Monday, March 30, 2015

When a Circle, Almost, Closes

It used to jar me, those many years ago when I was new to Puerto Rico, and when the unbelievable and the amazing dropped into my life as nonchalantly as my cat might plop into my lap. Then I realized that the Classical idea of different gods ruling different places was true, and the Gods of Puerto Rico tend to be exuberant and wickedly funny.

So I no longer know how I came upon Sara Davis Buechner, though I suspect it was through surfing YouTube, and coming across a clip of “That’s Pathetic,” in which Dr. Sara Davis Buechner traces stile patetico from Beethoven to Mozart. Well, it was obvious: Buechner was one hell of a pianist, but who was she, and why had I not heard of her before?

Melancholy news, Dear Readers: The world is full of extraordinary musicians, and very few of them have climbed sufficiently high to have claimed your attention. But I was curious, and then spent a happy hour listening to a talk Buechner had given about piano pedagogy—not a topic that I, as a cellist, knew anything about, but still fascinating. And it was chilling to learn, as I did in the first five minutes, that even as a professor at the Manhattan School of Music—certainly one of our finest music schools—Buechner was encountering student who couldn’t play a four-octave scale.

All right, I still can’t wrap my head around it, but then I remembered: Thirty years ago, at a University of Wisconsin-Madison event, I met music majors (and I believe they were pianists) who couldn’t identify The Ride of the Valkyries. So, reluctantly, I’m forced to believe that there are piano students out there, about to graduate, about to become teachers of piano themselves, who cannot play scales. Unbelievable.   

Then the coincidences began piling up. I clicked on a New York Times clip (see below) and learned that Buechner had always been Buechner, but had not always been Sara. OK, as a gay man, my encountering a transgendered person is no big deal, but don’t think that it wasn’t a big deal in Buechner’s life. Like so many of us, it took her years to make the decision. After having been a child prodigy, studied on full scholarship Julliard, won many important piano competitions, and played with the most important orchestras in the States and abroad, she faced what I suspect was her most daunting challenge. She went to Thailand and got a sex change operation.

It was a disaster.

Medically, since the “doctor” botched the operation. Professionally, because she went from playing fifty concerts a year to playing almost none. She cycled into depression and hit the booze, and finally, nearly homeless, had to start teaching schoolchildren, since over two hundred universities and conservatories had turned her down. How good was she, this woman? Here’s The Washington Post:

Buechner is the pianist, but the score is the star...This artist becomes the picture of self-effacing restraint, putting thoughtful artistry in the full service of the music.....unceasing drive and intelligence.

Buechner got back on her feet and moved to Canada, where she found greater acceptance, and a job—at last—with the University of British Columbia. A former Juilliard classmate—married, and mother of four—offered to become her agent, and what did she have to lose? Today, Buechner is married to a Japanese woman, and has resumed playing professionally, though not yet with the likes of the New York Philharmonic, et al.

So then it was time to check out Buechner’s website, because in the clip from The New York Times, completely reinforced by the music on her homepage, I was hearing a pianist I had heard many, many times before, and thought I would never hear again.

I was hearing Gunnar Johansen.

When you put the right music with the right musician in the right setting—well, the word “magic” is poor stuff indeed. Johansen had been a grand-student of Liszt, and a student of Egon Petri, and he had a technique that few people else had. And that, I privately thought, was almost a shame, since he tended to play this fiendishly difficult music: Busoni, Friedmann, Liszt. But the magic for me came when he played something as transparently simple as the third movement of the Chopin Piano and Cello Sonata.

It fascinated me, those many months that we prepared it together, since even I could play the notes on the piano. The problem? The piano and the cello are embraced in a rapturous interchange: Think Heloise and Abalard, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde. When we finally performed the piece, I had learned more about phrasing and the exquisite placement of notes that made pianists of an earlier age so extraordinary.

