This past Christmas, an Islamist group in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram, bombed two Christian churches, killing more than forty people, including thirty-seven parishioners as they came out of the packed Christmas morning Mass in St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla. Many others were injured. Its current leader, Imam Abubakar Shekau, has warned of more attacks. Why? And what is the relationship between this group's view of reality and the violence it practices?
Projecting Western ideas onto the Arab Spring seriously underestimates the danger of Islamism.
I will not presume to present you with the best classical recordings of 2011, but will inflict upon you my favorites - those CDs that have found themselves most often on my player for repeat auditions simply because of the generally enjoyable nature of the music and performance. I have so many discs to recommend that, in most cases, I'm going to save space by not listing the performers. Trust me; they wouldn't have made the list if the performances were not more than fine.
Late last month, 24Catholic and 24 Muslim leaders, scholars, and educators met on the east bank of the Jordan River for the second of the two Catholic-Muslim forums, inaugurated by Benedict XVI in 2008 to encourage dialogue between the world's two largest religions. How much can be gained from such encounters is hard to say. But the extremely astute Father Samir Khalil Samir has said, "dialogue is better than indifference and reciprocal silence."
Last February, Bernard Lewis, the famous historian of the Middle East, warned that if elections were held early after the Arab spring, "It can only lead to one direction, as it did in [Weimar] Germany, for example," an allusion to Hitler's 1933 takeover after gaining a plurality in elections. In this case, Lewis meant not the Nazis, but the Muslim Brotherhood (enthusiastic supporters of Hitler during and after World War II) and other Islamist forces, which would simply use the democratic opportunity to gain power before the forces against them could get organized.
A chill in the air, crackling leaves, and a roaring fireplace put me in mind of chamber music for some reason — perhaps because it is an interior art. Is it the cold that prepares one for a period of introspection? Chamber music is the art of introspection in sound. In any case, it is what I have been listening to a great deal this fall. Chamber music requires silence and time. It is also sort of familial, just you and several others.
With the lunatic tyrant Moammar Gaddafi almost gone from Libya and the ground shaking under Bashir Assad’s feet in Syria, one could only wish that hopes for the Arab Spring were on as solid a foundation as many seem to think. One's heart naturally goes out to those who have been trampled for generations by one-party states or megalomaniac supreme leaders. These people are getting their first taste of freedom, and it is exhilarating for them and for all in the West who wish them well.
The extent to which people will go to advance their rationalizations for sexual misbehavior grows ever more amusing and ambitious, with consequences, however, that are less jolly. The ultimate level of absurdity has now been reached by the claim that justice requires the legalization of same-sex marriage. Consider the following two protestations.
The musical levees have broken and I am inundated with new CD releases. In these brief reviews, I will also be playing catch-up on some overlooked items of merit. I shall proceed chronologically, which means we begin with my favorite period of music, the Classical era. The CPO label has released a disc featuring four of the symphonies of Carl Stamitz (1745-1801). Carl was the son of Johan Stamitz, the founder of the famous Mannheim school, from which the classical symphony was launched. The four symphonies here, played with verve by Werner Erhardt and L’Arte del Mondo, are adrenaline-driven and delightful. These will provide refreshment on the hottest summer day. Next in line come the complete String Quartets of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), played by the Quartetto Savinio on the Stradivarius label in a two-CD set. Beethoven considered Cherubini to be the best composer of his time, Beethoven excepted. If that might be an exaggeration, I will nonetheless use it to entice you to listen to these six marvelous quartets. They are Classical but with quirks, which make them all the more appealing. Stradivarius is an expensive import label, but these performances are worth it.
Earlier this month, I stopped in London for three evenings of concerts, accompanied by meetings with five composers. I had the good company of the brilliant young German music critic Jens Laurson, who joined me from his home in Munich.
Lent is tough -- not so much because of the voluntary deprivations one may undertake, but because of what it leads up to: the Cross. Take a look. Of course, there is the Resurrection on the other side of it. Without that, it would be hard to make it through the day (and I have a pretty easy day) -- because I want to see my parents and my brother again, and my other friends and family members, and because I have no wish for personal extinction. If the Cross were the end, how could we cope? As St. Paul said, if He be not risen, our faith is in vain.
What do I do as a music critic? Why do I do it? Perhaps these are questions you have never posed yourself. The more selfless reader, however, might have wondered exactly how I occupy myself in order to come up with the musical selections I present each month. I have been doing this for 15 years. That's a lot of months. You would think that I had nothing more to say; if I were talking about myself, I wouldn't. What I write is only indirectly about me, in that it records my reactions to what I listen to, but it is what I hear that I am trying to describe, not myself. I am just the medium; the message comes from the music and its composer.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson, once the foremost abortionist in the United States and then perhaps abortion's most effective opponent, died Feb. 21 at age 84. The Washington Post obituary mentioned that his 28-minute film, "The Silent Scream," released in 1985, "became a sensation, widely distributed by antiabortion groups and screened at the White House by President Ronald Reagan, who urged members of Congress to see the movie and 'move quickly to end the tragedy of abortion.'"
