Thank you, Bob

It was, indeed, a special moment this week, when the country of my birth awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in literature, for he has been a constant companion ever since my student days in California in the 1960s. It was special, it was even grand.

Now, I’ll leave that up to others, and they have been many, to go into the literary merits of Dylan’s songs and poetry, like the Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of the excellent book, “Bob Dylan in America,” who said to the Washington Post:

“We are honoring a great literary figure of our time…He has taken the lyric form, as old as Homer, and raised it to an entirely new level, a level that stands with the highest literature that the West has produced. Period.”

Like in “Mr Tambourine Man…”

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time
Far past the frozen leaves
The haunted frightened trees
Out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky
With one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea
Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

It’s beautiful and I must have listened to Dylan sing it a thousand times without ever getting tired of it.  I could mention many others, “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Red River Shore,” and on and on…They have all been a constant joy in my life.  In fact, life would have been different without them.

Thank you Bob.

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Why didn’t I know about The Tragically Hip?

Sometimes I wonder what I have done and where I have been. It struck me again this morning, as I read articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post about the last concert in the farewell tour of The Tragically Hip, Canada’s premier band, led by the country’s “unofficial poet laureate,” Gord Downie.

Downie is dying of incurable brain cancer, and this was his and his band’s last concert, in their home town of Kingston, Ontario. “Dear World,” the Toronto police tweeted just before the last concert, “Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 pm. Have a #Tragically Hip day.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there, because the band is “an inevitable and essential part of what we are and who we are as a country.”

The Tragically Hip has been around for 30 years and has come to define our northern neighbor’s cultural identity, but they never became big in the United States, and I had never heard of them until this morning. Although I consider myself well-informed and well-read, I am sure this says a lot about me, but it also says something about America, “one of the loudest neighbors in the world,” as one Canadian told the NYT, “the elephant in your bed,” as Justin Trudeau’s predecessor and father, Pierre Trudeau, once said about his big neighbor to the south.

America sucks you in, takes over, dominates, and although the leading newspapers are not without coverage of the rest of the world, including Canada, it all somehow becomes secondary in this often introvert super power. This seems particularly true during this year’s presidential election campaign. I am following it closely, although it has gone on too long and its end cannot come soon enough, and the choice is clear.  More later.

Meanwhile, I will dig into The Tragically Hip. I want to know more. I think I will like them.

Finally — the Minnesota Orchestra is playing again!

As I am about to head back to Minnesota for another visit, I was heartened by the news that the Minnesota Orchestra, after a 15 month long labor conflict, is set to play again, to break its long silence.  It’s about time!

The length of the conflict, as I wrote in an earlier posting on this blog, was not the Minnesota way of doing business, a state that prides itself in problem solving and pragmatism — “the state that works.”  But there are no winners, as Doug Grow correctly writes on MinnPost, after yesterday’s announcement of a three-year agreement, and, he continues, we won’t know for months, maybe years, if the damage done from the 474-day lockout of the Orchestra’s members can be repaired.

Yes, there are many question marks, the biggest one being whether the prominent Finnish director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned in frustration during the lockout, will return.   He masterminded the Minnesota Orchestra’s stellar reputation, but without him, what? His return is not part of the deal, so we will have to wait and see, but he is clearly needed.

The renovated Orchestra Hall, where the orchestra has never played, stands ready to receive the musicians as they go back to work on February 1 after the longest symphonic orchestra work stoppage in American history.  But will the public that this conflict has so badly failed show up? That’s another major question mark in this dark chapter for culture and music and labor relations in the state of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s silence is not the Minnesota Way

As Finnish music director Osmo Vänskä leads the Minnesota Orchestra in three extra farewell concerts this weekend in Minneapolis, emotions ran high. The man who in ten years has made the orchestra a top orchestra resigned after a year-long conflict between the Board and the Orchestra with no music, only silence, as the result.

Here in Washington, DC, in these days of government shutdown, there is much talk of public trust, or lack of public trust in the government and in Congress. The public trusts the government to stay open, and, in Minnesota, the public trusts the orchestra to play. But the Minnesota Orchestra has not played for a year in a dispute over budget and salaries.

Many of you who read this blog may have noticed that I have been going to Minnesota quite a bit lately, looking for that state’s Scandinavian legacy, stemming from its hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Northern Europe. And I have found plenty of that legacy in its political leaders’ and its inhabitants’ pragmatism, common sense, civic spirit, willingness to compromise, and sense of responsibility to the public. That political legacy has been firmly established for decades, “part of Minnesota’s earth,” as one scholar put it.