I now think that it was the greater sum of many parts. There was this amazing sense that the music was surging—a deep ocean swell—but never that it was forced. In addition, Johansen varied ever so slightly the tempo within the bar and within a phrase, so that yes, the rhythm was there, but it was never utterly metronomic. (We once, for some reason, played with a metronome, and I was utterly astonished that Johansen got off with the metronome, sailed through the entire piece, and then roared, “WONDERFUL!”) As well, he had what used to be called a “delicate” touch, and much of that—I suspect—had to do with the release of a note, as much as the start of a note.

This is technical, and may not be true—I was and am a cellist. Nor does it matter to anyone but pianists, since if you were there, sitting at candlelight after one of Lorraine’s superb dinners (she was in the kitchen what he was in the studio), and someone summoned the courage to ask Gunnar to play, well, what did you hear?

It was smooth, it was creamy, it was the most polished and beautiful playing that I had heard a pianist make. And it was paradoxically the most utterly civilized and the most completely wild sound imaginable.

I say “wild” since there isn’t, I think, a word for something like the sound of Canada Geese flying overhead on a chilling, damp autumn night. Timeless. Completely connected to nature, almost nature itself.

And so I read her biography, and with whom did she study, among many others?


On to her blog, since I now was smitten, and electronic stalking is the fate of all bloggers. So then it was time to read about Paul Badura-Skoda: A familiar name, since he had been at Wisconsin and had been a great friend of the Johansens. And Buechner had had the same sensation on hearing Badura-Skoda as I had had hearing Johansen. Here’s what she wrote:

But one thing manifested itself from the opening note of the Chopin Waltz in A minor op. 34 no. 2 — the rich cantabile tone of a master’s touch, a sound one simply does not hear very often from pianists these days.

Did I tell you that the “coincidences” were piling up? Because when I checked her schedule, I found that her next performance was the next day in…

…San Juan, Puerto Rico.

What to do? Our son was coming to dinner that night, and Mr. Fernández had a turkey to cook for the next day, since it was and it wasn’t Mamina’s birthday, but that wasn’t the point. She had decreed that it was, and had also decreed the turkey, and when any Puerto Rican mother decrees—and especially Mamina—well, you listen!

But Gunnar was stirring about, as the dead do occasionally, and telling me: Send Buechner an email and tell her you have a gift from Gunnar Johansen. Then take her a pound of coffee—why bring flowers when she’ll likely be flying out the next day?—and a copy of my book, Life, Death and Iguanas, since Gunnar plays a part in it.

But I stayed home, and now, of course, wish I hadn’t. I might have met an extraordinary musician, but that was hardly the point….

…I might have met an extraordinary person!


Sunday, March 29, 2015

So What's Jorge's Problem?

Look, I get why the Gov is frustrated: Indiana did nothing more than what 19 other states did, and one of those states was Illinois, and a state senator named Barack Obama voted for the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Oh, and the national legislation? It passed unanimously the House, and only three senators voted against it; Bill Clinton, who by the way also signed the Defense of Marriage Act, also signed this one.

So to unruffle feathers, I bring you this: the 20 states who have the RFRA:

The states in dark teal are the culprits.

Right—so what about Puerto Rico? Is our religious freedom in jeopardy here? I decide to go check it out with Jorge, the manager of the coffee shop….

“Jorge, there appears to be known or maybe openly-vowed or maybe just practicing homosexuals in the gift shop next door!”


Damn, forgot he lived all those years in San Francisco!

“…and just to let you know, it’s completely OK to refuse to serve them, since that may imply that you support their sinful lifestyle. Oh, and by the way, are you Mormon? Because that means you won’t have to serve anybody anything at all except maybe Perrier and tap water, since all the rest of the stuff the café—now to be called the aquaé, to spare your quivering religious sentiments—serves has caffeine. So feel free—absolutely free—not to serve me coffee anymore, on either of those grounds. I’ll totally get it!”


