February 2010

Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian

Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian, by Don Howard (Teaching Company Lecture Series) ★
I ordered this set from the Teaching Company, hoping to receive a non-biased, educated assessment of the life, thinking, and times of Albert Einstein. The series started as a modestly historical narrative of the early Einstein and included discussion of his thinking in physics, but also in philosophy and politics. Einstein apparently felt modestly prejudiced against, owing to the fact that he was a Jew, surviving in a primarily non-Jewish culture. His success in physics came with shaky fits, having problems with the higher institutes of learning in Switzerland, but eventually ending in the pinnacle of his career while in Berlin, before moving to America in 1933 at the time of the rise of Hitler. Howard is willing to admit that the social life of Einstein left much to be desired, mistreating several wives, and essentially abandoning his children. Howard excuses Einstein, noting that he was a great socialist and humanitarian, thus making up for his otherwise despicable lifestyle. Though a number of the early lectures discuss the innovations of physics by Einstein, you are also left with the notion that Einstein burned out early, vacillating frequently when theories didn’t fit his personal philosophy. His greatest despair was his development of the science of quantum mechanics, only to later disown it as it didn’t fit his personal worldview. He is like Napoleon-a brilliant youth followed by a not so brilliant middle and older age. By the 10th lecture, this series became quite worrisome, in that the lectures became a dummy pulpit for Howard to expound his own socialist belief system. Howard fails miserably to discuss the various ramifications of Einstein’s political and philosophic stances, arguing both the pros and cons of the various social solutions Einstein offers. Thus, Howard betrays his own calling as an academician, forfeiting his claim as an intellectual, in order to push a social agenda that Einstein supposedly espoused. By the end of the lecture series, you are left wondering how accurate Howard remained to the true thinking of Einstein. You are left with multiple holes. I would have loved more discussion of Einstein at Princeton, yet you hear nothing save for his involvement with socialist issues, anti-war issues, and government interactions during the second world war. Oddly, Howard barely takes Einstein to task for his horrid inconsistency for advocating the development of the atom bomb, only since he presumed it would be used against the German state that mistreated him. Howard unnecessarily idolizes Einstein to the point of losing an objective focus for discussion of the man, making the entire series very wearisome to listen to. I simply could not recommend this series to anybody for a serious discussion of the thought and life of Albert E.

Roger Ramjet TV Series

Roger Ramjet ★★★★
Roger Ramjet ran as a short series many years ago and is remembered well by me, as actually being an adult cartoon, with many insinuations that only could be understood by an adult. Unfortunately, there are only 120 of the 156 episodes here in this collection, but, that’s better than nothing. It is a bit challenging, having to tolerate the lengthy initial theme song and ending song, which occupied nearly 1/2 of each 5-10 minute episode. Yet, it’s worth watching. Roger is the hero who saves America from the bad guys, like Noodles Romanoff. In the meantime, multiple jokes are made about American culture and ideology, making it a most enjoyable series to watch. If only somebody would edit out all the intro and ending pieces. This is a wonderful piece of nostalgia from the 1960s but still understood with jokes that would stand today.

Kalman: Die Csardasfurstin

Die Csardasfurstin – by Kalman, with Moffo & Kollo, Deutsche Grammophon ★★★
Emmerich Kalman wrote this light operetta in 1915, a precursor to the current-day musical that we all know of. This is a filmed version, staged in Budapest, and well done, with first-class acting and singing as well as filming. The plot was very trivial, but then, what do you expect out of an operetta? It is the story of class identification for the nobility in marriage, and how that was overcome with a prince desiring to marry a Vaudeville chorus girl. It is a light operetta, not one that would become one’s favorite, though certainly of more demanding singing than the current music scene as we know it.  Two stars for the operetta and 4 for the performance give a three-star average.

