October 1, 2020
The night that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, I couldn’t sleep. That Republicans nominated him as a candidate was shocking enough, but the fact that so many Americans had voted for a man deeply unfit for the presidency was incomprehensible.
Since then, no matter how incompetent, ignorant, racist, unethical, mean spirited, self serving, or illegal Trump’s actions have been, almost all members of his Republican Party whimper in fetal position, too scared to even open their mouths in response. In Nazi Germany, criticizing Hitler unquestionably meant jail or death. In America, however, if you criticize Trump, he might merely honor you with a twitter tongue lashing, or worst still, you could be voted out of office. That’s it. No jail time. No death. Republicans, have you no shame.
And then, the Covid-19 virus made its ominous arrival on our shores. Trump dithered, lied, and even obstructed scientists from doing their job. The virus has subsequently brought America to its knees, and with no end in sight. As a result, the magic of live music for both performers and their listeners is suddenly a thing of the past, and my colleagues in large part have been deprived of their very livelihood as music venues right and left are cancelled.
It didn’t have to be this way. Taiwan, for example, is a global leader in fighting Covid-19. The country has had a plan in place for years that involved among other things quarantines, contact tracing, and wide availability of masks. Throughout the course of the pandemic, there have been to date a total of seven deaths in Taiwan and less than 500 infections. This has allowed Cho-Liang Lin’s Taipei Music Academy and Festival to take place without the deadly virus in attendance. Distinguished musicians from all over the world arrived in Taipei for the Festival and were immediately quarantined for fourteen days in their hotel rooms before being allowed to participate. This strict adherence to sound guidelines has made it possible for Taipei to thrive artistically.
I’ve sometimes objected strongly to the policies of our government. And yet, until now I’ve never had the feeling that the America I was born and raised in, the America that has given me the opportunity to thrive, the America I love even despite its profound flaws of racism and inequality, is in danger of losing its grand experiment in democracy. That is, until Donald Trump entered our lives and thumbed his nose at our Constitution, emasculated our system of checks and balances, and threatened to turn our country into a banana republic with him as the head banana.
One thing has comforted me deeply in this time of Trump, and that is music. No surprise there. Music is my beloved profession; and yet it’s power extends far beyond. As a child, music opened doors to a wondrous world of sounds that was breathtaking but almost unnerving in the emotions it stirred. And music once revealed meant that I could never again live without it.
There was an old New Yorker magazine cartoon that showed a drab landscape littered with an empty bottle and can, and a cast off tire. The caption read: Life Without Mozart. In these barren Trump years, I wonder whether music of any kind- never mind Mozart- has had a place at his White House. Ronald Reagan delighted in inviting a wide variety of musicians to perform at the White House. The great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals performed for John Kennedy’s White House. Jimmy Carter not only invited our Guarneri String Quartet to his, but in introducing us, went into great detail about the work we were to perform, Dvorak’s American Quartet. Barack Obama had a tradition of musical night at the white house in which he and his wife Michelle hosted everything from classic, to country, to blues, and jazz. And Donald Trump? As far as I can tell, absolutely nothing has taken place on his watch at the People’s House. In fact, word has it that Trump consistently shows antipathy for both music and the arts. That New Yorker cartoon could easily be re-captioned in Trump world: Life without music.
I listen to music for pleasure, for enrichment, for comfort, and as a way to take my mind off the chaos and tragedy of the Covid-19 virus, the migrant children separated cruelly from their parents at the border, unemployment and misery at an all time high, and Trump blithely lying to us that America is once again great under his leadership.
I listen to all kind of things: Leonard Bernstein conducting Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony, Arthur Schnabel playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 10#3, Pablo Casals playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite #1, and for a little change of pace, Billie Holiday singing Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Nat King Cole Trio with Mona Lisa, Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti, Jerome Kern’s Bill as sung by Helen Morgan and Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli playing Lime House Blues.
And I play my violin for an audience of one- me. It gives me pleasure to run my fingers up and down an instrument I’ve been playing for the last seventy-seven years. I play some scales to put a little life in my old joints, then perhaps J.S. Bach’s magnificent Chaconne or the Béla Bartók Solo Sonata, written for Yehudi Menuhin, a masterpiece that somehow escaped my attention earlier in life. And I often finish with the Meditation, that incense laden, heart on the sleeve melody from the opera Thaïs by the French composer, Jules Massenet.
During the course of the opera, the courtesan Thaïs sits on stage deep in meditation while the concertmaster from the orchestra pit plays the violin solo, a long, winding melody buttressed by languid harmonies. Thaïs must decide whether to return to a life of pleasure with her lover Nicias or answer to the monk Athanael who begs her to relinquish her life of sin and enter a monastery.
Thaïs is merely a fictional character in a fictional story, but we Americans have our own very real meditation confronting us. Like Thaïs, we must choose between two extremes in the coming election. On the one hand, there is Donald J Trump, corrupt to the bone and utterly unconcerned about the state of our country or its people as long as his narrow self-interests are served. Then you have Joe Biden Jr.- decent, experienced, and whether you agree or not with all his politics, unquestionably devoted to the well being of our country, its citizens, and our planet now threatened by global warning.
This election is no longer only about poverty, abortion, immigration, taxes, the minimum wage, or the debt. The fragile soul of our land hovers before us.
Americans, let us tell friends, relatives, and even total strangers
From the mountains, to the prairies,
to the oceans white with foam,
just how consequential this election really is.
And finally, as if our very lives depend on it,
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