The Vilisar Times

The life and times of Ronald and Kathleen and our voyages aboard S/V Vilisar, a 34.5-foot wooden Wm-Atkin-designed sailing cutter launched in Victoria, BC, Canada, in 1974. Since we moved aboard in 2001 Vilisar has been to Alaska, British Columbia, California, Mexico, The Galapagos and mainland Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Catonsville, MD, 30 August 2008

We leave here next Wednesday on our way back to Guayaquil. But first we stop for a week in Dallas, Texas, to visit my 93-year-old Mum and my sister, Lois. Mum is physically perhaps no longer as spry as a 40-year-old- “Being old is not for wimps!” she says – but, she’s very much still with it. When we last visited her at the time of her 90th birthday celebration, she had asked us to do a song recital at the nursing home where she lives. I was unprepared for that at the time since I had no place to practise. She hadn’t forgotten, however. When Mum heard that we were coming, she immediately brought the subject up again. So, I have put together a programme, found the music at the venerable Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, made copies and begun to practise again.

I have often said that the single thing that I miss most about the cruising life is music. I don’t mean just whistling a tune or even singing on the boat. Anybody can do that. I miss the challenge, the concentrated work needed to prepare for a concert, learning each song and then honing it so it is as expressive as possible. Music is so local: you always have to be at some specific place to sing; you usually have to be in some specific place even to organise it. Aboard a sailboat, of course, you are nearly always on the move - or at least not in any one place for long. Anyway, I would estimate that not many of our cruising friends are actually much interested in the kind of music I specialise in (Lied and oratorio). Here in Baltimore at least it has been fun to sing in Kathleen’s church choir at St. Mark’s-on-the-Hill in Pikesville, like Catonsville, a Baltimore suburb. I have also done some solos and duets during services and will, in fact, sing a solo tomorrow at the church in Alexandria, Virginia, where she will substitute this weekend again. But now, a whole programme!

Preparing a complete recital of solo music is a big challenge. A leading soloist might sing for only a total of about 20-30 minutes during an opera performance, even though he or she might be on stage much longer. A recitalist, on the other hand, has to carry the whole thing alone with a pianist for an hour or more.

Mindful of this and of the limited time to prepare, I decided not to try to learn anything totally new for this recital. I remember when I was learning all these songs back in Frankfurt! What a lot of hours in the practice room! I estimated that each two or three-minute song took on average of about 35 hours to learn for the first performance. That’s getting close to a full work-week for each song! Getting your first recitals together therefore required a lot of lead time.

At the beginning my voice is croaky and tires quickly. But after a few days of practising I am happy to note that my voice is still fairly elastic and youthful-sounding, although perhaps a little darker and lower nowadays. I bring to mind Cornelius Reid’s dicta that if you sing 'naturally' you can sing into high old age, and that there is no need to sing unnecessarily loudly. Everybody can hear you even at pianissimo. That removes a lot of pressure and lets my voice warm up and remain supple. At the beginning I put in earplugs to prevent myself from over-singing’ in the dry practice room. It's a good trick I learned when working on J.S. Bach’s complex and demanding coloratura passages. I have a strong middle register and can sing nearly as high as a counter-tenor. The hard part is at the break, for me between F# and G#, where the head voice and the chest voice have somehow to mix while keeping the same vocal colour throughout the whole range. Tenors are always singing over “the break”, and the old masters said that it takes seven years to make a tenor, i.e., to learn to handle “the break”. The 'mix' seems to be coming together this week again. Nevertheless, I always found singing Schubert in ‘tenor’ versions more than a little tiring, though other composers, Schumann, Brahms or Stra
uss for example, did not effect me that way. This time I found a version of Schubert songs set for “Light Baritone”. I feel much happier with these.

I am also pleased that the songs now after so long seem so fresh again. I don’t have to spend hours repetitively rehearsing, say, the sometimes odd rhythms and intervals of a Richard Strauss song. The pieces come back rapidly and I can spend my time polishing each sentence and each word of the poem as set to music. I have decided not to stress myself out completely by trying to perform from memory. That ought to make life easier.

So here are the songs:

Franz Schubert
In addition to Der Musensohn (The Muses’ Son, a poem by Goethe), several songs from Schubert’s famous, early-Romantic song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (The Pretty Maid of the Mill). Kathleen groaned when she heard this; those constant and insistent broken chords are killers for the accompanist! Even she has to practise!

Robert Schumann ( )
Die Lotusblume and Der Nussbaum (The Lotus and the Nut Tree), two extremely romantic poems by Mosen and Heine set to Schumann’s fabulously rich piano accompaniments. Then Widmung (Dedication), the young Schumann’s declaration of love to Clara Wieck, and Die Beiden Grenadiere (The Two Grenadiers), Heinrich Heine's hoary old poem about two French soldiers, survivors of Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign. Schumann cleverly integrates snippets of La Marseilliase into the piece ( Corny but effective. That piece ought to wake up the octagenarians at the home!

