Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day With Mitchell Howie-- A Vision For A Future Filled With Hard-Headed Hope For Alabama And For America


I got into the race to represent the Fifth Congressional District of Alabama when I looked around and saw it was apparent that the current occupant (the party switcher Parker Griffith) lacks a sense of service. Back in the mid-1960s, when our Congress passed then-controversial pieces of landmark legislation such as the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, that institution was composed of 70% Veterans. Today, that number is at a historic all time low of 20%. Certainly, simply being a Vet doesn’t qualify you to serve in Congress. However, with all of the partisan bickering today over simple, common sense ideas like health care reform, financial reform, and clean energy one could hardly argue that a renewed sense of service is not needed on Capitol Hill.

One of the most important things I ever did during my service as a Captain in the United States Air Force JAG Corps was drafting wills on midnight mobility lines at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. It was an important job, making sure service members had their families taken care of in case they didn’t come home from the war they were about to get on a plane to fly into. One night, on my way home from one of these mobility lines, I stopped for gas. As I watched the dials click over on the pump, it occurred to me that our petroleum purchases here in America essentially fund the enemies those brave men and women I had helped were going to fight. That thought has weighed heavy on my heart ever since.

That’s why part of my platform in this race is to create a Green TVA here in North Alabama. The Tennessee Valley Authority has brought jobs and electricity to homes all across the Tennessee Valley for decades, and I want to do the same with clean energy. A Green TVA just makes sense. We can create American jobs by manufacturing products like wind turbines and solar panels in the auto manufacturing plants who’s doors have closed over the passed several years. North Alabama’s deep water ports can ship these products to consumers and vendors all over the country, who currently must send American money to China in order to meet their clean energy needs. Research universities within this district can provide the know-how to develop newer, better clean energy technology so we can stop relying on foreign oil, and secure our nation with clean, American power.

Some have said this is a far fetched idea, but I remind them that the same was said about walking on the moon before a team of rocket scientists started their research at the Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, which still stands in Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District.

This Memorial Day, I hope all Americans will remember the service of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for American freedom, but also think about how many more of our brave men and women will have to lay down their lives to fund the oil addiction that weakens our country. We need clean, American power that brings jobs, a sustainable climate, and security that can’t be influenced by the same powers that fund international terrorism. That’s why my name will appear on tomorrow's Democratic Primary ballot in North Alabama, and one of the many reasons I’m going to bring service back to Washington.

UPDATE: Tomorrow Is Election Day In Alabama

Mitchell is running against two conservative corporate shills whose vicious, negative campaigns have made a mockery out of Democratic Party ideals. In all likelihood Mitchell will be forced into a primary with a sleazy lobbyist, Steve Raby, who has given thousands of dollars to Republicans in Alabama and across the country. If people thought it would be impossible to find a worse candidate than Parker Griffith, they never imagined Steve Raby running. Please take a look at the candidates' videos at the Madison County Democratic Party Reunion Thursday. If you can vote, or have friends or family in north Alabama, please consider Mitchell Howie, the candidate who could make a real difference and offer a clear alternative to Parker Griffith or whatever gunk the Republicans dig up to run in their primary tomorrow.

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Memorial Day With Bill Hedrick


Yesterday when I woke up and opened my e-mails I found one from Bill Hedrick urging that Americans using Memorial Day as "a time of reflection on the sacrifices made by members of the military in wars and conflicts at home and around the globe." He noted with regret that "some will merely note it as a day without work or school. Perhaps they will think of it as the beginning of summer.  However, Memorial Day should call our attention with laser-like focus and clarity-- not only on the sacrifices of the past, but on those of the present as well."

Bill is running for Congress in California's Inland Empire (CA-44) against an incumbent so profoundly corrupt that even Fox News, in their special, Porked-- Earmarks For Profit, has been forced to focus on how he has managed to transfer tax payer dollars into his own accounts. He's been endorsed by Blue America and we asked him to share his own ideas about the meaning of Memorial Day. Here's Bill's guest post:

This week marked the 1000th American casualty in the war in the Afghan theatre. It is a somber benchmark for Americans, and follows on the heels of 4,400 US deaths in Iraq. Tens of thousands of service members have suffered severe injuries-- some visible, others invisible, but nevertheless life-changing.
Our family members have been asked to make enormous sacrifices at the direction of our political leaders in Washington. For whom are those sacrifices being made? A corrupt Afghan central government whose leader threatens to “join the Taliban?” To protect oil fields or natural gas pipelines for US and European corporations? To maintain contracts for war profiteers who have grown rich from military procurements to support endless occupations?
Right now my children are serving in the military, two currently stationed just south of Baghdad on their third deployments. And while my kids put their lives on the line to ‘defend the Constitution’-- the tacit bargain when one enlists-- I am not willing to have their lives in jeopardy to defend profits for Mobil/Exxon or ‘opportunities’ in Iraq for British Petroleum. 
Further, it is tremendously offensive for our leaders to verbally wrap themselves in the flag and congratulate themselves for their courageous vote to fund an expansion of an ill-founded war when all they risk is losing the next election. My children, indeed all our sons and daughters, are asked to display genuine courage-- risking an arm, a leg, a life.
This week, Washington politicians like Ken Calvert committed billions of dollars more to an on-going war policy that does little to make us safer at home, will certainly result in more deaths and grievous injuries to more military personnel, and drives us as a nation further into debt. After seven years in Iraq and nine years in Afghanistan, it is long past time to bring our men and women safely home.

