Thursday, October 5, 2017

Reader, Run: Reactions to Updike

Somehow I made it through more than a half century without reading any Updike beyond the occasional piece that I stumbled upon in the New Yorker. I had for a long time considered this one of my many literary inadequacies. I decided to start in a logical place, by reading the Rabbit series, the chronicle of the life of Harry Angstrom. I do a lot of driving, so tried out an audio book.

[Guilty aside. Can one really claim to know literature through audio books? Aren't you lying if you say you've "read" a work if you've merely listened to it? If we listen instead of read, do we need to qualify everything we say about the work by continually pointing out that we really haven't read it? I have a huge quantum of guilt that hovers around this issue. But I think there's a case to be made that audio books are actually preferred methods of absorbing literary works. (This assertion is, by the way, reminiscent of my defense of HD broadcasts of operas.) Here's the deal. The readers selected to read these important works are almost always endowed with exceptional voices. They almost always use multiple character voices skillfully, which adds to the coherence of the dialogue: no parsing lengthy stretches of dialogue to figure who is saying what. And in some works, such as the Audible Studios version of Haruki Murakami's "1Q84," which uses three readers, multiple readers can be used to good effect. Another advantage is that you expand and exercise your spoken vocabulary. You learn, for instance, that there's no long "o" in "cacophony," or no long "i" for one meaning of "primer." Beyond that, it's truly pleasurable to have the story move along effortlessly at a proper spoken-word pace. Of course, the big drawback is time. Most of us read to ourselves much faster than the readers read out loud. For me, given that I often have lengthy commutes and some days end up driving a good chunk of the day, it's nice to be able to assuage the self-loathing that comes from not being better read by listening to audio books.]

My first reaction to "Rabbit, Run" was one of abhorrence. The opening basketball scene failed to excite me and foretold boredom, which was replaced by revulsion at receiving an eerily accurate depiction of 1959 in the months after I was born. I felt revulsion when the narrator stopped and described things in percipient but crushing detail. Updike's powers of description, his portrayal of scenes, are impressive, perhaps Nabokovian, but they are also what detracts from his writing, particularly when applied to his descriptions of the female human body. 

In this day when elevator eyes can get you sued, the full-on Harry Angstrom perusal of women is difficult to take. Whenever a new female character is introduced and brought into his presence, Harry gives a lengthy and detailed discussion of her assets, no holds barred. He rates every woman and every body part, as if by reflex. Beyond this: brutal objectification, usually without a dash of tenderness; descriptions of body parts and acts that most will find difficult to read; and blunt ignorance and lack of concern for others' feelings. I cringed often. 

But despite Harry Angstorm's coarse nature, the question I kept coming back to is whether these obsessive thoughts of Harry's are real and important, but things that we just never talk about. Isn't there an honesty here that penetrates all the dance and all the societal posturing we engage in? Isn't this how we really think? Or, at least, isn't this how some amongst us really think? And are these people really bad people? Despite everything we hate about Harry Angstrom, isn't there also something that we admire, or at least like?

And then there's the Jude-the-Obscure-like tragic scene. And everybody just moves on. 

As to the secondary characters, some of these are straight from a Norman Rockwell painting: Eccles, the Springers, perhaps Harry's son, Nelson. Then others, Ruth, the brainy prostitute, and Tothero, the slimy coach, are types that Rockwell would have skipped over. 

By the time I reached the end of the work, I kept telling myself that the sins of the characters are not to be visited upon the author. The messenger does not create the bad news and the novelist is not his characters. And of course it is presumptuous and probably wrong to think that we should only read about and study virtue. Even if we should not practice them, don't we need to know evil, dysfunction, selfishness?

But in the end, despite all the top-shelf description and all the interesting psychological study, I had to wonder whether my time with this work was well spent. If the work has a purpose, that purpose is too occult for my taste. But I'm also inclined to see out the full four-book series before passing final judgment.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

Recommended Classic Recordings No. 2: Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies

Recording No. 2 -- Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

The recording of the Fifth by Carlos Kleiber has long been considered the best ever. When this disc originally came out in 1975, one got the Fifth on one vinyl album and the Seventh on another! (When you’ve got what everyone wants you can name your price.) The album was engineered by those fabulous Germans and is of excellent quality. This is a very famous recording and worth every penny of the $9.99 download on iTunes and is also available on Spotify.

