Friday, February 20, 2009

Fiscal Responsibility

As the stock market keeps on falling, reaching lows not seen in over a decade, I can't help but wonder about the American Dream. A system based on consumerism seems strange indeed to someone who saw real poverty growing up. Although my family was well off compared to most others, I consider those early years a very valuable lesson in life. My neighbor playmate, a year younger, came from such a poor home that my mom regularly gave my old clothes that had become too small for me to his mother. Although Mom had a successful business selling clothing, she would not throw out anything of mine that could be mended. Unnecessary and wasteful purchases were unheard of. She came from a long background in business but her own upbringing showed in her principles. In my early years we were one of the few families with a car. A telephone was a luxury. I can still remember our phone number: 237. A television was a novelty; I actually bought one as a present for my parents with my own earnings at the age of 12. When my grandpa was building a house in 1950, the thought of indoor plumbing didn't even enter his mind. There was a well outside, and he had an old-fashioned outhouse in the same structure where the sauna and his workshop was situated. Early this month I drove past his house on Talventie (Talvi's Road). I'm sure the house today has all the comforts, although to the outside it looked pretty much the same. The well was missing, so plumbing must have been in place for quite a while.

Every day the news talks about new job losses, folding businesses and crooked investors. Today's New York Times has an article about the hard times non-profits are facing. Countless charities have been forced to close their doors and many have had to declare actual bankruptcy. According to the story, "performing arts groups typically are the nonprofits hit first in economic downturns, as donors devote more of their giving to charities that address basic needs and consumers cut spending on entertainment." Even the mighty Metropolitan Opera is facing serious difficulties, in spite of its successful high-definition live broadcasts in movie theaters worldwide. They have been watched even in the city where I recently visited in Finland, although as a recorded version due to the time difference. If 220,000 businesses are predicted to close their doors this year, we must assume that there are no arts organizations, large or small, where their financial uncertain future isn't on top of the list of worries. It is therefore interesting to pay attention to the ones which so far haven't been crying and possible reasons for it. I fully understand why the Los Angeles Philharmonic doesn't want to dampen the excitement Gustavo Dudamel's upcoming first season is creating. But few orchestras have such reasons to celebrate. The New York Philharmonic is getting a new man in charge as well, but I bet you anything they are kicking themselves for not asking the young Venezuelan first. A number of distinguished conductors (yes, there are still some around) had turned the job down and thus the organization was sort of forced to welcome back a home town boy. Based on reports from Sweden Mr. Gilbert is a capable man on the podium but hardly seen as exciting.

Then there are orchestras that insist on flying principal players into town at a great expense, although equally good people could easily be found locally. I wonder how this is explained to the board as a necessary cost when in truth this is just the conductor's way of irking the regular musicians and proving that his/her muscles can still be flexed. When the Washington National Opera, under the direction of Placido Domingo whom everyone admires and loves, decided to cancel their Ring cycle, it was seen as a sign of fiscal responsibility, getting ready for a nuclear winter in the arts. Although there wouldn't have been an empty seat for the performances, such a production would still have cost too much. How is it possible then that some other companies can go ahead with similar grandiose plans, as if money is not an issue? Or is it a case of the dying not caring about the inheritance they are leaving behind? Perhaps there is a desire to go out with a bang.

It is intriguing to learn about the last deeds and desires of those ready to leave this world. I remember listening to NPR in my car and hearing a short interview with Michael Paterniti in which the former French President Fran├žois Mitterrand's last meal was discussed. In France preparing a small yellow songbird, the Ortolan Bunting, is a dish deemed illegal. Here is what you do:

The birds must be taken alive; once captured they are either blinded or kept in a lightless box for a month to gorge on millet, grapes, and figs, a technique apparently taken from the decadent cooks of Imperial Rome who called the birds beccafico, or "fig-pecker". When they've reached four times their normal size, they're drowned in a snifter of Armagnac.

Cooking l'ortolan is simplicity itself. Simply pop them in a high oven for six to eight minutes and serve. The secret is entirely in the eating. First you cover your head with a traditional embroidered cloth. Then place the entire four-ounce bird into your mouth. Only its head should dangle out from between your lips. Bite off the head and discard. L'ortolan should be served immediately; it is meant to be so hot that you must rest it on your tongue while inhaling rapidly through your mouth. This cools the bird, but its real purpose is to force you to allow its ambrosial fat to cascade freely down your throat.

When cool, begin to chew. It should take about 15 minutes to work your way through the breast and wings, the delicately crackling bones, and on to the inner organs. Devotees claim they can taste the bird's entire life as they chew in the darkness: the wheat of Morocco, the salt air of the Mediterranean, the lavender of Provence. The pea-sized lungs and heart, saturated with Armagnac from its drowning, are said to burst in a liqueur-scented flower on the diner's tongue. Enjoy with a good Bordeaux.

Mr. Mitterrand refused to eat anything after this and died from his cancer eight days later. The funeral became as legendary as the last meal: both his wife of 50 years and his mistress with whom he had children followed the coffin walking side by side. C'est la vie – c'est la mort.

photo: talvi 2009