Muted fall colors, Ax’s piano recital, Crocetto’s Norma, and some thoughts on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

It’s definitely fall, but we’re not seeing much of the fall colors that usually come to the forests of piedmont North Carolina this time of year.  On Saturday I went to Lake Johnson, where the trees were shedding leaves, but not brightly. It was pretty quiet, and about to rain. I experimented with my neutral density filters, and enjoyed the lake and the trees.

That night, Sally and I went over to Duke for the first concert of its piano recital series.  We ate at Watts Grocery, which we’ve enjoyed in the past. Unfortunately, that night there were no vegetarian entrees on the men. When we raised the issue with our server, he didn’t seem much concerned, and the resulting food was undistinguished.  

Sally and I disagree on the best approach to addressing the problem of restaurants with low appreciation for vegetarians.  She favors talking to them and encouraging them to raise their plant food games. I’m inclined to boycott them, and spend my dining out money where I can wait for my meal with high confidence that there will be food I can enjoy.

The piano recital was by Emanuel Ax, an extremely distinguished concert artist whose recordings I have always enjoyed.  I was very familiar with some of the music from having played it myself (Brahms Op. 79, Chopin Op. 62, No. 1), and found his interpretations of these pieces intelligent and tasteful, though not revelatory.  I very much enjoyed hearing for the first time a set of short contemporary pieces by George Benjamin, which was highly pianistic, with varying textures. Ax used the sheet music for this work, but relied on his memory for the rest.

Ax’s playing was altogether musical, but I really didn’t get swept away until the last piece on  the program, Chopin’s Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22.  Ax is no spring chicken — getting on and off the stage didn’t look easy for him — and I wondered how he was going to meet the intense physical demands of this highly emotional showpiece.  But he did it. It was magnificent, and thrilling.

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the N.C. Opera’s presentation of Bellini’s Norma.  It was superb! The leads were all very fine singers, the chorus was good, and the orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker, sounded particularly rich and full.  But Leah Crocetto as Norma was beyond superlatives. When she sang the famous aria Casta Diva, I nearly lost it, and managed, just, to weep quietly. She sang, and Maestro Walker accompanied, as if this were the first performance ever, and might be the last. Her singing was technically brilliant and musical, but also truly transcendent.  It penetrated and illuminated the extremities of human emotion, from love to fury to despair

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by order of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been much in the headlines, and provoked leaders around the world (with the U.S. president, as usual, a sad exception) to condemn the Saudi government.  Needless to say, it’s a heinous crime. But I’ve been puzzled at such a strong reaction to one killing, while the Saudis’ mass atrocities in Yemen, including blowing up thousands of civilians, rarely make the news.

Addressing this puzzle, Max Fisher wrote a piece this week in the NY Times that’s well worth reading.    Fisher noted that journalists commonly use the device of a single individual’s story to cast light on a larger problem.  I’ve tended to think of this as an inherent weakness of ordinary journalism, but Fisher makes a case that it’s unavoidable and even necessary.  

It’s not just that readers can more easily relate to stories of individuals.  People are wired to understand and feel compassion about a single death, but they can’t do the same in reaction to mass death.  Psychologists have found that people switch off their emotions in reaction to large-scale slaughter as a self-protective measure, which is called collapse of compassion.  

This theory may explain a lot of moral inconsistency and inaction.  It’s really hard to think about the deaths of millions or billions as a result of global warming or a nuclear accident that starts a nuclear war.  Talking about these topics is not something anybody really likes. It’s hard to get them on the political discussion agenda.

The prospects admittedly are not good.  But I was a little cheered by an interview on NPR this weekend with a climate scientist who had a good understanding of how bad an environmental disaster we’re likely to have with a 1.5 Celsius temperature rise.  She pointed out that however bad things get, they can always get worse. A 3 degree rise is not a bad as a 4 degree rise. There is no point while we’re still here that the struggle to prevent a worse disaster is pointless.