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Memorial Day With Justin Coussoule


Justin and Amanda met while serving our country, fell in love and got married

Actually today Justin is observing Memorial Day by participating in the Fairfield, OH Memorial Day Parade and then meeting with VFW Post 1069. He's the Blue America-endorsed candidate to take on Republican minority leader/golfer John Boehner in western Ohio's 8th CD. A few days ago Justin was over at Daily Kos explaining why, as a recent U.S. Army officer and leader of soldiers, he is strongly supporting the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. His real-world experience informed his decision the same way his military service helped him come to conclusions about the status of women's rights in our society.

In Uniform or Out, Women Deserve Equal and Fair Pay

-Justin Coussoule 

When you think of the armed services, you wouldn’t be alone if you immediately conjured up images of young men in uniform, close shaven with hair so short it’s barely there. The reality, though, is much more reflective of our society as a whole, where men and women work side by side to accomplish the unit’s mission. 

As a cadet at West Point and then an Army officer, I worked alongside highly trained, highly effective, and highly competent soldiers, many of whom were women. In fact, my wife and my sister-in-law are both veterans, and they along with the female soldiers I led served as honorably and ably as the men in their units. The same is true for women in the workplace today, where women contribute in all industries at all levels. Unlike in the Army, though, women today only earn about 75% of what a man in the same job is paid. Women deserve equal pay for equal work. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a step forward, but there are still those who would oppose equality in pay, like my opponent, John Boehner. In the 21st century, what possible reason could one give for not supporting equal pay for equal work? 
As a society, we will always be better for affording equal chances to those who want to succeed.  We cannot discriminate against or oppress those who would make our nation better simply because of gender. I learned in the Army that from Private to General Officer, pay is based on rank, not gender.  The same should be true in the civilian workforce, where pay is based on performance, and gender has no impact. Women today serve from the assembly line to the board room, and the gains made in the last fifty years must be protected with continued fair and equal access to the same opportunities men have. 

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Memorial Day With Tod Theise


We first ran into Tod Theise, the progressive New Jersey Democrat running against corporate shill Scott Garrett, when he did a guest post here a few weeks ago about the personal odyssey that brought him to the Democratic Party. When I first met Tod he talked a lot and with great enthusiasm about his service in the New York Guard and what it meant to him. I invited him back today for another guest post and I asked him to talk about how his service will make him a more valuable congressman for people living in Bergen, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties. Here's his guest post. If you like what you read, please consider helping him get his message out in one of the nation's most expensive media markets.

Republicans May Not Like Empathy But There Are Times When It Is Essential-- A Guest Post By Tod Theise

My military service best falls under the heading better late than never. I had hoped to enter the Army or Marine Corps after college but acquiesced to my parents’ wishes to attend law school. It meant a great deal to them as I would be the first “professional” in our family. Upon graduating law school in 1987, I once again flirted with entering the military. Unfortunately, my father suffered a massive heart attack that summer and I opted to take care of my family. Two decades later, I would be given another chance to give something back to my country as a soldier.
In January 2007, I was commissioned into the New York Guard (the “Guard”) as a 1st Lieutenant.  The Guard was created during WWI in response to homeland security concerns. The prospect of German U-boats surfacing off the shores of Long Island and Brooklyn were enough to have the State of New York charter what amounted to a State Militia. The Guard allowed men and women such as me who were too old to serve in the “regular” armed forces an opportunity to participate in domestic defense initiatives.
I had initially attempted to enter the Guard in 2004, but the particular unit I was applying through made errors with my paperwork. I was frustrated, yet never gave up the dream I harbored since childhood. In 2006, I reconnected with the Guard through a fellow attorney who served as recruitment coordinator for the 7th Civil Affairs Regiment. I told my wife that I wanted to join and explained the nature of and duties inherent in the Guard. I also told her how much this meant to me.  With her blessing, I entered the Guard. 

