Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Classical Goings-on up the Road

The recently classical-again WETA radio broadcast this morning is all abuzz about the Baltimore Symphony's 2007-08 season announcement from last night, as I guess they should be. Marin Alsop will start her tenure as music director with several concerts featuring works by living composers, alongside a season-long cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies.

Here's a PDF version of the press release for your perusal. Highlights that jump out at me include John Adams' "My Father Knew Charles Ives" and "The Wound-Dresser" on the same program (matched with the inevitable Beethoven's 7th); the U.S. premiere of a marimba concerto by Steven Mackey; and concertos for piano, violin, and flute by John Corigliano, Thomas Adès, and Christopher Rouse respectively. Stuff by Tan Dun and Joan Tower, various others.

Anyway, good stuff. You get some weird pairings (Adams' "Fearful Symmetries" with Mahler 5?) but overall it's much, much more ambitious than the Baltimore Symphony usually comes up with.

Also, since it's the 25th anniversary of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, PNC apparently gave them a bunch of money to sell all their subscription seats at $25 a pop -- That's mostly a benefit to people re-upping on past subscriptions but I may have to spring for that given the number of shows that are worth hearing, since that's a pretty economical rate even for the nosebleed seats.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

If You're So Sure What it Ain't, Howabout Telling Us What it Am?

Season 9 of The Simpsons has been out on DVD for a little while and I've started renting it from Netflix, under the theory that it's the first season in the show's history bad enough that it's unambiguously not worth owning. [Rambling on and on and on about Simpsons episode quality over the years bypassed for space and time considerations. -- ed.]

Anyway, by far my favorite episode so far out of the 9th-season bunch is Lisa the Skeptic -- the one where Lisa finds what looks like an angel's skeleton on a fossil dig and tries to convince the rest of the town that it isn't supernatural -- which widely satirizes the ever more familiar science vs. religion conflict and also contains some of the whole series' most nuanced and emotionally resonant character work in a couple of suprisingly well-shaded scenes between Lisa and Marge.

The episode also has substantial geek cred, mostly because it was written by eventual Futurama nerdmeister David S. Cohen and features Stephen Jay Gould in a small but funny part. I read Gould's Wonderful Life late last year, so what struck me most of all when I rewatched the show, hilarity and emotional resonance aside, is one scene in which a blackboard behind Gould's Simpsonized character shows an illustration of a species from the Burgess Shale:

I read Dad's copy of the book and already returned it (somewhat worse for the wear) around Christmas so I couldn't immediately look up exactly what specimen was onscreen. Of course the Internet knows the answer: it's Branchiocaris pretiosa. Sweet. For further neatness here's an artist's conception of a branchiocaris, including the bivalved shell that's mostly cut away in the blackboard illustration.

This episode also features Ralph Wiggum mispronouncing Principal Skinner's name as "Prinscipal Skipple". That is not relevant to the discussion above; I am just saying.

Monday, February 26, 2007

It's a Soy Pretzel!

So my next stop in the quest for the cheapest/best cask beer in Portland took me a bit further down Hawthorne boulevard, to the Lucky Labrador brew pub. They had their pale on cask, which was a solid beer, but the cask-markup, to $3.75 for an imperial (British (20 oz)) pint is too expensive. They do not appear to have a happy hour, which is too bad, since the $2.50 pints at Bridgeport are too much a draw to for Lucky Lab to overtake with its betterness.

Also at the brewpub, which has no bar, but just a bunch of tables (dare I say, European style) in a big open room, I had half a veggie (mostly hummus and an ambiguous white spread (it was not tahini)) sandwich and a bowl of vegan corn chowder. The vegetarian cuisine at Portland brewpubs continues to impress me - the soup was absolutely delicious. I also tried a pint of their Doppelbock, which was pretty good, but there's something about almost all of the Doppelbocks that are brewed in this country, some kind of grainy quality that just misses the mark of the truly great doppelbocks (Salvator, Bajuvator, Optimator, and of course the best beer in the entire world, the Aventinus Weizendoppelbock). There should be that grain aspect to the palette on the beer, but somehow, eh, most American doppelbocks are just kind of a let down. The notable exceptions are Hooker's Liberator (hands down, best doppelbock brewed in this country) and Troeg's Troegenator, neither of which are available on the West Coast (which is the better of the two coasts ("we don't like the East Coast")).