American music is characterized by a sense of openness, expansive vistas, expectancy, and optimism, offset by a deep sense of longing, poignancy, and nostalgia. It is not shy of beauty and has rhythmic vivacity. What's not to like? Think, for instance, of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, and David Diamond.
Strange. I don't feel like a criminal. But Mark Twain, in his newly released Autobiography (published, as he wished, a century after his death), says, "I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value." Well, there goes 28 years worth of work as a classical music critic—down the drain to degradation. But Twain softens as he realizes that, "I seem to have been drifting into criticism myself. But that is nothing. At the worst, criticism is nothing more than a crime, and I am not unused to that." Ah, I feel much better. Besides, as a hardened criminal, I can't stop now. So, here I go again on another crime spree of reviews of new CDs and an opera, all from Italy.The restoration of 20th-century Italian non-operatic music continues apace, with the Naxos release of Franco Alfano's "Cello Sonata" and the "Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano" (8.570928). This is gorgeous chamber music, full-throated, declamatory, characterful, and moving. The concerto is supposed to be more neoclassical than the romantic "Cello Sonata," but it is so imbued with feeling that it does not strike me as neoclassical at all. This release makes me eager to hear Alfano's three, string quartets and his "Quintet for Piano and Strings."Alfano was also a major opera composer, though today he is largely known for having finished Puccini's "Turandot," left incomplete at Puccini's death. Imagine my delight when, earlier this month, I was able to attend a San Francisco Opera performance of Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac," an early 20th-century work about the illusions of love and the dramatic displacements that they can cause for those seized by them. Cyrano teaches that real love can be prevented by these illusions, the very illusions that may attract us to love in the first place.Since I was a mere lad, I have been enraptured by Edmund Rostand's brilliant Cyrano play about the consummate swordsman with an enormous proboscis. I was delighted at the opportunity of hearing this operatic treatment, with Placido Domingo in the title role. It was a production of real panache, easily worth the journey from Washington, D.C.Cyrano is an Errol Flynn-type of work, and the Théâtre du Châtelet (which originated this creation) gave it a Michael Curtiz-style treatment. In this respect, director-designer Petrika Ionesco was the star of the evening. I have seldom—perhaps never—seen anything as sumptuously set forth in the opera house as was this work. The level of stagecraft was breathtaking. The sets and costumes were sheer eye candy. I think only of the opening scene in which we are placed upstage of the action, looking over the shoulders, as it were, of the actors/singers in the play within the play, to see Cyrano emerge out of the 17th-century theater and audience (which is seated in the real upstage location).It is often the case today that operas are temporally and geographically dislocated—"The Ring" set in a subway system or in the Wild West, for instance—for the sake of novelty, or stripped to a level of abstraction that sense of time and place is lost altogether. Too infrequently does a production embrace what an opera is as fully as does Ionesco's work with Cyrano. Ionesco fully trusted in the vision of the composer and librettist. This is how it should be done, I kept thinking; this is embracing the illusion and making it real. This is great theater.But is it great opera? Alfano's music is almost more a film score than what one usually expects from Italian opera (in fact, it sounds more French than Italian). It is mostly measured recitative or parlando in a verisimo style, if not subject matter. Alfano's score is continuous, harmonically rich, and orchestrally gorgeous, but without set numbers or arias, properly speaking. The music seldom calls attention to itself. It more often effectively enhances the action. How many films does one come away from humming the tunes of the film score? Likewise, one may wonder what is musically memorable here.Cyrano's impact is from the total dramatic experience. Does this lessen Alfano's musical achievement? Since returning from San Francisco, I have been sampling the DVD version of Cyrano, featuring the Orchestre de Montpellier. Listening to the music for the second time has increased my appreciation of its quality and of the level of Alfano's achievement, which is no less than that of a Korngold film score. There was not a moment of this great play to which Alfano's music was not equal. And it excelled in the balcony scene, at the battlements of Arras, and in the unforgettable death scene at the end.Now in his late 60s, Domingo is no Errol Flynn. His dueling as Cyrano was kept to a highly stylized minimum, but his level of maturity actually added a keen poignancy. Vocally, Domingo (and most others) got buried on occasion by what seemed an overly loud orchestra, especially in the beginning. (I wonder why the balance was not better this far into the run, the next-to-last night.) He came gloriously into his own in the balcony scene with its highly lyrical music and in his death scene at the end.The performance of the evening, however, was delivered by another Spaniard, soprano Ainhoa Arteta, whose physical and vocal beauty made her an ideal Roxane. She was one member of the cast who was able to project over the orchestra throughout. Her acting was as brilliant as her singing: She could play the petulant teen love for the handsome Christian (sung very well by Thiago Arancam), whose physical beauty dazzled and blinded her, and then capture the tragic