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Critic's Notebook for August 11, 2014

by Brian P. Kelly

Posted: Aug 11, 2014 04:28 PM

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: See King Lear for free, a Mozart festival plays Beethoven, and Haruki Murakami returns with a new novel.

Fiction: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf): Tsukuru Tazaki, a simple train station engineer, is pressured by his girlfriend to reach out to a group of high school friends after many years of silence. His separation from the group started when he was in college, when the rest of the fivesome suddenly ostracized him with little explanation. Forced to confront his self-doubt and isolation once again, Tsukuru travels through Japan and Europe to try and reconnect with his former friends and find out what truly caused the rift between them.  BPK

Nonfiction: Augustus: First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale): Arguing that Augustus should feature prominently on historians’ list of great leaders—Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, etc.—Goldsworthy chronicles the development of Rome through events in Augustus’ life. He pays close attention the role played in Rome’s progress by Agrippa, Augustus’ lieutenant, son-in-law, and friend. Looking at both political structures—e.g. the importance of family in politics, the shrinking of the senate—and specific policies—building infrastructure, founding public services—Goldsworthy explains how Rome both expanded and flourished peacefully during Augustus’ reign. BPK

Poetry: Announcing Mimi’s Trapeze (University of Pittsburgh), the latest book from TNC Poetry Prize–winner J. Allyn Rosser: Here’s what they are saying at Poetry News in Review: “Rosser’s poems have always given a squinty sideways glance at cultural foibles and assumptions. Her distinctive brand of cheery skepticism implies that the genuine pursuit of truth is a virtue that renders tolerable the intolerable. These poems achieve a lyricism that gives free reign to the lush energies of language while remaining transparent enough to communicate something precise, fresh, and unsettling. A driving force behind the poems in Mimi’s Trapeze is Rosser’s profound curiosity about all forms and conditions of life. Without distorting fact or motive, her speakers seek to navigate the mazes of our messy quotidian infelicities, ranging from imperfect love to squashing turtles on the road—from the history of artistic misrepresentations of women to global warming—attempting to calibrate the beautifully complex balance between desire and responsibility.” DY

Art: Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I by Jed Perl (Arcade Publishing): Former TNC art critic Jed Perl has this to say about his first collection of essays: “[It] was conceived as a love letter. . . . I worked out of passion. I aimed to exalt.” Reissued as a special 25th-anniversary edition with a new introduction by Perl, these essays cover Matisse, Léger, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, Balthus, and more in a collection that Roberta Smith called “a quiet, cogent tour de force.”  BPK

Music: Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra plays Beethoven (Tuesday & Wednesday): The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra presents two works from Beethoven's late period: The overture to The Consecration of the House and the astonishing, revolutionary Ninth Symphony. The symphony's vocal quartet includes the star bass Ildar Abdrazakov, under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, the charismatic music director of Turin's Teatro Regio.ECS

Other: King Lear at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park: This is the final week to catch The Public Theater’s free performance of Lear at Shakespeare in the Park. John Lithgow leads in this performance directed by Tony-winner Daniel Sullivan.  BPK

From the archive: Rebecca West & the FBI by Carl Rollyson, February 1998: On October 19, 1992, Carl Rollyson filed a FOIA request for Rebecca West’s FBI file. What he discovered shed new light both on West and the FBI.   

From our latest issue: Apparition at Moss-Hanne by Ernest Hilbert: New poetry from Ernest Hilbert, whose latest collection of poetry is All of You on the Good Earth (Red Hen Press).

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Making the penthouse rock. A viola?

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Aug 11, 2014 11:23 AM


I had never seen the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse looking so good. This is the space at Lincoln Center with the vast windows and a cityscape outside those windows: New York twinkling. Twinkling at night, I should say. (I have never been to the penthouse in the daytime, but I trust there’s no twinkle.)

The Mostly Mozart Festival holds its late-night recitals in the penthouse. They are one-hour affairs beginning at 10 pm. The festival calls the series “A Little Night Music.” Get it? A Mozart festival (or mostly Mozart festival).

And why had I never seen the penthouse looking so good? There was no piano on the stage. I had never seen the stage without a piano. And without that honking thing in the way, the cityscape is nicer than ever.

There was no piano onstage because we were going to hear a solo viola recital. Yes, an unaccompanied viola recital. Have you ever heard of anything so odd?

The viola is one of the least loved and most mocked of instruments. There are lots of viola jokes. I once brought up the subject with Lawrence Dutton in a public interview. Dutton is a well-known violist and a member of the Emerson String Quartet. “Larry,” I said, “why do they tell viola jokes? Why do people pick on viola players?” He gave me one of the most surprising answers I have ever received in an interview—any interview, of any type.

He said, “Because the quality of viola playing has been so poor. The jokes are deserved.” Dutton explained, and complained, that there has always been more talent in violin playing than in viola playing.

