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!

Donald Trump, Opera Critic -- Part II

I received many requests to publish the remainder of Donald's opera review piece from the time that he was an opera critic for the New York Register. Here's Part II:

Puccini: Madama Butterfly – Un Bel Di Vedremo

This loser again. You know, Verdi was way better and Verdi wrote all his operas in English. This guy Puccini was a crybaby too. It would be nice if the lady singing this song would kill herself before halftime in this opera and just get it over with.

Puccini: Madama Butterfly – Coro A Bucca Chiusa

This is a real nice melody, but it sounds like the singers are kind of mumbling or something. I just don’t get it. But if they’re mumbling in Italian, I suppose it’s just as well that they mumble. Not a very impressive song. Not classy. If I were to write a song for a chorus it would be way better and easier to understand.

Rachmaninoff: Vocalise

Finally, we get rid of those lazy Italians and get a real contributor—a Russian. Note the smartness here. No foreign words. No German. No Italian. I should let you know that I have a HUGE problem with this Romananov guy still being buried in New York. He was Russian and should be dug up from his grave in New York and sent back to his beloved motherland. There can be no doubt that this is what he would have wanted if he were alive. I know I’ll help that happen if I ever have any say about it.

Rossini: The Barber of Seville – Una Voce Poco Fa

Sorry about all these Italians, but you’ve got to give the people what they want. Now the lady singing this song, Maria Callas was an amazing singer. At times quite overweight, but when she got her weight under control, fantastic and super hot. She asked me to visit her backstage once, but I was too busy. A lot of people think she was Greek or Italian, but she was a native New Yorker, just like me. But this Rossini guy is a total disgrace. He lived for 76 years and for the last 40 years did absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. He just sat on his fat ass and became a real porker. Embarrassing to all Italians. And I love the Italians. Many of them work at my resorts and they are a great people. Very likeable. And the Romans did a lot of great things. Now this guy’s overtures are supposedly so great, but I think I’m much better at making overtures.

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice – Che Faro Senza Euridice?

Now this guy I don’t really know. I am a true opera expert. I know all the great operas from these classical guys, Bach, Chopin, etc. I know all the Beethoven operas by heart. All of them. But Gluck? You know, his name rhymes with “cluck”—to be nice about it—and he really is a chicken. It is cowardly the way he has a woman singing the part of a male god here. And whiney, whiney, whiney: “Oooh, I feel so bad that I lost my hot girlfriend.” –Well get over it pal. Grow some cajones, even if this lady singing doesn’t have any.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Airport Parking Ramps

I wrote this a while back.

Airport Parking Ramps

I wish that the military rejected
Recruits as "2-F's."
Then the place I parked my car
Would be easier to remember.
And why such mundane ramp names
As Gold, Red, or Green?
Wouldn't more unusual colors be easier to remember?
Could anyone forget that they parked in the Chartreuse Ramp?
Or the Taupe Ramp, or the Rouge Ramp?
And why letters for rows?
How about the names of civilizations?
Would you forget that you parked in a row named Mesopotamia?
Or Assyria, Rome, or Minoan Crete?
As it is, I'm parked in row 2F of the Gold Ramp.
In the southeastern-most spot.
But I wish I'd parked in the Athens row,
Somewhere in the Butterscotch Ramp.
Or maybe we should force every traveler
To memorialize his parking spot in a poem--
And thus remember it for the rest of his life.
But then I can only imagine the throngs
Gathered outside the security checkpoints,
Pens in hand, unable to finish that last stanza,
Or, if rhymers, missing their planes
Because they parked in a ramp that was orange.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Donald Trump, Opera Critic -- Part I

[Ed.-- I recently found an old clipping that contained opera reviews from the New York Register when Donald Trump was the opera critic there. Very interesting stuff. Of course, these started right after he bought the paper. Many were surprised that Trump established himself as a leading opera critic in such short order.]

