THE SPINE JANUARY 19, 2009
The concert began with the Star Spangled Banner, not sung by the audience but played by Yo-Yo Ma and ten musicians of his Silk Road Ensemble. It is a more stirring piece and at the same time also more restrained when rendered by instruments that include the beguiling shakuhatchi, pi pa and bag-pipes than when we most often hear it with some tenor fulfilling his duty just before the first pitch at a baseball game. I saw some people cry at the sheer dignity of the piece and at the confidence that it conveyed in our dark times. This was a concert sponsored by The New Republic on Saturday night at Washington's Harman Theatre, a gift of Representative Jane Harman and her husband Sidney to the people of the United States, a breathtaking hall with just the acoustics appropriate to the Harman name. (Do you recall the early days of high fidelity?) Yo-Yo may be the most popular classical musician of our time. But he also is to my ears (not highly trained ears, to be sure) the most sublime musician. His cello reaches celestial heights and the depths of the troubled soul. In any case, my judgement seems to be confirmed by fellow musicians and by the greetings with which he is met on the streets. Like Leonard Bernstein maybe (but much sweeter) or Enrico Caruso. The program included Spanish Galician, Chinese, Arab, Jewish, and other foreign styles of both folk and composed music. But it was book-ended by two haunting American compositions, the first being the simply gorgeous "Appalachian Waltz" by Mark O'Connor and the last being "Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Unger. You can listen to the O'Connor score played solo by Yo-Yo here. I couldn't find any rendition by Yo-Yo of "Ashokan Farewell" on the internet but there are others. Anyone who has ever viewed Ken Burns' public television series on the Civil War will recall the saddening melodies that were the dybbuk of the tale.I introduced the program which actually began with three greetings by old friends who are now at the apex of influence and power in our politics. The first was by Rahm Emanuel who promised to make The New Republic "mandatory reading at the White House." From his mouth to God's ears. The second was Larry Summers, whom I compared to Alexander Hamilton, an apt and strong analogy in the sense that the American economic system requires a thorough-going rehabilitation. The third was Barney Frank. I've known Barney for almost fifty years when he was an undergraduate and I a graduate student at Harvard. He was, of course, funny, very funny. All of the speakers were funny. But also serious, and you'll see just how serious in the coming weeks and months.My theme before introducing these three people was a recitation of the intellectual and moral tradition of TNR: that government can be a force for good, that American power has advanced the career of freedom in the world, that we stand for civil liberties, civil rights and meritocracy, that capitalism as a system needs to prosper but that it is also required to take on the creed of Matthew Arnold, "choose equality and flee greed." Our society has abandoned anything like this purpose in recent decades. This has been our curse. One last thing: Julie Bosman of The New York Times did a little dispatch from our concert and party afterwards in the Times on-line. Take a look.