La Traviata in a Philadelphia Market

May 30, 2010

Earlier this month I linked to the opera company of Valencia performing excerpts from La Traviata in the central market. Well, it’s spreading. Here’s the Opera Company of Philadelphia singing the brindisi from the same opera in a local market.


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Recording of the Week: Hummel Piano Sonatas 2 and 5

May 30, 2010

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837) was one of the most celebrated musicians of his time. Born in what was then Hungary but is now Slovakia, Hummel was a child prodigy. He soon found his way to Vienna where he lived and studied with Mozart for two years. He also studied with Haydn and Salieri. He knew Beethoven and was considered at least his equal at the piano. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of any period. He also knew Schubert who dedicated his last three piano sonatas to Hummel. By the time they were published both musicians were dead so the dedication was changed to Schumann. Chopin was a great admirer of both Hummel’s compositions and playing. Hummel taught some of the greatest pianists of the mid 19th century – eg, Sigismond Thalberg.  He ended his life in Weimar where, along with Goethe, he was the cultural star of the city. In life he was world famous, in death oblivion.

What happened? Mostly it was Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert whose lives overlapped his. Their music and that of the great composers who followed overwhelmed Hummel who was thought to be old fashioned and inferior. Regardless of cause, Hummel’s posthumous lot was silence; he was a footnote to the classical age of music. His only composition that most musically literate people knew was the trumpet concerto which was apologetically performed as a virtuoso vehicle for a gaudy trumpet player. It’s likely that Hummel himself was intimidated by the greatness that surrounded him. He wrote no symphonies. I suspect Beethoven scared him away from the form.

Recently there has been a gradual resurgence in interest in Hummel’s music. The author of about 175 compositions, his best work is for piano – sonatas, chamber music, and concertos are prominent among his output. His writing for piano requires a skill that only the finest pianists possess. He started out as a Haydn/Mozart epigone. But by the time he was forty he had developed into a progenitor of romanticism in music.

His work, at its best, is tightly constructed and harmonically advanced. The two compositions that are on the featured disc show both Hummel’s development and his originality. His second sonata written in 1809 (Op 13) is very interesting. Its first movement sounds like he’d never heard a note of Beethoven. It’s well constructed, but it sounds as if written forty years earlier. The adagio that follows is from a different world. It has its’ own voice and quite lovely. The final movement, marked allegro con spirito, is a rousing display of vigor and virtuosity. Ian Hobson, the soloist on this recording, gets everything possible out of it.

The 5th sonata (Op 81) was written 10 years after the 2nd. In this great piece, likely his most adventurous work for solo piano, Hummel is deep within the romantic era. The first movement is more a fantasy than a sonata form movement. Its feel and weight are those of music written decades later. It’s worthy of comparison to Schubert and Schumann at their best. The second movement seems like Chopin though the great Pole was only nine years old when this work in F Sharp Minor appeared. Listen to the opening of this movement (Largo) and you’ll hear why everyone who listens to it thinks of Chopin. The final movement presents a technical challenge built around a folk-like dance theme. The sonata is a masterpiece that deserve frequent performance.

It’s clear that Hummel was a great composer. Though not in the front rank with Beethoven and Schubert, he was right behind. His music is just beginning to be rediscovered after languishing for more than a century and a half. I’ll return to his work in later posts.

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Brazil’s Income Tax

May 28, 2010

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton just gave a speech in which she said: The rich are not paying their fair share in any nation that is facing the kind of employment issues (the United States is), whether it’s individual, corporate, whatever the taxation forms are. Brazil has the highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere and guess what — it’s growing like crazy. And the rich are getting richer, but they’re pulling people out of poverty … There is a certain formula there that used to work for us until we abandoned it, to our regret in my opinion.

Brazil’s income tax rates are presented below. As you can see they are lower than that of the US, Canada, and all of the countries in Western Europe. Corporate taxes are also lower in Brazil than in the US. Brazil does have a VAT which averages 17%.