My unit is a remarkable collection of men and women. Our personnel include Judges, partners at major New York law firms, attorneys from various backgrounds and non-professionals who bring myriad experiences to bear in performing their duties. We receive no compensation for our service and provide anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000 in legal services to soldiers and their families every year. We also receive training in numerous areas of homeland defense. I have received certifications in suicide bombing prevention and response along with completing nearly a dozen learning modules in emergency preparedness. I have also been trained at a very basic level in dealing with weapons of mass destruction.
This training is critical given that I and my comrades are first and foremost soldiers. The fact that I work just a few blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan brings a sense of immediacy to my service. My BDUs (battle dress uniform) often hang in my office and I have made my peace that in the event we are attacked again, I will put them on and do whatever is necessary to protect our nation and save as many lives as possible.
My tenure in the Guard has had an indelible impact on how I view not only war, but peace. When my unit travels to Fort Hamilton, Floyd Bennett Field or some other military facility to perform what we affectionately refer to as “will drills,” we are confronted with a reality most Americans never witness. It is a sobering experience to sit down with a young man or woman to discuss things like the disposition of their remains or draft a health care proxy in the event they return from Iraq or Afghanistan incapable of making decisions regarding medical care. It is heart rending to make small talk with a twenty-year-old about how he wants his kid brother to get his prized hot rod if he doesn’t make it back. Even more difficult is addressing issues involving children and what happens to them when mommy or daddy comes home in a flag-draped casket. 
Our soldiers are not action movie characters or cartoonish fodder for our entertainment. They are flesh and blood. They are our brothers and sisters. They are our sons and daughters. They have precious dreams that they sacrificially defer in order to preserve our liberties. I often find myself looking for a quiet place amidst the frenzy of our legal services operation to bow my head, say a prayer and shed some tears at the prospect that some of these soldiers will not be coming home or that their lives will be forever changed by the hell that is war. That their families will sit down for Christmas dinners to come with an empty place setting that will never be filled. That their children will grow up never knowing their mothers or fathers. That they will leave a piece of their soul in an Iraqi desert or Afghani mountain range. 

Sending servicemen and women into the line of fire is the most solemn decision any elected official will ever make. Before such a decision is made, it is incumbent upon those in power to consider exactly what they are placing at risk. I subscribe to a very simple standard for whether to commit troops to the field-- would I send my own son or daughter to fight. Most politicians could not answer this question in the affirmative. Yet they wrap themselves in the flag and reflexively send other people’s children across the globe to fight for causes not worthy of their own progeny’s blood. I hope there is a special corner of hell carved out for these hypocrites.   

My service in the Guard has, more than anything, taught me to value our troops at a very human level. I pray on this Memorial Day that I never discount who they are for the sake of political expedience. 

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Memorial Day With Doug Tudor


On this Memorial Day we want to dedicate DWT to the voices of some of the Blue America candidates who have, at least in part, come to their political beliefs based on their service in the U.S. military. Doug Tudor is running for the open seat in Florida's 12th district, mostly Polk and Hillsborough counties east of Tampa/St. Pete. He was born in Cincinnati, grew up in Kentucky and joined the U.S. Navy after high school. He has an outstanding military record and we feel he would make an equally outstanding member of Congress. We endorsed him and have urged Blue America supporters to help him raise money to battle the two conservatives he has to face, a Blue Dog Democrat and an off-the-cliff Republican. Below has has shared his ideas about what Memorial Day has come to mean in his life:

Memorial Day, first called Decoration Day, has long been used to pay tribute to those Americans who died serving our country in the military. It has evolved into honoring all of those veterans who are no longer with us, even those who have died of old age. I hope it continues to evolve into something even more meaningful. 

I hope someday that we will use Memorial Day to not only pay tribute to those Americans who died serving our country in the military, but also to come together once a year as a country to rededicate ourselves as a nation opposed to wars. I believe the best way we can honor those who have fallen on the field of battle is to work our very hardest to ensure that no others have the same fate.
Readers of DownWithTyranny know I am a retired Navy Master Chief, and they know I spent my career on the frontlines in the war against terrorism. From Beirut in 1983, to the Red Sea in 1993, to my over 30 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan before my retirement in 2008, I have lived my adult life serving the Navy’s core values of “Honor, Courage, Commitment.”  

Over the course of this Memorial Day, nearly all politicians and candidates will fall over themselves claiming how much they respect the fallen, honor our veterans, and support our troops. Few of them will follow up with any discussion of how they will actually protect the veterans from an underfunded Veterans Administration, multiple deployments, never-ending and unsustainable warfare, and lives of uncertainty based on campaign cycles. This must stop. 

To me, “Honor, Courage, Commitment” means I must have enough honor to speak the truth to power; to have the courage to question the leaders of my party; and the commitment to stand strong enough to do my part to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I did throughout my career in the Navy, you can count on me to stay true to these three core values. 

This Memorial Day, as I do every Memorial Day, I will attend a service to honor the fallen. This Memorial Day, as I have for the past three Memorial Days, I will carry forward a political campaign to truly honor those who have served America in uniform… as well as those who are serving and who will serve. My brothers and sisters in arms deserve my utmost “Honor, Courage, and Commitment,” and they will receive it.


Howie here and I want to add a poem to Doug's post. I just heard it recited by the son of a vet who found it among his father's papers recently. It's very moving, as you're about to see:
Murder So Foul

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise,
The strangest thing happened to me
I began to cry.

He was so young, so very young
And Fear was in his eyes,
He had left his home in Germany
And came to Holland to die.

And what about his Family
were they not praying for him?
Thank God they couldn't see their son
And the man that had murdered him.

I knelt beside him
And held his hand--
I begged his forgiveness
Did he understand?

It was the War
And he was the enemy
If I hadn't shot him
He would have shot me.

I saw he was dying
And I called him "Brother"
But he gasped out one word
And that word was "Mother."

