Vartan Gregorian, Savior of the New York Public Library, Dies at 87!

President George W. Bush congratulating Dr. Gregorian at the White House in 2004 after conferring on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Credit…Doug Mills/ The New York Times

Dear Commons Community,

Vartan Gregorian, an Armenian immigrant who climbed to the pinnacles of academic and philanthropic achievement but took a detour in the 1980s to restore the New York Public Library to its place at the heart of American intellectual life, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 87.

The death, at a hospital, was confirmed by his son Dareh Gregorian. No cause was given.

A scholar, a university leader and a believer in libraries, he almost single-handedly rescued the grand but broken New York Library during a time of fiscal austerity.  As reported in the New York Times.

Dr. Gregorian liked to tell the story of “the most painful experience of my entire life.” It happened in 1980, when he was provost of the University of Pennsylvania, its top academic official. Powerful trustees told him that he was a shoo-in to replace the outgoing president. He was so sure of the post that he withdrew his name from consideration as chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

He heard the bad news on his car radio. The Penn trustees had chosen another academic star. The next day, he resigned. The outgoing president tried to dissuade him, but it was no use.

“I told him that I could cope with rejection, but not insult and humiliation,” Dr. Gregorian said in a memoir, “The Road to Home: My Life and Times” (2003).

Indeed, Dr. Gregorian was a fighter: proud, shrewd, charming, a brilliant historian and educator who rose from humble origins to speak seven languages, win sheaves of honors and be offered the presidencies of Columbia University and the Universities of Michigan and Miami. He accepted the presidency of Brown University (1989-1997), transforming it into one of the Ivy League’s hottest schools, and since then had been president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a major benefactor of education.

But he was best known for resurrecting the New York Public Library from a fiscal and morale crisis. It was a radical, midcareer change from the pastoral academic realm, and a risky plunge into the high-profile social and political wars of New York City, where the budget-cutting knives were out after decades of profligacy, neglect and a brush with municipal bankruptcy in the 1970s.

By 1981, when the feelers went out to Dr. Gregorian, the library — the main research edifice at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and 83 branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — was broke, a decaying Dickensian repository of 7.7 million books (the world’s sixth largest collection), many of them rare and valuable, gathering dust and crumbling on 88 linear miles of stacks.

The underpaid, overworked staff was demoralized. The beautiful Gottesman Exhibition Hall had been partitioned into cubicles for personnel and accounting. Tarnished chandeliers and lighting fixtures were missing bulbs. In the trustees’ board room, threadbare curtains fell apart at the touch. Outside, the imperious marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, and the portals they guarded, were dirt-streaked. Bryant Park in the back was infested with drug dealers and pimps and unsafe after dark.

But the main problems were not even visible. The library faced a $50 million deficit and had no political clout. Its constituencies were scholars, children and citizens who liked to read. The city had cut back so hard that the main branch was closed on Thursdays, and some branches were open only eight hours a week.

To Dr. Gregorian, the challenge was irresistible. The library was, like him, a victim of insult and humiliation. The problem, as he saw it, was that the institution, headquartered in the magnificent Carrère and Hastings Beaux-Arts pile dedicated by President William Howard Taft in 1911, had come to be seen by New York City’s leaders, and even its citizens, as a dispensable frivolity.

He seemed a dubious savior: a short, pudgy scholar who had spent his entire professional life in academic circles. On the day he met the board, he was a half-hour late, and the trustees were talking about selling prized collections, cutting hours of service and closing some branches. He asked only for time, and offered in return a new vision.

“The New York Public Library is a New York and national treasure,” he said. “The branch libraries have made lives and saved lives. The New York Public Library is not a luxury. It is an integral part of New York’s social fabric, its culture, its institutions, its media and its scholarly, artistic and ethnic communities. It deserves the city’s respect, appreciation and support. No, the library is not a cost center! It is an investment in the city’s past and future!”

His personality was so engaging, his fire for restoring the library so compelling, that the board endorsed him unanimously as its president and chief executive. So long as he succeeded, he would be given time. He needed money, too, but he was an experienced university fund-raiser.

More than money, he needed allies. He found them in Andrew Heiskell, the incoming library chairman, who had just retired as chairman and chief executive of Time Inc.; Richard B. Salomon, the library’s vice chairman, who had been chairman since 1977; and Brooke Astor, the widow of Vincent Astor and doyenne of society who was presiding over bequests of $195 million to charitable causes.

