, but was then re-named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. This may have influenced my view of what seems to me the casual re-naming of public things for political expediency.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ilya Mouromets


PROBABLY BECAUSE MY FIRST hands-on experience with music was in my high school band, where I concentrated on bassoon but learned most other woodwinds (and French horn and tuba), I've always loved orchestration. The art of assigning musical material to musical instruments, most often in combinations, with an eye (ear) for fresh, surprising, or (best of all) absolutely appropriate sound, given the pitch and the moment, the loudness, the context.

And so I was early drawn to the Russian masters. Rimsky-Korsakov is of course the locus classicus of Russian orchestration (or instrumentation, the other word used for the art). His predecessor was a Frenchman, Hector Berlioz, truly a genius; Rimsky leans on him heavily. But it was Rimsky who transmitted Berlioz's 19th-century genius for the art and science of combining musical sounds — instrumental sounds — on to the twentieth century, first and most notably to Stravinsky, but also to Debussy (who traveled and worked in Russia, if memory serves) and Ravel.

What is (or was) it about the Russian temperament that made orchestration — which depends so heavily on wind instruments and percussion — so congenial? I don't know, of course; I'm sure a cultural historian somewhere does, but I don't. I'm merely asking.


In any case I love them, those Russian wind-heavy composers. Much — too much — of my musical education (like all the rest of my education) is, or was, simply accidental; much of it arrived through second-hand recordings (all I could afford at the time, but with the added advantage of being frequently out of print, or somehow odd). There was a used-record store on Ninth Street in San Francisco that I patronized heavily. Among the bins there was a statistically unlikely number of eastern-European items, probably because the copyright and licensing laws in those days didn't extend across the Iron Curtain: and I found there such things as Glazunov's Fourth Symphony, in the wonderful recording by Jaques Rachmilovich with the Orchestra of the Accademia Santa Cecilia; and — what prompts me to writing tonight — Reinhold Gliere's Third Symphony, "Ilya Mouromets." Seventy-nine minutes, or thereabouts, of striving French horns, trilling flutes and piccolos, thundering kettledrums, glorious trumpets.

Gliere as a young man

This Russian music obviously descends from a German source, and I'm a little embarrassed to acknowledge it. I loathe Wagner's music: too long, big, strenuous, sensuous, slippery. But Gliere spent a lot of time in Siegfried's forest, listening to those murmurs, and he learned a lot there. He learned from Mahler, too: narrative drama above all. And he brought those influences to the fundamental Russian artistic drive of his time, the twenty or thirty years before the Revolution (though he lived many years after): the drive to declare independence from Europe, to portray (or, better, declare) Russia, its scale, its centrality between Europe and Asia, its complex of cultural and ethnic sources. And, in this Third Symphony, its mythos.

There's something about summer, too, that makes me yearn to hear this music. There are other summer musics: I think of Gottschalk's liereNight in the Tropics, for example, another exotic programmatic symphony. Late at night, the Chopin nocturnes. Berlioz's Nuits d'Eté, of course; and most Ravel. But especially the Russians: Borodin, Glazunov, and this Gliere.

I think I actually heard "Ilya Mouromets" live once, but I'm not sure. Talk about embarrassment! How could I be unsure of that? If I did, it was with Harold Farberman conducting the Oakland Symphony, many years ago. He cut the piece, of course; most conductors do. (He cut "Night in the Tropics," too, even less forgivable.) I think my first hearing of the piece, though, was via a recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting. It too was cut.

Today when I got to thinking about the piece I looked online, first in the iTunes store, then at, which I'd forgotten to resubscribe to on return from the most recent trip. Just before leaving, two months ago nearly, I downloaded there the last music I wrote about here, Ippolitov-Ivanov's "Caucasian Sketches" (another piece of Russian orchestration-heavy kitsch). I was surprised and gratified to find four or five different recordings of "Ilya Mouromets," most apparently uncut (since they ran 75 minutes long or so).