"The Fifth” is perhaps the most famous of all symphonies and one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. It is popular for good reason and should never be shunned simply because it is so well known.

The first movement was painstakingly constructed by Beethoven. The unity of its themes—the close relationship of seemingly different musical ideas—arguably makes it the pinnacle of achievement in western music.

And then there is the sweet beginning of the slow second movement, which hides tension that will develop as the movement progresses.

The last two movements are a real novelty. There is no break between the third and fourth movements, something that had not been done before. Beethoven did it because—well, because he was Beethoven. The tension at the point at which the third movement breaks into the fourth is truly spectacular. And the very ending of the piece is, as they now say, “fierce.”

While the Seventh is perhaps only Beethoven’s fourth or fifth most popular symphony--No. 5, No. 9, No. 3, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 1, No. 4, No. 2.?--it is every bit a masterwork. The "funeral march" movement, the second, consists of a gradual crescendo achieved by adding layers to the orchestration. It's classical music at it's very best. And this recording reflects a precision that is stunning. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tony Yike Yang at the Cliburn

I reviewed Tony Yike Yang's superb Chopin Society piano recital recently. No surprise that he's now doing very well at the Van Cliburn competition, having advanced to the semi-finals: https://www-nbcdfw-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Youngest-Van-Cliburn-Competitor-Plays-With-Powerful-Emotion-425436314.html?amp=y&amp_js_v=0.1

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The City of Poems

I wish there were a library of all the poems written in this city.
No doubt there have been millions.
Every schoolchild writes a poem or two for class,
So that would be millions right there.
Not that those would really interest me much.
And then there are the hundreds of thousands of collegiate poems—
Either dramatically scrawled by hands clenched in angst
Or Procrustean pedagogic affairs that
Butcher and stretch words to make them fit conventional forms.
And we know the poems of Dylan Thomas and Whitman.
The poems have come from every corner of this island.
There are the ones written in Harlem and
Those coming from the Upper East Side.
Thousands were written after the towers fell.
There are the love poems;
There are the memorials;
There are the vicious screaming poems
Complaining about the terms of man’s life.
What if there were a marker wherever a poem was written?
Would there be anywhere in the city you could turn
Without seeing a reminder that a poem was written nearby?
If I were able to read the entire catalog,
What would I find?
How many sonnets in praise of a lover?
How many poems comparing women to flowers?
Perhaps there would be a thousand referencing acorns and oaks.
Ten thousand each on Times Square and Herald Square?
A hundred written in the presence of Balto’s statue,
A thousand amongst the statues of Shakespeare, Scott, Burns, and Halleck?
But most of them have left us
And are gone forever.
Except for the lucky few thousands,
They have found oblivion
And vanished without a trace.
Good thing poems don’t have ghosts.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recommended Classic Recordings: No. 1, The Magic Flute

At the bottom of the blog is a list of ten recommended classic recordings. Several years ago I made this list for my brother. I tried to include a variety of styles, composers, and types of pieces in the list. Here are some thoughts on the first recording on the list.

Recording No. 1. -- Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

This is Mozart’s most likable opera. It premiered only months before he died and, along with other successes that had just preceded it, would have made Mozart a rich man had he lived. The plot of the opera, which is based on Masonic rituals and themes, was dreamt up by a friend of Mozart’s. The plot is a bit puzzling, but the music is stellar. 

The individual numbers in this opera are like musical pearls strung one after another. Brilliancy follows brilliancy. Like the Beatles at their pinnacle, every number is or should be a hit. Having said that the opera is uniformly brilliant, here are seven numbers in the opera that are my favorites:


Ouvertüre
The overture, unlike many operatic overtures, does not quote any of the themes from the remainder of the opera. It is full of richness and variety and takes its place alongside the overture to the "Marriage of Figaro" as one of the best opera overtures ever written.