In other news, I'm about 70% of the way through Against the Day now, so hopefully I'll have something to post about that pretty soon.

Also, Trader Joe's, at least on the West Coast, has discontinued the Soytzel, which is terrible news. Is it still available on the East Coast? If so, someone please buy some and mail them to me.

In the Bleak, and Later Just Somewhat Damp, Midwinter

Well, while Jack spent his day outshining me in the quasi date and bowling score departments, I've mainly been snoozing off a long work week and observing the precipitation outside. Arlington got a couple inches of snow between early this morning and mid-afternoon, which has a pleasant muffling effect on the area: snow creating a sort of padding over everything, cars necessarily moving slowly through the slush if they even need to be out on a Sunday. I tromped through it to the gym at its most picturesque moment, with a full, even accumulation on the ground and a steady, fine-grained snow still falling. Later I walked back out into it with my camera, just as the weather transmogrified itself into a steady, cold drizzle. By evening the snow cover is patchy and largely gone from the roads and sidewalks. It occurs to me again that I should get a functioning digital camera, since I would share some pictures now instead of waiting until photography class tomorrow night (weather permitting) to develop this afternoon's film and see if I even got the exposures right.

I did watch more of the Oscar broadcast than is healthy and I don't have any meaningful commentary on the proceedings, except, in re: Happy Feet beating out Cars in the best animated feature category: What the hell, Academy? Talking cars! Come on! Also note that the Thomas Lennon who received a short-subject documentary award is not the Thomas Lennon who plays Lt. Dangle on "Reno 911!". The latter was not recognized for his work on the screenplay for Let's Go To Prison.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bowling for Pins

My cold finally passed its peak and dissipated yesterday afternoon, just about the time I was out bowling with a bunch of coworkers up in Hamden: possibly a bowling alley's air is more salubrious in effect, healthwise, than one would expect. Or perhaps it was the quantity of dollar store candy on hand. ("Inside out" Junior Mints, white on the outside, chocolate on the inside; Valentine's Day themed Nerds; Dubble Bubble.) I also managed to bowl a 174 in the second game, picking up the obvious spares with actual consistency, which feels like more of a personal accomplishment than maybe it should. Afterwards we watched The Big Lebowski, which just gets better and better.

Friday night I was still sneezing but hung around in town long enough to watch Andy conduct the Columbia Wind Ensemble in a joint concert with the more local Ivy kids. He's gotten the band sounding more and more impressive, especially in a difficult Persichetti symphony and a high-gloss suite of dances by Malcolm Arnold. Andy's family's from Connecticut & he had an impressive entourage of aunts and uncles in the crowd; that sort of thing is always cute.

Today, meanwhile: laundry; a three-hour coffee quasi date (or proto-date, or pseudo-date, or something; nomenclature is hopefully secondary, as I thought it was a good conversation); a solitary dinner with a book on music cognition. Lastly a kickass concert by the school of music's percussion ensemble, featuring late-period Ligeti (hooray for wide-ranging mezzo-sopranos), organic crunchy John Cage (hooray for the prepared piano), and a mind-blowing solo piece called "I Ching" by the estimable Per Nørgård (he of the Frost Psalms), performed by Norwegian school alum Eirik Raude. This was a half hour of assorted Yin-and-Yang-inspired mayhem, circa 1982: forward-thrusting polyrhythmic drum grooves, melodies poked out on a rack of some 18 nipple gongs, delicate sonic lacework from a metal thumb-piano placed on a swooning timpani head, jazzlike vibraphone meanderings without a tonal center, pocking woodblocks, more grooves . . . all of it played from memory by Raude. Absolutely amazing. If you ever see this piece pop up on a program announcement, go go go. Or Eirik Raude. I swear he did this without breaking a sweat.

