I’m grateful to write these words: Jian-li Yang is freed. After five years as a political prisoner in Communist China, this hero of human rights has been released. He is expected to return to the United States as soon as he can.
Regular readers of this column are well familiar with Jian-li. I first met him in 2001, when he swung by the office for a chat. He was head of the Foundation for China in the 21st Century, in Brookline, Mass. He had received two Ph.D.s: one in math from Berkeley, and the other in political economy from Harvard. He had also been a leader at Tiananmen Square.
Though Jian-li was young — in his 30s — I was aware of being in the presence of a great man. As we chatted, I asked him whether there was a book that could describe the situation of Chinese intellectuals. He said, sure: Milosz’s Captive Mind.
In April 2002, Jian-li went to China to investigate a labor movement in the country’s northeast. Quickly, he was nabbed. He vanished for a period, then resurfaced in a kangaroo court, denied all rights. Jian-li has “permanent resident” status in the United States; his wife, Christina Fu, and their two children are American citizens. Christina and her supporters have lovingly and faithfully maintained a Free Jian-li website.
I hope to see him — see him again — as soon as possible. And I will report back to you. Frankly, I wondered whether he could make it out alive. It was not unreasonable to think they might kill him.
In any case — rejoice. Long-awaited and immensely gratifying news has been received.
‐Some readers have asked me to say a word about Rostropovich — and I will try. I have been writing about him pretty much my whole career — no, my entire career. And I’m not sure I have something fittingly eulogistic to say now. (“Slava” died on Friday.) No way I can do justice to him in a simple impromptu. But I’ll give it a shot.
Rostropovich was one of the most remarkable musicians and most remarkable men of our time — that, you know.
He was a great cellist, of course, probably the greatest ever — and he was one of the greatest instrumentalists ever. Almost certainly, no one has ever done more for an instrument than Rostropovich did for his own. He was responsible for a huge portion of the cello repertory today. Composers understandably ached to write for him.
He was an excellent conductor — uneven, but excellent, overall. He was especially impressive in Russian music, though not only in Russian music. He was — this is less known — a very, very good pianist. He demonstrated this in master classes (where he would accompany cellists and others), and he demonstrated this on the recital stage, when he would accompany, most prominently, his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.
And, of course, he was a man of considerable courage. He took Solzhenitsyn in when it was very dangerous to do so. (By the way, have you read Solzhenitsyn’s stunningly great book The Oak and the Calf? It is about these struggles.)
A few Rostropovich memories: I will never forget hearing him play Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante — written for him, of course — in Boston, at the time of his (Slava’s) 60th birthday. This is one of the most awe-inspiring performances I have ever heard. And I will never forget his conducting of the complete Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev, again) in Washington.
The last time I heard him was last season, with the New York Philharmonic. He did not play, but conducted: the Shostakovich Violin Concerto (with Vengerov) and the Shostakovich Tenth. He was not at his most energetic: a weakening was apparent. But he was wise and moving, his talent abundant and undeniable.
Oh, by the way: His recording of the Bach Suites? (A recording that he delayed making for many, many years, wanting to be spiritually ready.) The world has never known a better recording — of anything by anyone. Sometimes people ask me what is the greatest recording ever made. Of course, this is an unanswerable question, merely a parlor gambit. But if I have a gun to my head, I blurt out an answer: Rostropovich’s Bach.
What a useful life. (Bach’s wasn’t bad, either.)
‐Some footnotes to the above item. For a piece I wrote last year about Rostropovich and Shostakovich, please go here. For a review of the aforementioned concert last year, go here. For a review of a concert in 2005, go here. For reviews of concerts in 2003, go here and here. And for a review of a 2002 concert, go here.
I know I’ve mentioned this to you before, but will again: Vishnevskaya’s autobiography, Galina, is a) one of the best musical autobiographies I know, b) one of the best books about the Soviet Union I know, and c) one of the best books I know.
‐I imagine that many people were sad to hear about the passing of Johnny Hart — I was one of them. Hart was the mind and pen behind B.C. and The Wizard of Id. I have always loved these cartoons, especially the former. The humor is smart and . . . well, humorous. It is also a bit wry, and unusually consistent. B.C. is the kind of strip you can read regularly, without tiring of it.
It also manages to be funny without being mean. It must be pretty hard to be funny without being mean — otherwise, more people would be.
As you remember, Hart became something of a conservative cause, because he occasionally put Christian messages in his cartoons, especially around Easter. (Maybe only around Easter.) And newspaper editors didn’t like that — not at all. You can’t commit Christianity in public.
But Hart was a self-assured and independent-minded guy, and he motored along. Sometimes small things, like a daily comic strip, are underappreciated, maybe even unappreciated. And B.C. has been an adornment on our national life — a dollop of good.
‐Thought I’d share with you a letter from a reader — a short and grim one. (The letter, I mean, not the reader — although I haven’t met him.)
When NBC aired the Virginia Tech murderer’s videotape, they gave him what he wanted — and practically guaranteed that other sick people would plan similar attacks.
In the same way, when Majority Leader Harry Reid said the war was already lost, he rewarded the terrorists for their attacks — giving them an incentive to attack all the more.
This is what the King James Bible calls “an hard saying” — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
One of the worst things about Reid’s statement is that he is in a position to affect the truth or falsity of it. He now has a vested interest in that statement: If the war is, in fact, not lost, he could look silly.