Dr. Gregorian wrote: “Richard Salomon paved the way for individual giving and business and Jewish philanthropy; Andrew Heiskell went after individuals and major corporations, his former pals; Mrs. Astor opened the doors of New York society and its philanthropy. They helped me make the case for the New York Public Library, making it a civic project that was both honorable and glamorous.”

Mrs. Astor gave a black tie party to introduce Dr. Gregorian and his wife, Clare Gregorian, to New York society. Weeks earlier, she had given a party for President Ronald Reagan and the first lady, Nancy Reagan. When Dr. Gregorian voiced surprise that the guest list for both dinners was substantially the same, Mrs. Astor told him, “The president of the New York Public Library is an important citizen of New York and the nation.”

“Literary Lions” dinners at $1,000 a plate were soon underway, attended by the likes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Dr. Gregorian met corporate and foundation leaders to drum up support and spread good will. He gave and attended dinner parties, and with Mrs. Astor, who made the library her top philanthropic priority, organized charity balls and other functions.

In the news regularly with his appeals, Dr. Gregorian often sounded like a voice of conscience. He called the library “a sacred place,” telling The New Yorker: “Think of a lone person in one of our reading rooms, who has just read a book, a single book that has perhaps not been read in 20 years by another living soul, and from that reading comes an invention of incalculable importance to the human race. It makes a man tremble.”

Results began to show. The main library and many branches restored days of service. The card catalog was computerized. Temperature and humidity controls were installed, public rooms were air-conditioned, facades were cleaned, and a $45 million renovation was launched. Partitions and cubicles were removed, marble walls were restored, and carved wooden ceilings were refinished. Scores of projects began. One was a cleaning of the books and stacks, undusted for 75 years.

Tides of tourists and visitors returned. Exhibitions, lectures, concerts and other cultural events made the main library a beehive of intellectual life, day and night. Afternoon and evening activities in Bryant Park drew crowds that chased the ne’er do wells. Out front, Patience and Fortitude were bathed, and people of all ages lounged on the broad steps to bask in sunshine.

Dr. Gregorian campaigned as if running for election. Mayor Edward I. Koch, who knew a good thing when he saw one, climbed on the bandwagon, and former Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. said of Dr. Gregorian: “He reminded us that libraries were engines of hope that move people into the middle class and to worlds beyond themselves.”

He was masterful in dealing with the City Council and the Board of Estimate, which in those days held the purse strings. On the job less than two years, he told the council’s Finance Committee that it was demeaning for him to annually defend the library’s right to exist. He said he would no longer come hat-in-hand and would only present the library’s case for a fair share of the money.

By the end of his tenure, in 1989, Dr. Gregorian had raised $327 million in public and private funds for the library, placing it on a firm footing.

“What he did was put the library in the spotlight,” Mr. Heiskell told The New Yorker. “He had to change the mood of the city for the library, of the people in the city for the library, and of the people in the library for the library.

“In essence, he had to change the future.”

Vartan Gregorian was born on April 8, 1934, in the Armenian quarter of Tabriz, in northwest Iran, to Samuel and Shooshanik (Mirzaian) Gregorian. His father was an accountant for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Vartan’s older brother, Aram, died in infancy, and his mother died of pneumonia when he was 6. His father was drafted in World War II and later became an often-unemployed office worker.

Vartan and his younger sister, Ojik, were raised by their maternal grandmother, Voski Mirzaian, an illiterate but gracious storyteller whose allegorical fables instilled in the children lessons in morality: about telling the truth, possessing integrity, and the dignity to be found in stoicism and good deeds.

“She was my hero,” Dr. Gregorian said in an interview for this obituary in 2019. “I learned more about character from her than from anybody I ever met or any book I ever read.”

Vartan was a voracious reader and spent much time in the extensive library of his Armenian Church, where he had a part-time job in the stacks. “It was heaven,” he said. “There were translations of all the Western classics, and I read Russian literature, so I became familiar with Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Tolstoy, Dumas and Victor Hugo.”

Languages came to him easily. “We had Armenian at home, Russian at school, and we grew up with Turkish and Persian,” he said. He recalled that after his father remarried, he could not tolerate his stepmother and ran away from home at 15.

