American Youth Philharmonic

Enjoyed my first experience of the American Youth Philharmonic on Sunday at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall & Arts Center in Alexandra:

American Youth Philharmonic Orchestras (AYPO) is a youth orchestra program that strives to provide excellent instruction to the next generation of music leaders and educators in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Students receive training from esteemed coaches and conductors during our Monday night rehearsals, perform in small ensembles for master classes in our Chamber Ensemble Program, and give back to the music community by participating in the Music Buddies Mentorship Program. … Consisting of five separate ensembles — the Debut Orchestra, String Ensemble, Concert Orchestra, Symphonic Orchestra, and Philharmonic — AYPO provides talented young people an opportunity to perform in one of the nation’s premier youth orchestra programs.

Tim Dixon conducted the program, with Peter Sirotin and Oleg Rylatko as guest artists on violin:

Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36
The Russian Easter Overture—Svetlyi prazdnik, or Bright Holiday in Russian—is a vivid first-hand account of Easter morning service—”not in a domestic chapel, but in a cathedral thronged with people from every walk of life, and with several priests conducting the cathedral service.” This is the first major work by a Russian composer to be based entirely on themes from the obikhod, a collection of canticles of the Orthodox Church—a controversial choice that so offended Tsar Alexander III that he forbid having the overture played in his presence. Rismky-Korsakov uses three original chants, two in the contemplative opening section (“Let God arise!” and “An angel wailed”), and a third (“Christ has risen from the dead”) appears “amid the trumpet blasts and the bell tolling, constituting also a triumphant coda,” as the composer put it.

J.S. Bach: Concerto for Two Violins in D major, BWV 1043
The origins of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Two Violins are shrouded in mystery. One of today’s leading Bach scholars, Christoph Wolff, believes that this work dates from Bach’s years in Leipzig, where he lived from 1723 until the end of his life. His is a minority opinion, however, and most musicologists support the idea that it is a product of Bach’s time in Cöthen, where he was employed immediately prior to his move to Leipzig. He was there from December 1717 through May 1723 as Kapellmeister (music director) at the court of the music-loving Prince Leopold of Anhalt. Because Prince Leopold adhered to the Reformed faith, his church services didn’t require elaborate music; that freed up his music director to spend most of his time writing secular instrumental pieces such as sonatas, concertos, and orchestral suites.

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10
Many composers fumble with numerous first attempts before finding their voice. But some artists succeed in planting their flag early on with astonishing confidence… Written between 1924 and 1925, while [Dmitri Shostakovich] was a student at the Leningrad Conservatory, the [First Symphony] had to wait until the following year before its premiere—but even by that point, the composer was still a teenager. … In the First Symphony we encounter a young artist proudly, exuberantly, even cockily giving free rein to his imagination’s wild but purposeful impulses. Despite the obvious digestion of external influences—Tchaikovsky, early Prokofiev, Stravinsky (Petrushka in particular), even Mahler—a striking sense of a new voice already begins to emerge.

Ineffectual and compromised…

I finished Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins” yesterday. An incredible, prescient, and haunting story of a people living in collapse. It’s haunting in the same way that Brave New World is, in the sense that looking too long into its dystopian portraiture leaves one feeling like one’s looking into a mirror:

Offered as a tongue-in-cheek, pre-holocaust tale, Love in the Ruins is subtitled The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. Its protagonist and narrator, Dr. Tom More, is named for the famous sixteenth century saint who authored Utopia (1516). More is a rueful psychologist who has developed an instrument for research which he calls the “lapsometer.” The lapsometer is a device that measures certain psychic forces in the brain and thereby makes it possible to determine the source of irrationality, which for Percy is characterized by one of two extremes.

In Percy’s view, the two most evident maladies of modern life are angelism, the tendency to abstract oneself from the ordinary circumstances of life and attempt to live above them in aloof intellectualism, and bestialism, the tendency to live as a brute consumer with an unrestrained, animal-like preoccupation with sex without procreation. This protracted indictment of modern culture surfaces frequently in Percy’s later fiction, most prominently in Lancelot and in The Thanatos Syndrome.

