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Monday, Dec. 28, 2009

Star artists reveal the essence of a nation's bureaucratic ways


LOS ANGELES — In America, trying to understand what makes other complex countries and cultures tick is usually done in the university classroom, through travel abroad or by following the mass news media. But there's another option that sometimes produces gold: Peering into other cultures through the behavior of their stars and artists.

Take Hideki Matsui, my favorite active baseball player who until recently played on what used to be my favorite American baseball team, the New York Yankees. Amazingly, the Japanese-born slugger garnered the title of Most Valuable Player in the recent World Series, the first Japanese ever so honored. He well deserved it. A hitting virtuoso, he almost won the deciding game single-handedly.

It was a performance to remember, but here is the complaint: the callow management of the New York Yankees had no trouble dissing him. For various reasons, it did not try to re-sign Matsui, who was quickly snapped up by the Los Angeles Angels — now my favorite team. Further, I want nothing to do with the Yankees and am officially resigning as a fan, after decades of active cheering.

I also want nothing to do with that sick part of American culture that regards everybody and everything as little more than disposable and negotiable economic factors, and which treats its "workers" (even superstar employees) as commodities to be shoved around like furniture. That kind of purely materialistic and manipulative behavior in Matsui's own deeply embedded home culture is less common. This is one reason I greatly respect Japan.

Speaking of Japan, our English-language news media have been making a big deal about some recent Beijing-Tokyo flirtations. Xi Jinping, the heir-apparent to China's No. 1 honcho, Hu Jintao, recently paid a controversial courtesy call to the honored Emperor of Japan. The dramatic gesture seems to have divided the Japanese people into those who welcome the warming and those who believe their Emperor should have played harder to get.

To understand the latter view, one needs to revert to the true artist for insight and not rely on mere journalism. One good way is to review director Ang Lee's masterpiece "Lust, Caution." He shows why the wartime-rooted hatred between the Japanese and Chinese could take at least another generation to dissipate fully. In the meantime, America's Japan-watchers need not have a nervous breakdown about "China warming." Even the new opposition government in Tokyo is not about to abandon the U.S. and jump over to "the other side" tomorrow.

This brings us to a thought about India, which, like China, is often touted as a coming superpower. But optimists beware: India is a grinding colossus of many languages, conflicting peoples, rabid religions, cultural contradictions and — last but not least — unmovable bureaucracies. Something Zubin Mehta, a Mumbai-born superstar conductor, did recently while guest-conducting here in Los Angeles reminded me of that.

Mehta, a phenomenal talent, conducts with uncanny, even metronomic, precision. Musicians, wherever he conducts, find him so easy to follow. They also love his wicked sense of humor, which helps him handle other super-egos of the classical musical world with the aplomb of a world-class diplomat.

Those talents were on display at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a second-to-none venue in terms of lustrous clarity of orchestral sound. The ultra-precise Mehta fully exploited the room's strength. His program of Webern, Bartok and Beethoven received standing ovations. But with Mehta a problem sometimes surfaces in his conducting that could be said to parallel a problem with India in general.

Mehta handled Webern with sensitivity. In Bartok's Second Piano Concerto, he was content to follow the lead of all-world virtuoso Yefim Bronfman like a happy puppy. But he conducted Beethoven's Third ("Eroica") Symphony as if he were executing a house arrest.

He all but handcuffed Ludwig to the score — which he was conducting from memory — as if the composer were trying to escape to commit another crime. It was as if Mehta had suddenly turned into some kind of watchdog who was determined to make sure the composer observed all the rules and regulations of composition. Chained to a bureaucratic vision of what the Third Symphony was, the music of Beethoven never escaped capture; and so it never took off.

Mehta would absolutely hate this characterization. But he sometimes brings to his work the feeling that he is trying to prove who is boss — not boss of the orchestra but of the music itself. And so he sometimes strangles the music's lyricism the way India's vast bureaucracy at times tends to strangle India.

The moral to this story is that both India's Mehta and its bureaucrats need to loosen their grip if they want India to breathe and flourish — as a truly heroic symphony and culture should.

Artists and athletes, at their best, often teach us more about a culture than political scientists. You just have to observe them very attentively. But they are invaluable because they go so deep.

Syndicated columnist and former university professor Tom Plate is finishing a book on Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. Past columns are posted at pacificperspectives.blogspot.com © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center


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