He landed in Beirut, Lebanon, with a teacher’s letter of introduction to the Collège Arménien, a lycée founded in 1928 to educate Armenian refugees. Simon Vratzian, the Armenian Republic’s last prime minister, was the school’s director. He enrolled the boy and became his mentor. Vartan learned French, Arabic and smatterings of English before graduating in 1955 with honors.

In 1956, he won a scholarship to Stanford University. Despite starting with shaky English, he became fluent and, majoring in history and humanities, earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in two years.

In 1960, he married Clare Russell, a fellow student at Stanford. In addition to Dareh, they had two more sons, Vahé and Raffi, all of whom survive Dr. Gregorian, along with his sister and five grandchildren. He lived in Midtown Manhattan.

A Ford Foundation fellowship took Dr. Gregorian to England, France, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. He earned a dual doctorate in history and humanities from Stanford in 1964. He taught European and Middle Eastern history at San Francisco State College, U.C.L.A. and the University of Texas before joining the University of Pennsylvania in 1972.

At Penn, he was a professor of Armenian and South Asian history for eight years, the school’s first dean of what is now the College of Arts and Sciences, from 1974 to 1978, and then provost until his departure in 1980 after being passed over for the presidency.

After his acclaimed work to save the New York Public Library, Dr. Gregorian, as the president of Brown University, led a five-year campaign there that raised $534 million, the most ambitious in Brown’s history. He raised the endowment to $1 billion from $400 million, doubled undergraduate scholarships, hired 270 new faculty members, endowed 90 professorships and built a student residence that bears his name. In his last year, there were 15,000 applicants for 1,482 places in the freshman class.

It was in 1997 that Dr. Gregorian assumed the presidency of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the foundation created by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 to promote education and peace. After decades as a supplicant, raising $1 billion for universities and libraries, he became a benefactor, starting with an endowment of $1.5 billion that grew to $3.5 billion over his tenure.

His grants strengthened education, international security, democratic institutions and global development. Domestically, he emphasized reforms in teacher training and liberal arts education; abroad, he stressed scholarships for social sciences and humanities.

Dr. Gregorian also advised philanthropists, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Walter H. Annenberg and officials of the J. Paul Getty Trust. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Humanities Medal, and in 2004 President George W. Bush conferred on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Besides his memoir, he wrote “The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946” (1969); “Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith” (2004) and many articles on history and global affairs.

Dr. Gregorian, who often recalled the kindness of strangers, said that after landing in New York in 1956 to start life in America, he lost his plane ticket to San Francisco. He was due to register the next day at Stanford. His future seemed to hang in the balance. In faltering English, he poured out his desperation to an airport ticket agent.

The man hesitated, saying something about regulations. Then he softened.

“I have never done what I am about to do,” the agent said. He stamped the young man’s empty ticket envelope and told him to stay on the plane — a four-stop, 14-hour flight — to avoid discovery.

“I never forgot that man,” Dr. Gregorian said in the 2019 interview. “He gave me my future. For years I wanted to thank him but couldn’t find him. I told the story in my book to thank him — and now my conscience is clear.”

I always had a special place in my heart for the New York Library and as a young boy growing up in the South Bronx borrowed my first books from its storefront branch on 156th Street and Melrose Avenue.

I also had the pleasure of being in the company of Dr. Gregorian on several occasions in the 1980s when he would come to Hunter College and meet with his friend, Donna Shalala.  He was a larger than life figure who let his presence be felt.

May he rest on peace!


Donald Trump Ally Roger Stone Sued by the U.S. Justice Department for Tax Evasion!

Roger Stone with his wife Nydia

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday, the U.S. Justice Department brought a suit against Donald Trump’s ally Roger Stone and his wife, accusing them of failing to pay nearly $2 million in income tax.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It alleges the couple underpaid their income tax by more than $1.5 million from 2007 until 2011 and separately alleges Stone also owes more than $400,000 for not fully paying his tax bill in 2018.

The suit states that the couple used a commercial entity known as Drake Ventures to “shield their personal income from enforced collection” and to fund a “lavish lifestyle.” 

As reported by the Associated Press.