SOME OPERA SONGS
By Donald Trump

Note from the editor:

When I bought this newspaper I was told that the staff were great people. But after taking over I had to fire everyone. They were bad people. Very, very bad people. Not good people. Bad people. No work ethic. Didn’t get things done. But even after the firings, the product I put out here is fantastic, amazing. Everyone agrees that this is the very best paper in New York. Those very bad people started their own newspaper. As you know, they have no class. None at all. Their newspaper steals all my unbelievable ideas, even the idea of a music column, which I invented. They are classless idiots. They can write about their Van Morrison—who by the way is a very close friend of mine—and their Sting—he does tantric yoga at one of my private islands in the Caribbean—and their Neil Young—disgusting man—and all those Hollywood types. They have no class. We have class. So I have a new policy. Every week we will have opera reviews. These will be very classy. And because I have a very good brain, I will be writing the first one about a new mix of my opera favorites, which you can buy at my website.

DONALD’S OPERA MIX -- PART I

Wagner: Tannhauser – Pilgrim’s Chorus

This guy Wagner was brilliant, although he was German. He wrote good music. He had this thing for fat women in his operas, though, and I’m glad to see that these Wagner opera women are getting skinnier. Some of the talent from my Atlantic City shows could definitely help out most of the productions I’ve seen lately. Except for that Anna Netrebko. Super hot. A real babe.

Luckily, this number is all guys, so no piggies singing here. I’ve been told that this song has a Nazi feel to it. I have trouble understanding why people say that. The Germans are great people. I have lots that work for me in business. Hardworking. Good for business. Anyways, these singer guys have pipes. They definitely should get to it a bit faster, though. All of this starting soft and slowly building to a crescendo is ridiculous. My people are rewriting this and very soon we’ll have an even better version of this song for you.

Puccini: La Boheme – Che Gelida Manina

Why do these Italians always write their stuff in a foreign language? But this one is pretty good. The Italian guy singing, Pavarotti, was named after a famous ice cream and he is really okay. But why grab her cold hand? That’s a loser move. This guy should just go for it. You know, grab ‘em by somewhere else. But although he needs some help, this guy is an okay singer. I’m a good singer. A lot of you don’t know this about me, but I was in a choir for many, many years and just happen to have perfect pitch. It’s something I was born with. I truly am a great singer. Astounding. And I will tell you this: when this guy hits the high notes he may even be as good as me. He’s definitely a better singer than Hillary Clinton, who is tone deaf.

Puccini: La Boheme – Si, Mi Chiamano Mimi

So what, do you think that because your name is “Mimi,” you get a pass? Wrong. Even though you are sick with tuberculosis you’re still not thin enough to be hot. You’re a loser. Losers don’t take care of themselves and it’s showing. And the way you throw yourself at the Rudolph guy is disgusting and trashy. Not a classy broad.

Puccini: La Boheme – O Soave Fanciulla

More of this I-tie stuff. And “Puccini,” what does that even mean, “little dog”? “Little pouch”? Whatever it is, it’s little and it’s in his last name, so that makes this guy’s whole family little losers. And this is the third piece in a row by this guy and all back to back to back in one opera. But doing this kind of thing is like when I was dating those hot Anderson triplets. Who needs back to back to back? Somebody should tell this guy to put some filler in between these songs. Still don’t know what this fantastic Rudolph guy sees in this dying, diseased shameful woman.

[Ed.-- I'll publish  more of Donald's stunning reviews in the coming weeks.]

Monday, May 8, 2017

Tony Yike Yang Rocks the House

On Sunday I attended a piano recital by Tony Yike Yang at Macalester College. Yang was a substitute for another pianist who had injured her arm. Yang, eighteen years old, proved again that virtuosity can be obtained at a very early age. His performance was one of the very best recitals put on by the Chopin Society. Other than Daniil Trifonov's tour-de-force of late 2012, I cannot recall a more stunning performance at a Chopin Society recital.

Great Seat!

Yang entered the stage wearing black, including a shiny black shirt with silver buttons down the front. He dove into the Scarlatti. His performance was impeccable--but nothing unusual so far.

Then he hit us with a profound interpretation of the Chopin B-flat Minor Sonata, the "Funeral March Sonata." Right from the start of the first movement his playing was engaging, precise, and contained great depth. His pedal use seemed superb. He was able to layer the sounds in a way that was interesting and well thought out. 