It is a good thing to be able to attend an avant-garde percussion concert instead of watching the Academy Awards. (Make up your own categories if you want. Ligeti takes home the Craziest Supporting Harmonicas yet again.)

That's Another Brilliant Idea, Steinberg

I don't know how long it's been available, but Sony Classical sells a reissue of the original CBS recording of Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach. On Amazon it goes for about $30 -- A lot more equitable than the price for the previous edition, which like most early CD reissues just mapped the contents of the original LPs onto an equal number of shortish CDs and then marked them all up per the industry-standard price fixing rate.

It would have done me a lot more good early in college, but since I had to spend a bit of crunch time in my mostly unoccupied office on Saturday morning it was good to cue up the album on my iPod and just let it run for close to three hours. For all that the Philip Glass Ensemble has gotten closer to the composer's intended sound over the decades, I prefer its recordings from the '70s and early '80s, with their astringent synthesizer sounds and boppier, less precise woodwind playing. It helps that Glass' compositions then still did what his music's best at doing. Einstein's sense of spectacle sounds dated to me but its structural tightness and almost paradoxical sense of spaciousness are a thrill when you're in the mood for it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

This Could Be the End of the Banana Daiquiri As We Know It

So I didn't realize till today that the Matt Groening styled parody filmstrip about Global Warming in An Inconvenient Truth is from an actual episode of Futurama, which also has Al Gore in it. Who knew. The rest of the Futurama episode is significantly less scientifically accurate than An Inconvenient Truth, but it's got Bender in it, so I guess that equals out.

Hat tip: Nate, for lending me all those Futurama DVDs like five months ago. Still a dozen or so episodes to go!

Bonus YouTube: 37-car crash at the 1960 Daytona 500 (no one seriously injured, somehow); Andy Richter's Robot Opera Singer Who Fights Crime.

Good Ford

Last year Richard Ford wrote a third novel to follow after his earlier books The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and I thought I would read these all back-to-back-to-back. I've got the new one, The Lay of the Land, on hold at the public library (situated, conveniently enough, right across the street from the office), so if it's a good citizen whose copy is due back on the 26th, I should be in on that pretty shortly. In the meantime I just finished Independence Day, which I'd first read during college for a sociology course about suburbia.

(That was the one course at school I thought was complete b.s., incidentally, so I'm happy to have taken something meaningful away from it. It was taught by a young visiting professor who had us watch a bunch of movies—Blade Runner = not particularly trenchant as social commentary, by the way—and would do things like assign a week's reading out of the same journal issue, none of it particularly pertinent to suburbia. I guess we also got an interesting talk from the writer of The Slums of Beverly Hills, who was really bitter about how the producers punched up her ending to be optimistic and sentimental.)

Anyway, Richard Ford: a commanding, scintillating authorial presence. The Sportswriter is a fine, limber book, which Independence Day doesn’t build on so much as pick up, electrify, and blow up into a multifaceted reworking of the central character, Frank Bascombe. Ford writes Bascombe with an uncanny grace & balance, crafting the man to be in his element (that being the suburban New Jersey of the 1980s) even when coming a bit unhinged. Bascombe’s struggles are made on his own terms, for the most part, in a life with regrets but without a sense that he’s gone terribly wrong or facing forces beyond his understanding. (With a couple of key exceptions; this is the overall sense I get, though.) There’s no confrontation with a foreign, impossible-to-understand cataclysmic something that forces an alteration of his views or desires, and I think this is a good and rare thing in a story. Instead it’s a portrayal of part of a long, gradual, and generally affirming working out of things, with the key being that Frank Bascombe is written robustly enough to be a character whose life seems to extend into the past and future beyond that part. It’s a bell-clear and charismatic first-person voice, too, comprehensively thoughtful but shaded with a couple of gradually revealed blind spots.