“Despite notice and demand for payment, Roger and Nydia Stone have failed and refused to pay the entire amount of the liabilities,” the lawsuit says.

Stone, a longtime confidant of the former president’s, calls the lawsuit “politically motivated.”

Stone was charged by the Justice Department in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and convicted at trial of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. Trump later commuted Stone’s sentence and pardoned him.

Stone boasted during the 2016 campaign that he was in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange through a trusted intermediary and hinted at inside knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to release more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee. But Stone denied any wrongdoing and consistently criticized the case against him as politically motivated.

“The Internal Revenue Service is well aware of the fact that my three-year battle for freedom against the corrupted Mueller investigation has left me destitute,” Stone told The Associated Press. “They’re well aware that I have no assets and that their lawsuit is politically motivated. It’s particularly interesting that my tax attorneys were not told of this action, filed at close of business on a Friday. The American people will learn, in court, that I am on the verge of bankruptcy and that there are no assets for the government to take.”

If there ever was an individual who represents the lowest of the low, it is Roger Stone.


Video: “Shut your mouth!” Maxine Waters SCOLDS Jim Jordan during House hearing on COVID-19.

Dear Commons Community,

Republican Rep. Jim Jordan and the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci got into a heated exchange yesterday over the country’s Covid-19 mitigation measures, which ended with Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters telling Jordan to “shut your mouth.”

During a House subcommittee hearing about federal government’s response to the pandemic, Jordan, an Ohio conservative, asked Fauci when the nation can begin relaxing physical distancing measures and mask-wearing — posing it as a question as to when Americans will regain their freedom and liberties.

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, started to respond that the time will be when the United States has more Americans vaccinated and has a level of coronavirus infection that is low enough that it’s “no longer a threat.”

Jordan then interrupted Fauci, asking for a specific number.

“We had 15 days of ‘slow the spread’ turn into one year of lost liberty,” Jordan said. “What metrics, what measures, what has to happen before Americans get more freedoms back?”

“You’re indicating liberty and freedom. I look at it as a public health measure to prevent people from dying and going to the hospital,” Fauci countered. “This will end, for sure, when we get the level of infection very low. It is now at such a high level, there is a threat again of major surges.”

Fauci later said to Jordan, “You’re making this a personal thing and it isn’t.”

“It’s not a personal thing,” Jordan fired back.

“No, you are,” Fauci said, sounding exasperated. “That is exactly what you’re doing.”

Fauci defended his recommendations as being consistent and based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid-19 guidance.

“Right now, we have about 60,000 infections a day, which is a very large risk for resurge. We’re not talking about liberties. We’re talking about a pandemic that has killed 560,000 Americans,” said Fauci, who later said his “best estimate” would be to have the number of infections per day to be “well below” 10,000 a day.

The back-and-forth between Fauci and Jordan — who have clashed before — continued for a few minutes until the subcommittee chair, Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, announced that Jordan’s time expired.

When Jordan tried to continue questioning Fauci, Waters interjected from across the room.

“You need to respect the chair and shut your mouth,” she told Jordan.

Later in the hearing, when Jordan asked Fauci the same questions and griped whether Americans would be wearing masks two years from now, Fauci told the congressman he was “ranting.”

Yesterday’s hearing was to examine the Biden administration’s progress on vaccines with the CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and the chief science officer of the Covid-19 response Dr. David Kessler also as witnesses.

Go get ’em Maxine!




Hundreds of CEOs, celebrities, corporations sign ad opposing ‘discriminatory’ voting legislation!

Click to Enlarge

Dear Commons Community,

Dozens of companies, including Amazon, Google, Starbucks and Netflix, joined hundreds of business leaders, celebrities, law firms, and nonprofits to sign a new statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would restrict ballot access.

The statement, appearing Wednesday as advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, is the latest and largest mobilization by corporate America against restrictive voting legislation advanced by Republicans around the country.  As reported by NBC News.

“We stand for democracy,” the statement, stretched across two full pages, reads. “We all should feel a responsibility to defend the right to vote and to oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot.”

In addition to companies and their leaders, the statement’s signatories includes celebrities, major law-firms, and nonprofits. The Times first reported the statement.