I shot a man yesterday
And much to surprise
A part of me died with Him
When Death came to close
His eyes.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Déjà vu all over again: Who could have foreseen the Deepwater Horizon disaster?


Who could have foreseen the explosion of
the space shuttle Challenger? (Who indeed.)

"The commission found that the Challenger accident was caused by a failure in the O-rings sealing the aft field joint on the right solid rocket booster, which allowed pressurized hot gases and eventually flame to 'blow by' the O-ring and make contact with the adjacent external tank, causing structural failure. The failure of the O-rings was attributed to a design flaw, as their performance could be too easily compromised by factors including the low temperature on the day of launch."
-- from the Wikipedia entry on the Rogers Commission
Report on the Challenger space-shuttle disaster

From today's New York Times:

Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig

The Deepwater Horizon rig last month.

Published: May 29, 2010

WASHINGTON — Internal documents from BP show that there were serious problems and safety concerns with the Deepwater Horizon rig far earlier than those the company described to Congress last week.

The problems involved the well casing and the blowout preventer, which are considered critical pieces in the chain of events that led to the disaster on the rig.

The documents show that in March, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of “well control.” And as far back as 11 months ago, it was concerned about the well casing and the blowout preventer. . . .

by Ken

Remember the Challenger disaster?

My goodness, can it really be 24 years already? I think, next to the JFK assassination and the planes flying into the World Trade Center on 9/11, it's my most vivid "Do you remember where you were when you heard the news?" moment.

Remember O-rings? Who outside the aviation and space-flight industries had ever heard of an O-ring until some time after the Challenger blew up?

By the time of that ill-fated launch, we had all become pretty blasé about the no-longer-dramatic "routine" of space launches. However, the news that a space shuttle had blown up sure as shootin' riveted the country's attention. And what I remember most vividly from that time, after the unbelievable news itself, was the utter mysteriousness of it all. Officially, at least, nobody had a clue how such a thing could happen. Even in those pre-cable-news days, the talking heads suddenly had a lot of air time to fill, and everyone seemed to agree it was all beyond the realm of possibility, beyond even the possibility of speculation. Truly unfathomable.

Except it wasn't. We found out eventually that there were a lot of people who not only could fathom it but knew it could happen. There were even people who lived in haunted dread that it would happen, under conditions like those, incredibly, that obtained the day of the Challenger launch. Namely, that it was really, really cold. Oops!

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's try to reimagine ourselves back in those tender days of innocence, when the Challenger explosion was still beyond the range of human understanding. The job of sorting out what happened was entrusted to a commission popularly known by the name of its chairman, former Secretary of State William Rogers.

I remember reading much later about the participation on the Rogers Commission of Nobel physicist Richard Feynman. Apparently Feynman was by nature, as you would expect any great scientist to be, a questioner and doubter, possibly to the point of being a positive pain in the posterior. I know I should probably do some research to refresh my memory of what I read, but heck, this is just a blog, so let's go with memory, even knowing how that would have appalled Richard Feynman.

It would have appalled but not surprised him. My recollection is that it was an ex-wife of Feynman's who recalled how dubious the scientist had been about accepting appointment to the commission. He felt it would just be a dozen people being herded from official briefing to official briefing swallowing officially sanctioned talking points for the purpose of arriving at an officially sanctioned conclusion. The ex-wife, as I recall, pointed out to him that that's what the commission would be without him, whereas with him it would be 11 people shuttling from official briefing to official briefing plus him prowling around asking unofficially sanctioned sources inconvenient, likely embarrassing or even incriminating questions.

I suppose the Rogers Commission would have figured out about the O-rings with or without Feynman. You have to figure, though, that it didn't hurt to have him tramping around asking those embarrassing questions, interested only in the facts, with no concern for who might be embarrassed or inconvenienced. Here's Wikipedia on the role of Feynman:
One of the commission's best-known members was theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. His style of investigating with his own direct methods rather than following the commission schedule put him at odds with Rogers, who once commented, "Feynman is becoming a real pain." During a televised hearing, Feynman famously demonstrated how the O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at ice-cold temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water.[4] Feynman's own investigation reveals a disconnect between NASA's engineers and executives that was far more striking than he expected. His interviews of NASA's high-ranking managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts. One such concept was the determination of a safety factor.

The facts, alas, were almost unimaginably horrible. Not only were both space-shuttle contractor Morton Thiokol and NASA fully briefed about the danger; there were people who argued to the death (the death of the shuttle crew, as it turned out) against going ahead with the launch under the conditions in effect that day.

I seem to remember there was one engineer at Morton Thiokol who was so sure that just such an eventuality could eventuate that he lived in a state of constant torment. Against tremendous pressure from above, he kept shooting his dread up the chain of command, and naturally was dismissed by his superiors as a troublemaker, and coerced to shut his Nervous Nellie trap. After all, there was a lot of money at stake, both in the space-shuttle program generally and specifically in sticking as closely as possible to the schedule -- meaning going ahead with the launch with a minimum of delay. And "money at stake" trumps the whining of some pathetic engineer who probably wasn't even making a six-figure salary. How important could he or his whining be?

And then the Challenger blew up.