What Ford also spectacularly provides is a symphonic treatment of event and conversation, constant deft touches of changing emotional light, and enough sensory imagery to ground these slow complex observations in the real world. Characteristic scenes set up a conversation (or just as likely, a phone call) with each line of dialogue shaded with a paragraph of thought, plus an ambient observation: a train whistle sounding over the back yard; a water skiier on the river next to the interstate being driven on. Most of the first hundred pages of Independence Day take place on a real estate showing, and it’s pretty exhilarating to read Ford drawing the animating spirit out of this kind of event—and making sure to note, without putting too fine a point on it, the embodiment of American life contained in it.

That’s my reaction to the atmospherics of the two books—there’s obviously a lot more to chew on thematically & plotwise, but there’s not much utility in my trying to hash any of that out here. In any case, I do recommend that you read these if you haven’t yet. I am looking forward to the new one quite a bit.

* * *
Note: Scene spoiler in the comments.

Sick Day, Part Deux

Aaand we're still at home, having still felt pretty crappy upon waking up.

Here's an article in Slate about Sysco, the gigantic food wholesaler I'm sure you'll remember from the ubiquitous cans & packages of things at scout camp. Turns out they've got their tentacles everywhere, though it's not made out to be a cause for too much alarm. OK, so some uppity-crust restaurants are successfully passing off Sysco cakes as expensive homemade desserts. This is, I think, more amusing than disturbing. Passing off reconglomerated chicken "breasts," maybe less so.

In other low-energy entertainment news, I challenge you to find a more addictive Slovenian-made internet game than Line Rider. Poor little sleddy guy, always suffering for my inability to judge where lines should go.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Real Men Don't Use the Word "And"

Sick day today, or at least sick enough to avoid walking to work in the cold. Come on, white blood cells, get crackin' with all that energy I'm trying to conserve.

Anyway, here's an internet toy that's supposed to determine the gender of the author of a chunk of text, apparently by analyzing the frequency of various pronouns & function words. Of course I wanted to see how the three of us lined up, so I plugged in each of our most recent posts (except I used Nate's sympho-wonk one, since the lava one was largely a block quote). The results:

Pete: Female Score 257, Male Score 406
Nate: Female Score 335, Male Score 505
Jack: Female Score 568, Male Score 573

D'oh. I gotta lay off the word "with." Maybe punch up my language with by use of some more male signifiers in general.

Anyway, hopefully tomorrow I'll be back at work and not slothing away my day with at this sort of thing. (Other highlights: listening to the Salonen Piano Concerto yet again; lemon herbal tea; extremely bleary noon-to-three nap.)


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Turn On Your Love Lava, Turn On Your Lava Light

While I'm in a techie mood: If you also enjoy having new fun by taking the regular fun out of things, I recommend the Intuitor Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics website. Includes reviews of movies based on their physical accuracy, detailed information about why you shouldn't jump or drive through plate glass, and one very telling photograph of cigarettes that were extinguished by soaking them in gasoline.

Definitely make time for the loving, paragraphs-and-paragraphs-long review of their #1 Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics Classic. That would be 2003's The Core, in which a cadre of brave "terranauts" prevent the destruction of mankind by travelling to the center of the earth. A representative sample (though merely a fraction of the whole):
The Virgil [the terranauts' ship] began its journey when it was dropped in the middle of the ocean over the Marianas Trench. This is the deepest part of the ocean and traveling through water is easier than traveling through rock. However, the trench is only about 6.8 miles deep so the distance through water is negligible compared to the total distance of the trip. The Earth's crust is also rather thick in this region since the trench is caused by an oceanic layer sliding under a continental layer of the Earth's crust. If the Virgil could really bore through solid rock with ease then why go to all the trouble of setting it up on a platform in the middle of the ocean for such a questionable advantage?
One of my coworkers mentioned this site at lunch today when I said that the one disbelief I can never, ever suspend when watching movies involves people doing things in or near lava. ("Even if there were a such thing as hobbits, they couldn't stand that close to molten rock.") Given that, it boggles the mind to ponder on a crack team of scientists gamboling in an environment at ludicrously high pressure and at temperatures somewhat warmer than the area directly under the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Anyway, read; learn; "keep in mind that the primary difference in destructive potential between corrosion and an explosion is the reaction rate".