Target, Bank of America, Apple, Cisco, Berkshire Partners, American Express and Wells Fargo were among dozens of other corporations that signed on, while George Clooney, Paula Abdul, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Ruffalo, Demi Lovato, Brian Cornell, chair and CEO of Target, and Warren Buffett were among hundreds of individuals. Josh Kushner, brother to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and founder of venture capital firm Thrive Capital, also signed the letter.

The show of force comes as Republicans across the country work to advance hundreds of restrictions, changes that voting rights advocates and civil rights groups argue would disproportionately affect voters of color. Republicans say they must restore trust in American elections, even as they continue to cast doubt on the integrity of the election former President Donald Trump lost. By all accounts, the 2020 election was secure and its results accurate. Nonetheless, there are more than 350 restrictive election bills being considered in 47 state legislatures, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which has been tracking the legislation.

“I think it’s an unquestionable show of unity from the business community that democracy is a priority,” said Mike Ward, a co-founder of the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group that encourages civic participation from businesses.

Ward said he helped do outreach to corporations about signing the letter.

“We did not get a lot of no’s,” he told NBC News.

NBC News previously reported that more than a dozen major law firms — including one of the statement’s signatories, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison of New York — are planning a multi-year commitment to fight any restrictions that pass.

Brad Karp, chairman of Paul, Weiss, said the effort would send “SWAT teams” of private practice attorneys into states to aid the advocates and lawyers who typically file legal action.

Republicans have pushed back against such corporate pressure.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned corporate America to “stay out of politics” before softening his stance a day later, saying: “I didn’t say that very artfully yesterday. They’re certainly entitled to be involved in politics. They are. My principal complaint is they didn’t read the darn bill,” referring to Georgia’s recently enacted law.

McConnell is wrong.  These corporations are showing a commitment to American democracy.  Republicans need to do the same and stop putting their party above the country.


U.S. Imposes Stiff Sanctions on Russia, Blaming It for Major Hacking Operation!

US prepping Russian sanctions over hack, election disruption: report |  TheHill


Dear Commons Community,

After years of wrist slaps under Donald J. Trump, President Joe Biden announced new sanctions intended to have a noticeable effect on the Russian economy.

President Biden yesterday formally blamed the country’s premier intelligence agency for the sophisticated hacking operation that breached American government agencies and the nation’s largest companies.

The sanctions included measures intended to make it more difficult for Russia to take part in the global economy if it continued its campaign of disruptive actions, including in cyberspace and on the border of Ukraine.

While the sanctions might not bite hard immediately, White House officials said they left themselves room to squeeze Moscow’s ability to borrow money on global markets if tensions escalate.  As reported by The New York Times. 

“I chose to be proportionate,” Mr. Biden said in comments at the White House, describing how he had warned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia of what was coming in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “The United States is not looking to kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship,” he said, offering again to meet Mr. Putin in person this summer in Europe.

So far, the Russians have not responded to that offer.

The measures Mr. Biden announced included sanctions on 32 entities and individuals for disinformation efforts and for carrying out Moscow’s interference in the 2020 presidential election. Ten Russian diplomats, most of them identified as intelligence operatives, were expelled from the Russian Embassy in Washington. And the administration banned American banks from purchasing newly issued Russian government debt.

The United States also joined with European partners to impose sanctions on eight people and entities associated with Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The sanctions came amid a large Russian military buildup on the border of Ukraine and in Crimea.

Past rounds of sanctions under previous administrations — prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its effort to influence the 2016 election and its poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain in 2018 — all failed to make Moscow think twice about increasingly aggressive actions.

On Thursday, Russia promised retaliation. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said a response would be “inevitable,” but she did not immediately disclose what it would entail. The American ambassador was summoned to a meeting with Russian officials, Ms. Zakharova said.

“Such aggressive behavior will of course receive a decisive response,” Ms. Zakharova said. “In Washington, they should know there will be a cost for the degradation of bilateral relations. Responsibility for what is happening lies wholly with the United States.”

At a moment that the United States finds itself in simultaneous confrontations with both Moscow and Beijing that have echoes of the bitter days of the Cold War, the action was Mr. Biden’s first effort to lay down a red line of what he called “totally inappropriate” behavior. It came after four years in which President Donald J. Trump repeatedly cast doubt on intelligence findings that Russia was culpable for cyberattacks, poisonings and disinformation campaigns.