“Oh, and be the way—I’ll put in a word for you with Lady, and advise her that when you throw out the espresso machine that she finally finished paying off—five thousand bucks is a lot for her, but a crumb compared to the precious jewel that is your religious freedom!—anyway, when you throw that machine out onto the trash, she absolutely can do nothing! No legal recourse whatsoever! In fact, let’s do it! Hey, unplug the machine!”

“Marc, isn’t it early in the day to have started drinking?”

“I’m stone cold sober, I promise you, but you know what? The very presence of the café may be as incendiary as a Swastika hanging from a building in front of a synagogue!”


“And speaking of Lady, we have to get to work on her too, since you know that there are Jehovah’s Witnesses right outside standing around on the plaza, willing to tell you what the Bible really says, which of course everybody should know. So they go to all the trouble of doing that, and what did Lady do? Can you believe it?”

“What, Marc?”

I had to whisper it to him; Lady is my friend, and I’d hate to start a riot, however absolutely justified it might be: “a Christmas tree!”


“The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays, holidays (except for Good Friday, I think) or much of anything, so if, by any chance, you become head of Human Resources for Walmart, well, you’d better have a policy in place for any cashier who very correctly refuses to sully her religious beliefs by touching, much less charging for, a birthday card.”

“Or were you smoking something, Marc?”

I can’t stop now….

“In fact, the presence of anything religiously proscribed has to be considered. Consider, for example, an orthodox Jew walking into a Walmart, and confronted with the sight of pork! Or a Mormon seeing coffee! So all of these religiously-sensitive materials should probably be sequestered in a closed area, with consent forms needed to enter, and children rigorously restricted, since parents totally have the right to determine their children’s religious training and beliefs. Anyway, you definitely should consider moving to Indiana or one of the other 19 states, since I can assure you, your religious freedom is in grave peril here! You remember Pauline, tried to the track as the train races toward her? Well, it’s even worse for your religious freedom.”

Well, all of this had tired me, a bit, and since I had decided not to have a bit of coffee—who knows what faiths might be present in the aquaé—I retired to my seat. But a further issue troubled me, and I decided—I absolutely decided—that I needed to be clear with Jorge on this; a moment couldn’t go by with the situation unaddressed: It was a gaping wound between us.

“Jorge, I want you to know that I was born genetically male, and that I have remained genetically male, and that I present myself as one who has the characteristics, traits, mannerisms, and behaviors consistent with the cultural norms associated with masculinity.”

“Marc, why are you telling me this?”

“Because I am going to go to the bathroom.”


Somehow, his nonchalance enraged me!

“OK? OK? IS THAT ALL YOU CAN SAY—OK? For God’s sake, how do you know I’m not transgendered? How do you know that I don’t have a single Y chromosome in my body? How do you know that I’m not faking it, and passing myself off as a man? Sure, I could pull down the pants and expose the plumbing, but how do you know that all that was there from the beginning?”

“Marc, you gotta lower your voice, we got customers looking at you….”


“That’s the POINT, Jorge! They should be looking, and they should listening, and we should be having this conversation, because as manager, you are legally responsible if a transgendered person uses the bathroom to which he or she was not genetically assigned!”

“You mean, a woman comes in I know she’s transgendered, so I have to tell her to use the men’s room? Even though she’s a total woman?”

How the *&^%$@ can he be so dumb?

“Yes,” I explode, and then go on to tell him, “I am willing to submit a DNA sample, so you should be willing to pick up the cost of analysis. In turn, I demand that everyone who uses the bathroom be tested, or show legal identification and current testing status from a certified laboratory before they are allowed to use the bathroom!”

My nose was a centimeter from his nose; my eyes could have drilled holes in diamonds.

“Or should I consult my legal team?”

Can’t he see? If four states—Arizona, Utah, Kentucky and even that famously liberal state of Minnesota—are considering bathroom legislation, well, shouldn’t he? Or is he going to wait until a she-male stalks and rapes his mother in the john until he takes action? OK—time to bring out the profanity….