Some of my recent work has dealt with software internationalization, which is typically abbreviated to i18n, where 18 indicates the number of letters omitted. I find this quietly witty, which I like because I like the gently humanizing effect wit has on technical jargon. Why I find it witty I'm not sure; I think because it somehow challenges the reader, as in "Yeah, look at how many letters it would take to actually spell out this whole stupid word for you." I like that it justifies its own existence.

Bridgeport Ale House

So this past Sunday, I had the day off, so decided to wander down Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, the road that I live a block off of, and check out the Bridgeport Ale House (warning: their website is very annoying) for their happy hour. Bridgeport is one of the large microbreweries in Portland, so far as I can tell, based on the ubiquity of their IPA in pubs all over town. I don't particularly care for their IPA, but thankfully, the brewpub had cask-conditioned ales so I settled down with an imperial pint of their ESB, which was actually quite good. I had been hankering for a good cask ale too, so it really hit the spot. (For more about cask-conditioned beer, see here).

Anyway, it was dinner time too, so I went ahead and splurged on their white bean patty sandwich, which was served with a mushroom and barley soup, both items vegan. That is definitely a plus for this brewpub - the food was very good, tasted very fresh, and having vegan options, while requisite in Portland, is still nice to see nonetheless. The bean patty was like a massive, sloppy felafel, and the roasted-tomato spread on it was very good.

I went ahead and tried their IPA on cask as well, and while better than it is from the regular draft line, it still lets me down. And to finish off the evening, I tried a half-pint of their Barleywine, which was pretty good - but was served to cold and over-carbonated which made it tough to get a good handle of what the beer had to offer. And it didn't just seem to cold and over-carbonated because I was coming off drinking beer that was served at cellar temp. and naturally carbonated either, it really was too cold and too fizzy.

Anyway, overall, the place was nice as a restaurant, but definitely not a place to go and drink a few pints of Real Ale, so my quest for that location in Portland continues.

Can't Stop the Sympho-Wonkishness

A couple days ago I stumbled on a newish group Metroblog for Pittsburgh. One post from yesterday covers a Pittsburgh Symphony concert from last weekend, which several local bloggers were apparently invited to. It's interesting in that it's written from the perspective of someone familiar with performing arts but not with classical music. Some of his reactions are unsurprising (the last movement of Mahler's 1st symphony is exciting, Beethoven's 1st piano concerto isn't); some of his reactions, while not really unsurprising, at least merit some attention from the organization.

For one, he's dismissive of some Hubble Space Telescope slides that were shown over the stage during a new piece by Chris Theofandis -- he didn't pay attention to them, his companion found them "distracting, annoying, and new-agey". More notably, he was put off by the program notes and an apparently wonky, blogger-specific pre-concert lecture: "I worry that the PSO, and other orchestras, opera companies and others are playing into the perception that one has to have studied these compositions in order to enjoy them."

You could unpack this for a while but I have to go to work, so in short:
1. Halfhearted extramusical multimedia trappings don't trick anyone into liking orchestra concerts better.
2. Trying, albeit earnestly, to explain music to your audience as though they won't get it otherwise is counterproductive.

I probably like this post because I believed both of those things already. The pianist was Yefim Bronfman; Andrew Druckenbrod's PG review provides some contrast.

Elsewhere in the Pittsburgh classical music establishment: The first paragraph of this Post-Gazette article about the Pittsburgh Opera is the single sentence, "The Pittsburgh Opera is going back to its roots." To which I responded, internally, Goddammit. Sometimes your roots are what made you great, but sometimes they're what made you a regional purveyor of never-unfamiliar Italian fare. Anyway they still have a Billy Budd to put on this season; that may be worth a trip back to the Motherland.