While performing he is more active than many pianists, more Lang Lang than Pollini. He occasionally elevates himself off the stool when striking a heavy chord and contorts his face to match the expressions we would expect to encounter during evocative passages. For instance, he seemed to be almost crying during the striking moment in the third movement--the movement containing the famous funeral march--when the sweet, high legato melody enters. It's a heartbreaking moment and his facial expressions were fitting. This is a wonderful passage and I was really struck by Yang's playing at this point. The first time through the melody its beauty was just crushing. The second time through it seemed a bit of the hurt had gone away through the passage of time. 

Then Yang performed Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7. And it was simply spectacular. Precise. Fluid. Motoric. This will no doubt be a key piece for his upcoming performance at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, at which he has been selected to be one of the thirty participants. Unlike many performances of Prokofiev's piano pieces, Yang's interpretation was never sloppy. 

After the intermission, Yang offered up a powerful interpretation of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. What is there to say about pianism of the highest order? With the exception of one very, very slight twang upon the release of a pedal, the performance of this piece seemed spotless. And it was powerful.

The audience was in good form. Minimal coughing. Deserved standing ovations after the Prokofiev and the Mussorgsky. It is clear that the musical cognoscenti are found in St. Paul, not Venice. Unfortunately, in contradistinction to the last recital I reviewed, Yang offered no encores. 

Yang is very gifted. It will be interesting to see how he does at the upcoming Van Cliburn competition.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Ken Woods Memorial Road Race 2017

Going to the Race.

Yesterday I participated in the 2017 Ken Woods Memorial Road Race near Cannon Falls, Minnesota. It is usually the largest road race of the year here and there were probably 200+ this year. I trained for this event hard for five months, enduring daily workouts on the trainer through the winter and killer two-hour workouts at NOW Sports on Sundays. My goal was to finish with the main group and I fell just short of the goal. There is a long hill that you ride up twice and the first time I went up, at about 20 miles of the 40 mile race, I lost contact with the group. I struggled to catch up, but it was pointless. Of the other riders that weren't able to keep up with the main group or fell back off the back end of the group, I caught all but one before the finish. I finished 31st of 52 riders. Still, I was 21 minutes faster than last year and my goal is within reach. Made some stupid mistakes:

At the Starting line.

1) Went into the lead on a solo attack at 15 miles. I had no business doing this. I was hoping that someone would join me, but nobody did, so I allowed myself to be reeled back in. This was a huge mistake, because this pointless expenditure of energy came just before the key hill. Would I have stayed with the group to the end if I had not done this stupid thing? Maybe.

Results. 

2) I got caught in the wind a few times; most of the time I was pretty good. And once I got caught out I would get back behind someone within a couple of minutes. But still could get better at sheltering myself.

My Teammates. 

3) I didn't realize how close my goal was as I went up that hill and let it slip. If I had known that the group would back off a bit once it reached the top--which is fairly common--I would have had more of a willingness to burn a match on the hill. At the top of the hill the group was tantalizingly close, but there was nobody to help me work to get back. I did maintain a constant distance for quite a while, but you cannot fight against gravity.
Biking has been a wonderful and blessed addition to my life these last few years. It has made me healthier, introduced me to new friends, and at times helped me find peace. 
And I really like racing!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Bizet's Carmen -- La Fenice

I'm going to forego a lengthy review of the performance of Bizet's "Carmen" that I saw at La Fenice on April 4. La Fenice proved that no staging, no matter how silly, can spoil this great opera. The score is simply too strong. Full frontal nudity, Carmen removing her panties, and extra-graphic humping scenes seemed gratuitous--a weak production in my view. I had to laugh when I mentioned this on Facebook and an old friend said that he saw Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffman" at La Fenice not to long ago and they managed to fit full frontal nudity and humping into that production too!

Still a great night in a beautiful venue. And the walk back, past St. Mark's, was a nice way to end the trip.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Yuja Wang vs. The Audience at La Fenice

One of the cornerstones of my recent European vacation was to be a night at this famous opera house, the one where Verdi's "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata" premiered. My assumption was that the classical music audiences at La Fenice in Venice would be among the most knowledgeable in the world. The day before I was to attend the opera I was wandering down a lane and saw a poster announcing that the renowned pianist Yuja Wang would be performing a recital that very day, so I looked into getting a ticket. The program was great: Brahms, Chopin, and Schubert. A good seat was available and I snatched it up.

