Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Battle of the Bands

Osmo Vänskä 
Illustration by André Carrilho

I was in the doctor’s office yesterday to have my pinky sutures out, thumbing obligatorily through The New Yorker, and came upon this excellent example of music criticism by Alex Ross. I haven’t payed much attention to classical music since I lost the hearing in one ear and could no longer distinguish directions and balances, so now I’m a sucker for “inside” stuff like this:

“Orchestras do gain or lose ground over the years: a music director may instill confidence or sap it; newly hired players may add heft to fading sections or fail to grasp long-held traditions; the audience may add electricity or drift away, making even brilliant concerts seem wan. Philadelphia has been suffering from a lack of steady leadership, its cause not helped by a marketing campaign built around the inscrutable slogan “Unexpect Yourself.” The Cleveland Orchestra has gone through financial woes and labor friction, although in technical terms it remains impeccable. Chicagoans—whose orchestra is No. 5, according to Gramophone—worry that one or two weak links have appeared in their legendary phalanx of brass.

“For the most part, though, the events I saw during Carnegie’s informal tournament—I missed St. Luke’s and the Pittsburgh—achieved a striking consistency, in ways good and bad. Rhythms were executed with admirable precision (Cincinnati danced militantly through Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra); string sections emitted lush sounds (the Concertgebouw made of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony a bubble bath for the mind); and climaxes were turned up to eleven (the Gewandhaus’s renditions of two Beethoven overtures, the “Leonore” No. 3 and the “Egmont,” caused Carnegie’s floor to rumble pleasingly). National idiosyncrasies remain—the edgy attack of German clarinets, the peculiarly pungent Russian brass, the unforced weight of the Dutch en masse—but the similarities outnumbered the differences.

“You had the impression of a cultural industry operating in peak condition….”

Interesting caveats follow, then Ross waxes eloquent about the Minnesota Orchestra. In Sibelius’s choral symphony “Kullervo” “…the Minnesotans, with the assistance of the Y. L. Male Voice Choir, from Finland, delivered a performance of uncanny, wrenching power, the kind you hear once or twice a decade.”

“Vänskä has been the music director of the Minnesota since 2003. For some years, it has been evident that he is a conductor of genius…. The crucial element in his work is unanimity—not unanimity of execution (although that was hardly lacking) but unanimity of feeling. The climaxes were as shattering as on any other night, but the quietest moments registered even more strongly.”

Well, I admit I’d never heard of either “Kullervo” or Vänskä. But even one-eared I’ll certainly give them both a listen now. Thank you, Alex Ross, for a fascinating and informative review.

(And thank you Dr. S, for subscribing to The New Yorker. The last health-care purgatory I was sentenced to was provided only with reading material for (astonishingly upscale) scuba divers, and people who know minor celebrities by their first names and bedmates.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Drowned Rat dries off

A little damp out there this morning. Ten degrees colder, and this would have been a heck of a snow storm. It’s still sheeting down, the rivers are rising, and some schools are closed because of possible flooding. Definitely one of those days when you wished your car’s windshield wipers had a higher gear.

But I’m now clean, dry, and wooly warm-footed, drinking tea and gazing out the window in an unattractively self-satisfied manner at others negotiating the puddles and splash. Oh, la, la, la, quelle hauteur!

And I got my pinky sutures out. No more blob bandage or goofy splint. I can now put it back to work tapping out those perceptive A’s, analytical Q’s and ironic Z’s. Not to mention all the elegant shifting and tabbing. Ah, it’s great to be back in shape.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Rebel Music

I really enjoyed this short piece in the New York Times this morning. It’s always interesting to hear how interesting artists came to their art.

Along (very roughly) the lines of Felsenfeld’s experience, I’ve often wondered why MTV doesn’t occasionally salt its programing with bop and post-bop jazz, especially fusion, for their viewers looking for something “new.” A stupid idea for many obvious reasons, I know, but not for many really good ones.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Those who can’t do, think

I guess I’m in a writery-thinkery mode. If you’re in a readery-writery mode, try this from T.C. Boyle (go almost to the bottom and click on “This Monkey, My Back.”)

I’ve also just discovered KCRW’s Bookworm podcast

And for those who can’t stand all this this pretentious stuff, here (stolen from H and A’s blog) are H and sweet B enjoying lunch on a windy and freezing Mount Major (New Hampshire) during the winter.

With Jasper the Mountain Wonderdog, standing guard.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Some write ideas

This post from a little while back on Linda Cracknell’s excellent Walking and Writing blog took me to this feature in The Guardian.

Lots of the usual strongly held but yawn-worthy prescriptions and proscriptions about adverbs and adjectives, exclamation points, working regularly, and cutting ruthlessly, but the points that appeal most to me were mostly not about the process at all. Here’s Richard Ford. (Naturally, I think he’s utterly, stupendously wrong at number 2, but it’s still a point that makes a point. I especially like his final three.):

1. Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
2. Don’t have children.
3. Don’t read your reviews.
4. Don’t write reviews. (Your judgment's always tainted.)
5. Don’t have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night.
6. Don’t drink and write at the same time.
7. Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)
8. Don’t wish ill on your colleagues.
9. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
10. Don’t take any shit if you can ­possibly help it.

My experience tells me that Neil Gaiman is profoundly right about this, his Number 5:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

And David Hare’s Number 2 is another sophisticated bit of writer’s wisdom:

Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome.