Gonna find another café.

…oops, that aquaé 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Saturday Morning Life Changer

I could be dramatic, and tell you that it saved my life.

Or, I could be factual and say that it saved my life. Why? Because I struggled for most of my teenage years with a chronic depression that flared into the acute; during those periods, I would walk the streets thinking of suicide. Then I would go home and practice the cello, often preparing for the next rehearsal of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO).

Obviously, I never committed suicide, nor am I sure of how close I really came. Nor was it just the cello, or WYSO, that kept me alive—but it was a huge part of it. I was tall and lanky, struggling not to admit that I was gay, and not fitting into any discernable clique in high school. So when I played, those three hours on Saturday morning, it was both the chance to escape and to be a part of something larger. 

Here, taken from the official website is the history:

Founded by Dr. Marvin Rabin in 1966, the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) has grown from one single orchestra into a comprehensive program that includes three full orchestras, a string orchestra, chamber music program and a full array of ensemble programs.  Today, WYSO, under the direction of James Smith is recognized as one of the finest youth orchestra programs in the country.

Right—that might be the official history, but who knows the unofficial history? My recollection—quite possibly incorrect—was that Dr. Marvin Rabin was invited to found the orchestra by Professor Richard Wolf. But what prompted Rabin to accept? He had created at least two other youth orchestras—why go to Wisconsin?

But there he was—variously mercurial, raging, loving, cajoling, demanding—charging down the halls of the Humanities Building shortly before nine every Saturday morning, assembling the troops, shouting for Sharon Levanthal to stand up and get Emily Auerbach to give us an A. Then, it was on to rehearse music that, as I now think about it, was of surprisingly high quality, nor was it simple. In my day, it was Shostakovich Fifth, Dvorak’s New World, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture.

It was a small operation, in those days—yes, there was a manager, a former nun named MaryJo Biechler. There was an office, about the size of a bathroom today. Oh, and the phone—but unless I’m wrong, that was it.

There were supporters, who contributed time and energy, often in substantial amounts, and they were often as high-powered as the music, or the idea behind the orchestra. Here’s a list of the life trustees:
Marian Bolz
Shirley Inhorn
Stanley Inhorn
Richard W. Wolf

Marion Bolz? She was the daughter of a woman named Eugenie Mayer Bolz, and that “Mayer” is there for a reason: She was—I think—the granddaughter of Oscar Mayer. Yes, that Oscar Meyer.

The Inhorns? I now realize that he was the director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene—but that was incidental: They were both big champions of music, and Mrs. Inhorn, as I remember, decided in middle age to take up the marimba. And Richard Wolf was a big music educator, and director of the Summer Music Clinic, which was the first of its kind in the nation, as is still going strong.

They would say that who they were wasn’t the point, it was about the kids; here I cannot speak—again!—with any certainty. But I strongly suspect that the WYSO kids went on to do surprisingly diverse things, and do them very well. The Sharan Levanthal who provoked the tweet from Emily Auerbach? Well, Sharan went on to teach at the Boston Conservatory; Emily became a professor of English at UW-Madison, and created the Odyssey Program.

Two of 6,000 people who have been in WYSO, all of whom have stories of their own. What do we have in common? Well, brain functioning, for one thing, since it’s been established that musicians’ brains—time to be smug, here—are both different and in some ways better than non-musicians’ brains. Discipline, of course, since how many hours of practice did you have to put in, to get into and stay in the orchestra? Then there’s the teamwork involved, as well as the magic of being one of 100 plus people all doing the same and beautiful thing.

But there’s more than that: This morning on my walk, what did I listen to? A piece by Hans Gál, about whom I knew nothing until I heard a CD conducted by Kenneth Woods, himself a WYSO alumnus. Confession—I wasn’t wild about it, and so I skipped to a later track, and heard a Schumann Symphony.

Music, in short, is woven into the cloth of my life—as important (nearly) as my husband and (certainly) my friends, books, and writing. Would I have that intensity of feeling for music without WYSO? I suspect not.

There was something else as well: In 1974, I won the concerto competition, and performed twice the famous—and to me ersatz—Boccherini Cello Concerto. OK—I hated it then, I hate it now, but remember that gawky kid I was telling you about? He got an ovation, and it meant a lot.

Curiously, the most memorable thing about WYSO was not a concert or rehearsal, but rather the drive my father made to get me to a rehearsal. Why? Because it was sub-zero, it was snowing hard, and we were the only ones on the road. It was, in fact, a blizzard, but was the rehearsal cancelled? Of course not.

So it was important to him, as it was to so many parents, this opportunity to do something with music, this lifeline that he must have sense was connecting his son. And it was important to my mother, too, who up until the last days of her life wrote out a check to the organization.

And now, in less than a month’s time, the orchestra will have a fundraiser, Art of Note, with the aim of raising $50,000 for scholarships and operational costs; in addition, they will be auctioning some wonderful, whimsical violins. Take a look:

(Rich Readers out there—I want the third one….)

I appeal to rich readers since, well, I am not. I will give some money, but I’ll do a bit more: Each day I will venture into the café where I write, and where there is a small performance area. So I’ll take the cello in, sit down, put a couple of dollars in to prime the hat, and then play Bach solo suites for an hour. I do this anyway, and donate the money to four wonderful organizations that could use some help. Then, I’ll do a formal recital of the first three suites as a fundraiser a week before the official fundraiser in Madison. That will give me time to upload a video clip to a YouTube page I’ve created.

I’m in Puerto Rico, but where has life taken all of us? I know a couple of WYSO alums are in Europe; I suspect we are everywhere, and some of us, certainly, are still playing.

Anybody want to join me?       

Monday, March 23, 2015

Religion or Scam?

Two scenarios: A man knocks on the door of an old lady’s house, and offers to repave her driveway. Instead, he puts on cheap coat of paint, and walks off with two thousand dollars.

That, we all agree, is fraud, and the state has the legitimate interest and obligation to interfere.

Second scenario: A man invites an old lady into his church, which is an old movie theater, tells her that God wants her to be rich, and that God will reward her if she gives “until it hurts,” because that’s the way God will listen.

And what’s this? Well, if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me, so here’s Wikipedia:

Prosperity theology (sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the gospel of success)[A] is a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will increase one's material wealth.

Well, I can tell you all about this because I spent most of the weekend wrapping my head around a Brazilian Church—now the largest in the country—which has spread to over 200 other countries and has an annual income of 735 million bucks.

The church, La Iglesia Universal del Reino de Cristo or The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, was founded in 1977 by “Bishop” Edir Macedo; today, there are eight million followers in Brazil alone and there are 4700 “temples” across the world. Want a more concrete example? In Uganda—always an interesting place for gay people—the church started in 1996, and now has nine “temples.” Here’s one of them:

OK—they’re Pentecostal, they practice “Prosperity Theology,” and they believe in exorcising demons, though when pressed they say that it is all just theater—nothing serious. What else about them?

Well, they seem to get into trouble pretty much everywhere they go: money laundering, failure to register ministers, buying oils and other materials at local supermarkets and reselling them at higher prices as products from Israel, and thus miraculous. In the United States, the treasurer for the church, Regina da Silva, was convicted of obtaining 22 million dollars in fraudulent mortgages that benefitted the church. Two Brazilians, Marcelo Marini Bismarck and Cristina Rodríguez, allegedly shipped 420 million dollars over a six-year period from 1995-2001.  In addition, The Guardian had this to say in 2011:

Three leading members of one of Brazil's most powerful churches have been accused of laundering millions in church donations and using worshippers' money for personal gain.