The only problem was that I had a cold. I've only coughed three times in my life during piano recitals--and I've been to a few hundred. I avoid in-recital coughs like Cal Ripken avoided sitting out a ball game. So before the concert I stocked up on Italian cough drops--pretty powerful stuff. Tissues in hand, I got there early and entered the hall as soon as the doors opened. The ornate hall was beautiful, quite small, and obviously would have good acoustic qualities. I was in one of the most famous opera houses in the world. And it has been beautifully restored after it was destroyed by fire in the 1990's.

As I sat there and took in my surroundings, the protagonists entered. First, the audience. Not staid classical piano fanatics as I had envisioned, but mostly a cross section of the people you would find in St. Mark's Square during the day: tourists. They spoke many languages. Very few of them knew who Wang was. Many had never been to a piano recital. Some, including the woman in the neighboring seat, had never been to any kind of concert before. (At one point she would ask me why the performer walked off stage when she was finished.) Many children were in attendance. The audience was raucous and came armed with interfamilial squabbles underway, mostly revolving around cell phones.

The performer, Wang, had prepared for the concert more purposefully than the audience. She had committed to a lifetime of daily piano practice and training. She had won many awards and was the subject of an interesting September 2016 New Yorker magazine piece. She is able to play some of the most difficult showstoppers in the piano repertoire. She entered that hall as one of the best pianists in the world.

Wearing a spangly green dress that was slit up the side (I'm fully armed for discussing the propriety of this observation, a trap for any Wang reviewer), Wang began with Chopin's 24 Preludes, which according to the program were supposed to come at the end. Was this Wang's preemptive salvo, or La Fenice's mistake? My guess is the latter.

But the audience quickly established complete and overwhelming dominance. It strung together beautiful volleys of coughs, and drew first blood by bothering Wang to the point that she gave a disapproving pause between two of the early Preludes. Then again it scored with an upward glance from Wang when several coughs piled on a soft passage from the piano.

I do not have perfect pitch. But I've listened to the gorgeous sonorities of the Chopin Preludes (Pollini particularly) long enough to know that something was wrong with the piano's tuning. It was obvious and surprising.

During the middle of the Preludes the audience showed mastery of its craft: persistent coughing, heightened at key moments; a baby crying (a first for me); children with high-pitched barking coughs; croupy coughs; cough fits; repeated banging of a wood panel somewhere; snoring (both ordinary, and, later, apnea-like); lit cell phone screens visible; a dropped cell phone; a ringing cell phone. And, as the gorgeous 15th Prelude ended, the simple strength and majesty of an echoing sneeze. To me, the eye roll this elicited represented the artist's surrender.

When the Chopin ended, Wang exited the stage quickly and headed for the halftime locker room after two bows.

During intermission I sought out water. Maybe the whole audience had been doing this before the concert and during intermission. Believe it or not, there is no drinking fountain anywhere in La Fenice. Maybe this contributes to dry throats and coughing? Just guessing. Drinking fountains would be nice.

I returned for the second half, knowing that the contest had already been decided. As I sat down I noticed that my hunch about the piano had been correct: a piano tuner had spent the intermission tuning the piano and was still plying his craft as the audience settled in.

But Wang game girded for battle. She had swapped out her opening spangly green dress for one of bright scarlet: game on.

The second big piece on the program was another old friend: Brahms's "Handel Variations." Wang played it well, clearly dominating the audience's efforts during louder passages, but again she was bested by such classic strategms as audience talking and a front and center old man who started coughing up a lung and slowly walked out, tendering a few coughs that could be heard through the closing concert hall doors.

It appeared the Brahms was all about velocity: getting this concert over with. Wang raced through the piece and, since it was by now clear there would probably be no Schubert, appeared to be winding things down. And here was the turn. Just like a confidence artist, she waited until there was something we really wanted--to leave--and then went for the kill.

