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(May 22, 2008)

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer.

          This lovely fellow sent an anonymous e-mail recently in which he suggested that the reason my two cats, Winky and Maggie, are peculiar, is. . .me. He blamed your quixotic columnist all the way, saying the kitties’ “flakiness” was a reflection of my personality, and how “animals pick these things up,” or words to that effect.
          This was in an overall context, I should mention, of chastising me for having written something that was not derogatory about Obama, and asserting that I am cripplingly naďve because I do not believe in overarching conspiracies involving Masons, Jews, and perhaps pterodactyls.
          I mean, really, just send computers back to hell.
          Still. . .mea culpa. I take full blame for the antisocial and occasionally prosecutable behavior of my cats. It’s a damn good thing that I never had children. They would probably also be fighting one another constantly, sleeping prolifically, and craving raw meat.
          Yet I must point out that in Winky’s case, he was nutty as a fruitcake from the get-go. His brother, who I opted not to adopt, was worse. You know “The Tin Drum,” with the dwarf who had the voice of a Saturn C-5 moon rocket engine? Picture a kitten version, incessantly yowling. Winky, at least was quiet. As I’ve said before, the first thing he did upon arriving in his new home/world/universe was to bite me and draw blood.
          Can’t really blame him. If some big dumb looking giant picked you up and held you to his face, what would you do, smile?
          Some weeks back, I saw a guy conduct the L.A. Philharmonic with his fingertips and eyebrows. Not long after, I saw another guy conduct the Phil with everything except the hair on his head. No, I take that back---L.A. Phil conductor-designate Gustavo Dudamel’s explosion of brown curls probably figured into it, too.
          If there are two more representative extremes of conducting technique than Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Dudamel, I don’t know what they would be. These men are a caricaturist’s dream. One barely moves, the other is movement in human form. One is kind of like a tree, the other kinetic. They are like parodies of conductors in an old Tex Avery cartoon. The cinematic showboating of the great Leopold Stokowski is a yawn, by contrast.
          Those who wonder about the impact a conductor has on an orchestra would not have their wonder allayed by witnessing 77-year-old Rozhdestvenksy and 27-year-old Dudamel at work. Consider:
          The venerable Russian, long famous for eschewing the podium, prefers to pace lazily about the front of the band, looking as if he is waiting for a bus. Occasionally he seems to feel the need to cue a solo or a downbeat or whatever, then resumes his pleasant little stroll. The man has sufficient confidence in orchestras---and the strength of his rehearsals---to indulge no more than minimal directions during performance.
          And it works. In a program of nothing but ripe lyrical chestnuts (Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, Capriccio Italien, Rimsky’s Russian Easter Overture, Borodin's Polovitsian Dances), Rozhdestvensky looked more like a spectator than a podium dictator. He often upped (lowered?) the ante by simply standing still, baton listless, content to cue here and there. And yes, once in a while there would come a smile, a raised eyebrow, a hand gesture somewhat grander than a twitch. Yet the pieces were carefully rendered according to his specifications, and the orchestra played as if well under his control. Works for him.
          I must add that it was a refreshing change of pace to have such a “retro” evening, with nothing but the kind of fare that KUSC might play on a summer afternoon. These are “beautiful” pieces you’ve heard all your life, so iconographic that you forget they could constitute a viable concert program. Viable? Under Rozhdestvenksy, sumptuous.
          Such familiarity was also the case with Berlioz’s concert hall haunt, “Symphonie Fantastique,” which made Dudamel’s handling of the work a few weeks later that much more impressive. There were strings coming from the young Venezuelan’s fingers, tied to all the instruments in the orchestra, including that gigantic bell in the last movement that probably caused the outside of Disney Hall to visibly vibrate. Okay, I engage in silly metaphor. They weren't strings---they were Dudamel’s very nerves, connected to every aspect of sound being generated.