It was also the first time the United States government placed the blame for the “SolarWinds” hacking attack, which penetrated American government agencies and corporations, right at the feet of Mr. Putin, saying the operation was masterminded by the S.V.R., one of the Russian foreign intelligence agencies directly under his control. The same intelligence agency conducted the first of two major hackings into the Democratic National Committee six years ago.

In the final days of Mr. Trump’s term in office, an American intelligence assessment concluded simply that the intrusion was most “likely Russian in origin.”

In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s announcement, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, acknowledged that sanctions alone would not be enough to deter the Russians. He said the response to Russia would include “seen and unseen” actions, and Mr. Biden himself suggested in December that the United States would respond in kind, presumably with cyberoperations of its own.”

With the enacted stimulus package, the propose infrastructure plan, pulling the troops from Afghanistan, and now Russian sanctions, President Biden is showing he is willing to make big decisions and take responsibility for them.


New York Philharmonic gives 1st concert with audience in 13 months!

Guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, front center, greets a live audience as New York Philharmonic musicians stand behind him before they performed together for the first time since March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Dear Commons Community,

Esa-Pekka Salonen walked on stage to join the New York Philharmonic, which had not gathered before an audience for exactly 400 days.

“On behalf of all us on stage, welcome back,” the conductor told the crowd last night. “We have been dreaming of this moment for a long time.”

The philharmonic gave its first public performance after of a historic hiatus of more than 13 months caused by the coronavirus pandemic, playing at the Shed in Brookfield Place, about 2 miles from its under-renovation Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“I’m kind of on a euphoric high right now, because I missed it more than I realized,” concertmaster Frank Huang said afterwards.

There was a reduced force of 23 strings — all masked — and no brass or woodwinds for a program that lasted one hour: Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte,” Jean Silbelius’ “Rakastava (The Lover)” and Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen.”

The cavernous Shed, which opened in April 2019, had a masked audience of 150 spaced out in groups of one and two folding chairs, about 10 feet between each set, in a venue that usually seats about 1,200.

There were electronic tickets with timed entry, and temperatures were taken upon entry. Each person had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of having completed vaccination at least 14 days earlier.

During the gap, many musicians taught. They had the benefit of continued but reduced salaries, a contrast to their Lincoln Center neighbor the Metropolitan Opera, which stopped pay for its unionized employees for long periods.

The last time the Philharmonic had gathered before an audience was on March 10 last year for a night of Claude Debussy compositions with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and conductor Louis Langree.

Since then, at most a handful of Philharmonic musicians had played together in public, at “Bandwagon” performances moved around the New York City area and as a quartet in Florida where there were less stringent COVID-19 regulations. There were also programs for digital release on NYPhil+ recorded at St. Bart’s Church and at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall with music director Jaap van Zweden.

The Philharmonic hopes to resue regular subscription concerts in September, shifted to Tully and the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center Jazz until the Geffen reopens in September 2022. Its musicians will open the summer series of Picnic Performances in New York City’s Bryant Park with four nights starting June 9 and also hope to play in Vail, Colorado. The limited return is ahead of Broadway shows, which have talked about possibly resuming in September, and the Met, which will open Sept. 27 if it can reach new labor agreements.

Salonen, the 62-year-old music director of the San Francisco Symphony and principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, came in as a guest conductor and will repeat the program on tonight.

“If there’s one thing we musicians have loved during these 14 months or so, it is that nothing — absolutely nothing — can replace the act and the ritual of a live concert,” he told the audience. “Music, of course, exists on many different levels: in written form using the complex system of symbols we call notation; as recordings on various mediums; or perhaps most importantly, in our memory and in our dreams. However, music can truly fulfill its original I dare say biological function as a powerful tool to convey deepest emotions and feelings only when performed here and now at this union point in time where music performers and the audience become one in a perfect symbiosis.”

Acoustics are difficult for an orchestra in The Shed, with its high ceiling creating the need for amplification. Players grinned as they saw the crowd, and some in the audience responded with a standing ovation.

“The three works we have chosen to play tonight all share a sense of moaning, nostalgia and loss elevated to something deeply and essentially human by sheer beauty,” Salonen said. “Of course, no single program can even begin to sum up our feelings and emotions after these months. Instead, we should see tonight’s concert as a new beginning, a signal for happier times ahead, filled with music and other things that give meaning to our existence in this troubled world.”