Is our majority leader faced with what in modern parlance we call a “conflict of interest”? You could argue it.
‐Not sure that you’ve heard the latest from Ahmadinejad: He credits the Almighty with ruining our effort in April 1980 to rescue our hostages:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the 27th anniversary of the failed U.S. operation to rescue 53 American hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by saying God and Iran had “clobbered the enemy,” state radio reported Wednesday. . . .
“On such a day, the enemy, using the most advanced weapons, invaded this land. But heavenly aides supported the Iranian nation and clobbered the enemy in the desert.”
And you thought it was poor Pentagon planning and execution! (Incidentally, the full news story is here.)
‐Remember that old hippie song “Teach Your Children Well”?
The boy with the knife looks barely 12. In a high-pitched voice, he denounces the bound, blindfolded man before him as an American spy. Then he hacks off the captive’s head to cries of “God is great!” and hoists it in triumph by the hair.
A video circulating in Pakistan records the grisly death of Ghulam Nabi, a Pakistani militant accused of betraying a top Taliban official who was killed in a December airstrike in Afghanistan.
(The full story is here.) Yes, teach your children well.
‐By the way, the Mondale-Ferraro campaign used that song in an ad in 1984. I always envisioned a counter-ad by the Republicans: “Yes, teach your children well — about Communism, about appeasement, about ‘stagflation,’” etc., etc. I think it would have been dynamite. Of course, it wasn’t quite needed — not that year, not in 1984.
‐A little language? Sometimes the use of a hyphen makes all the difference. Some days ago, I read this headline (here): “Tiny Island Voters Kick Off French Polls.” For a split second, I was thinking of really, really small voters on an island. That could be taken care of with “Tiny-Island Voters” — but I admit that looks odd.
‐A friend of mine sent me a statement from a new theme park in England: Dickens World. The statement is from their website:
Dickens World will also have facilities for seasonal variations, particularly over the Christmas period in which the attraction will convert into a Dickensian winter wonderland, replete with snow and other characteristics of a bygone era . . .
Snow as a characteristic of a bygone era! A mite of green propaganda, stuck into the promotional material of Dickens World?
‐Can’t resist giving you a morsel from Tiger Woods, who recently played a round at Oakmont (in western Pennsylvania), site of the U.S. Open in June. They have made one par 3 a ridiculous length: 288 yards. And, according to this AP report, Tiger “hit 3-wood to the middle of the green. ‘I refuse to hit driver,’ Woods said, smiling. ‘It’s against my religion.’”
I’d explain to non-golfers what all this means, but this column has gone on long enough!
‐Gonna lay an unholy amount of music on you (in addition to the Slava stuff, above): For a review of the New York Philharmonic, under Lorin Maazel, with the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, guest soloist, go here. For a review of another violinist, Midori, go here. For a review of still another violinist, Gidon Kremer, with his chamber orchestra Kremerata Baltica, go here. For a review of still another violinist, Maxim Vengerov, with still another chamber orchestra, go here. For a review of a new production of Puccini’s Trittico at the Metropolitan Opera, go here. For a review of the soprano Karita Mattila, go here.
And for a recordings roundup, go here. Under discussion are Leif Ove Andsnes (Norwegian pianist), Daniel Barenboim (Israeli conductor and pianist), and Hyunah Yu (American soprano).
All reviews were published in the New York Sun.
‐Finally, a word about Czechs and Cubans. I have written about the relationship between them for many years. (For example, see this piece, “Solidarity, Exemplified,” published in a 2005 NR. Sub. req.) Czechs understand Cubans, being a formerly unfree people. Cubans are currently unfree — and Czechs, amazingly, care. This makes them stand out among democratic nations.
Why am I sounding this theme again? Because of this recent news item:
Prague was probably the last place on the minds of three Cuban families when they set out from their island home on a rickety boat in 2005.
But, late last month, Prague is where they ended their year-and-a-half-long ordeal in search of a new life. They are the first Cubans ever to be granted asylum in the Czech Republic, a move that further solidifies the Czech Republic’s harshly critical stance toward Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
The families’ journey started with a treacherous boat trip across the Straits of Florida, where they were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Then back to Cuba to a U.S.-operated facility at Guantanamo Bay, where they waited for a country — any country — to accept their plea for asylum.
After more than a year, that answer finally came from halfway around the world, in Central Europe. On March 20, the 10 men, women and children boarded a plane and flew to their new homes in Prague.
The families are eager to build a new home here, said Interior Ministry spokesman Petr Vorlíček. “They are cheerful and optimistic. In the short term, learning Czech is a main priority,” he said. “In the long run, they would like to find jobs and the children want to get an education.”
Personal details are tightly under wraps, because the families fear reprisals against friends and relatives back in Cuba. They declined to be interviewed or photographed. What is known is that two of the families have children under 18, and one family has an infant son.
“All three families decided to leave Cuba because of persecution due to their political or religious beliefs,” Vorlíček said. For some, this had been their fourth attempt to flee. Because of their parents’ involvement in dissidence, the children were bullied and prevented from going to school in Cuba, he said.
Etc. This looks like a rare Cuban story with a happy ending.
And I’ll see you guys soon. Thanks for “tuning in.” (But not dropping out!) (I’m full of hippie references today, huh? Must be the Ann Arbor upbringing, coming to the fore.) (Like a rancid pork sandwich?)