          In 40 years of attending L.A. Phil concerts (gasp), I’ve never seen anyone conduct like this young man. All the hype about him is not hype---it is someone trying to describe accurately what they have witnessed. Yes, he's micromanaging, but it’s dazzling micromanagement. This guy grew around a baton.
         Under his balletic, frenetic, peripatetic presence, Berlioz's back-of-the-hand-familiar piece became extremely interesting all over again. This was a taut, lyrical, explosive, bounding, shimmering, suspenseful, and otherwise compelling rendition---an full-tilt performance of a full-tilt work (it more or less depicts an opiated journey into obsession.) And while I'm not a particular admirer of conductorial histrionics, I must note that the late dancing maestro Leonard Bernstein has nothing on the moves of Gustavo Dudamel.
          Whatsat? Interpretive depth? Poetry? Who cares---this was fun.
          Winky has ADHD, or OCD, I think. Apologies to any humans out there who suffer from these awful disorders, but I really think he has one of them, or both. Consider: when it’s within two hours of lunch or late-night snack, he rushes to his food dish any time he sees me remotely in the vicinity. This can add up. Twenty, thirty, forty times, he walks/trots/runs between me and the food dish, meowing, an orbit of orange.
          And this is after having had a very substantial breakfast or dinner.
          Then, of course, there is his eating problem. His other eating problem. Something is wrong with his stomach, or his esophagus, that keeps the food from going down easily. He eats faster than Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff at a donut joint, and then promptly throws up. Carpet cleaning bills around here are too embarrassing to disclose.
          Now, that delicate e-mailer who linked my massive psychological disturbances to these poor cats is probably thinking that old Rense’s neuroses are the cause here, too, but the thing is, Winky did the same thing as a kitten. He ate, and then after about thirty seconds, he either threw up or---blonk!---something shifted audibly in his insides, and the food plummeted to happy stomachland.
          I’ve solved the problem, at least temporarily. First, I mash his repast down so he can’t wolf it. Second, I pick him up and massage his stomach immediately after every meal until---blonk!---the contents sink.
          Does he enjoy this? Do birds prefer to walk?
          I take full blame for any mental problems resultant of this digestive therapy. On his part and mine.
          Somehow, through a lifetime of listening to the music of Gustav Mahler, I missed giving due attention to “Das Lied Von Der Erde” (The Song of the Earth.) Oh, through the years I’ve heard it on the late, lamented KFAC “Evening Concert” once in a while, or on KUSC. . .but I never sat down and really gave it the respect it deserved. Our schedules conflicted.
          Which is very sad because I’ve missed out on a lot of potential reward. That is to say, music seems to have its greatest impact on young ears. It is a quite different matter to “meet” a piece of music in middle-age, with a head full of life experience and convoluted psychology, than it is when you are still a relatively clean slate. There’s a lot more clutter to clear out of the way, at least for me.
          Yet I am fortunate to have finally properly “met” this work just a few weeks back, in a redolent, detailed performance by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the L.A. Phil, with mezzo Lilli Paasikivi and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey.
          Mahler was facing death when he wrote "Das Lied. . ." Of course, Mahler was always facing death, one way or another, but here he had been given a death sentence, due to a failing heart. He had every reason to expect that this music would constitute  his farewell, although, as it turned out, he managed to write the astounding 9th and much of his rather breakthrough tenth symphony afterward. Putting aside the fact that those two works are, oh, call them colossal---the mere act of creating art under such circumstances is nothing short of staggering. Told that you have a short time left in this plane of existence, would you be able to work intensively? Write a symphony? A novel? Poetry? Create a painting? Let alone ascend to an entirely new tier of achievement?
          Well, this was Mahler.
          In “Das Lied,” he set six Chinese poems to music (four by Li Tai-Po, two by other poets, with a number of lines added by Mahler himself---all translated into German, via French!) for typically mammoth orchestra, and the result is unique in his output.