realization that it had been Cyrano's soul she had loved from the beginning. In love with love until suffering refined her, Roxane loses Cyrano at the very moment he finally has the courage to reveal himself as her real soul mate.The rest of the cast excelled. The chorus was superb, and the orchestra and conductor Patrick Fournillier were excellent, except for the balance problem mentioned earlier. Production values could not have been better. I think director Ionesco pushed a bit too far by bringing on 17th-century spotlights (candles backed by silver dishes) to emphasize and comment on the artifice of several moments, as when Cyrano and Christian plot their scheme of the one writing letters to Roxane for the other. But this was a minor blemish. In short, this was one of the most theatrically thrilling evenings I have spent at the opera, or anywhere else. If this production surfaces somewhere else (as surely it will), do not miss this coup de théâtre.More Italian revelations deserving your attention come from Naxos, which has already issued recordings of two of Alfredo Casella's three engaging symphonies. A new release offers his rhythmically driven, highly energetic, but melodically lyrical "Cello Concerto," accompanied by the sheerly delightful "Scarlattiana" for piano and orchestra, based upon melodies from Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas. While this budget CD (8.572416) has some stiff competition from much more expensive Chandos releases, it also contains the world-premiere recording of the magical "Notte Di Maggio" (A Night in May) for voice and orchestra, deliciously drenched in atmospheric mystery. Casella predicted, "You'll love the poetic effect," and indeed I do. Call it Italian impressionism (Casella was a friend of Debussy). The same forces, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, under conductor Francesco La Vecchia, used in the traversal of the symphonies, deliver the goods here in very compelling performances. Cellist Andrea Noferini gives a tour de force rendition in the "Cello Concerto." These three works from 1913 (Notte), 1926 (Scarlattiana), and 1935 (the Concerto) are different stylistically, but are all highly attractive in their own ways.If you like Shakespeare and music, I have an unalloyed treat for you. Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), one of whose mentors was Alfredo Casella, wrote overtures to eleven of Shakespeare's plays: "Julius Caesar," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Antony and Cleopatra," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Tragedy of Coriolanus," "Twelfth Night," "As You Like It," "The Merchant of Venice," "Much Ado About Nothing," "King John," and "The Winter's Tale." These are highly imaginative, invariably attractive, though not explicitly descriptive tone poems (some more than 15 minutes long) that aim at capturing the general atmosphere of each play.Castelnuovo-Tedesco fled Italy to escape Mussolini's anti-Jewish Manifesto of Race in 1938 and landed in Hollywood, where he was very successful composing film scores. (He also taught composers John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and Andre Previn.) You can hear why in these very colorful, exuberant, immensely enjoyable works. Naxos delivers them in two volumes (8.572500 and 8.872501), vivaciously performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the very capable Andrew Penny.I close with the great good news that Naxos is issuing the complete piano music of Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892-1965) who is perhaps the single most neglected genius of Italian music in the 20th century. Volume one (8.572329) is full of charming music composed between 1908 and 1916. These world-premiere recordings use scores given by the composer's daughter, Maria Grazia Ghedini, who writes, "As I listened to these pieces being played by Massimo Giuseppe Bianchi, I was reminded of something my father once said: 'This is my credo: music is not a passing fashion, it is everlasting...As society becomes ever more technical, there is a great need for genuine sentiment, which is why music too must be animated, at its core, by a dramatic, romantic impulse...only thus can all its magic be conveyed.'" I hope this is a sign that his chamber and orchestral music will also be recorded. Wait till you hear the autumnal glories in this man's outpouring of poignant melodies in his music for cello and orchestra.Viva musica!
I grow old (but shall not wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled), and my interest in Anton Bruckner's music deepens with time because it speaks of the timeless. His Symphony No. 8 is one of the summits of music that endeavors to make the transcendent perceptible. In it you will hear the swirl and turn of galaxies, the vastness and majesty of creation, and the tread of the Creator coming toward you. It will shake you to the roots of your being. Little in art is as awe-struck and awe-inspiring.
I go outside for InsideCatholic occasionally, and most recently journeyed across the pond to essay the musical life in London, always a pleasure in what remains, in my experience, the greatest city for music in the world. What other metropolis can boast several superb symphony orchestras and opera houses, to say nothing of the plentitude of chamber and choral groups and concerts? The wealth is staggering.
Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist. A former director of Voice of America, he now serves as a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.
What happened to Islamic civilization? How did we get from Avicenna and Cordoba to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda? In his new book, "The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis," Robert R. Reilly traces the problem back to a thousand-year-old theological debate over reason and the nature of God.