Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Listening to Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique on a Philips recording of Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with John Eliot Gardiner conducting is eye-opening. In general I am not a great fan of so-called authentic performances, not because I prefer modern style to the old, but simply due to the fact that so many mediocre musicians have seen an opportunity to become experts overnight in that venue. A bad and unsuccessful actor doesn't just start doing Shakespeare and receive instant recognition. That skill takes years and years of dedicated labor; the same is true with learning to master performance practices of centuries ago. However, this recording shows the colorful palette Berlioz invented by using instruments supposedly similar to those available in 1830. In this case the musicians play too well: that degree of technical capability in an orchestra musician simply didn't exist for over a hundred years. The breakneck tempi so perfectly executed would not have occurred back then except in the composer's mind.

Ah, the composer's mind. This long composition is often seen as a tribute to opium and hallucinogenic drugs in general. In the 19th century such substances were far more accepted than today; in fact most creative artists were regular users and were not in legal danger for that. Wine was often laced with opium, and later cocaine, and praised as being healthy. I can think of a conductor or two today whose unimaginitive interpretations might greatly benefit from this type of new insight. A well-known fact is that late in that century Bayer in Germany decided to forego aspirin in favor of the drug with more potential, heroin. After all, pain relief was immediate with the latter and the lift in one's mood as well. Heroin seemed like the ideal answer to the day's quest for perfect drug. It wasn't until later when society turned against all drugs, including alcohol, and passed laws of prohibition. In case of alcohol, these were eventually overturned, but the rest of now illegal drugs remained as such. It is interesting that in this country such drug use is at an all-time high and surpasses the usage in other countries. Actually a liberal-minded country, Holland, doesn't seem to score high at all, even though marijuana is available legally and other substances are generally tolerated. In America the usage is high in spite of the law enforcement concentrating their efforts in catching drug users and dealers and sending them to prisons. Ordinary criminals such as burglars can practice their trade in peace these days. Only the clumsiest and dumbest of them have a chance of getting caught.

The present economic downturn and lack of coverage for basic needs causes many to search for an escape from reality. I can't really blame them. Taking care of what is grossly wrong in this society would be far more humane, and for that matter cost effective for the taxpayer, than sending these unhappy and miserable people to jail. The upcoming elections don't promise much of change. As one foreign-born parent of a student said, the election at this point resembles television's American Idol. Nobody cares about real values and desire to change things for the better. Instead the country seems fascinated by a former beauty queen whose ideals regarding a woman's rights are from medieval ages. Even pregnant Ashkenazy Jews test their fetuses for Tay-Sachs disease routinely; this one candidate would encourage every premenopausal woman to get pregnant, never mind what cost to society the resulting Down syndrome children would be. Caring for a developmentally challenged child is a mighty big task and takes most of a caregiver's available time. Yes, there are wonderful parents with disabled children who make sure that the quality of life for them is good. However, I fail to see this person in question in that camp, knowing that such caring is a full-time job and keeping in mind her track record with raising children.

We are not the only country in trouble financially. Europe is hard-hit, from Iceland to Spain. Italy's Berlusconi is more preoccupied with passing laws that would protect him from the many lawsuits against him than helping the struggling country get back up to its feet. Yet people elected him to office again, probably thinking that the richest man in the country will make everyone a winner. Today's news from home tells about big cuts in Finland's paper and pulp mills. The two big multi-national companies will reduce their work force by about five thousand, closing sites where the factory has been a town's main employer. At least people there are covered to an extent with benefits Americans can only dream about. Still, a lot of people are going to have a hard time, both financially and emotionally. Everything has gone up in price due to inflation and in a system where people are not used to saving for a rainy day, every cut hurts, no matter how little. For someone in their fifties learning a totally new skill is almost impossible, and in a system that forces a retirement in the mid 60s, prospects of finding employment at such an age are next to nil. The reason for such drastic cuts in a country of little over five million is same as here: pleasing stockowners in our global economy. No one seems to care about the human cost. It is no wonder many of these laid-off people will turn to escaping reality. There the drug of choice is alcohol, especially for someone middle-aged. Perhaps they would have been better off in the 1800s France, being able to take a voyage fantastique as described by Berlioz.

I may be unfortunate in not knowing what pleasures would await me in the parallel existence. Not being in control of my thoughts and actions is an unpleasant prospect and will keep me on this side of the law. Falling into a ditch at a great-uncle's birthday party when I was seven was enough to scare me for life. The moonlight-spiked malt beverage given to a small thirsty boy was potent indeed. Even "harmless" Ambien caused me to remain stuck in a screen saver for hours. Although it was interesting to run around the kangaroo on the screen and hide in the forest behind it, I decided that it was far too dangerous a substance to help with sleep problems. Perhaps if I were a composer in the class of modern-day Berlioz, I could write a Symphonie zolpidem and eventually become immortal.

Fantastic Symphony by Harvey Dunn