Monday, February 19, 2007

pursuit of Road Runner, 211, 213–15, 216n

Speaking of cartoons, a raft of corrections to be implemented for a book this week included a passing mention of Wile E. Coyote, which had been misspelled as "Wily E. Coyote" in the first printing. This also had to be fixed in the index; I think it's amusing that Wile E. Coyote appeared in the index in the first place, but even more so that the entry read

Coyote, Wile E. (cartoon character), 210

That, folks, is how you tell if something's a scholarly book. Though to be really comprehensive the entry should have included a genus & species name too.

Happy Presidents' Day Sale Weekend (Observed)

Hooray, Monday off work. Standard operating procedure for me on such a day is to walk to the nearest diner for an eggs benedict and a coffee (actually I was thinking hot chocolate originally, but was too embarrassed to admit this to the waitress & ordered coffee instead), one of the few routines from Astoria life that ports successfully to New Haven.

Of course, my snap diagnosis of the weather from the bedroom window (sunny, cold) doesn't quite capture the actual weather conditions (punishingly cold, blustery) so that 25-minute shlep to the diner gets to be less fun than anticipated. Standard operating procedure will let you down now and again. Gaahhhhhh, goes my poor freezing center of narrative gravity as I wait for some crosswalk light to change, getting pummeled by icy wind in the meantime, You're running a poor SOP, you poor SOB.

The diner is showing some damn children's show on its TVs, despite the fact that the table full of kids was leaving as I came in & everyone left is an adult. My discman has enough batteries left to drown this out with Hindemith for about 20 minutes, enough time to read another dozen pages of Independence Day, though I'm slightly distracted by the process of eating the eggs benedict & also by the Hindemith, which comes off as pretty ornery when you play it loud enough to drown out children's TV.

The city's green looks empty and wind-blasted in the snow, which has all frozen over icily by now. The original elms on the green all died off decades ago due to disease; it occurs to me occasionally that if I'd seen the green in its glory days (aside from in b&w photos) it'd really feel like something had been lost, looking at it now. Though the effect isn't as strong in the winter, when no leaves are to be had.

A stop in the drugstore for some much-needed personal effects (notably shaving cream, the sputtery remnants oozing out of my current can having become untenable for actual shaving use a couple mornings back) brings a brush with the tabloid news. Britney Spears has shaved her head for some reason: "Experts Say Image in Ruins," notes the NY Post in its full-cover spread. Yeah, experts will say that. Evidently someone won the Daytona 500 as well.

Literal weather conditions: mostly sunny, cold with highs in the low 20s. Northwest winds 15–20 mph with gusts up to 25 mph.

The rest of today will be spent making up for the "real" weekend's blissful undertow of loungefulness by doing some cleaning and organizing, likely soundtracked with more Hindemith. If by this time tomorrow I haven't gotten the papers off my desk and the sink shiny, you can take me 'round back behind the shed & put me down quietly. It is time to get things in order.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Probability of Monday Hatred: Still High

Fig. 1.

Via a Comics Curmudgeon commenter, a Garfield Randomizer. When you click the button it serves up three random panels taken from Garfield strips. Over and over again. Occasionally the result is a statement of undiluted bleakness (fig. 1). Occasionally the result looks like an absurd but deliberately assembled dadaist tryptich (fig. 2). Everything that comes out of it is better than regular Garfield.

Fig. 2.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Been Down So Long

So, after Jack recommended Farina's Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me like three years ago, I finally got around to reading it (since Against the Day is too large to lug around from place to place and Been Down is nice and light), intending to read it only on occasion, and stretching it out, but the voice is so compelling! I finished it in only two days. Really helps solidfy my concept of that ever-so-special era of American novel-writing that exists immediately post-Beat. Anyway, you, if you haven't, should read it too. And also read Pynchon's V. and also Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.