The narrative is bracketed into five main sections, followed by an epilogue that delineates what has happened in the five years subsequent to the July 4 climax. It is an apocalyptic time in which the social institutions that are supposed to provide stability and continuity have broken down or become ridiculous parodies of themselves. The halls of academe, the medical profession, civil government, and a host of venerable religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, are all satirized as ineffectual and compromised, each having sold out to the spirit of modernism…

Percy published this book in 1971, but there’s a passage in here where someone declares a view of the importance of “human values” that sounds like a rough draft for Anthony Kennedy’s infamous 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey opinion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

Higher GDP, lower quality of life

J.D. Vance writes in response to Tucker Carlson’s critique of an excessively economic-focused conservatism:

Tucker Carlson’s monologue heard round the world is interesting on its own terms. In it, he argues against a conservatism that consistently prizes commercial interests above those of everyone else. I encourage you to watch or read it in full. Yet the response on the right is as interesting as Carlson’s monologue itself, for it reveals a discomfort among some conservatives for balancing the tensions that exist in our coalition and in our ideology. …

Our economy has not produced fewer dead children and more living parents in America, at least not in the section of the country where I live. The opioid epidemic, in particular, has ravaged whole communities — driving down life expectancy, depriving children of their parents, and parents of their children. The human cost of this crisis is simply incomprehensible. In states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, countless children are growing up with parents in jail, incapacitated, or underground. Yes, they live in a country with a higher GDP than a generation ago, and they’re undoubtedly able to buy cheaper consumer goods, but to paraphrase Reagan: Are they better off than they were 20 years ago? Many would say, unequivocally, “no.”

Some economic libertarians might say that these problems are the consequence of bad individual choices, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree. I grew up in a family plagued by addiction, and I saw some bad choices. Yet bad choices simply aren’t enough to explain the crisis — people have always made bad choices, and the familial, neighborhood, and economic contexts in which they live can exacerbate or improve them. Others might admit that it’s not all bad choices, that bad policy plays a role, but oddly the bad policy they point to is almost always the negative incentives of the welfare state. Again, they have a point — our welfare state is far from perfect, especially when it comes to encouraging work and family formation — but there are many other policies at play here.

To keep the focus on the opioid epidemic, the Los Angeles Times’ reporting on the role of the pharmaceutical industry is both excellent and disturbing. It chronicles the ways in which some companies gamed our regulatory system to obtain approval and patent protection for highly addictive drugs. Those companies then knowingly lied about the safety of those drugs to doctors and patients. Some commentators have framed their problem with Tucker’s argument as promoting “government intervention” when that same intervention is the problem. But if you want to protect a community from drugs that can take hold of a person’s mind and destroy whole neighborhoods soon thereafter, you need some government intervention.

This raises a fundamental question with which so many of Tucker’s critics refuse to even engage: What happens when the companies that drive the market economy — and all of its benefits — don’t care about the American nation’s social fabric? What happens when, as in the case of a few massive narcotics sellers, they profit by destroying that fabric?

Surely our response can’t be: “Well, the market will take care of it.”

We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.”

Conventional and contrarian thinking

Noah Brier writes on Sam Hinkie, former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager:

He is a contrarian. For the uninitiated, the brief history here is that Hinkie carried out one of the most radical transformation experiments in recent sports history. He put aside any notion that his team was trying to win and traded everything away for more ping pong balls in the NBA’s rookie lottery. In basketball, where only five guys from a team are on the floor at any one time, a superstar can have a massive impact on a team’s success. In a 2016 episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell called basketball a “strong link” sport because a team’s success is best predicted by the quality of its best player (as opposed to soccer where it’s based on the worst player on the field he explains). Hinkie figured this out. He also figured out the best way to get one of those superstars was to draft them and to do that you had to have an early first round pick. In the end, he took a lot of heat for his strategy (even though he was following all the rules) and was eventually pushed out by the league office…

Back to Hinkie’s letter. It was leaked and provided an amazing view into the psyche of someone who was willing to be a pariah. In it he paints an interesting picture of the connection between contrarianism and traditionalism.

Here he is on contrarianism: “To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What player do you think is most undervalued? Get him for your team. What basketball axiom is most likely to be untrue? Take it on and do the opposite. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.”

And on traditionalism: “While contrarian views are absolutely necessary to truly deliver, conventional wisdom is still wise. It is generally accepted as the conventional view because it is considered the best we have. Get back on defense. Share the ball. Box out. Run the lanes. Contest a shot. These things are real and have been measured, precisely or not, by thousands of men over decades of trial and error. Hank Iba. Dean Smith. Red Auerbach. Gregg Popovich. The single best place to start is often wherever they left off.”