I learned something from that experience which other people already knew but which we all need to learn, one way or another. Anytime one of these "inexplicable" events occurs, surpassing the limits of human understanding, just wait for it. The odds are overwhelming that soon enough we'll learn that not only can it be understood, it was understood, and was probably a subject of deadly concern among the initiated.

The odds are also extremely good that a small, beleaguered band of fact-based whiners was pitted against a larger, or at any rate more powerful, group of deniers. Usually it will turn out that the deniers were looking at a balance sheet, seeing precious dollars flying out the window to assuage the concerns of the comparatively lowly whiners, who might not even know how to read a balance sheet.

In the end, of course, the balance sheet on the Challenger didn't look all that great even to the all-important and all-powerful Money People. Just as the balance sheet on the Deepwater Horizon mess isn't going to look so good, unless you happen to be looking at the balance sheet of one of the companies that is, er, cleaning up on the disaster. (Never forget that article of faith to the Corporate Right: Disasters are just financial windfalls that haven't been cashed in yet.)

For what it's worth, I haven't bothered reading much beyond the portion of Ian Urbina's NYT report I've quoted above. Somehow, I have the feeling I've already read it. Too many times.

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The Closet Is Dark And Filled With Horrible Demons-- Meet David Laws


When I finally figured out I was gay-- after ignoring little hints all my life-- I had been living overseas for a few years. I bought a plane ticket for my first visit to America since leaving in 1969 so that I could tell my family in person. Although my mom mentioned that I couldn't borrow her wigs, everyone embraced-- a healthy step beyond "accepted"-- my reality. They accepted it as part of their reality. No one suggested I'd be better off in the closet.

Last week notorious California Republican closet case, state Senator Roy Ashburn-- recently outed with a young male prostitute-- pretty much said that having been in the closet ruined his life and forced him into an existence predicated on hypocrisy. Former GOP Congressman (and the vitriolic homophobic founder of the American Conservative Union and Young Americans For Freedom) Bob Bauman was also living a double life in a frightening closet of his own making and came to personal and political ruin when he was also caught with an underage boy. His book The Gentleman From Maryland: The Conscience Of A Gay Conservative also makes it crystal clear that living in the closet is a life sentence unworthy of any human being regardless of political persuasion. It's a life accepted by personally shabby conservative politicians as a matter of course in this country-- something that helped prompt Michelangelo Signorile's thoughtful commentary in the new Advocate, A Case For Outing On All Levels-- but turns out to be far from unknown among conservative politicians overseas as well.

Yesterday David Laws, the Treasury Secretary in the new Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition in the U.K., resigned from the Cabinet after being exposed for having claimed £40,000 (around $58,000) in housing expenses that were actually paid to his male lover/partner, James Lundie. "Laws also said," reports the Guardian, "that while his decisions over his expenses had been dictated by his wish to keep his homosexuality secret, he now accepted he had done wrong... Laws had said he deeply regretted the situation. 'My motivation throughout has not been to maximise profit but to simply protect our privacy and my wish not to reveal my sexuality,' he said."

Although there is a very direct correlation between overweening personal greed and conservative political beliefs, let's accept at face value Laws' claim that he wasn't out to rip off the British taxpayers but only trying to stay in the closet. This is precisely the kind of behavior-- and worse-- that closet cases always, always, always and inevitably find themselves in. Just ask Republican politicians Mark Foley and Larry Craig, each of whom was forced by a desire to stay closeted into untenable situations, including severe breakdowns of mental health, that led to the respective demise of their political careers. And after centuries of nurturing and coddling hypocritical pedophile priests, the ultimate bastion of conservatism, the Vatican-- at least in terms of p.r.-- is now threatening eternal damnation to the thousands and thousands of Roman Catholic priests who routinely behave as though sexual access to the children of their parishioners is a standard occupational perk.

The video below was made specifically for the U.K. election, but its importance transcends the U.K. or elections entirely. I can hardly believe I get to republish my favorite video on the nature of conservatism:

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Sunday Classics: After producing six remarkable piano concertos in one year, Mozart was just getting warmed up


Iván Klanský plays the slow movement ("Romanze") of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting the Virtuosi di Praga, November 1990.

by Ken

This is tough, but if I had to name a single Mozart piano concerto as my favorite, with no hemming or hawing, and offering just a single answer, I might swallow hard and declare for No. 21, which as we noted in last night's preview is permanently associated with the film Elvira Madigan, thanks to its shrewd use of the gorgeous slow movement as background for the romantic idyll embedded in it, quite possibly Mozart's most beautiful slow movement, which is covering a lot of ground.

As I also mentioned last night, Mozart's piano concertos have been near the top of my to-do list since I started writing these pieces, but they make a dauntingly formidable subject. In some hard-to-define way they are among Mozart's most personal works, along with the four or maybe five supreme operatic masterpieces and the late string quintets, and as I tried to make clear in our recent quick peek at the operas, this constitutes an elite category of cultural achievement.