          Put simply, Mahler did a lot of grappling in his symphonies, but not this time. Instead, we have resignation, a singleness of mind, or at least mood (rather understandable given the circumstances.) Perhaps this clarity also had something to do with illustrating poems, since the “statement” was ready-made, built into the text---as opposed to something Mahler would wrench from his own muse and being. Getting outside oneself artistically, of course, can afford expression not to be had through introspection. It's a contradiction, finding a sort of better self by focusing on something beyond the self. (“It so far out, the way out is in,” as good old George Harrison sang.) So this is not exactly the Mahler whose symphonies aimed at encompassing the universe, the man who once remarked of the nearby Alps, “I have composed them all away” (or words to that effect); the man whose music is often an aural map of his agonies and ecstasies.
          Then there is the fact that the composer---only 48 at the time of his heart diagnosis---so excelled at writing for voice that it is one of the great tragedies of art that he never composed an opera. (Although I think he insisted that his symphonies were operatic.) It is fair to say, though, that "Das Lied. . ." is not merely a song cycle, another set of fine Mahler lieder, but a profoundly affecting, transcendent melding of song and symphony.
          “Das Lied. . .”, regarded by many as Mahler's true 9th symphony, strikes more as an elegiac essay than a discourse in doom. Musically, it comes from what historians and critics refer to as that pivot point between the 19th century romanticism and 20th century modernism, but that sort of description, to me, is academic, parenthetical, reductive. Mahler was in the zone, to put it crudely. He couldn’t write a wrong note. The strange, mournful, painterly garden of noises that so elegantly grows around the words of “Das Lied” has no company in all of music. It reminds somewhat of the tone world of his 7th symphony, a kind of freely suspended place of drift and color and mood---all purples and strange blues, iridescent greens, threads of scarlet-seemingly absent of linear thematic structure.
          Similarly, the music of “Das Lied. . .” blooms freely, fabulously, and the poems come from that place of oddly ambiguous, intuitive meaning that lives only in oriental poetry and its approximate western translations.
          When Salonen and soloists and orchestra finished the performance, applause was inappropriate. It often is, I think, but this time it was especially intrusive. Better that everyone in attendance simply have bowed their heads in meditation for a few minutes, then have silently filed out into the night. The night that Mahler built.
          Maggie the skittish cat has reached a point where she comes in to bother me many times a day for head-scratchings, belly-rubbings, leg-pulling. She rolls over and over, and pulls herself across the carpet for fun.
          And although I wish she would find some amusement by cavorting with her brother once in a while (preferably without fisticuffs---er, pawticuffs?), I don’t mind the interruption.
          Winky, the criminal cat, however, has just gone too far.
The intrusions are fairly constant, always motivated entirely by his incessant desire for food. Oh, he might feign affection, and put up with head-scratching, but there is always the ulterior motive. Of course, he’s a cat, so what do you expect?
          To Winky and Maggie, I am cat number three, the one on whom they each rely for amusement---never mind the lack of tail and poor hearing. They come to me for diversion, stimulus, the very richness and surprise of life, and I do my best. There is only so much one can do, though, with string, obscenely expensive “cat toys,” bags, boxes, and golf balls (Maggie putts them around delicately, like her distant relative Tiger Woods.) So I improvise. They have lately, for instance, been enthralled by a big bamboo back-scratcher. At first it was something to attack and chew (and then run from), but they soon realized that it feels soooo good on a chin, nape of neck, forehead that. . .what’s the point in hostility?
          But as I said, Winky has gone too far. Most recently, he managed to tear off the pet door from the balcony screen---an apparent protest over being banished there after eating (so he doesn’t puke on the rug.) And then, a couple weeks back, as I bent down to pick him up, Winky must have thought I was playing---because he promptly shot straight up, head-first, aiming for the cat furniture.
          A reminder: this cat is solid muscle.
          He smashed right into my hand, in the process, I suspect, breaking my finger. My second finger. The very critical “f___ you” finger. How will I ever greet people properly in Los Angeles again? Well, it might not be broken, but it is crooked, painful, and still somewhat swollen.
          I can still type, though, so what the hell.
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