Home, household, and family life

I spent time in Old Town, Alexandria on Sunday afternoon, which is where I took this photo. I really like little scenes like this, and wonder how often passersby think on what happens above all of the little storefronts—the lives of those unfolding in little apartments, the second floor storerooms for ground floor retailers, the abandoned spaces above some shops, etc. It also reminded me of two pieces from from John Cuddeback that I had read last month. The first is Cuddeback on Aristotle and on a deep aesthetic purpose of home:

Aristotle suggests that the beauty of our home is a way that we serve those around us. And he goes further: building for permanence is an aspect of building for beauty. Perhaps this is one reason that there is always something about a stone house.

Many of us are not in the position to build a new home; and among those that are, financial considerations will often be a real limiting factor in what we can do. Yet it seems Aristotle has given us a special perspective, one from which to appreciate styles that endure, and materials and construction that endure. For the sake of beauty, and for the sake of others, as well as for ourselves.

Regardless of our financial situation we can bear in mind this wonderful, even if challenging aspect of what our houses can be and can mean, right down to their furnishings.

Cuddeback also writes separately in First Things on “reclaiming the household”:

Not long ago, the household was a context of daily life. The arts that provided for the material needs of human life were largely home arts, practiced, developed, and passed on within the four walls, or at least in the immediate ambit of the home. Food, clothing, shelter, as well as nonessential items that gave some embellishment to life, were commonly the fruit of the work of household members, often produced with an eye for beauty as well as utility. This carried into the industrial era. For decades, Singer sold sewing machines to housewives, who bought patterns and made their own clothes. Men built backyard toolsheds. Grandparents put up raspberry jams in Mason jars.

The household involves more than just work. Porch times, lawn times, and by-the-fire times punctuated the more serious endeavors, and were often occasions of leisurely work, too, such as carving, fine needlework, and other hobbies. Meals called for setting aside work, as of course did prayer. These habits were times of mutual presence. To a great extent, family life meant being with at least some other members of the household for most of the day.

Recounting these things, once taken for granted, highlights how remote a household is from the home life of today. Even those who intentionally seek to have a “traditional” family life, in fact, often lack the ability to comprehend the reality of a household that is not simply “traditional,” but ancient and profoundly human. They set out to start a family in a virtual vacuum. The husband and father usually sallies forth to a remote job, and the wife and mother attempts to manage the day-to-day work of child-rearing—a project the real nature of which is elusive—while wondering what place she too might have “out there.” Intangible pressures on parents and children seem inexorably to draw their attention and their time to activities outside of the home. Junior gets taken to soccer practice. Mom goes to a spin class.

A renewal of family life will require a renewal of the household, especially as a place of shared work and a center of shared experience and belonging. We are missing out on truly human living because we fail to live together. …

Because the need to restore households is not separable or even really distinct from the effort to protect or restore families, those concerned with the plight of the family today undermine their efforts when they lose sight of the household. Not thinking in terms of households misconstrues both the family and the broader societies to which it belongs.

I’ve been thinking about the physical structure of American communities for a few years now, particularly in the context of what a more life-affirming and more human American society might look like. That is, how much of the badness and error in our politics is a result of the physically and structurally deficient nature of how we’ve built both our towns and neighborhoods as well as our daily family lives?

Personalism and human pursuits

Margarita Mooney writes on personalism and the pursuits we choose in life—whether narrowly material and transitory, or also spiritual and transcendent:

Jacques Maritain was a friendly critic of the pragmatist view of education. He argued that problem-solving, the crux of John Dewey’s or Paulo Freire’s approach to education, can’t be the end of education. Learning often occurs in response to an intuition or an insight that prompts us to pursue a new avenue of knowledge. Problem-solving is, indeed, important, but not all discoveries are practical. That is because Maritain agreed with one key idea of personalism: humans are not just material. We also have an inner depth.

As much as Maritain praised efforts to develop new pedagogical techniques and test the acquisition of knowledge, he warned against the temptation to turn our tools and tests into idols. Humans are not pure instruments applying other instruments. The value of a person is not how much they produce for the economy nor how they score on a test.

While Maritain was a devout Catholic who strongly valued moral character, he argued that the end of the university is not character education per se. For democracy to flourish, Maritain argued that it is not sufficient to discipline the will to accord with the moral code of a particular religion or culture. Democracy is a form of self-government, and for self-government to triumph over tyranny, universities need to form our intelligence and reason so that we can freely choose the good. Thus, universities need to form reason in order to guide our conscience towards the use of practical reason in service of the common good.