Well, Antoine Tamestit is someone for violists to be proud of. He is a Frenchman, a product of the Paris Conservatory. And it was he who gave the solo recital in the Kaplan Penthouse.

He took the stage and immediately, confidently, launched into Bach. He did no talking beforehand. Apparently, he was happy to let his instrument, and Bach, do the talking. Is that legal in America nowadays?

What he played was the suite we know as the Cello Suite No. 1 in G major. It was interesting to hear that viola sound. (Tamestit plays a Strad, by the way.) It is neither fish nor fowl. I don’t mean this in a bad way; I mean it in a quite positive way. The viola is not a violin, though there is a violin aspect to its sound; and it is not a cello, though there is a cello aspect to its sound. The viola is a ’tweener.

The Prelude was a little fast for my taste, but Tamestit was confident in his tempo. And he did not sound rushed. The Sarabande, he shaped beautifully. The Minuets, he really made dance. They had a marvelous lilt. And the Gigue was alive and fresh. In the course of the suite, Tamestit emitted a squeak or two. Other than that, he was immaculate. And his musical judgment was superb.

Besides, the squeaks simply let you know this was not a studio recording (thank heaven).

Through with the Bach, he launched into talking—which I suppose was inevitable. I can’t prove it, but I believe that administrators encourage musicians to talk from the stage, or perhaps require them to do so. And they are all too happy to oblige. Tamestit explained that he was going to play Hindemith, and he talked about the connection between Bach and Hindemith. He gave a little music-appreciation lecture.

It is certainly true that Hindemith revered and reflected Bach. I once heard about a woman for whom there were three composers, and only three composers: Bach, Bruckner, and Hindemith. A straight line ran through them, she said. Of course, Bach fathered many composers (and not just literally).

Hindemith is one of the best friends the viola ever had. He penned many sonatas for that instrument. Tamestit played the sonata catalogued as Op. 25, No. 1.

The first movement was full, nearly orchestral. A single viola can produce all that? Tamestit was relishing each note, interval, and rhythm. The third movement, a slow movement, has a touch of “Bist du bei mir,” I swear. That is the sweet, profound song from the Anna Magdalena notebook. People say it is not by Bach. Those are the same people who say that the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is not by Bach. They are killjoys.

(And I’ll give up the Toccata and Fugue—Bach’s authorship of it—long before I’ll give up “Bist du bei mir.”)

Hindemith’s fourth movement boasts one of the most enjoyable markings ever: “Rabid in tempo. Wild. Beauty of tone is strictly incidental.” (I translate somewhat loosely.) Tamestit played this movement with blazing virtuosity. And in the last movement, he was huge, and moving. This was good, honest music-making and musical communication.

The audience roared in response. Then Tamestit played another Bach cello suite, No. 3 in C major. The audience roared again, louder. This was an opera-style ovation. The Kaplan Penthouse rocked.

Tamestit played an encore, a Ligeti piece, before which he gave another music-appreciation lecture, not all that interesting. I believe he should have left well enough alone—and concluded the recital with the C-major Bach suite. The encore was superfluous, and a bit of a comedown.

Regardless, Antoine Tamestit is an excellent musician—a musician’s musician—and a credit to his instrument. If you had told me that one of the best recitals or concerts of the year would be a solo viola recital, I might have doubted you. But it was.

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Obama in Oz

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Aug 11, 2014 11:20 AM

Actually, he wasn’t there in propria persona.  But during a whirlwind trip that included a conference on the First World War in Melbourne, an outing with some deep thinkers on the Great Ocean Road, the Blue Mountains, and Sydney, I did my best to channel the former community organizer. At a dinner hosted by the […]

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Why Muslims are singled out for special scrutiny

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Aug 08, 2014 09:35 PM

I am sitting in Sidney airport this foggy morning waiting for the first of four (yes, 4) planes to take me back to New York.  The front page of The Australian, the country’s best newspaper, is mostly devoted to a warning from a former army chief: “We’ll fight Islam for 100 years.”  Thumbing through the […]

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Aug 08, 2014 11:53 AM

Bloodswept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, marking one hundred years since the first full day of Britain's involvement in the First World War; via HPR


Links from the past week:

The Poetry of WWI
From poems written in the trenches to elegies for the dead.


Book Review: 'Seeking the North Star' by John R. Silber
The rare academic administrator with a backbone.


Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow — Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore?
Audiences may trade up, but producers need those who are lower down.


Shakespeare's Conservatism
Hierarchy was good and rebels were evil.


Drama at the Opera
The trouble at the Met isn’t over yet.


Liberals Are Killing Art
What is at stake is art's freestanding power. 


Co-op saves elevator made famous by Tom Hanks
A well-known executive editor is involved. 


