Mark Howell's - "Soundings"
Sunday, February 26, 2012

The BBC-TV series "Downton Abbey," now a huge hit on PBS, is about the fictional Earl of Grantham and his three daughters, none of whom, due to Britain's obscure "rules of primogeniture" (don't ask), can inherit either the fortune or the estate of their father -- or even the fortune of their American mother, played by Elizabeth McGovern (watch for Shirley MacLaine as the next U.S. actress to appear in this series).

Fans of "Downton Abbey" may be interested to know that its creator and executive producer, the Egyptian-born British actor and writer Julian Alexander Fellowes -- himself a hilarious hit as Earl Kilwillie in an earlier TV series, "Monarch of the Glen" (2000-2005) and also, in 2001, winner of an Oscar for his script for "Gosford Park" -- is in fact Baron Kitchener-Fellowes of West Stafford, Lord of the Manor of Tattershall, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and also the romantic novelist known as Rebecca Greville.

Julian's wife, Emma Joy, Lady Kitchener, would herself be in line to inherit the fortune and the estate of her own father, the present (but also the last) Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, except for those very same pesky "rules of primogeniture."

So you see, he really does know what he's writing about.

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The healthcare system in the United States, reports Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post, is the most expensive in the world by far -- 50 percent more costly per person than Norway's, the next costliest. Our life expectancy (78.2 years) is just 27th in the world, behind Chile's. And we get fewer doctor visits than in most developed countries.

So why is healthcare so expensive here, devouring our paychecks, household budgets and government resources?

Says Samuelson: "The 'fee for services' system here encourages doctors to run up the bill. The more they do, the more they earn," And doctors and hospitals charge steep prices: A coronary angioplasty costs $14,000 in the U.S., just $7,000 in France.

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Seen on a bumper sticker: "Ask your doctor if medical advice from a TV commercial is right for you."

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Dolphins and whales are so intelligent that they should be recognized as "nonhuman persons" and granted their own bill of rights, agreed scientists at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada.

"Isolating dolphins and orcas in tanks at amusement parks is morally wrong," noted Thomas White, an ethics expert at Loyola Marymount University in California. "Killing them is tantamount to murder."

Studies show that cetaceans -- water-dwelling mammals -- are more intelligent than chimpanzees and communicate in a similar way to humans. "Dolphins are even more socially driven than humans," added White.

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Coming to Key West for a concert on March 16 is Herbert Weissberg, former principal flutist of the Vienna Symphony, who will play at The Studios of Key West with fellow Viennese musicians Heinz Medjimorec on piano and Peter Siakala on cello.

Born in Vienna in 1939, Weissberg is a long-time friend of Key West resident Peyton Evans -- "He married an old friend of mine who was the exchange student from Austria at my high school back in the 1950s," she told us. "Herbert and Doris and I have often visited each other, here and abroad." When they were Peyton's guests in Key West last year, she suggested he perform at The Studios. "I was thrilled when he said, 'Sure!'"

We interviewed Herbert by email last week:

"Heinz and Peter and I have prepared a 'pasticcio program' with a lot of ingredients mixed together," he told us. "We want to give the audience a varied evening, not only in the program but also in the sound. There will be some surprises. The three Austrian composers we'll be playing, Josef Haydn, Johann Strauss and Franz Schubert, in their youth listened to the same folk music. You might feel the deep connection to the 'pop music' of their time.

"The other composers we're playing, Bach, Poulenc and Piazzolla, at first glance do not seem to have too much in common but even their compositions are based on the dance music of their lifetimes. Bach's movements are often named after the dances he heard in the courts and in the marketplaces. Poulenc's sonata is hilarious dance music. And Piazzolla is the world's most famous tango composer."

Playing the flute seems so impossible to us. How does he do it? We asked.

"Have you ever tried to get a sound out by blowing over the edge of a glass bottle? Yes? If you succeeded, you will be able to play the flute. It is not as difficult as it might seem. If you start to study flute at the age of 14 as I did -- I started with the piano when I was five -- you don't think of anything being hard to learn if you love to do it. And my first teacher, Hans Reznicek, was a kind man. Leading but not commanding."

Who are his favorite composers for the flute?

"It's a pity but the most famous composers didn't write so much for the flute. Bach and to some extent Mozart were the great exceptions. During their time and the times of Beethoven and Brahms, the instruments technically were not developed too well, so flutists lack concerts of many of the genius composers. With the development of the flute in the last decades of the 19th century, a number of French composers wrote interesting music for it. In our day, many of the well-known composers write for the flute. Aaron Copland wrote a beautiful duo for flute and piano. I love it."

We asked Herbert about the city in which he lives.

"Vienna is a city of less than two million people and hosts five big orchestras, among them the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony, both famous all over the world. Each day you could visit not only one but a number of orchestra or chamber music concerts in Vienna as well as concerts of contemporary or pop music. So you are surrounded by music if you want to be and that makes Vienna a marvellous place for musicians and music lovers."

We then asked him an impertinent question about Leonard Bernstein, the American composer/conductor who was invited to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and got off to an infamously bad start.

"Bernstein had a rough time with the Vienna Philharmonic the first times he came to Vienna and the orchestra vice versa with him. But they respected each other and finally found an excellent way to cooperate. I was principal flutist at the Vienna Symphony for nearly 40 years -- Peter is still a member of the cello section of the Vienna Symphony) -- and as you can imagine you get confronted by all sorts of conductors. You love them or you do not. In either case you give everything you are able, maybe a little bit more if you play with extra positive feelings. Regarding my own experiences as a conductor, I love to make music and it's very special to play on a large, living instrument like an orchestra."

We wished Herbert and his friends the very best on their visit to Key West.

"When my wife Doris and I visited Peyton in Key West a number of years ago, I fell in love with this wonderful place. Especially at a time of the year when Vienna is cold, windy and sometimes foggy -- you long for a place with summer all year round. My impressions of the United States in the last few years? Maybe the States might move a little to meet European social ideas and our part of Europe move more to meet America's liberal ideas. And both should not be afraid to rethink their positions."

"Vienna in Paradise" comes to The Studios of Key West at the Historic Armory, 600 White St. on Friday, March 16, at 7 p.m. The opening performance is by The Studio's March artist-in-residence, Catherine Weinfield, on oboe.

Ticketholders are invited to a champagne reception following the event at JANGEORGe Interior Design, 600 Frances St.

Tickets at 296-0548 or online at

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Key West snowbird Tom Perera, a resident of Vermont, tells us he went dumpster diving at Truman Waterfront last month in search of material discarded from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk before the vessel leaves Key West on its final journey.

"I recovered several World War II life preservers," Tom told Soundings, "and cut them apart to examine their insides. What I found confirms the reports of war-time sailors that their vests no longer supported them after a few hours in the water. The life vests were filled with kapok, a vegetable fiber enclosed within an easily torn vinyl bag. The waxy coating that covered the lightweight kapok fiber provided the buoyancy -- but the vinyl-sealed packets of coated kapok could be easily punctured, causing the vests to lose their buoyancy."

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Alert reader Cindy Thompson points out that in last week's photo of the "Dead End" sign on the fence around the Key West Cemetery, the "Angela St." letters on the power pole are missing an "a" -- so it reads: "Angel."

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Quote for the Week:

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for president. I am going to enter the field with an open record. The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine is correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be?"

-- Mark Twain,

"A Presidential Candidate" (1879)