Welcome back!


Congressional Democrats to Introduce Legislation to Add Four Members to the U.S. Supreme Court!

The Supreme Court on Nov. 5, 2020.

Dear Commons Community,

Congressional Democrats plan to introduce legislation today to expand the U.S. Supreme Court by four justices, a proposal aimed at breaking the conservative grip on the court.  It will be fiercely opposed by Republicans. 

Senator Ed Markey and House of Representatives members Jerrold Nadler, Hank Johnson and Mondaire Jones have scheduled a news conference today to announce the introduction of the legislation in both chambers. The measure would expand the number of justices from the current nine to 13, according to a copy of the Senate bill reviewed by Reuters. 

President Joe Biden announced last Friday the formation of a bipartisan commission to study potential Supreme Court changes including expansion or imposing term limits on the justices instead of the current lifetime appointments. 

The number of Supreme Court justices has remained at nine since 1869, but Congress has the power to change the number and did so several times before that. Imposing term limits would likely require a constitutional amendment.

Republicans oppose the idea of what is sometimes called “court packing.” Some Democrats and liberal activists have said all options including expansion must be considered to counter an entrenched conservative majority that could threaten abortion rights, civil rights, gun control and access to healthcare in the coming years. 

Republican former President Donald Trump was able to appoint three justices during his four years in office, giving the court a 6-3 conservative majority. 

Today’s news conference will include representatives for liberal groups including Take Back The Court, which has advocated for court expansion. 

Democrats accused Republicans of “stealing” a Supreme Court seat in 2016 when the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, refused to consider Democratic President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill a vacancy left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Trump in 2017 was able to fill the vacancy with a conservative jurist. 

It is not likely that this bill will make it through the Senate.  There are several Democrats such as Joe Manchin  (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) who have said that they would oppose it.



President Biden to Withdraw All Combat Troops From Afghanistan by Sept. 11!

Biden to order immediate US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan after 20  years | Salon.com

Dear Commons Community,

After two decades of an extended military presence in Afghanistan, President Biden has decided to withdraw all American troops by September 11, 2021, in time for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks the World Trade Center.  As reported by The New York Times:

“President Biden will withdraw American combat troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, declaring an end to the nation’s longest war and overruling warnings from his military advisers that the departure could prompt a resurgence of the same terrorist threats that sent hundreds of thousands of troops into combat over the past 20 years.

In rejecting the Pentagon’s push to remain until Afghan security forces can assert themselves against the Taliban, Mr. Biden forcibly stamped his views on a policy he has long debated but never controlled. Now, after years of arguing against an extended American military presence in Afghanistan, the president is doing things his way, with the deadline set for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

A senior Biden administration official said the president had come to believe that a “conditions-based approach” would mean that American troops would never leave the country. The announcement is expected on Wednesday.

Mr. Biden’s decision would pull all American troops out of Afghanistan 20 years after President George W. Bush ordered an invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, with the goal to punish Osama bin Laden and his Qaeda followers, who were sheltered in Afghanistan by their Taliban hosts.

The war was launched with widespread international support — but it became the same long, bloody, unpopular slog that forced the British to withdraw from Afghanistan in the 19th century and the Soviet Union to retreat in the 20th.

Nearly 2,400 American troops have died in Afghanistan in a conflict that has cost about $2 trillion. Mr. Biden’s Democratic supporters in Congress praised the withdrawal, even as Republicans said it would risk American security.

“The U.S. went into Afghanistan in 2001 to defeat those who attacked the U.S. on 9/11,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said in a statement. “It is now time to bring our troops home, maintain humanitarian and diplomatic support for a partner nation, and refocus American national security on the most pressing challenges we face.”

Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and the chairman of the progressive veterans group VoteVets, said that “words cannot adequately express how huge this is for troops and military families, who have weathered deployment after deployment, with no end in sight, for the better part of two decades.”

This is long overdue. Afghanistan is a political and military quagmire that we cannot possibly win. This is no reflection on our military but it is not trained or capable of nation-building, at least not in this part of the world.


New Report: Capitol Police Told by Superiors to Hold Back on Riot Response on Jan. 6!