The powerful ending of the Brahms resonated in the hall and it was not clear that she was even going to come out for a bow. I did not think that the audience deserved so much as a bow and would have understood if she just hopped on her next jet to Paris, London, Verbier, or wherever her next concert was. Even though I had never seen an artist do it, I expected her to just leave. And she waited a very long time before coming out for a bow. But after some coaxing, she surprised us with not only a bow, but also an encore! It was the devilishly difficult Horowitz showpiece, "Variations on a Theme from 'Carmen.'" Her playing was astonishing. The audience was surprised and thrilled. What a pleasant gesture! So then there was a bit more applause. She gave a couple more bows, and just as things were breaking up, just as she was about to walk off stage for the final time, literally just as I stopped clapping, she sat down at the piano and played two more pieces (probably the Schubert that was initially on the program). Very generous.

And she did this again. And again. And again. At least eight encores in total. I know she played the following, there could have been one or two I'm missing:

Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen
Schubert: two pieces
Prokofiev: Toccata in C
Chopin: C# Minor Waltz
Kreisler: Liebesfreud
Chopin: Ballade No. 1
Mozart/?: Rondo alla turca

By the end she was toying with the audience. She seemed to make the point: I am the artist and I can keep performing as long as I want to. I decide when you go.

Adults were dying to leave. Children, even the very good ones, were crying crocodile tears, begging to be released from her grip. But she was not done. She would continue. And the funny thing was, every time she sat down again, the adults' and the little kids' eyes and attention were riveted. By the end, all the coughers, noise makers, and the sneezer, were wax in her hands. Game, Set, Match, Wang. (Oh, and I didn't cough once.)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Malick's "Song to Song": A Moral Tale for Our Times

Like many, Terrence Malick had me at Days of Heaven, the innovative 1978 film that introduced us to his exceptional visual art. I make a point of seeing most of his movies shortly after they are released. My review of To the Wonder is here: http://rationaldecline.blogspot.com/2013/04/to-wonder-fine-expression-of-terrence.html. I was excited to see his latest offering, Song to Song, at the Lagoon Theater in Minneapolis.

One normally associates moralizing with the spoken, not the visual. But Song to Song, a work of many images and few words, is sneakily moralistic. As with most Malick films, the narrative thread is sparse and the meaning of the movie therefore remains wholly obscured until the end. Startling eye candy, at times overlaid with transporting music, initially led me to believe I was simply viewing a large-screen version of Architectural Digest.

As promised, the movie is an exploration of the Austin, Texas music scene and presents cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, Flea, and Patti Smith. The ensemble cast includes Ryan Gosling (BV), Rooney Mara (Faye), Michael Fassbender (Cook), Natalie Portman (Rhonda), Cate Blanchett (Amanda), Holly Hunter (Miranda), and Val Kilmer (Duane)—and other Hollywood stars were left on the cutting room floor. (While the characters' names are perhaps discernible from the script and film, they were hard for me to catch and I’ll just reference the characters by using the actors’ names.)

Given Malick’s proclivities, it was not a surprise that shots within sequences often lasted only seconds and were no doubt shuffled, at times perhaps randomized, before being sewn together. The stunning beauty of nature and man’s ordered world—at one point Fassbender’s character says “it is staged,” or words to that effect—suffuses the film and lulls us into thinking that the movie is headed nowhere. At times I assumed it was just a boring cinematographic tour de force. But evil and misfortune are stealthy and the penalties of sin are not paid at its inception. What are these people doing? They are doing what rock stars, those that leach off of them, and those that hang around them usually do: living haughty lives of sex, drugs, and money, claiming immunity to the gravity of humanness and life.

Natalie Portman’s character, who enters as a svelte waitress, gives in to lust and easy money by taking up with the devilish Fassbender, a musical agent. In getting something for nothing, she in a way embraces her own death. Rooney Mara’s character, who buffets about the same world, meets a different fate. Why? Chance? Perhaps. Or it could be that this work really does have a moralistic engine and the fact that she first earned her way to her station as a receptionist for the Fassbender character, plays a role in the tale. She was not plopped in the mix deus ex machina as Portman’s character was. Or it may simply be that the Mara's character is made of sterner stuff, as her various misadventures seem to show.