No. 2: “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja”
This is an aria sung by the character Papageno: “I am the bird catcher.” The tune is as pleasing as any you will ever hear. It is one of opera’s most memorable and famous melodies.


No. 7: “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”
This duet is very special. It is a sung by Papageno and the central female character of the opera, Pamina, who Papageno has been sent to rescue. It is naïve, idealistic, simple, and beautiful.


No. 8, part 3: “Wie Stark ist nicht dein Zauberton”
This is an aria sung by Tamino, the “hero” of the opera. It starts with the light and lilting “Magic Flute” theme played by a flute. Be careful not to get this tune stuck in your head. If you do, you may hum it for days.


No. 10: “O Isis und Osiris”
An impressive aria for the bass, Sarastro.


No. 14: “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”
Fireworks! Warning! Really high notes, including F’s more than two octaves above middle C! Mozart is said to have spoken of this piece on his deathbed. As he lay dying he supposedly told his wife that in his head he could hear his sister-in-law, who was the singer in the original performances of this work, hitting the high F’s. 


No. 20: “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”
This aria revisits Papageno’s bird catcher tune.


These seven numbers can serve as touchstones—tunes that you can use to keep your bearings as you work through the opera; pieces that you can look forward to with anticipation. But once you become familiar with them you will likely develop your own favorites. And there are some really great and funny parts. Like “Hm!, hm!, hm!, hm!”—where Papageno tries to sing while his mouth is bound shut; or a number late in the opera where Papageno, the “birdman,” and his wife-to-be unite in song and sound like chickens. Mozart makes these crazy ideas brilliant.


The particular recording I recommend does not include the recitative, the spoken parts between the musical numbers. I am generally a purist, but in this case I will not insist upon imposing the recitative on everyone. This recording is a great value and one I have enjoyed for years.


Also, the famous director Ingmar Bergman did a version of the Magic Flute that can easily be found on DVD or on streaming services. It’s performed in Swedish and is a touching tribute from one great artist to another.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Minnesota Opera's La Bohème

On Saturday night I attended the Minnesota Opera's performance of La Bohème at the Ordway in St. Paul with my friend Z. While others no doubt will point to more obscure fare, I'm not afraid to admit that I'm with the average Joe on this one: La Bohème is my favorite opera. This is true despite the fact that I'm generally predisposed to "numbers" operas, operas that are not through-composed and have discreet "songs" or "numbers." But La Bohème has many things going for it: it's Puccini; it has an understandable plot; it's romantic, and it has the music: Musetta's Waltz, "Quando me'n vo'" and the back-to-back-to-back extravagance of "Che Gelida Manina," "Si, mi chiamano Mimi," and "O soave fanciulla." I count those last as the best one-two-three punch in opera.

Intermission at the Ordway
The more I see this opera, the more I think it benefits from a straightforward approach. The libretto is tight, the score is unbeatable, and this simple love story is hard to beat. I have never been so grateful for a performance that lacked pizzazz. There were no anachronistic Nazis, no anti-Trump references, and there was no dry humping or full-frontal nudity (as at La Fenice recently). Instead, the Minnesota Opera got out of the way of a great opera and used a conventional staging to accomplish the result always brought on at the curtain fall: audible sniffles.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The "Let 'Em Go Strategy": Old Age and Treachery Overcome Youth and Skill

Crit Racing
I've recently been enjoying bike racing criteriums. These are short, fast races on tight courses with many turns. I raced in just one last year, my first, and didn't really get the feel for it because I didn't have my chip at the start line and started a lap down. This year, on May 7, I participated in one in La Crosse during an omnium (a multi-race competition) and it turns out I'm probably better at crits than road races. I have power and I'm a big guy, so flat crit courses are better for me than hilly road race courses. I was extremely pleased with my finish at La Crosse. I was 10th of 23, which was good considering that I was 12 years older than anyone else in the race, and that most were in their 20's and 30's. And I might have placed higher, maybe 5th or so, if not for a scary turn on the last lap where I was nudged by another rider and slid out, nearly hitting a curb, and scrubbed a lot of speed at a critical point in the race.