The utilitarian, pragmatist, and moral ends of education, Maritain argued, are best pursued when our educational systems are built on a full picture of the human person; that is, a being endowed with uniqueness, freedom and creativity, and service for the common good. …

To understand the cultural, economic, political, and educational crises through which we are living, we have to understand an important shift in philosophical anthropology. Personalist philosopher Max Scheler described how we have shifted from a theistic understanding of man as created by a personal God—marked by sinfulness but ultimately created for good—to a rejection of dependence on God and the exaltation of man as primarily constituted to satisfy natural desires for power, sex, or money.

The deadening of our spiritual nature in philosophy has contributed to the crisis of fragmentation so many students feel. They may not comprehend how deeply rooted the rejection of our spiritual nature is in so much modern philosophy, but they do long for a break from competing to be successful in the modern, technocratic society we live in. They long to take a break from self-promotion and spend time growing in self-awareness by contemplating nature or a work of art.

Penn State’s fascinating motto has been “Making Life Better” for some number of years. As an undergrad, I remember thinking how simultaneously perfect and absurd such a thing is as a motto. It can be read in the charitable way possible as holistically concerned with the ultimate good of the human person. But it can also be read as basically an economic promise for attaining some marginal material or professional advancement.

America’s political day traders

I skimmed Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed on January 1st, and didn’t think much more about it. Tucker Carlson’s surprising response makes for worthwhile reading, where he writes that Romney’s piece is “a window into how the people in charge, in both parties, see our country:”

Romney’s main complaint in the piece is that Donald Trump is a mercurial and divisive leader. That’s true, of course. But beneath the personal slights, Romney has a policy critique of Trump. He seems genuinely angry that Trump might pull American troops out of the Syrian civil war. Romney doesn’t explain how staying in Syria would benefit America. He doesn’t appear to consider that a relevant question. More policing in the Middle East is always better. We know that. Virtually everyone in Washington agrees.

Corporate tax cuts are also popular in Washington, and Romney is strongly on board with those, too. His piece throws a rare compliment to Trump for cutting the corporate rate a year ago.

That’s not surprising. Romney spent the bulk of his business career at a firm called Bain Capital. Bain Capital all but invented what is now a familiar business strategy: Take over an existing company for a short period of time, cut costs by firing employees, run up the debt, extract the wealth, and move on, sometimes leaving retirees without their earned pensions. Romney became fantastically rich doing this.

Meanwhile, a remarkable number of the companies are now bankrupt or extinct. This is the private equity model. Our ruling class sees nothing wrong with it. It’s how they run the country. …

At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.

The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us, and would want if they cared.

But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

Neil Postman’s critique of contemporary American culture as essentially a trivial culture, in the literal sense of a culture obsessed with “details, considerations, or pieces of information of little importance or value,” has stuck with me since reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” last year.

George Bailey, realist

Niall Gooch writes on It’s a Wonderful Life, making the point that the film is a “wise tribute to everyday heroism:”

Some critics question the film’s status as a warm-hearted celebration of life, suggesting that it is really a tragedy, portraying an individual crushed by the trivialities of parochial life. The man who was going to transform the world becomes a glorified bank clerk, scraping by in a small town while real life goes on elsewhere.

This view seems to me one-eyed at best. It operates on the highly questionable assumption that personal happiness should be our main ambition (a belief to which no Christian can assent). Of course George has unfulfilled dreams and secret sadnesses. Which of us does not? Yet he leads a good life, despite his disappointments and faults. He is a loving husband and father, a devoted son, a steadfast friend and a decent bank manager. His world – the little world of Bedford Falls – is an immeasurably greater place with him in it. He excels in the heroism of everyday life; he shows the difference one man can make.

Others criticise George on utilitarian grounds, arguing that he has made a moral miscalculation by remaining at home to help a small number of people, when he could have benefited millions by building bridges and skyscrapers. George is right, however, to conclude that his direct and clear moral duties to his family and his neighbours – real people with whom he is involved in existing networks of love, friendship and reciprocity – outweigh an indirect obligation to possibly increase the wellbeing of distant strangers. In his essay “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”, GK Chesterton notes that “We have to love our neighbour because he is there … He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”

It’s a Wonderful Life is routinely accused of sentimentality, of encouraging excessive or glib emotion. But at heart it is a morally serious story. You might even say that it is a morally serious film disguised as a sentimental one (in contrast to a good many films which are the exact opposite). Woven throughout George’s story is the recognition that we cannot have all the good things we would like in life, and so our ambitions and loves must be ordered and prioritised correctly. Its realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing is entirely anti-sentimental.