My primary advice to H in this area while she was young was simply “Don’t be a writer.” She’s grown up to be a doctor, but she’s also a sophisticated writer with wonderful senses of concision, shape, rhythm and nuance, and a precise  appreciation of the right word in the right place. She’s not just a writer, thank goodness, but I bet she’ll write.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New Hampshire weekend

Sweet B is still using her Bushbaby Mini pack when she’s out for a walk. A minor issue has developed: she now prefers to hold her own leash.

What she really loves are what in our family are called “monkey jumps,” here with mom, dad, and Jasper the Wonderdog.

But under all circumstances, she remains supercool.

Clearly, she’s inherited this characteristic from her maternal grandfather.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cutting edge

Well, I broke another one.

While I was nannying sweet B for those six months, I managed to do in most of the dozen wine glasses H and A got as a wedding gift. I don’t know why...I’d never been especially noted as a nemisis of stemmed glassware. But here I am today, smashing the second of the dozen I bought them to replace the first batch.

This time, though, I took myself out, too, slicing my hands while stupidly groping at the already shattered glass in one of those “no, no, not again” moments. So I spent a chunk of my 39th wedding anniversary at Concord Critical Care and came out looking like this:

Elegant, and so romantic.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A really interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about archiving digital material, featuring Salmon Rushdie and Emory University, my niece R’s alma mater. “...archivists are finding themselves trying to fend off digital extinction at the same time that they are puzzling through questions about what to save, how to save it and how to make that material accessible.”

Well worth a read.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The ongoing wonderfulness of iChat

There was a crew of us here tonight to enjoy an especially engaging sweet B: grandparents, great-grandfather, and great-godparents (if that isn’t a thing, it should be). She called each of us by name, modeled her new shoes, demonstrated her growing vocabulary, instructed her dada in pasta-making, essayed Opposites, drank milk from her mama’s glass, and demonstrated how to stretch an elastic cord while holding one end in your teeth, a skill that can’t be practiced too often.

Some of us will get to see her (and her mama and dada) next weekend, but for now, thank goodness for iChat!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hints of spring and pleasant running

I had my first nice-weather shuffle of the year yesterday. It will get cold and snowy again before spring really arrives, but we’re all beginning to get that annual feeling that winter will, finally, eventually, one of these days, not too many weeks from now, play itself out.

I broke out these new shoes to mark the occasion. They’re an old an unexciting model of workhorse training flat, but possessing a Fred Astaire-like sense of grace and style, I accessorized them with the fluorescent yellow LockLaces. Elegant, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I also tried a new pair of shorts, which I actually bought for their little pockets—meant for the GU or similar energy-boosting goodies carried by trail runners, but perfect for a shuffling old man’s specs and emergency flares. An unlooked-for feature is a sort of boxer liner rather than a brief. This is supposedly to reduce chafing, always a good thing, but they seem to do at the price of making you feel that your knickers are in a twist. Not necessarily a great trade-off. My form is unattractive enough already.

Finally, I plunged for the lighter shoes mentioned in the post linked above—the red ones. But their lesser heel-lift has left my left achilles arching its eyebrow in that Gallic way tendons have, and I’ve set them aside at least until I’m better stretched out and the weather is truly hot. They may turn out to be permanently aspirational. Or do you think they might just need yellow laces?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Burrito memories

Earl “Fatha” Hines’ long version of Don’t Get Around Much Anymore just came around on an iTunes playlist, and it reminded me of hearing it last year via Heartland Radio as I prepared black bean burritos to H and A’s recipe. Cooking in their apartment kitchen reminded me of being 25...not a bad feeling, and probably why I remember the whole thing.

As a sometimes member of the Hot 5/Hot 7, Hines was the pianist on Louis Armstrong’s transcendent 1928 version of King Oliver’s West End Blues, (rather than Louis’s wife of the time, Lil Hardin, whose remarkably unswinging work couldn’t have helped create a nearly perfect masterpiece).

 I love another, somewhat less well-known masterpiece the two collaborated on, Muggles.

Hines wrote and performed a top-ten hit, Black and Tan Burrito Fantasy, in 1938.

Not really.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Chuffed and rectified

There’s a brief passage in Patrick O’Brian’s Wine Dark Sea , in which Jack Aubrey’s “ill-faced, ill-tempered, atrabilious, shrewish” steward, Preserved Killick, decides to add a little something extra to the drops he’s applying to his captain’s wounded eye. “Why,” he says, “everybody knows Gregory’s Patent Liquid, sir: it rectifies the humours.”

I myself have needed my humours rectified for a few weeks now. I go into these little funks once in a while, always in the winter. Scrabbling to get out feels like trying to open a door without a handle, breaking off fingernails in frantic attempts to pull the thing open along its edges. This isn’t real depression—nowhere near as painful or desperate—just a sort of all-function hibernation. I can’t read as much, I can’t return phone calls, I can’t make any headway on my writing or editing, I’m a useless lump in a group. Then something happens and I’m okay. I remember years ago finding myself laughing uproariously at a table full of friends, and I was back.

I think this very kind post by Alan Sloman may serve me as a modern version of Gregory’s Patent Liquid. It came along at just the right time. I have a bunch of mostly British outdoor blogs on my Google Reader, and although I haven’t been checking them as regularly as usual, I had a look yesterday, saw Alan’s, and was chuffed. Chuffed is good, clearly related to rectified.

So, Alan (and commentors Martin, Des, and Baz), my humours thank you and I thank you.