Thus, Brazil has a tax regime which places a greater burden on the average worker than it does on the rich. If they are pulling themselves out of poverty, as the Secretary says, they are doing so with a low maximal income tax rate which is not what she implies. If we take her at her word Brazil should raise their maximal income tax rate. If the rich are getting richer in Brazil it might be because they are taxed less than in the US. Furthermore, if Brazil’s economy continues to grow its tax to GDP ratio will rapidly fall unless taxes are raised. But there’d be no reason to raise taxes with a rapidly growing economy which is benefiting all the people of the country.

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Is Kayexalate Safe and Effective?

May 25, 2010

Ion-Exchange Resins for the Treatment of Hyperkalemia: Are They Safe and Effective? is the title of a Clinical Commentary in this month’s Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Kayexalate is the brand name of the commonly prescribed cation exchange resin sodium polystyrene sulfonate (SPS) used to treat hyperkalemia (high blood potassium).

The drug was first marketed in 1958 four years before the FDA required that makers of new drugs show that they were safe and efficacious. Since then it has been widely used and generally considered safe and efficacious. I have given it or watched it be given to thousands of patients and have never observed a complication attributed to its use. But recently the benign impression of the resin held by most physicians has been challenged.

Studies demonstrating the effectiveness of SPS in humans have not been as robust as would now be required were this drug under FDA review today. While it does seem to be effective in reducing potassium levels in hyperkalemic patients, it appears to take several days to do the job.

Soon after it was released doctors recognized that it could cause severe constipation and even life threatening intestinal impaction. Accordingly it was given with the over the counter osmotic laxative sorbitol. For decades everything seemed fine, “but by 2005, the FDA had received 35 adverse event reports of serious bowel injuries associated with both oral and rectal of the mixture (SPS and 70% sorbitol), many of them fatal.” [Quotation from above article, parenthesis added by me.] On the basis of animal work sorbitol was considered the culprit. The FDA soon recommended that the sorbitol concentration be reduced to 33% though 70% sorbitol is still marketed as an over the counter laxative.

Yet reports of bowel injury, some fatal following use of SPS and 33% sorbitol have been reported. The authors of this commentary conclude : “Clinicians must weigh uncontrolled studies showing benefit against uncontrolled studies showing harm. It would be wise to exhaust other alternative for managing hyperkalemia before turning to these largely unproven and potentially harmful therapies.

It’s hard to know what to make of these observations. Much of what doctors do is based on shaky evidence. While my experience with SPS is greater than most doctors, it’s small considering how many doses of the drug are administered yearly – 5 million. Prudence demands that we cast a jaundiced eye on SPS though controlled studies examining the safety  and effectiveness of the preparation will likely never be done.

Armida Not Live in HD

May 20, 2010

Tiepolo: Rinaldo and Armida in the Garden

I was out of the country when Rossini’s rarity Armida was telecast live from the Met May 1. Accordingly, I went to the repeat broadcast. Never before performed at the Met Rossini wrote the piece in 1817 for Naples’ San Carlo as a vehicle for his future wife Isabella Colbran. Renée Fleming was the reason for its appearance in New York. While anything by Rossini is of interest to any opera lover, Armida is Rossini a notch or two below his best.

The story is pretty weak even by the standards of early 19th century Italian opera. The sorceress Armida loves the warrior Rinaldo. He runs away with her to her magic island. They have a good time together. Two of Rinaldo’s colleagues find there way to the Island. They shame him into returning to his duties as as a soldier. Armida vows vengeance and the opera end. This takes about three hours, more than four with the Met’s gargantuan intermissions. The story was based on Torquato Tasso’s then well known poem Gerusalemme Liberata.