Richard Strauss ( ).
Any of Strauss’s art songs are lush and interesting. The piano part reminds me so much of Strauss’s orchestral music, in Der Rosenkavalier for example, where the chords are thick and
wide and the music swells up briefly and very emotionally between the singer’s lines and then dies away within a bar or two. The accompaniment line plays with the singer, sometimes taking over the whole melodic line itself. The song group includes Zueignung (Dedication), Du, Meines Herzens Krönelein (You, My Heart’s Diadem), Breit über mein Haupt (Spread over my Face), and Allerseelen (All Soul’s Day). Performing these songs well is to a singer what batting a pitch out of the ball park is for a baseball player.

Purcell: Passing By
Old Irish Air: The Last Rose of Summer
Old English Air: Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes
Edvard Grieg: I Love Thee, Dear
Leonard Bernstein: A Simple Song (from Mass)

So, how's that for a programme? All the music has been photocopied for the recital and arrangements have been made to perform in Dallas next Thursday afternoon. I am practising about two hours a day now and enjoying it. Since I have no place to rehearse once I get to Dallas, we asked to schedule the recital as soon after arriving as possible. Singing in retirement homes means being sure not to make the recital too long or elderly people start getting restless. That’s fine; we’ll keep it short and sharp. I love doing recitals and I love the preparation for them almost as much. I hope the listeners will enjoy the recital as much as I plan to do. Thanks to Kathleen for her wonderful playing. Mum ought to be pleased.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Will Progressive hearts be broken if Barack Obama becomes president of the U.S.A.

The race between Barack Obama and John McCain for U.S. president is still wide open and it still looks set to be a close-run thing. Fortunately in some ways for Obama, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have gone out of the headlines. And, curiously enough, the Bush administration and the McCain campaign might like to have it come back to the centre of attention.

If the military build-up referred to as “The Surge” has not been the cause of reduced violence in Iraq, it has at least preceded it in time, and the radically-idealistic militarists in power in Washington are quite happy to claim that they have been right all along. With the possible exception of the left-wing blogosphere, discussion in the United States about its miscellaneous current wars almost never illuminates the illegality or immorality of attacking small and relatively weak countries; debate centres far more on how well the current overseas civilian resistance to American hegemony is being quashed. In other words, people here only seem to talk about whether military actions are currently “successful” or efficacious. The American public grows quickly bored and equates slow 'progress' with failure. Anyway, despite now nearly two hundred years of evidence to the contrary, the average American view is that with rare exceptions their country does only good stuff abroad. Criticism is therefore quickly dismissed as anti-American.

My point is, “The War(s)” have gone off the TV screens. Bush, Cheney and McCain are claiming that The Surge has worked and troops can be scheduled to be withdrawn. Even the Iraqi government seems eager for U.S. troops to clear out. I predicted earlier that Republicans would easily be able to undermine Obama’s critique of the War in Iraq by first achieving some measure of calm over there and then start making at least token troop reductions. This is exactly what is now happening. As Bush et alia stole his thunder, Obama then responded by promising to bring the troops home from Iraq by 2010, implying that Bush would retain U.S. soldiers in Iraq after suppressing the local resistance. Bush then checkmated Obama by agreeing with the Iraqi prime minister on a timeline for withdrawal. Now either 2010 or early 2011 seems to be agreed.

Left with not much by way of “Change you can believe in” as far as Iraq is concerned, Obama then switched wars. He said that as president he intended to increase the military overall and to boost the numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. “[Afghanistan] is the war we have to win”, stated Mr. Obama to show his international leadership qualities. Once an administration commits to overseas action, nobody ever gets elected in the States urging peace until even the dumbest voter might begin to suspect that one should stop digging the hole deeper. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush’s administration is also now saying the U.S.A. needs to focus more on Afghanistan where military casualties are currently exceeding those in Iraq. General Petraeus (McCain’s top choice for his personal hero!) is being put in charge.

Before assuming the role of the strong international (i.e., war-time) leader, Mr. Obama was fond of stating - quite correctly, in my opinion - that one had to start talking to one’s competitors and enemies (like Nixon in China or Reagan with the Soviet Union). Ironically and however ham-fistedly, that is just what Condoleeza Rice is now doing with Iran and Syria. We shall see if the Georgia conflict will bring out their worst, but certainly the Bush administration has moved increasingly away from its highly confrontational and militarily aggressive stances on international problems just at a time when Mr. Obama might have been able to gain votes for a pragmatic foreign policy. The administration, in other words, is stealing Obama’s election arguments. The poll results are still close so it is tough to tell if McCain is benefiting from this. If the Republican contender were any less klutzig and shifty he might well be in the lead.