As I mentioned (yet again!) last night, Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467, has the interesting circumstance of having a fraternal twin: the immediately preceding concerto, No. 20 in D minor, K. 466. (Note the consecutive Köchel numbers. The numbers don't always represent the chronology exactly, but in this case they do, and you can't get any closer than this pair!) The two works, written in something close to a single burst of inspiration, nevertheless bear hardly any resemblance to each other beyond the quality and exalted level of inspiration channeled.

Their dissimilarity is almost the point. Musical history is filled with such instances of composers of wide-ranging imagination writing pairs of pieces which are wildly dissimilar, and if you think about it, it makes sense. The creative immersion of the first-composed piece easily gives way to, or perhaps even sets in motion, a wildly different mode of inspiration. An especially vivid example: Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Opp. 66 and 67.

Why don't we start by hearing the first movements of the two concertos, from recordings made on the same day (April Fool's Day, to boot!) by Arthur Rubinstein and Alfred Wallenstein?

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
i. Allegro vivace

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded in New York, Apr. 1, 1961

It's worth noting that Mozart concertos hardly figured prominently in Rubinstein's repertory through most of his career. When he and Josef Krips -- off the triumph of their 1956 recording of the five Beethoven piano concertos -- tackled Mozart's great C minor Concerto, No. 24, in April 1958, the pianist was already 71, and the only Mozart concerto recordings I'm aware that he'd made were two mono versions of No. 23. Then in 1961, in the space of three days in March and April, he recorded four more Mozart concertos, this time with Alfred Wallenstein: in addition to Nos. 20 and 21, Nos. 17 and 23. (All five were fit onto two CDs in an indispensable volume, Vol. 61,in BMG's comprehensive Rubinstein edition.)

There were music lovers at the time who thought they had Rubinstein typed as an artist whose interpretive sympathies were incompatible with this music. They could hardly have been more wrong. As I noted last night, there was similar skepticism in much of the music world in the '60s when the Hungarian pianist Géza Anda undertook a complete recording of the Mozart piano concertos. He was thought of as a Romantic specialist (we just heard him playing some gorgeous Chopin), and there was additional astonishment at his taking on the dual role of conductor as well as soloist.

This wasn't without precedent; Edwin Fischer, notably, had made a specialty of conducting Mozart concertos from the keyboard. Still, it was hardly an everyday thing then, and I'm not aware that Anda had significant conducting experience at the time. The impulse to conduct as well as play is understandable, though, since the conductor plays such a large role in these concertos. A soloist with strong views of the music has to depend on the conductor not only to support those views but to carry them over to the purely orchestral statements.

Here's Anda playing the first movement of No. 21, from the same 1961 DG recording as the performance of the Andante, the very recording used in Elvira Madigan, we heard last night:

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso

Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Géza Anda, piano and cond. DG, recorded May 1961

The twin concertos, Nos. 20 and 21, represented a stepping up of Mozart's concerto game. He had been writing piano concertos like a fiend: The six concertos from No. 14 through No. 19 (K. 449-51, 453, 456, and 459) were all composed, amazingly, in the year 1784, the year Mozart turned 28, and they're all extraordinary works. But among them only No. 17 rises above that level to the highest of which Mozart was capable, a level it seems to me he had already hit once, in the Concerto No. 9 (1777).

Nos. 9 and 17 have in common with No. 21 being among Mozart's sunniest works. In No. 20 he did something he'd literally never done before: write a concerto first movement in a minor key. (And he only did it once again, with No. 24, in C minor.) The first movement clearly dominates Mozart's concertos; by this time it has already expanded to a length typically in the 14-minute range, meaning that Beethoven didn't have all that much expanding to do when he took over the form. (Like Mozart, Beethoven wrote piano concertos above all for his own use as a performer, as long as his hearing allowed him to play publicly.)

I thought it might be interesting to go back to that last concerto of the "1784 six," No. 19, and hear the three first movements consecutively. You'll notice immediately that No. 19's is more safely conventional, for example in offering a straightforward opening theme that first the orchestra and then the soloist can state. The "principal theme" of No. 20 is hardly even a theme; it's more like a mood, or an expressive surge, and while that of No. 21 is more "melody"-like, it's still more of a structural assembly than a real tune, and note that the soloist's entry doesn't attack it directly but needs a bit of buildup.

I might add that in the right hands No. 19 can seem very close in stature to the exalted series of works, Nos. 20-24, that were to follow. By "the right hands" I mean those of Rudolf Serkin, who heard a rhythmic snap in that principal theme which I've never heard any other pianist match, and in general heard things in the piece that nobody else seems to. It's true both of his 1961 recording with George Szell and of his 1983-ish DG remake with Claudio Abbado, who proved an unexpectedly sympathetic collaborator in their extensive series of Mozart concerto recordings. In fact, it's the later Serkin recording of the first movement we're going to hear, with the first movement tightened up by a full minute.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 19 in F, K. 459:
i. Allegro

Rudolf Serkin, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded c 1983

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
i. Allegro vivace

András Schiff, piano; Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Decca, recorded c1990

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso

Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim, piano and cond. Teldec, recorded November 1986

Note that Barenboim followed the example of Edwin Fischer and Géza Anda in conducting from the keyboard. His first recorded cycle of the Mozart concertos, for EMI, was for me the first successful demonstration of his aptitude for conducting, and remains one of the best things he's done on records. I'm not sure I don't prefer it to the Teldec remake, but the Teldec performances certainly hold their own. I would recommend the boxed set,which also includes a DVD containing performances of the Two-Piano Concerto (numbered No. 10 among the piano concertos) and the Three-Piano Concerto (No. 7), maybe just behind the Anda-DG cycle.But then, I also really like the Schiff-Végh-Decca cycle,which we sample here, a lot. Oh, and the Perahia-Sony cycleis a lovely piece of work too.