But the Minnesota Orchestra’s silence shatters that picture. Minnesota’s former Republican Swedish-American Governor Arne Carlson – the epitome of Scandinavian pragmatism when he was governor — seems to have realized that. On his blog, he pleads for action — from the political leaders, from the whole community — writing that we cannot stand by “while our own world class symphony orchestra disintegrates.”

I understand that times are tough for the Minnesota Orchestra. But the whole issue seems to have been badly handled — not negotiating for months, locking out the musicians, witnessing one orchestra member after the other resigning and leaving a newly renovated Concert Hall empty and silent.

That year-long silence, just like the government shutdown in Washington, DC, is failing the public trust, and, I dare say, that’s not the Minnesota way – “the state that works!”

It’s “Nordic Cool” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

Yes, it’s big and Nordic and it kicks off tonight for a whole month with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo and with Danish soprano Inger Dam-Jensen performing Nordic music by Sibelius, Alfvén, Grieg, Leif and Nielsen.Nordic Cool 2013

Never before, neither in the U.S. nor in Europe, has such a broad Nordic culture initiative taken place, and in this case it was a Kennedy Center’s initiative, with support from the five Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland).

– Yes, it’s really exciting and a great opportunity for the Nordic countries to showcase what is best in Nordic culture, said Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth at a press briefing today at the Swedish Embassy, ​​House of Sweden, here in Washington, DC.

All the Nordic countries, plus Greenland and the Faroe Islands, have turned up in full force with all they have to offer in music, theater, film, food, dance, architecture, art and design. From Sweden, except for the Royal Philharmonics, there is the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s production of “Fanny and Alexander”, performances by Anne Sofie von Otter, workshops on Nordic literature, not the least detective novels, and films like Jan Troell’s newest, “The Last Sentence.”

It will be interesting to see how this major Nordic venture is received by the American audiences. In any case, it’s a great chance for them to learn a lot about what makes northern Europe tick, and to tick so successfully.

Cool.

One of the best songs, ever…

When I think of Levon Helm, who died yesterday of cancer at the age of 71, I think of the song “The Weight” with him and The Band plus the Staple Singers at “The Last Waltz” concert in the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco 1976.

A long time ago, but unforgettable.

America’s president — “Sweet Home Chicago”

Last night’s Republican presidential debate cannot have made anyone happy. Many must have asked themselves, is that the best we have, is that the best the Republican party has to offer?

George Will, leading conservative columnist, does just that in today’s Washington Post, and concludes:

“Neither Romney nor Santorum looks like a formidable candidate for November.“

And Andrew Sullivan, conservative blogger, writes that the winner of the debate sits in the White House. Sullivan zeroes in on what he calls “lies” about president Obama’s foreign policy, and draws, correctly, parallels with the Iraq debate after 9/11.

”Santorum really does seem to be implying that Obama has some kind of secret agenda vis-a-vis Iran. And he pretty obviously would launch a massive war on Iran. We’re hearing the kind of language we heard after 9/11. Exactly the same language; exactly the same arguments; exactly the same paranoia.

There seems to be no memory of the Iraq war at all. It never happened. There was no error. There is nothing to explain. And yet they do not seem to realize that that catastrophic war is the reason Barack Obama is president. It’s like an etch-a-sketch party. Shake it one election cycle – and the past disappears completely! …This is a party about ideology, not reality.

…Newt attacks General Dempsey on the rational international conduct of the Iranian regime. Then Gingrich repeats exactly the same argument used for the Iraq war. Exactly the same. And blames the experts in the military for not “believing” what is apparently obvious. Romney then buys into the Santorum line that Iran wants to use a nuke against the US. He then lies about Obama “opposing” crippling sanctions. Does Romney believe that if he simply says that Obama hasn’t placed sanctions on Iran, it will somehow become true? So that’s another bald-faced lie.”

Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. is frustrated in today’s Washington Post that the Republicans continue to paint Obama as an ”alien.”

“Please forgive this outburst. It’s simply astonishing that a man in his fourth year as our president continues to be the object of the most extraordinary paranoid fantasies. A significant part of his opposition still cannot accept that Obama is a rather moderate politician quite conventional in his tastes and his interests. And now that the economy is improving, short-circuiting easy criticisms, Obama’s adversaries are reheating all the old tropes and clichés and slanders.”

Dionne ends:

“We are blessed with the freedom to say whatever we want about our president. But those who cast Obama as something other than one of us don’t understand him and don’t understand what it means to be American.”

Here he is, America’s president: