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.


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.)

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.