From our pages:

Ivan Illich, 1926-2002
Reconsidering the Austrian priest, philosopher, and social critic.

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Thoughts on ‘Smart Diplomacy™’

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Aug 07, 2014 10:32 PM

Here are some names to think about: Libya. Iran. Gaza. Syria. Ukraine. Russia. What do you think about when you ponder those places? I think about what a disaster Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been. Obama came to office promising to hit the “reset button” with respect to Russia and now he is Putin’s fool. […]

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It’s all about him

by James Bowman

Posted: Aug 07, 2014 10:42 AM

How wonderfully appropriate that the tape of Bill Clinton speaking in Australia on September 10, 2001, “just hours before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” should have emerged from the sink of time at the same moment as reports of the death of Theodore Van Kirk, navigator on the B-29, “Enola Gay,” which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan sixty-nine years ago yesterday. Here’s Bill, according to Fred Barbash of The Washington Post:

“And I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden … He’s a very smart guy. I spent a lot of time thinking about him. And I nearly got him once. . . “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have had to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.”

For Bill, as for many who came of age in the anti-Vietnam War movement, it is commonplace to treat foreign and defense policy as an excuse for moral posturing. But what do those he might have saved from the disaster of 9/11, or their families, care whether doing so would have made him “no better” than bin Laden, even if it did? Which, by the way, it wouldn’t have done. The job of the commander in chief is to defend the country against foreign enemies, not to prove himself their moral superior.

But then for Bill, as for so many of the generation of narcissists to which he (and I) belong, experience of the world hardly exists except as it relates to to himself and his ambitions. Over the years I have once or twice made mention of an incident reported by David Maraniss in his biography of the former president in which, while at Oxford in 1968, he went up to Stratford to see a production of King Lear. It must have been the one with Eric Porter (remember him as Soames from The Forsyte Saga?) in the title role, Patrick Stewart as Cornwall and Ben Kingsley as Oswald. Our Bill found the play deeply moving, reported his Oxford contemporary Darryl Gless — because it “prompted Bill to talk about his eagerness to go back to Arkansas” and involve himself in politics. The rest, as they say, is history.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what Shakespeare was going for in the “poor naked wretches” scene, which is the one that particularly got to Bill. It must take a positively heroic degree of self-absorption to say something like that in sublime unconsciousness of how ridiculously full of yourself it makes you look. I am reminded, too, of another of Bill’s dicta I have had occasion to comment on before: 

“Anytime somebody said in my presidency, ‘If you don’t do this, people will think you’re weak,’ I always asked the same question for eight years: ‘Can we kill ‘em tomorrow?’ If we can kill ‘em tomorrow, then we’re not weak.” And, indeed, it would have been highly impolite for America’s enemies not to take Bill’s word for it, given his moral superiority and all, even if, somehow, tomorrow never came.

Such obtuseness would scarcely have been imaginable to the generation of the late Mr Van Kirk, whose comments on the morality of dropping the bomb were quoted in the New York Times obituary:

“We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat,” he said. “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence. . .Where was the morality in the bombing of Coventry, or the bombing of Dresden, or the Bataan Death March, or the Rape of Nanking, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I believe that when you’re in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win the war with a minimum loss of lives.” 

If he ever worried about being “no better” than the Japanese for having saved the lives of so many of his fellow Americans — very probably including the 19-year-old infantryman who would later become my father and who would have been in the invasion force for the home islands if there had been an invasion — he wisely kept it to himself.


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Announcing the Society for Equal-Opportunity Offenders

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Aug 06, 2014 11:01 PM

Last night, at a semi-secure, undisclosed location in Sydney, I had occasion to address a tonic group of serious thinkers who congregate periodically under the aegis of Quadrant magazine, which is by far Australia’s best cultural review. My topic was “Fundamentally Transforming the United States of America.” But my remarks, I may venture to say, […]

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Intern at The New Criterion!

Posted: Aug 06, 2014 03:07 PM



Interested in art, culture, and the best that has been thought and said?  Join The New Criterion!

Current students and recent graduates are invited to apply for a fall/winter internship with The New Criterion. Interns will work with the editors at our offices in New York to produce the magazine and website, and will have opportunities to write for Arma Virumque and other outlets. Internships usually run for two to three months and include a modest stipend. Dates and hours are flexible.

To apply, please send a resume, cover letter, and writing sample of no more than 2,000 words to

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From Apathy to Dependence

by Roger Kimball | from PJ Media

Posted: Aug 05, 2014 11:04 PM

I am writing from beautiful, dynamic Sydney, Australia, whose 4.5 million polyglot inhabitants are enjoying the no-nonsense good government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who recently signaled his refreshing sanity by abolishing the country’s stupid “carbon tax,” aka, its tax on prosperity. There’s no hope that Barack Obama will ever proceed from his Romper Room […]

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In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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