The mothers, fathers, wives, and Patti Smith point the moral way. Rooney Mara’s father questions his daughter’s choices in the subtlest and most skillful of manners—skillful because it’s the type of gentle inquiry and guidance that gains purchase only with time. The tenderness she feels for her father is conveyed by one shot where she runs her fingers along a door or window while in her father’s presence. We're being told that the goodness of parental love lies within her and it is perhaps this that prepares her to receive more direct guidance from another source, Patti Smith, who, playing herself, serves as the crucial moral anchor by telling Rooney Mara to fight for what she loves: Gosling. Gosling’s mother sees the dangers of the moneyed world and protects her son. Gosling’s father is not known to the audience before his death, but it is hinted that his pre-mortem guidance plays a role in Gosling’s salvation. Unfortunately, Natalie Portman’s mother questions her daughter’s choices with less success.

Like lightning at a picnic, the tragedy comes as a surprise while everyone is debauching in their usual manner. Honied mushrooms are the leading suspect.

Malick’s usual style, one which uses pictures, not words, improbably accommodates highly moralistic messages about the catalog of human sin:
  • Don’t hang with evil
  • Beauty without spirituality is hollow
  • The rewards of life must be earned
  • Punishment does not always vest at the time of sin
  • Beauty is cunning, baffling, and powerful
  • If something’s so nasty that you have to coat it with honey to make it palatable, it’s bad for you
  • Follow love. Don’t let it go, even if the path is hard.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

"Just Kids" -- Just Fantastic

“Just Kids,” Patti Smith’s 2010 National-Book-Award-winning memoir of her early life in New York City and her relationship with famed artist Robert Mapplethorpe, shows Smith to be a writer and storyteller of the highest order. The book succeeds in varied ways: it works as a snapshot of the artist community in the 1960’s and 70’s; as autobiography; as a portrait of the starving young artist; as homage.

The story is an interesting one, describing how Smith, a legend of 70’s punk rock, comes to her chosen medium as a musical artist. The descriptions of her early youth point to a difficult struggle, with poor, but loving parents. Late in the memoir, she discusses going home and mentions that her “father read us Plato”—obviously an interesting untold story there—so her youth must have been blessed with a family that appreciated learning and knowledge. She talks about reading Rimbaud while working in a Philadelphia textbook factory, so again, not a standard trajectory.  She arrives in New York City in 1967 after a stint in college that ends when she gets pregnant. She gives the child up for adoption and reaches the city with not much more than a waitress uniform that her mother has given her—though she promptly abandons the uniform, recognizing that her quest is to be an artist.

Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe is rich and touching. Two young artists meet, form a strong bond, struggle together and apart, and gradually circle in on their chosen métiers. Smith’s discussion of her reaction to Mapplethorpe’s emerging homosexuality is candid and contradictory—she understands and regrets at the same time. She describes a powerful bond with Mapplethorpe, one that survives everything and endures breakups, reunions, love triangles, separations, and growing apart.  

The description of the New York City art scene is replete with all the names. But one is never left with the feeling that the work is an exercise in self-glorifying namedropping. Smith did have the relationship with Mapplethorpe; she did have a relationship with Sam Shepard and write a play, "Cowboy Mouth," with him; and she did hang out with Warhol, Joplin, Hendrix, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. This was not someone who was on the outskirts of the social scene and is struggling to come up with anecdotes about the leading artists of the time: they were all around her, particularly during her stay at the famous Chelsea Hotel.

Most interesting to me was the description of how she came to music as her professional medium. Her early years are described as ones bathed in reading, drawing, visual art, and poetry. While Mapplethorpe slowly zeroes in on photography, Smith attends a Jim Morrison concert at which she realizes that she can do what Morrison does on stage. But her youthful connections to music are occult as far as the reader is concerned, and this perhaps adds to one’s wonder that her path leads her to be a musician. It's a public poetry reading she gives with offbeat guitar accompaniment that gets the ball rolling—and it never stops. Her self-discipline is remarkable. Early on she is offered a record deal, but turns it down. This is a mysterious and wise move. She apparently recognizes that her life in art would benefit from more preparation and she shuns an early sell out.