While typical of its period Armida is also a bit  ahead of it. It’s through written with the recitatives and numbers skillfully linked so that the transitions are almost unnoticed. But vocal pyrotechnics are the only reason for producing it. Ms Fleming’s voice is still a beautiful instrument, but as she declared during the first intermission it’s best suited for Mozart and Strauss. She doesn’t have the coloratura skills of Joan Sutherland or the vocal thrust and bite of Maria Callas which is needed for Armida’s intense vocal outbursts. The best singing and the loveliest music of the performance were the duets for Armida and Rinaldo.

Fleming’s lack of fire was particularly noticeable in the opera’s conclusion when Armida chooses vengeance over love. If you want to hear how this should be sung listen to Callas’s performance recorded live in Florence in 1952. The sound’s not good, but you can still hear how the part should be sung.

The opera is famous for its six tenor parts. The Met had five. Barry Banks sang both Gernando in the first act and Carlo in the third. Bruce Ford had been engaged to sing Goffredo, who appears only in the first act, but he was a no show and Charles Osborn sang the part. What the original tenor lineup was is not known to me. Kobie van Rensburg was Ubaldo, and Yeghishe Manucharyan was Eustazio.

The lead tenor part, Rinaldo, was sung by Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee has an airy voice that is produced virtually entirely from the throat. Though he managed the difficult part well enough and had the high notes it demands, his voice is not particularly attractive. There’s a shift of gears as he goes from mid range to high.

Charles Osborn’s voice has coarsened since I last heard him several years ago. His top is no longer as free and easy as it was. Barry Banks has a solid voice and technique though subtly is not part of his singing. Rensburg has a frail voice in contrast to his tall stature. he was the only tenor clearly taller than Ms Fleming. Mr Manucharyan didn’t have a lot to do. Bass Keith Miller showed that it was possible to sing while walking on the backs of furies.

This production was Mary Zimmerman’s third shot at bel canto. While it wasn’t as embarrassing as her two earlier productions it still didn’t hit the mark. Just because the story is a fable doesn’t mean you have to give it a camp staging. It seems clear that she doesn’t have a feel for opera.

The furies (devils with horns and tails) that were wriggling around the stage at the beginning of the second act were pretty silly. This was followed by a long ballet that featured devils in drag, they wore tutus. The ballerinas placed fruit on their heads. I was immediately transported back to my youth and visions of Carmen Miranda.  The ballet, though well performed, hardly seemed appropriate for an erotic liaison in a pleasure palace. Then there were the fiery dragons specified in the libretto – there weren’t any. Armida may have chosen vengeance, but she struck a pose rather than destroying her pleasure palace. And there were the signs telling us what was happening. Ms Zimmerman used the device to general disdain in La Sonnambula. It wasn’t any better here.

Gary Halvorson’s closeups weren’t kind to Armida’s nymphs. What were all those chubby middle aged women doing in a pleasure palace? But they sang well enough. Riccardo Frizza managed to keep things moving sufficient to abort slumber. Richard Hudson’s sets and costumes were bright and cheery in keeping with the general lack of seriousness that characterized this staging.

Armida deserves an occasional production, but only when the right soprano (or mezzo-soprano) is available. Ms Fleming is a fine artist, but this role is not the best showcase for her talent.

Honda’s New Mobility Device

May 18, 2010

I don’t know if this is going to catch on, but it’s a clever idea. It likely shows where we’re headed in helping people who have difficulty walking.

Progress With An Artifical Pancreas

May 17, 2010

For decades physicians have wondered why the development of an artificial pancreas has been so slow. Such a device should be the perfect treatment for patients with type 1 diabetes. An artificial pancreas would combine the already available insulin pump with a sensing device that would monitor blood sugar thus enabling insulin to be infused when glucose rises and to be discontinued when it falls.

Wired magazine has an interesting article on the subject. It details the slow progress that has characterized work in this field and describes where we are now. As an interested observer of this field, but not an active worker in it, I’ve been puzzled for decades as to why such a life saving machine has not appeared sooner. The technology required for its development has been available for a long time.

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