Rigoletto: 2 DVD Versions

Rigoletto – with Placido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubus, Cornell McNeil, James Levine conducting Metropolitan Opera ★★★★★
Rigoletto – with Luciano Pavarotti, Edita Gruberova, Ingard Wixell, Riccardo Chailly conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker ★★★★★
This is my favorite Verdi opera, so it is hard for me to be easy in criticism of the production of this opera, yet, both of these productions receive 5 stars, though they are many different operas. The first was filmed in 1977 with Domingo, Cotrubus, and Levine in the early years of their career. Domingo is magnificent. Cornell McNeil wins the day though, as a first-class Rigoletto, with excellent acting, and a superb voice, blending perfectly with Cotrubus.  The second film was recorded in 1983, though is presented as a film, that is, it is filmed in Mantua, the actual site of the opera, with the opera singers lip-synching. Some Amazon reviewers can’t get past that, yet, I think that is what 19th-century opera composers would have had if the technology had existed back then. This technique does produce a clearer soundtrack, since the sound is recorded in a studio, and the audience applause is eliminated. After having seen the Domingo version first, Betsy and I both thought that Domingo would be a tough act to follow, yet, Pavarotti actually was in many ways the better actor and the better voice. La Donna Mobile was meant for the voice of Pavarotti. Wixell was a very convincing Rigoletto, and Gruberova had the voice of an angel, absolutely in control, and clear. Either opera would be quite appealing to the novice to operas, though the Pavarotti version could persuade some to take up opera-watching as a life’s secondary passion.
Regarding the opera itself, this is one of Verdi’s middle operas, which includes some of his greatest operas, such as la Traviata and il Trovatore. His early operas are to me a touch tedious, and his late operas, including Othello and Falstaff, while masterpieces are not the lovable gems of his middle years.  If you are deeply interested in the life of Verdi and his music, I recommend the Greenberg series on Verdi by the Teaching Company. This opera is similar to many Italian operas, especially the newer Puccini works, manifesting verismo, or realism, rather than the German tradition in opera of depending on myth and the miraculous. This opera has a tragic ending for several reasons, in that the innocent or deformed people suffer the curse, and the rich, wealthy and wise person escapes the curse though manifesting the most flagrant violations of moral behavior. Unlike German opera, nobody is ever saved in Italian opera. Tannhäuser experiences redemption in the last few moments of the opera and dies together with his lover in her arms. Rigoletto is not so lucky and dies of tragic heartbreak in a boat with his slain daughter.  Such are the Italians, always mushy, gushy, and brutal to the end. I only regret that nobody has done a filmed version of Tannhäuser. In summary, either of these operas is a must-see and should be in every music aficionado’s collection.

Tannhäuser: Levine

Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner, performed by Levine, Metropolitan Opera ★★★★★
This is a traditionally staged and performed opera. I’m not sure if it’s the Dresden or the Paris version of the opera. Sometimes, the staging leaves something to be desired, such as the re-use of the scene from the second part of the first act for the third act. The Venusberg scene was not terribly convincing in the first act. Having been in Thüringia and the Wartburg, the scenes were not terribly reminiscent of the places Wagner was attempting to represent. Even still, few DVD performances nowadays are available with traditional staging, and most are offered as minimally staged, which, I think, does Tannhäuser an injustice.  The entire production is very well staged, the video operation well done, and the audio comes through always well with an excellent voice to orchestra balance. Thus, in spite of its problems, this is probably the best DVD Tannhäuser available today.
People often ask me why I like Wagner, especially in terms of his anti-semitism. Such antisemitism doesn’t seem to cause Levine too much of a problem, as well as many other Jewish conductors, who are quite masterful at the works of Wagner. It is like many composers. I see nobody protesting Tchaikovsky because he was a child molester, or Britten because he was fond of little boys. We overlook Shostakovich’s anti-capitalism, Beethoven’s anti-social behavior, Schumann’s psychosis, Bach’s penchant for perfection, frequent anger fits, and probable addiction to alcohol. He also had a criminal record. Most composers, in spite of their life, produced transcendental music, and Wagner is no exception. Certainly, the prudishness of many anti-Wagnerites competes with Wagner’s own arrogance. Nobody competes as well as the Brits with the ability to be racist. so, we appreciate Wagner’s music for what it is. Wagner does an excellent job of representing various human emotions and traits, though this portrayal of Christianity is that of a very medieval Roman Catholic sort, the Pope being the sole source for salvation from certain sins. This is probably how many, even Christians, view the faith, and that is sad. This opera is early Wagner, and, over time, we see improvement in both his musical expression as well as his thematic choices. The Tannhäuser music is quite addicting, most of it very catchy, and makes for a first Wagner opera to listen to if you are unfamiliar with his works.