The language of the book is beautiful. Smith speaks with precision and a simplicity of language that is schooled, not naive. The occasional rare or obscure word, always used out of necessity, shows her facility as a writer. Mostly this is a narrative story, a story about her lover and friend Mapplethorpe, so she uses simple language and eschews the highfalutin. Phrases and sentences can be wonderful: “We played similar games, declared the most obscure object treasure, and often puzzled friends and acquaintances by our indefinable devotion.” Or: “I learned from him that contradiction is often the clearest way to truth.” Smith is a skilled writer and storyteller.

This is a touching, lovely remembrance. It is a rewarding read and it further cements by deep admiration for Patti Smith.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ein Mensch on International Women's Day: Patti Smith at Northrop Auditorium -- March 8, 2017

There were two startling things during Patti Smith's Wednesday night concert at the Northrop. The first was that she repeatedly spat on the floor of the stage. The second was that, yes, she really did break guitar strings during the concert's concluding number. While neither of these would have surprised my friend Snag, a Patti Smith devotee, I never really had much of a connection to her music in my youth, so was caught a bit off guard.

Patti Smith Performing "Birdland"
I knew who she was, had heard "Gloria" and "Because the Night," but never understood the encomiums. The fact that the "in set" admired her greatly back then didn't do much for me. But this concert was very interesting on many levels.

In preparation for the concert I had both listened to a 70-minute interview from a 2012 Danish music festival (http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/patti-smith-i-will-always-live-peter-pan) and purchased and read "Just Kids," her account of her young life in New York with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. My explorations revealed a centered, likable, and virtuous woman. I was quite surprised to discover that she was incredibly kind, good, well read, and versatile. I had not known that she had won the National Book Award for "Just Kids" and I greatly admired its simple language and skillful storytelling.

So the thing I am struggling with is how a centered philosopher puts on a stage show full of all-consuming passion. I haven't solved this incongruity. Except perhaps to accept that we all have our different sides. I'm a careful professional, but put me on a dance floor and all bets are off--I become utterly carefree. Maybe it's the same thing. The interview above touches on that point at its beginning and Smith quotes Whitman in asserting that we all have many different sides to our personalities.

I've attended many vocal performance of aging performers and Smith's voice was simply the best facsimile of a voice from 40 years ago that I have ever heard. Easily so. She was closely mic'd and for most of the concert I could detect very little difference between her voice on the 1977 version of "Horses" and her voice now. She was particularly strong during the highest-intensity stretches of "Gloria," "Birdland," and "Horses." Her near-manic demeanor during fast parts of "Birdland" and "Horses" was captivating. The voice of this woman in her eighth decade of life is amazing.

Violence Against Guitar Strings
After the songs from the "Horses" album, she also performed songs from her "Easter" album, including, "Ghost Dance," and, predictably, "Because the Night." Prince's "When Doves Cry," was sung at a slow pace. A short false start on "Citizen Ship" gave rise to a tight second take.

The most remarkable thing about Patti Smith the performer is her intensity when she's riffing on her own lyrics. Total immersion. The heat of the hot part of the sun. And this intensity led to a question that popped in my head at the beginning of the last number, "My Generation," as she donned a guitar for the first time: How does the passionate spontaneity inherent in guitar smashing jive with the premeditation necessary to carry it out? At the point she put on the innocent, shiny guitar, I said to myself, "Lord God, please don't allow this marvelous septuagenarian to smash the guitar." Well, she didn't. She manufactured lots of feedback; she broke the strings one by one, tossed them aside; but she avoided any nasty splinters by sparing the guitar. Ultimately, she did not behave, but she tempered her defiance with love--and made a comment to that effect that suggested why it was that the guitar's sentence was commuted.

One sign of good art is that it leaves you with unanswered questions. I left asking myself several: Is the performer's persona real or an illusion? What does it mean to be an aging artist? How do intensity and spontaneity co-exist in performance art? It was an amazing show. Too bad Snag missed it.







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.