February 11th, 2009

Wall Street Whiners

Shortly after my last post, the headline came out "Stocks Drop on
Disappointment With Stimulus Package."

This just makes me want to take the clue-by-four and go upside a lot of
Wall Street heads. So, you guys didn't get everything you wanted? Tough!
You people MADE this mess due to your unsatisfiable greed, which created
the market for ever-more risky "securities". Now man up and do your
part to help clean up. The taxpayers are already bailing you out more
than you deserve because, like it or not, the country needs you. But we
do NOT need to make you comfortable, get it?

The big, bad, "Bonus"

Continuing to be a bit ambivalent here, I'm growing uncomfortable to the
extent the word "bonus" is becoming a dirty word. Partly, this is
because, like many words, it has been used in a sloppy fashion.
Basically, it implies a gift--like the increasingly rare "Christmas
bonus" that used to be a regular thing at many businesses--a little
something extra in the pay envelope over and above what you had earned
for the year.

Suffice to say that, now and for many years in the past, most companies
have not and are not giving away anything that has not been earned, at
least to the rank and file workers.

While I'd be the first to say that "compensation packages" for major
company CEO's have gotten way out of hand, and have included some very
questionable if not outright improper payments, this isn't necessarily
the case for other employees. It has become a very common practice for
executive compensation--and this includes everyone from sales executives
and first-level managers on up--to have a certain percentage "at risk,"
meaning that, although your annual salary figure includes that
percentage, if corporate goals for your segment are not met, you may not
receive all or any of it. Some times this is called an "incentive,"
"team award", "profit sharing," or , yes, "bonus."

John Thain, former CEO of Merrill Lynch, has famously become the "poster
boy" for bad bonuses, having made sure that multiple billions of dollars
in year-end compensation was paid out to employees before the corporate
takeover by Bank of America became effective. My question is, who got
that money? Because I think it makes a difference.

We have to remember that in most sectors, Merrill Lynch and other failed
financial institutions were performing well, which is why other banks
like BoA are willing to acquire them. So that means that the vast
majority of brokers, account execs, commercial bankers, etc., were doing
their jobs and doing them well. If by seeing that bonuses were paid,
Thain was "taking care of his people" in making sure that people who had
earned the payments would get them, then I applaud his efforts. If on
the other hand, the majority of that money went to senior
vice-presidents or other people directly responsible for the bad
investment decisions that brought the company down, he deserves the
execrations heaped upon him.

I just say this to point out that, like most things, the major media
have seized upon one buzzword and made it a one-sided issue, when, as
usual, the reality is far more complex.

On the other other hand, there's no excuse for spending $1.3 million to
redecorate an office suite, even if the company is making pots of money.
He deserved to get reamed for that--.

Belief, Knowledge, and Truth

Controversial topic, here. My apologies if anyone is offended, but this
is the kind of thing that comes to me in the middle of the night, and
writing them out helps to get a grip on them.

Does anyone else consider it faintly ironic that it is controversial to
readmit a man who denies the World War II era Holocaust, to an
organization that, as a matter of doctrine, denies Evolution, denies
equal rights for gays, and denies women control over their own bodies?
I'm not putting Holocaust denial on the same level--it requires a whole
other increment of hatefulness and perversity--but it is being
questioned whether or not this makes the man unfit to rejoin a religion,
which as a matter of definition, has a series of irrational beliefs at
its own core.

Now, I understand that Richard Williamson, a member of the ultra
traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which does not accept the
teachings of the 1962 to 1965 Second Vatican Council, was excommunicated
in part for having accepted an unauthorized ordination as a Bishop. In
the Church, this is a serious matter, and a serious punishment, the
spiritual equivalent of a death sentence. It would seem to me that if
Williamson has expressed that he is willing to accept the authority of
the Church and sincerely repents the sins that lead to his
excommunication, he should be readmitted to the body of the Church and
its Communion, regardless of personal beliefs he may hold that do not
conflict with doctrine. If not, not.
On the other hand, whether or not he is permitted to take Communion
again, as long as he DOES continue to espouse beliefs that call his
judgment and wisdom into severe question, he should not be readmitted to
duties as a priest, and certainly not accorded the rank of Bishop. I see
that Williamson has been relieved of his teaching post at an Argentinean
seminary as a consequence of his past remarks, which, given that the
Church doesn't have to respect free speech, is, I suppose, OK, but I
wonder what kind of teacher he was and whether or not the tales he told
out of school really justify dismissal. (Note: Here in Wisconsin, we
have a notorious character who is a lecturer at UW-Madison, who has
written several articles alleging US government complicity in the 9/11
attacks, and teaches this, albeit in a course on "conspiracy theories"
as one of several. The University defended his rights of academic
freedom against calls for his firing (while most of the faculty
simultaneously execrated his lack of academic rigor--).)
Do not mistake me: Holocaust denial and similar doctrines are entirely
pernicious. They are worse than lies, they are a kind of anti-truth,
since they seek to discredit and replace known facts with hateful
fabrications. They need to be confronted wherever they appear. However,
as a matter of strongly held principle, I must respect the right of a
man to hold onto and espouse his own beliefs, however stupid they may
be--as long as he allows me mine in turn, and is willing to hear debate.
And I can't justify letting bad ideas come between a man and his God,
who will, I trust, instruct that man on his errors at some future time.

