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CRITIC AT LARGE

These Are Tough Times For Transitory Values

October 29, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Fragments from old movies cling to memory like lint to a blue serge suit. In the "Ransom of Red Chief" segment of "O. Henry's Full House," released in 1952, Fred Allen and Oscar Levant are fleeing in a horse and buckboard.

Levant is despondent; kidnaping a nasty little boy has been a disastrous flop. But Allen, whipping the horse to more speed, cries, "Confidence! What good is a confidence man without confidence!"

It is one of those lines that keeps recycling into timeliness. So does Oscar Wilde's famous remark, "A cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

The stock market, which at the moment resembles a man riding a pogo stick downhill, seems belatedly to be trying to sort out value from price. It is also casting about for all the confidence it can find, seeking an uncynical reassurance that the fundamental values are there, however overblown some of the prices may have become.

The most optimistic view is that a speculative fever has broken. Whether and how quickly the patient will recover is a sequel question. But a kind of freshened attempt to identify all kinds of real values as against pricey appearances seems no bad thing at all.

Twice in recent weeks I've had the great good luck of hearing the Debut Orchestra of the Young Musicians Foundation in concert. By definition, the players are not older than 25, and many, unless looks deceive, are well short of that.

Michael Tilson Thomas came to attention conducting the Debut Orchestra, and a talented young man named Lucas Richman has just concluded his term as conductor in training.

Young the players may be, but they make music with the eloquence, precision and the sight-reading agility of a professional recording orchestra. After they performed in his honor one night in September, Leonard Bernstein told the Debut players he hoped the Vienna Philharmonic would do as well in the Hollywood Bowl the next night. Even allowing for the rhetoric of an expansive evening, it was high, well-earned praise.

One of the soloists that night, and later at the YMF's annual fund-raising gala, was a violinist named Leila Josefowicz, who is not, I think, old enough to join the Girl Scouts. But she plays the violin not only with a fleet-fingered virtuosity that is beyond believing, but with a lyrical emotional force that seems beyond her comprehension, let alone the powers of her hands and arms.

On both occasions, grown-ups wept at the beauty of the music. But we were stirred not less, I think, by the reassurance that the society still contains young people willing to put in the endless hours of study and practice to achieve that kind of professional perfection.

Lalo Schifrin, the composer who is president of the YMF, tells me there are YMF alumni in most of the great orchestras of the country. But fame and fortune are obviously not the prime spurs to the kind of dedication, almost monastic dedication, that serious music requires.

There may be a kind of security to be found--although symphonies are financially endangered, as the news columns confirm almost daily. But the real goals, it seems to me, are the satisfaction of taking a God-given talent as far as you can go with it, and the thrill of creating beauty (which is never in long supply at any time).

I had a chance to look in on another and wildly different kind of dedication earlier this week. I attended the annual convention of the Geological Society of America in Phoenix, a gathering of 5,000 academics, students and field geologists, many of whom, men and women alike, in shorts, sturdy boots and backpacks, appeared to have come straight from field trips to the Uinta basin or places even more exotic.

(I don't frequent GSA conventions, but my wife was delivering a paper on Raphael Pumpelly's explorations in Turkestan in the early 1900s and I wanted to hear it.)

The upside expectations of petroleum geology, let's say, may compare more than favorably with playing second cello in Detroit. Yet the real sense of the meeting was that most of these conventioneers were not more dollar-motivated than the young musicians.

I hazard a guess that the rewards here were of being modern-day explorers, seeking to discover the Earth's (and indeed the planets') still-unfound truths, and often working at some risk far from the clotted cities.

These men and women, very young and very senior as well, seem comfortably at home with the longest sweeps of history we and they have been able to measure. And, as I heard in one paper, they are now taking aim on the geology of Venus and Mars.

Reuben Oldfield, who did a weekly newspaper column in Bath, N. Y., when I was young, had a catch phrase: "Funny weather and tough on . . . " whatever it was (robins, if there'd been a late freeze, snowmen if there'd been an early thaw). It is another memory that clings like lint.

This has been a week of funny weather, tough on transitory and insubstantial values, useful in reidentifying and honoring more enduring values, financial and otherwise.

Funny weather, and tough on appearances.

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