Berkeley scholars' outrage, reflections on U.S. Capitol mob siege | Berkeley News

Dear Commons Community,

The Capitol Police had clear advance warnings about the Jan. 6 insurrection than was previously known, including the potential for violence in which “Congress itself is the target.” But officers were instructed by their leaders not to use their most aggressive tactics to hold off the mob, according to a scathing new report by the agency’s internal investigator.

In a 104-page document, the inspector general, Michael A. Bolton, criticized the way the Capitol Police prepared for and responded to the mob violence on Jan. 6. The report was reviewed by The New York Times and will be the subject of a Capitol Hill hearing tomorrow. CNN also provided  a summary of the report’s findings.  As reported:

“Mr. Bolton found that the agency’s leaders failed to adequately prepare despite explicit warnings that pro-Trump extremists posed a threat to law enforcement and civilians and that the police used defective protective equipment. He also found that the leaders ordered their Civil Disturbance Unit to refrain from using its most powerful crowd-control tools — like stun grenades — to put down the onslaught.

The report offers the most devastating account to date of the lapses and miscalculations around the most violent attack on the Capitol in two centuries.

Three days before the siege, a Capitol Police intelligence assessment warned of violence from supporters of President Donald J. Trump who believed his false claims that the election had been stolen. Some had even posted a map of the Capitol complex’s tunnel system on pro-Trump message boards.

“Unlike previous post-election protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counterprotesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th,” the threat assessment said, according to the inspector general’s report. “Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike.”

But on Jan. 5, the agency wrote in a plan for the protest that there were “no specific known threats related to the joint session of Congress.” And the former chief of the Capitol Police has testified that the force had determined that the likelihood of violence was “improbable.”

Mr. Bolton concluded such intelligence breakdowns stemmed from dysfunction within the agency and called for “guidance that clearly documents channels for efficiently and effectively disseminating intelligence information to all of its personnel.”

That failure conspired with other lapses inside the Capitol Police force to create a dangerous situation on Jan. 6, according to his account. The agency’s Civil Disturbance Unit, which specializes in handling large groups of protesters, was not allowed to use some of its most powerful tools and techniques against the crowd, on the orders of supervisors.

“Heavier, less-lethal weapons,” including stun grenades, “were not used that day because of orders from leadership,” Mr. Bolton wrote. Officials on duty on Jan. 6 told him that such equipment could have helped the police to “push back the rioters.”

Mr. Bolton’s findings are scheduled to be discussed tomorrow afternoon, when he is set to testify before the House Administration Committee. He has issued two investigative reports — both classified as “law enforcement sensitive” and not publicly released — about the agency’s shortcomings on Jan. 6. He is also planning a third report.



Video: Dr. Anthony Fauci Explains “Pause” in Johnson & Johnson Vaccine!


Dear Commons Community,

Dr. Anthony Fauci responded to the news yesterday that the Centers for Disease Control and other U.S. regulatory agencies have recommended pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, until they investigate blood clotting that six women experienced after being vaccinated.  Fauci assured the public that the blood clotting is  rare but that the CDC was taking a precaution and pausing the distribution of the vaccine until it could study the  issue further.  As reported by various news outlets:

“There have been six reported cases of a condition called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) — a type of blood clot in the brain that can lead to a stroke — out of the more than 6.8 million doses of the vaccine that have been administered in the U.S., according to a joint statement from the agencies. All six cases happened in women between the ages of 18 and 48, with symptoms developing six to 13 days after they were vaccinated.

The CDC plans to have a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Wednesday to review the cases, and the FDA will review that analysis. Until then, the agencies say that they are recommending “a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution.” 

Several states, including New York, New Jersey, Florida and Michigan, are following the agencies’ recommendation. According to the CDC, more than 74 million Americans are fully vaccinated, with the majority receiving either the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (36,194,022) or the Moderna vaccine (31,014,082). 

Some people have taken to social media claiming that the risk of blood clots is much greater with other medications, including birth control.

While experts say that there are valid concerns about a possible link between CVST and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they also agree that some other medications come with a chance of developing the disorder — and some with a higher risk than the possible 0.00009 percent risk presented by this particular vaccine.”

The bottom line according to Dr. Fauci is that blood clotting as a result of the Johnson & Johnson vaccination is “an extremely rare event.”