Milwaukee Rep: Mirandolina

On Wednesday night, the 4th, we went to the Milwaukee Rep's Stiemke
Theatre to see Mirandolina (La Locandiera), a 1753 play by Carlo
Goldoni. We have seen and enjoyed a couple of other works by the Italian
playwright, "Servant of Two Masters," and "The Liar", so we were looking
forward to this outing with pleasure.

The title character, Mirandolina (Deborah Staples), is a young(-ish)
woman who has inherited a well-kept inn at Florence. Uniformly described
as charming, she wins the hearts of all her male guests, with the
initial notable exception of the Knight (Brian Vaughn, last mentioned
here as "Leo Bloom" in the Skylight's "The Producers") who is dashing,
but an unpleasant misogynist. Challenged, Mirandolina decides to see if
she can win him over also, mostly for the sport of it. While doing so,
she fends off the advances of the noble but poverty-stricken Marquis
(Torrey Hanson), the wealthy but crass Count (Steve Pickering), and her
man of all work, Fabrizio (Gerard Neugent), to whom Mirandolina's father
essentially promised her.

Additional comic distraction is provided by Ortensia and Dejanira,
(Carey Cannon and Cristina Panfilio) a couple of travelling actresses
passing (more or less) as noblewomen who provide some inadvertent relief
for Mirandolina by vamping the available gentlemen.

By the end of the first act, Mirandolina has melted through the Knight's
defenses, setting up everything to come unstuck in the second act. This
happens with the expected comedy, but also with a strong dose of anger.
Under stress, the Marquis is revealed as dishonest as well as penurious,
the Count as vengeful and violent, and the would-be cool Knight one big
raw nerve of passion. There was a startling amount of verisimo in these
scenes that makes the play seem much more modern than its date would
imply. (The production was set in the vaguely 1930's, which worked
well.) Mirandolina eventually wades through the wreck and brings the
play to an unexpected (at least by us) conclusion.

Staples and the rest of the cast did an excellent job bringing us the
story. As previously noted in this journal, Goldoni lead the transition
of Italian theatre from commedia del'arte to scripted plays. One can
still detect the shadows of the archetypical characters here:
Mirandolina/Columbine, Marquis/Pantalone, Count/Dottore, Knight/Captain;
but as presented all the characters are present and speaking for
themselves, and you do not need to know the older form in order to enjoy
the show.

Early Music Now: Tafelmusik

It may seem we are cramming in a lot of live performance this month, and
that's true. However, for a lot of events you have to take them when
they come, and when one of the finest Baroque orchestras in the world
comes to Milwaukee for one night only, that's when you go. Which is why
we made our way to the Cardinal Stritch University campus Tuesday night
the 10th.

Tafelmusik is in its 30th year of presenting the extensive Baroque
repertoire with Baroque instruments and tuning (about half a step lower
than today's pitch). Director and concertmaster Jeanne Lamon plays a
1725 Serafini violin that has been lovingly restored, which has a lovely
mellow sound.

Tafelmusik plays and records a great deal (76 CDs!) plus touring. This
year they made their first stop ever in Milwaukee, on their way to their
Carnegie Hall debut in New York City. We were given a very nice
program, consisting of:

Ouverture Number 6 in G Minor, Francesco Maria Veracini
Suite from "The Fairy Queen", Henry Purcell
Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, J.S. Bach
Concerto Grosso Op. 1, No. 5, Pietro Antonio Locatelli
Suite in F Major from Water Music, George Frideric Handel

The ensemble consisted of seven violins, (three first, four second);
three violas, two violoncellos, one bass viol, one harpsichord, two
oboes, one bassoon, and two horns who joined on the Water Music suite.
We were interested by the fact that the players stood up to perform,
with the exception of the cellists and harpsichord player. We weren't
sure how authentically Baroque this was, but it added a bit of visual
interest, contrasting the general unison of the bows with the swaying
and leaning of the individual players as their style took them.

(This might be a matter of group style. Tafelmusik (German: literally,
"table-music") is a "term denoting music from the 16th and 17th
centuries which was used as background music for feasts, banquets and
other outdoor events." In such case the instrumentalists would probably
most often shuffle into the dining rooms, stand up to play, and leave
when done--.)
All of the pieces were, as far as we could tell, played flawlessly and
with fine interpretation. Indeed, Georgie said that she never cared to
hear the Water Music played by a conventional orchestra again. The
Veracini piece was fun and interesting. Veracini was evidently sort of
the Paganini of his day, being reputed a madman and an alchemist, but
undoubtedly a fine composer. It was good to hear the Fairy Queen pieces
played at the proper dance tempi, with the Baroque oboe filling in for
the counter-tenor voice. Conductor Lamon was joined by first violin
Aisslinn Nosky for a masterful rendition of the Bach Concerto, and the
Locatelli was very fine as well.
The audience responded with a general standing ovation, which drew a
remarkable furioso piece as encore. Unfortunately, no one mentioned the
name of this piece, as I would like to look it up some time.
If Tafelmusik is ever in your area, and you care for the Baroque at all,
they are not to be missed.