My Kingdom for a Safe Zone


Shortly before Christmas, I posted an item in the Corner called “The Conductor’s Podium as Political Platform.” This drew an unusually big response, from readers. I propose to examine that response and see what it tells us about our political culture today — or about our culture plain and simple.

But first, that item:

One reason I became a conservative, many years ago, is that the Left in my hometown — Ann Arbor, Mich. — insisted on politicizing everything. There was never any respite from politics. There was no “safe zone.” Politics was infused into everything — and it was one kind of politics, of course: Left.

This sort of “creeped me out,” to use a modern expression.

So, on Friday night, I go to Carnegie Hall for a Christmas concert. The King’s Singers are performing with the New York Pops Orchestra; Marilyn Horne is a special guest. This should be an evening away from politics — just a little fodder for my next New Criterion music piece, you know?

Shortly into the concert, the conductor turns to the audience and speaks about “the holidays.” This year, he says, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are overlapping with Christmas. (According to what I can find, Kwanzaa begins on December 26, but never mind.) Then we have New Year’s Day. And “on January 20, there will be a new beginning for our country.” The crowd, of course, erupts into cheers. Then he says, “I see I’m not the only one who’s ready.”

They can’t help themselves, can they? They can’t help preening, saying, in effect, “See how virtuous I am? My politics are correct. I am a fully paid-up member of the herd — nothing independent-minded about me.” I have seen this in Carnegie Hall before (as elsewhere): The conductor, or someone else, makes a partisan political statement, releasing a little stink bomb that smells up the entire evening, no matter how good the music is.

At least it’s that way for some of us.

Politics aside, where are manners? Where is consideration for a minority of audience members? Where is a sense of public space, and what is appropriate and not? The guy was uncouth, as much as anything. And the sad thing is: There’s no one to call him on it.

And, no, I don’t count. One of his own — someone from the New York Times or The New Yorker or the local arts establishment — has to call him on it. Otherwise, it doesn’t count.

I suppose that conservatives, somewhere, act like that conductor, injecting politics where it doesn’t belong, transgressing against public decorum (and simply displaying bad manners). I have not witnessed it, though.

And before we get to reader responses, let me excerpt a review from last September. I published it in the New York Sun, and it was of Carnegie Hall’s opening concert of the season: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Bernstein concert:

Mr. Tilson Thomas proceeded with excerpts from Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place.” Actually, he proceeded with a lecture — which is de rigueur these days. Critics and administrators demand it — they call it “outreach.” Musicians used to “reach out” with their music-making. And nothing can deaden, delay, or prolong a concert like talking.

In the middle of his lecture, Mr. Tilson Thomas said — no, yelled — that Bernstein was a “LIB-ER-AL.” And that’s how he pronounced that word: with three distinct, fist-shaking syllables. The crowd erupted in applause and cheers. It was one of those self-congratulatory New York moments. People were almost North Korean in their robust unanimity.

Mr. Tilson Thomas then explained that Bernstein wanted to make music “to inspire a better world” — and, as we all know, only liberals wish a better world.

In truth, it is debatable whether Bernstein was a liberal in any genuine sense. Take his fundraising for the Black Panthers, when they were at their cop-killing height. Tom Wolfe labeled that “radical chic” — and the “chic” part depends on your taste.

After I published the first item — “The Conductor’s Podium as Political Platform” — a friend wrote,

The same thing happened at the end of a really nice Bernstein concert in Zankel Hall [which is downstairs in the Carnegie Hall building]. They did, as an encore, “Take Care of This House,” from Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And, in announcing the encore, they did the whole Barack Obama spiel — with cheers and all the other things you described.

And who did this? Susan Graham [a mezzo-soprano], who sang at Bush’s second inauguration.

I have a theory — just a theory: Graham did it precisely because she had sung at the Bush inauguration. (She is from Midland, Texas — hometown of the Bushes — and almost certainly for that reason was invited.) It was her way of saying, “Please don’t hate me: I’m just like you. I run with the herd. I am not a dissenter. I’m on the team, man — really.”

As I said, just a theory.

From a reader:

A couple weekends back, I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. And Renée Fleming [the great soprano] sang “In the Bleak Midwinter.” But the lyrics to this beloved and touching carol were changed, in order to celebrate Barack Obama. The original carol is about Christ. But, in this version, Obama was the central figure. What is happening to us?

The new lyrics, if you’re interested, are

In the bleak midwinter
At the Christmas feast
A family leaves Chicago
And travels to the East

For a public mansion
In Washington, D.C.,
In a time of trouble
And festivity.

All across the nation,
Sea to shining sea,
People watch the passage
Of that family.

And our loving wishes
Go out to them there.
All the nation breathes
A silent, hopeful prayer.

In fact, many people wrote about Garrison Keillor. One reader said,

Four years ago, I attended a VocalEssence concert in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall that was being recorded for airing on NPR. Garrison Keillor was the master of ceremonies, and on at least two occasions during the evening he went off on President Bush. I thought, “What a total self-important boor. This is neither the time nor the place.” But like your conductor in Carnegie Hall, he just couldn’t help himself. It’s a sickness.

Another reader said,

I used to listen to Garrison Keillor with huge enjoyment. I believe that he has a talent that approaches Mark Twain territory. But I had to stop listening to him in the early days of the Bush presidency. Because he repeatedly expressed his contempt for conservatives in the most bilious language. . . .

By the way, I have a piece on this aspect of Keillor’s personality — “The Political Garrison Keillor” — in this collection.

Another reader:

We experienced something similar at a Boston Pops holiday performance this past Sunday. Midway through the performance, Santa made a surprise appearance and joined the conductor on the stage. He ho-ho-ho’d a bit and then told us that times are tough in the North Pole, too — even Joe the Elf has trouble making ends meet.

Santa then went on to inform us that he’s been busy remodeling his kitchen and changing his landscaping. (I guess times aren’t so tough for Santa.) The installation of a big picture window, combined with the removal of bushes at the end of his driveway, revealed to him that he can see Russia from his house! Ho ho ho, indeed. The audience was tickled pink.

But my husband and I were not. We grimly crossed our arms, our holiday spirit diminishing a bit, and my husband leaned over to me and hissed, “No more money for the Boston Pops!”

From San Francisco:

We used to enjoy going to the Symphony’s performance of Peter and the Wolf, which is usually narrated by some celebrity. This year it will be Leonard Nimoy, for example. Some years ago it was “Lemony Snicket,” the alias for the author of the terrific set of children’s books A Series of Unfortunate Events. Unfortunately, even Mr. “Snicket” was unable to avoid injecting his politics into the affair, making some disparaging remarks about President Bush.

The audience had the same reaction you describe [cheers, etc.]. And, of course, there was no one to call him, or them, on it.

Would you like a missive from my dear hometown? A reader wrote,

I’m still stuck here in the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor. Your comments reminded me of the University of Michigan’s annual Halloween concert this year. It featured a chorus line of dancing “McCains” and a person dressed as Sarah Palin shooting a dinosaur (don’t ask). Ruined the event for me.

Teaches you to live in Ann Arbor . . . (like I should talk).


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