Rise and Fall of the British Empire

Rise and Fall of the British Empire, by Prof. Patrick Allitt, Teaching Company Series ★★★★
Patrick Allitt is a worthy lecturer of this series, having been born in Darby, England, and having grown up in England until college years brought him to the USA. He is able to offer personal vignettes from his family history regarding recent events in the last days of the Empire. The British Empire once held land in every part of the globe, from multiple holdings in Africa, all of India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Egypt and the Middle East, Ireland, Australia, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, multiple Caribbean Islands, and multiple islands elsewhere in the world. Indeed, when The Empire was the largest, it was also the most unstable and weakest, which was immediately following the 1st world war, both the 1st and 2nd world wars being pyrrhic victories to England. Allitt spares no punches at elaborating the multiple cases of abuse of the empire that the Brits exercised, including deception and brutality with the Irish, the multiple exercises of brute force in India and unjust reign in that country, the absolutely embarrassing and horrid inconsistencies with their treatment of the Chinese in the Opium Wars, and the wretched and unjust treatment of the Boers in South Africa, provoking war not for the sake of justice or virtue, but solely for wealth. We would not elaborate on the horrid treatment of the Zulu kings of Africa, and plays of force in achieving domination of the peoples of those countries. We would also not mention Britain’s aggressiveness at assuring that no other country in the world would exercise the right of ability to also conquer lands and develop colonies, taking greedily colonies from the Dutch and Germans, and assuring weakness with the French and Spanish in their overseas holdings. Allitt spends much time discussing the racism that prevailed in a fairly extreme form, sometimes as extreme as Hitler, in developing the concept of the superior race of the Anglo-Saxon, which prevented them from interacting justly with the Indian, the Negroes of Africa, or the  Aborigines of Australia/Maori of New Zealand. Though Great Britain is often thought of as being virtuous in bringing Western law and Christianity to all parts of the world, they most often brutally oppressed missionary activity, and rarely lived by the laws which they purported to be held in high esteem. In summary, the British have exercised an extreme form of arrogance, racism, and domination of “might makes right” that is an embarrassment for the West. Much of this is seen in the recently reviewed series of “The Jewel in the Crown”.
In terms of Allitt’s teaching style, he is very easy to listen to, sometimes lapses into irrelevancies (such as his 35th lecture on British literature), and does repeat considerable amounts of his lecture series on Victorian Britain. Even still, this series is thought-provoking, especially in consideration of American attempts to repeat the worst of Great Britain’s mistakes. Ron Paul is right in his foreign policy as a corrective to British mistakes, though most Americans seem to arrogantly accept that we must maintain a police presence throughout the world. Someday (probably soon), we will be seeing a lecture series on the rise and fall of the United States of America, if we don’t wake up to our pompous policies in the world at large.

Showing the Spirit

Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 by D.A. Carson ★★★★
This book was read in response to some recent encounters with charismatics/Pentecostals. It is a fairly technical text, and thus not an easy read. DA Carson shows a perfect example of putting aside personal prejudices and preconceptions in dealing with a hot topic of the nature of charismatic gifts. He does a step-by-step analysis of the I Corinthian text and then concludes his personal reflections from the text as to how he conceives and deals with those of the charismatic persuasion. The technical analysis of the text is a total delight, Carson doing what I wish every biblical commentator would do, which is to offer the text exploration of multiple possible interpretations that currently exist, and then, using both the text, as well as other texts found elsewhere, as well as Greek/Hebrew textual analysis, to derive the best interpretation or possible interpretations of the given text. Oftentimes, Carson doesn’t conclude in a given camp of thought. He refuses to be a cessationist regarding miracles. He also refuses to accept that tongues have necessarily ceased. Yet, at the same time, as a non-charismatic, he refuses to allow tongues, prophecy, or other “gifts” to be a defining feature of heightened spirituality or normative expression of Christian faith. He also refuses to allow these gifts to serve as a divisive influence in a church, allowing that the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing may not entirely have ceased from the Christian faith. He chooses to explore both the excesses as well as virtues of the Charismatic movement, ending his analysis with an appeal to non-Charismatics to at least look at what the Charismatics have going right with them. To this, I believe that Dr. JI Packer would also agree.