I listened to samples of all of them, and chose Donald Johanos's recording, with the Czech-Slovak Radio Orchestra, mostly because of the fine contrabassoon solo at the beginning of the second movement — the other recordings, by Russian orchestras, double contrabassoon with tubas, dubious orchestration to my way of thinking.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Italian journal, 19: last day in Paris

rue des Petits Ecuries, Paris, June 10, 2010—
SO MUCH WRITTEN (so much ephemera) so quickly; then so long a hiatus. From Enna we descended to the north coast, touching Cefalù long enough to admire the coastline, dodge the tourists, and grab a bite of lunch; then checked into a little hotel a few miles east for the night. (In a few days I'll post a list of all the hotels for this trip; many were quite nice.)

Then we drove inland, across the mountains, skirting Etna, always sullen under covered skies, and dropped into busy Taormina, a solid traffic jam threading a crowded street climbing from the sea into the hills — where we turned around, crawled back downhill, and got the hell out of town.

We drove on to Messina, which I'd always thought would be busy, urban, and dull, much like Catania; but which turned out to look promising and promisingly easy in its style, fairly quiet, broad-streeted; and then we took the ferry across her famous Straits and began the long drive north.

What a trip! Nearly 1400 kilometers (850 miles), as far as San Diego to Grants Pass; even without Sicily Italy's as long as California and Oregon combined. We did the trip in eight days, stopping for the night in Mileto, Caserta (where we picked up our granddaughter Francesca), San Gimignano, Reggio Emiglia, Milan (two nights), and outside Asti, finally turning in our car in Torino and taking the train to Paris.

What a trip! We introduced Francesca to Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli, the cathedrals in Orvieto, San Gimignano, Firenze, and Parma (also the Baptistery, of course, and the amazing Farnese theater); we spent a day with Fran's father in Milan and another day with Dominique and Chuck at our friends the Rampis in their agriturismo; we enjoyed Italy's endlessly varied landscapes and her city's sidewalk pleasures. It's an absurd way of traveling, of course, particularly once you've spent a month walking from place to place: but it's left many impressions.

None to be dealt with here. We've spent the last four days in Paris with another couple of friends, Hans and Anneke, in a curious apartment rented blind on the Internet, on a small street in the 10th arrondissement, a part of Paris I know not at all. (In the past we've always stayed on the left bank.)

Sharing our stay with friends, we temper our own enthusiasms. I haven't done all my usual Paris things: haven't looked in at St. Medard, checked the old tree at St. Julien le Pauvre, visited the Place Georges Pompidou or (more grievous oversight) the Place Dauphine, eaten at L'Ecurie. Some of those oversights will be corrected later today, I hope.

What we have done is walk a hell of a lot, as one always does here, and take a few Metro trips, which I find even more fatiguing for the noise and crowds. It's been fascinating to contrast Paris with Milan, and one day soon I hope to expound on that, and see where that leads me: the quick impression is that Italy continues to present the more gratifying daily street life, however richer Paris's intellectual and cultural offerings may be.

Life in the apartment is interesting, too. It's nearly eight in the morning; I sit at the kitchen window on the fourth floor overlooking the central court; it rained in the night and is damp and cool (thankfully); the soft clouded day stifles noises, though water is running in the pipes, I notice, and a sparrow's chirping away somewhere, and a crow calls.

From time to time you're aware of neighbors, who stand at windows where the reception's better, discussing business or social affairs, waving one hand while holding cell phones to their ears. One's aware, too, in this apartment, of the fascinatingly compulsive, sensual, private, thing-oriented life so often celebrated by fictional accounts of Paris: Balzac, Maupassant, Proust, Ponge, Perec, Patrick Susskind.
Our apartment is furnished from the flea market, with heads of gazelles looking out over the rooms, antlers serving as hat-racks, a mannequin's leg emerging from the fireplace, improbably couches, chairs, footstools, side tables, and lamps. There are books everywhere, and magazines; the owner apparently simply moves in with a friend for a few days, leaving most of his things lying scattered about, when he wants to earn a few extra euros by accommodating the likes of us.

The human animal continues to fascinate us, whether the invisible owner of this apartment or the Africans and Turks in our quartier, friends seen every few years in Europe or grandchildren, cooks or cab-drivers. The Seine flows tranquilly on. The grain of life is incredibly fine. We're crowded by contemplation.

Campania, including Caserta, Herculaneum, Amalfi, and


Tràpani, Erice, Segesta and environs:


Sicily: south coast:

Syracuse, including the Hippolytus photos:

Leaving Sicily:;

Messina to Milan:;

Milan and Paris:;

As always, our meals are recorded at Eating Every Day