Well, I enjoyed that quite a bit and headed for the next race, the Tuesday Night Worlds at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds on May 9. This is a weekly crit race series that runs from April to May. While the La Crosse field was small, 23, the fields in this series are much larger, often 50-65 racers. This made me apprehensive, because it's a bit scary to be whizzing around a sharp corner at 30 miles per hour with a pack of cyclists all around you. If anyone makes a mistake there could be a crash that would take out many riders. But things went quite well. The pace was not all that difficult overall (26.2 miles per hour) and I felt pretty good. At the final sprint I headed for the line and was 12th of 59 across the line. Hooray! I can hang with these guys!

But here's the rub: it's a points race, so the places are determined by who has the most points first, and time across the line second. This meant that I got relegated to 16th place. Ah ha! It's about points! My next goal: get points.

I then met with my cycling coach and we agreed to a strategy that she thought was doable: I was going to break away early in the race and try to get some points by putting in an all-in effort for 1 1/2 laps, about a mile. Points are awarded every four laps. So we planned that I would cruise along until lap 6 1/2 and then take off on the back stretch. We estimated how many watts I needed to generate and agreed that once I broke away I would then try to maintain that number of watts until the line at lap 8.

I talked to my buddy Cole, who has ridden in this series for a long time. He's not on my team, but is a good friend. He suggested that I modify my plan to go at  lap 2 1/2 instead of lap 6 1/2--go for the first points. So that was my new plan. And he agreed to help during the race with a few key words.

But here's where the fun part comes in. The biggest problem with my plan was that I needed to not have everyone chase me immediately when I took off. Many of the riders are stronger than I am and they could chase me down right away if they thought I was a real threat. So I resorted to psychology. Bike racers are an extremely judgmental lot--particularly when it comes to whether people and their bikes look cool, look like they have their act together. If your socks are not of the right type, they judge. Sunglasses must make you look cool. And particularly important to racers is that there be no unnecessary equipment on one's bike. Unnecessary equipment slows you down and is uncool. So I hit upon a plan: to make myself look like a total newbie, a rookie, a doofus.

Special "Rookie" Setup
So I set up my bike as if I were going on a casual pleasure ride: with two water bottles (opaque) and my saddle bag--all empty, of course. There's really no need or opportunity to drink anything in this type of race so the water bottles are particularly inappropriate. And, of course, given that you don't have time to change a flat, the saddlebag serves no purpose other than to slow you down. Never did a racer look less threatening.

Before the race I told all my teammates my plan and asked them not to give chase when I took off. I did not want them to help the field catch up with me. Then I pulled up to the front of the pack at the start line to display my water bottles and saddle bag. The judging was palpable.

The race started and I was feeling good. At lap 2 1/2 I was right where I wanted to be, about 5th position, and I took off. My friend Cole, who many in the field knew to be experienced, is reported to have shouted "Let 'em go" at this point. Thanks, buddy!

I dove to the inside curb and went hard. Only one rider followed me. I created significant separation from the field. They were letting us go. So now it was going to be a two minute all-out effort. I set in at the designated wattage and the other rider with me spent most of the time on my wheel. I knew this meant that he'd beat me, but didn't care. I couldn't slow down to make him pass, because then the field would catch us. My goal was to get some points and I didn't much care if it was 3 points for second or 5 points for first.

The field didn't catch us before the line. I got 3 points. I was exhausted and eventually got lapped by the field, but it didn't matter, because I finished the race and got my 3 points. It was good enough for 8th place out of 62--even though almost all the field crossed the finish line before me.

Results: My First Points!
That was the most fun that I have had in a very long time, maybe my whole life. But I think they're on to me now. I don't think they'll let me go next time. But in thinking about it, maybe I'll always ride with my lucky saddlebag!

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.