Change you can believe in

A bigger issue is now just how much “change you can believe in” is Mr. Obama actually offering nowadays. As mentioned, the Republicans have moved to take over some of his more pragmatic planks. With the Democratic primaries behind him Mr. Obama can now safely ignore the progressive wing of the party; where else can those voters go except into hiding on election day? He has shifted to the political middle, although the rhetoric sounds right-wing and makes him sound like a hack politician without any idea of the new quagmire he is driving the cart into.

Big talk about beefing up the military effort in Afghanistan, expanding the campaign to Pakistan if those guys don‘t shape up over there – where’s the change? Indeed it’s the same old line about “American prestige”, the War-on-Terror and the “the-line-in-the-sand” metaphors. A change you could believe in would be to cut back the U.S. armed forces to less than half. Change you could believe would mean giving up “equip-and-train” missions in some 47 (sic) overseas countries (as in Latin America of old, these missions are designed less to train local armies to defend themselves against aggressors than to police their own citizens). Change you could believe in would mean abandoning the hundreds of FOB (Forward Operations Bases) around the world. Change you could believe in would be to abandon the ridiculously expensive, provocative and doubtfully effective anti-ballistic missile system just being introduced into Poland, the Czech Republic and the international ballistic-missile equation. Change you could believe in would be to stop trying to encircle Iran and Russia and to grab the world’s oil fields while using small countries like Georgia as pawns. Change you could believe in would be to put the newly mobilised U.S. Navy’s 4th Battle Fleet (to patrol the Caribbean, believe it or not!) back into the mothballs where it has been since World War II, and to stop threatening New-Deal countries in Latin America. Change you could believe in would be to stop pouring billions every year into Columbia as America’s neo-conservative stalking horse in South America. Change you could believe in would be to stop playing king-maker in the Balkans. Change you could believe in would be to stop the incredibly huge range of “dark” or covert operations run now by the Defense (sic) Department instead of the politically more accountable CIA. Change you could believe in would be to stop unconditionally backing Israel while it ethnically cleanses Palestine. Change you could believe in would end the embargo against Cuba.

Georgia on my mind

Just at this juncture violence flares up in Georgia resurrecting ingrained old fears of Russian hegemony. Within days the Russians have become this month’s Bad Guy of the Year. American voters are quite unaware of the game that the U.S.A. itself has been playing in Eastern Europe and the Stans since the fall of the Soviet Union. The strategic encirclement policies that once led to the formation of NATO in the 1950’s are now being applied to Iran. NATO has as a consequence moved a long way east and southeast and the Russians have been protesting loudly about it for years. As long as Russia was economically weak, however, and political control in Russia unconsolidated, Moscow was unable to do much. But the price of oil is up and Russia is economically much more confident, and Putin et alia’s hold on government is now much more secure. Moscow can therefore be much more assertive. This at a time when they are feeling very threatened.

Throughout modern history Russian has identified itself with Slavs outside the country. So, for example, in Kosovo and Serbia. And so too over the last decade in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which unlike the Balkans, lie right on Russia’s own doorstep. More importantly, however, Putin and his fellows in Moscow are determined to show the limits of American power along the borders of Russia. Bush’s bluff is being called. Reagan promised Gorbachev that ‘The West’ would not to move into the buffer zone of hived-off, post-soviet Eastern-European satellites like Poland, Ukrainia or the Baltic states. This promise has been broken. So Russia’s moves in Georgia are also to be understood as a warning to other neighbours not to get any cockier than they have been till now.

Russian military activities in Georgia are a reason for the militarily-stronger European members of NATO now to think seriously about just what it means to have Georgia as a fellow NATO partner. Germany and France have already said that they are not in favour, presumably because they are, quite reasonably, not mentally prepared or physically able to come to the aid of a small state like Georgia if it is attacked. This is realpolitik. NATO could no more realistically come to Georgia’s assistance than Great Britain was able to defend Poland against the Nazis in 1939. Except for nuclear or conventional missiles and aircraft (which the Russians might in fact be able to intercept), Georgia is way beyond NATO’s military reach and is destined to remain so. Georgia is moreover an unstable state full of ethnic conflicts (like that in South Ossetia). The president of Georgia, Mr. Sakashvili, has provoked the conflict in part not only by accepting U.S. military equipment and training and agitating to join NATO; he has taken the military build-up meant for defence and re-invaded ethnic-Russian South Ossetia, then agreeing to a ceasefire when the Russians became involved and finally breaking the ceasefire himself. No sane government in Germany, France or Britain should care to see their horse hitched to that particular runaway cart. Opposition politicians might deliver themselves of macho speeches but the reality is different. NATO, once only a defensive alliance, might have morphed in the last generation into an offensive league (q.e.d. The Balkans, Afghanistan, etc.), but, so far, major European members are disinclined to let Mr. Shaakashvili drag them into a war. Dick Cheney might think that Georgia is a sufficient cause for war, even a nuclear war; but he may find that that is too much change even for him to believe in.