George succeeds by committing himself to the concrete and the particular, and comes to understand the paradoxical and deeply Christian truth that to make a positive difference as an individual you need to let go of attachment to yourself.

“Its realistic portrayal of the sometimes steep cost of doing the right thing is entirely anti-sentimental.”

Advent precedes Christmas

Jody Bottum proposes that, to the extent that we feel a poverty of Christmas spirit, it is due to a loss of Advent as an antecedent:

What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal. There’s a flicker of rose on the third Sunday—Gaudete!, that day’s Mass begins:  Rejoice!—but then it’s back to the dark purple that is the mark of the season in liturgical churches. And what those somber vestments symbolize is the deeply penitential design of Advent. Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives. 

More than any other holiday, Christmas seems to need its setting in the church year, for without it we have a diminishment of language, a diminishment of culture, and a diminishment of imagination. The Jesse trees and the Advent calendars, St. Martin’s Fast and St. Nicholas’ Feast, Gaudete Sunday, the childless crèches, the candle wreaths, the vigil of Christmas Eve: They give a shape to the anticipation of the season. They discipline the ideas and emotions that otherwise would shake themselves to pieces, like a flywheel wobbling wilder and wilder till it finally snaps off its axle. …

We’ve reached a point in American culture where any recovery of both Christmas and Advent probably require a breaking of the economic hysteria that a “healthy American economy” pretends to require and a spirit of sacramental withdraw that authentic Christian encounter necessitates. That is, the culture of more and more and more that precedes Christmas stands in opposition to the spirit of less that characterizes Advent and the discipline that Bottum speaks to.

Bottum also shares his own nostalgia, and wonders whether the strange difference in time’s passage was just something of his (or any) childhood, or whether that’s something we stand at risk of losing generally as only a thin patina of Christmas (as a sacramental holy day) remains to cover the new reality of Christmas (as an economic holiday) that dominates December:

When I was little—ah, the nostalgia of the childhood memoir—I always felt that the days right before Christmas were a time somehow out of time. Christmas Eve, especially, and the arrival of Christmas itself at midnight: The hours moved in ways different from their passage in ordinary time, and the sense of impending completion was somehow like a flavor even to the air we breathed. 

I’ve noticed in recent years, however, that the feeling comes over me more rarely than it used to, and for shorter bits of time. I have to pursue the sense of wonder, the taste in the air, and cling to it self-consciously. Even for me, the endless roar of untethered Christmas anticipation is close to drowning out the disciplined anticipation of Advent. And when Christmas itself arrives, it has begun to seem a day not all that different from any other. Oh, yes, church and home to a big dinner. Presents for the children. A set of decorations. But nothing special, really. 

It is this that Advent, rightly kept, would prevent—the thing, in fact, it is designed to halt. Through all the preparatory readings, through all the genealogical Jesse trees, the somber candles on the wreaths, the vigils, and the hymns, Advent keeps Christmas on Christmas Day: a fulfillment, a perfection, of what had gone before. I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh.

The “Christmas season” begins on Christmas and lasts through the Epiphany, but in the secular and popular experience the Christmas season begins at Thanksgiving and is largely economic—and so it has little of any transcendent value, as far as I can see. It’s worth reading Bottum’s entire piece.

Why trees at Christmas

Nancy Bilyeau writes on Christmas trees:

While there is a strong belief that Albert brought with him from Saxe-Coburg the tradition of a Christmas tree, the honors belong to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. She was raised in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and it was following her marriage to George in 1761 that the tree tradition found its way to England. …

The tradition of chopping a yew branch and bringing it inside for Christmas was quite popular in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Samuel Coleridge, while visiting the Northern German duchy in the late 18th century, was impressed enough to write about it:

“On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough … and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces.”

At first Queen Charlotte confined her importing of German Christmas traditions to mounting a decorated yew branch, but in 1800 she threw a memorable party at Windsor for the kingdom’s leading families, showing off an entire tree. Dr John Watkins wrote with some awe of how “from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles.” He said that “after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted.”

Before long, anybody who was anybody wanted a Christmas tree.

I got into 30th Street Station in Philadelphia yesterday afternoon, and saw this tree when coming up from the platform.