(Since Barenboim self-conducted his EMI Mozart concerto cycle, two more pianists have done it on records. Murray Perahia, on Sony, is like Anda a pianist who extended himself to conducting his Mozart concertos for, I imagine, the reason I already suggested: to be able to maintain consistency of interpretive outlook in the orchestral part. Vladimir Ashkenazy, on Decca, like Barenboim was already establishing himself as a conductor by the time he began his Mozart concerto cycle.)

Second movement: Andante

We heard, I thought, an interesting range of performances of this great movement (the Elvira Madigan one) last night, from Arthur Rubinstein through Géza Anda to Daniel Barenboim. Just to keep the movement fresh in memory, here's another wonderful Hungarian pianist, Annie Fischer:

Annie Fischer, piano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. EMI, recorded c1958

Third movement: Rondo: Allegro vivace assai

The rondo was still the standard form for a concerto finale. That of Concerto No. 21 is, again, one of the happiest specimens. Here's Annie Fischer again.

Annie Fischer, piano; Philharmonia Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond. EMI, recorded c1958


Sir Clifford Curzon, one of the more tightly wound of the great pianists, seems to have had rather a delicate psyche, which could adversely affect his concentration and even his technique, which under pressure could slip noticeably. He also seems to have had a talent for putting himself under pressure. When he was "on," though, he displayed a bracing mix of the bold and decisive and the poetic. He was especially known for his performances of Mozart concertos, and his record company, Decca, was inspired by his recorded successes to commission him to record all of the concertos.

This seems, though, to have caused him at least as much distress as satisfaction, perhaps because (or at least in part because) he didn't really have that many of the concertos in his repertory. He didn't make scheduling easy, and he went through a number of perfectly fine conductors, rejecting recordings that turned out, when they were finally released, to be quite fine. His likes and dislikes among the concertos certainly weren't mine. I'm not all that crazy about the last two, Nos. 26 and 27, but he seems to have loved them, whereas No. 21 seems not to have been among his favorites. It was one of the first concertos Anda recorded, and the first Barenboim did in his Teldec traversal. Curzon, by contrast, managed to die without having recorded it. Nevertheless, this live performance with Rafael Kubelik seems to me quite powerful and satisfying.

Then we hear a much-loved Mozartean, Alicia de Larrocha, who in the early '90s, now under contract to BMG, entered into a happy collaboration with Sir Colin Davis which produced recordings of 10 concertos, and also did an exceptional five-CD series encompassing the complete Mozart piano sonatas. De Larrocha is characteristically unflappable; balance and poise seemed to come naturally to her, and her Mozart consistently sings.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
i. Allegro maestoso
ii. Andante
iii. Allegro vivace assai

Clifford Curzon, piano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik, cond. Recorded live, Dec. 12, 1976

Alicia de Larrocha, piano; English Chamber Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Feb. 9-11, 1991


No, I'm not going to leave you hanging, teasing you with tales of this great fraternal twin of Concerto No. 21 and then letting you hear only the opening movement. Considering their auspicious beginnings, it seems only natural to find out how the Schiff and Rubinstein performances turn out.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
ii. Romanze
iii. Rondo: Allegro assai

András Schiff, piano; Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Decca, recorded c1990

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded in New York, Apr. 1, 1961

As I explained last night, what set in motion my whole determination to tackle Mozart concertos this week was stumbling across the CD edition of Géza Anda's later recordings of Concertos Nos. 20 and 21 for Eurodisc. I thought it might be fun to hear this 20th Concerto.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
i. Allegro vivace
ii. Romanze
iii. Rondo: Allegro assai

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Géza Anda, piano and cond. Eurodisc/RCA/BMG, recorded 1973


One last loose end: I'm not going to send you away with just the first movement of No. 19 either. Here's the slow movement and rondo, still played by Rudolf Serkin, but now going back to the 1961 Columbia recording with George Szell. (As noted, while the first movement lost a minute between the 1961 and 1983 recordings, the timings for the later movements are virtually identical.)

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 19 in F, K. 459:
ii. Allegretto
iii. Rondo: Allegro assai

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Columbia Symphony Orchestra, George Szell, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded in New York, Apr. 28, 1961


The newly revised as well as updated version of the list is here.

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The Sunday Before Memorial Day... How About A Good, Powerful Patriotic Movie To Get The Juices Flowing?


No, not Patton; we'll leave that to the ghost of Richard Nixon (who watched it half a dozen times-- sloshed out of his mind-- on the weekend he ordered the bombing of Cambodia). The film I want to turn you onto, The Political Prosecutions of Karl Rove, is less than an hour long. You can watch it all here, and below is a nine-minute excerpt. It gets the point across very well and will remind you of the danger we face if indeed the Republicans again gain mastery over the U.S. government.

Worse even than what we get from Obama and Rahm Emanuel and Lawrence Summers and the whole sleazy crew of Democratic senators-- like the 39 who joined with the GOP last week to keep the war against Afghanistan going or the 21 who joined with the GOP to insure that usury would not be banned the week before, or the 27 who joined with the GOP to prevent "too big to fail" legislation would fail.

This is all part of conservative governance, fueled by billions and billions of dollars in corporate-political bribes. It's sickening, and it's destructive to our country in ways that Osama bin Laden could never be. Who are the dozen senators most in the pockets of the financial special interests? Respected senators of both parties who all, regardless of which party, don't deserve the leniency of a prison cell:

John McCain (R-AZ), $33,674,662
John Kerry (R-MA), $18,112,577
Chuck Schumer (D-NY), $16,708,236
Chris Dodd (D-CT), $14,067,712
Joe Lieberman (I-CT), $10,087,096
Arlen Specter (R/D-PA), $6,516,574
Richard Shelby (R-AL), $5,635,030
Mitch McConnell (R-KY), $5,263,403
Lamar Alexander (R-TN), $4,940,775
Max Baucus (D-MT), $4,809,987
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), $4,694,038
John Cornyn (R-TX), $4,632,892

And it's no coincidence that these 12 corrupt boils on the ass of the body politic all constantly vote against their own constituents' interests to support the bankers and Wall Street bloodsuckers, regardless of whether they wear the blue T-shirts or the red shirts. And yet, when you watch this clip, you'll get an idea about why we force ourselves to keep on working with Democrats-- although I hope you'll notice on the Blue America Senate Candidates Worth Fighting For page that there are no incumbents and none of the DSCC slimeballs already pre-packaged as corporate whores.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Sunday Classics Preview: Does anybody actually remember "Elvira Madigan"?


Part 1 (of 9) of Elvira Madigan. The opening strains of the Andante of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467, are heard at 2:46.

by Ken

You can actually watch all of Elvira Madigan on YouTube, though I can't think why you'd want to. I recall the 1967 film as seriously tedious, despite its brilliantly effective use of the slow movement of Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto, K. 467, as the backdrop for the romantic idyll embedded in it.

I don't know whether it was superior taste, dumb luck, or something in between that led director Bo Widerberg to use the recording of the concerto played and conducted by Géza Anda, from his DG cycle-in-progress of the complete Mozart piano concertos with the Salzburg Mozarteum orchestra (begun in 1961, but not completed until 1969), but it was an inspired choice. While any other performance would likely have served the purpose, Anda's performance has a glow that makes it special even by the standard of the best of the considerable competition. I have to believe that its distinctive quality had something to do with the way the film and the concerto exploded in the cultural consciousness.

Anda was hardly an obvious candidate to record the Mozart concertos. Before this project, he was known at the time as a Romantic specialist. (We just heard him play some lovely Chopin.) And I'm not sure that all those music lovers have ever caught up with the achievement of that cycle, which deals as richly and satisfyingly with this remarkable body of music as I can imagine any one performer doing. There's drama and poetry and passion and an abundance of sheer joy. It would still be my first choice for a set of the complete Mozart piano concertos, as I write, there's an vendor selling the eight-CD setfor a trifling $32.85 (plus shipping).

It was thinking about Anda's recordings of K. 467 that set me on course to writing about the concerto. Mozart's piano concertos have been near the top of my to-do list since I began writing these pieces, but the subject has always seemed too immense. We've even jumped ahead and done some preliminary exploring of the Mozart concertos' direct descendant's, Beethoven's five piano concertos.

In the course of doing some long-deferred CD reshelving this week, I found myself staring at the CD edition of Anda's later recording of Concertos Nos. 20 and 21 -- for Eurodisc, during the brief heyday of "quadriphonic" recording, again conducting as well as playing, with the Vienna Symphony. (Inexpensive used copies of the same performances can be found in a different CD issue.) It occurred to me that if we were to focus on K. 467, the subject might be doable. That doesn't mean we're going to be listening to just K. 467 tomorrow, but maintaining the focus on it will keep us within manageable bounds.

For tonight, our business is nothing but this amazing slow movement, which we'll hear first in the Anda-DG recording used in the film, and then in a somewhat quicker performance by Arthur Rubinstein and finally in a broader one (I don't think there's any question that in the post-Elvira Madigan era performances have tended to broaden) by Daniel Barenboim.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467:
ii. Andante

Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Géza Anda, piano and cond. DG, recorded May 1961

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded in New York, Apr. 1, 1961

Berlin Philharmonic, Daniel Barenboim, piano and cond. Teldec, recorded November 1986


As indicated, we're going to be focusing on Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto, but naturally we'll also be listening to its fraternal twin, the D minor Concerto, No. 20 -- and also its predecessor, the F major Concerto, No. 19.


The brand-new updated version of the list is here.

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