Mr. Obama too is wagging his finger at the Russians in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia, puffing up his chest, talking the presidential talk and walking the presidential walk. There is however a bigger issue. Since winning the Democratic primaries and becoming the putative Democratic presidential candidate, Obama has headed for the “extreme middle”.

This is about where President Clinton used to find himself when it came to sending in the cruise missiles to solve a problem. Mr. Clinton used the Democratic Party to become president. No doubt he is a moderately liberal man. But his failed healthcare initiative early in his first term was his last 'liberal' measure. After that, to be re-elected, he took to gutting welfare support for the needy, pushing the NAFTA cause that accelerated the draining away of blue-collar (and now hi-tech and white collar) jobs, focussing instead on building up budget surplusses and providing safety nets for Wall Street excesses. Since there is no Democratic or Republican Party between elections and since America's leading two political parties have no guiding philosophies (there are only vague leanings; the party philosophy is essentially whatever the current winning candidate says it is), these parties are easily shanghaied by ambitious individuals who do with them what they want.

The progressive wing of the party is dismayed at Mr Obama's Clinton-esque new posture, internationally at least sometimes indistiguishable from Republicans. They are coming to the realisation that they have helped Obama to be nominated but they have no more say about platform. Since Obama is the sole functioning homo sapiens in the race nowever, progressives have nowhere else to go. Unless they stay at home, of course: a possibility. Progressives will have to hold their noses and vote for him. One wonders about the numerous young and first-time voters; in search of a hero and desirous of change; will they be sufficiently disenchanted to stay home in November? Whatever, the fight is now for the middle, the “independents”, the fence-sitters and the undecideds. And the moderately conservative right.

Known-knowns and unknown-unknowns

Dedicated Obama supporters will sometimes tell you that he has to say these things to get elected, to pick up the moderate or independent or white, working-class voters. After he is in the White House he will of course act differently. But, doesn’t that mean that one is voting for a known prevaricator (as opposed to the unknown liar, George W. Bush in 2000)? And in this scenario, Obama comes to the White House having cynically campaigned either to get the votes of the progressives during the Democratic primaries or the votes of the middle and right in the presidential election. Sure, he would have got himself elected. But as president, he would not be obliged to the progressive left since he will be promising them nothing but warm potage between the Democratic Conventon and the presidential election in November. He will make all the right noises going forward. But one look at his policy advisors (some of whom will certainly morph into cabinet ministers at a later date)and you will see amongst them old Cold Warriors like Madelaine Albright and Zbigniew Brzezinski and Wall Streeters like Robert Rubin and James Furmin. If anything Mr Obama will have to honour promises that he is making to the conservative right about just how militaristic American foreign policy is to remain and just how liberal his ecomonic and social policies can be.

Is that change you can believe in?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Catonsville, MD, Tuesday, 05 August 2008

Leaving our friends in Framingham, MA, after two weeks, we headed for Madison, NJ, to visit other old friends that we had known and sung with in Frankfurt. A wonderful visit and great to see Julia and Chuck and the kids again.

On the way to Madison we drove along the Hudson River and stopped at Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY, where Kathleen'S mother had lived as a child, and where her parents and maternal grandparents are buried. Once you start tracing names and places you get rather caught up in the chase.

The Hudson River is spectacular. It is broad and deep and runs between high wooded banks for hundreds of miles into the interior. No wonder Henry Hudson and many who came after him were sure that the river must cut all the way through the continent to form a navigable passage for ships. It didn't and doesn't, of course. But it does go a long way and, with the construction of the Erie Canal from Albany, NY, to Lake Erie near Buffalo, NY, a viable commerical artery was created in the early days of the USA that lasted until the arrival of the railroads by mid-19th Century.

Leaving Madison after two nights we headed back to Baltimore with a brief stop to visit one of Kathleen's long-lost cousins. It has been over forty years since they have seen each other; they were still teeenagers when various branches of the family met for summer vacations at the lake.

Arriving back in Catonsville, Contessa Chessie was doing somersaults to greet our arrival. She hadn't forgotten us after all.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Catonsville, MD, 01 August 2008

It was great to see Julie and Beth as well as Micah in New England for a few weeks to inspect colleges and universities for Micah. Unfortunately we weren't able to see Kaethe who was attending a girls choir workshop at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Micah and Kaethe were aboard Vilisar with us in the Sea of Cortes in Summer 200. Unfortunately, I have no photos of that period any more as they were stolen with our old computer during the robbery in Venezuala.

To the person who left a message about common ancestors, please send me an email at