The charges, unveiled on Monday by São Paulo's public prosecutor, relate to 404m reals (£150m) allegedly obtained from mostly impoverished churchgoers by leaders at Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

The church, as you can imagine, has critics: Here’s one quote from the New York Post:

“There is nothing we can do legally,” said Heather Browne, state’s attorney spokeswoman. “There’s a problem here – but we cannot legally sue.” Victoria and Jesus Lorenzo of Houston left the church after giving $60,000. They lost their office-cleaning business and went bankrupt.

“They left us in the street,” said Victoria Lorenzo. “It got to the point that we had to give them all our money – literally they were asking members in the church to empty their pocketbooks on the altar.”

All of this would be bad enough, but check out this picture, taken from a blog post titled “Un ejército Cristiano para exterminar a los gays or “A Christian Army to Exterminate Gays.”

…or especially this:

Then there’s this:

Who are all these people? According to the church, they are young men—called the Gladiadores del Altar and part of the Fuerza Joven Universal—who have had problems, turned to Christ, and are preparing to be pastors. But a gay legislator, Jean Wyllys, in Brazil caused a flurry of activity in the Spanish social networks by asking the following:

Ahora están formando un ejército, ¿cuándo nos daremos cuenta del monstruo que emerge de la laguna? ¿Cuando comiencen a ejecutar a los que llaman infieles? ¿Cuando empiecen a empujar a los homosexuales desde las torres, como el ISIS? No porque tenga la palabra cristiano deja de ser más peligroso este tipo de fundamentalismo”.

(“Now they’re forming an army: When will we see that monster emerge from the lagoon? When they start executing the infidels? When they start pushing the homosexuals from the towers, as did ISIS? No, because the word “Christian” lets that form of fundamentalism be more dangerous.”)

Wyllys also notes that under Brazilian law, paramilitary organizations are illegal. The church claims that that’s rubbish, and points out that the Boy Scouts and the Legionaries of Christ have similar traits. And listening to the clip below, the message is rather innocuous, unless the bit about going into hell each day to cleanse the sinner struck a nerve or two.

And watching the second clip, in which the founder of the church is directing another minister to perform an “exorcism” of a young gay man—well, wait, if the state of California can make conversion therapy illegal, what’s the deal here?

But poking around, I realized that there’s more, since I went into the Departamento de Estado, which registers churches as well as corporations, and guess what? The Catholic Church is there, as is the—arguably—most famous of the gay churches, the Metropolitan Community Church, which here in Puerto Rico is called Iglesia de la Comunidad Cristo Sanador. But what happens when you type in this? Take a look:

Or what about the name that the church also goes by: Pare de Sufrir?

In fact, Pare de Sufrir was quite familiar to me, since I rode the bus every day past the movie theater which had been abandoned all those years and then had become…you can guess.

“Hey,” said Lady, the owner of the café where I write, “you should register yourself and become the legal owner of those names. Then you could turn around and sue them!“

“Get a gun,” said my New-York city lawyer / brother, when I explained this brilliant scheme. So then I wondered, were these guys registered in New York?   


So I thought about it—should this old atheist finally come to Jesus, and become the minister of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God? I actually started the process of inscription, when it occurred to me: Do I want to be affiliated with, or the legal head of such a gang of gangsters? Somehow, I didn’t hit that “submit” button.

I never had much truck with churches, since the church I grew up in was solidly middle class, and didn’t have too many problems to deal with. It was a different age, and of course the problems were there: The drunkenness, the wife-beating, physical abuse. But if any of those were being addressed—and I doubt it—I didn’t see it.

But once I was playing a Christmas service in Cristo Sanador, and couldn’t help but notice that a woman was sobbing all the way through it. People would come, put their arm around the woman, hold her hand. Then they drifted of; another one came.

“Her family kicked her out, saying she was possessed with demons, and they didn’t want ever to see her again. So this Christmas, at least, we’re pretty much all she has….”

That’s what Pablo, my friend and then minister of the church, had to say. So I may start a church, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God Reformed. But there’s one thing I do know…

…there won’t be a place for Bishop Macedo and his fellow bastards in it!