Also, I finally just watched Dave Chappelle's Block Party on DVD, and that was pretty awesome too. Its interesting thats its directed by Michel Gondry, but, being a concert documentary more than anything else, his presence is generally rather subdued. But the snippets of the concert that you actually get to see are pretty great - Dead Prez being especially impressive to me. Inspiring movie overall though, just in terms of all these rich, famous people (artists) getting together rather informally and performing together all again like they used to when they were first coming up together in the scene in the first place.

Also inspiring was the movie We Jam Econo, a documentary about the band The Minutemen. It's sad because the guitar player, D. Boon died in an auto accident back in the 80s, ending the band, but it is inspiring to hear about their meteoric rise to critical aclaim as the USAs most talented, innovative punk bands.

Anyway, its a beautiful day in Portland, so I'm gonna go ride a bike.

Jenůfa is My Valentine

So I had a bit of a "late night" on Valentine's Day, if you catch my meaning, ha ha. In case you don't catch my meaning, what I mean is that I took the after-work Metro North down to NYC to see Jenůfa at the Met Opera. This resulted in a rather "late night," since I didn't get back to New Haven till 2:30 in the morning. If you have a better idea of how to spend Valentine's Day, I'd like to hear it.

Travelling was actually half the fun, since Wednesday was when the slush front hit the seaboard & any transportation hangup would have made me miss the show. But the Metro North was immaculately on time (unlike the Amtrak trains, two of which were 2+ hours delayed already when I left the station) and when the 1 train stopped at 50th Street due to another train's mechanical problems ("This is going to be a while" over the intercom) I still had 20 minutes to book it the 15 icy blocks up Broadway to Lincoln Center, thinking, "I can do this without breaking a sweat . . . don't tell me I don't live in this city, it's like I've never left."

Being in NYC alone on Valentine's Day is pretty much the optimal scenario, since it both romanticizes your status vis-a-vis this unimportant holiday (which under normal conditions wouldn't be worth really even thinking about) while providing you the crowdish anonymity that takes any possible sting out of it.

Jenůfa drew me in largely on account of wanting to hear Karita Mattila in the title role, as well as to finally hear a Janácek opera; and even from the nosebleed seats (especially from the nosebleed seats, maybe) Mattila's voice is an amazing, illuminating thing. There's an ardent, innocent prayer to the Virgin Mary in the second act that glowed especially from within. The entire second act, actually, is uncommonly spellbinding opera—Jenůfa and her stepmother the Kostelnička secluded in a cellar, determining what to do about the illegitimate son Jenůfa has just birthed—Anja Silva as the Kostelnička carries much of this act, and she does so incredibly as well.

Janácek's music is great stuff, and a good reminder of the rich development of romantic music that continued into the 20th century (Jenůfa is from 1904, though Janácek lived until the late 1920s and continued to refine this style). The vocal lines are complex but steeped in Moravian folk song; Janácek's calling card was an attention to melodic and rhythmic speech patterns and an effort to infuse his vocal writing with them. Though it's hard to follow this closely when you don't speak Czech, it gives his music an appreciably natural contour.

And over with plenty of time to get a roast beef deli sandwich and a decaf coffee and head back over to Grand Central for the 12:20 train. Yep, I'd do this every Wednesday if it wasn't for a little thing called "working on Thursday."

Salonen Again

The broadcast recording of Salonen's Piano Concerto is up on the NY Phil website now: make sure you take some time this weekend to hook some good speakers up to your computer and give it a listen. The Concerto starts about 33 minutes in—you can cut right to it—or before that there's about ten minutes of commentary by Salonen and Bronfman.

A couple of details I'd point out: the opening processional works a good bit better in concert when you hear the drums resonating live; make sure you appreciate that it's the first viola sawing away in a duet with Bronfman about seven minutes into the first movement; listen close and you'll hear the saxophone and contrabass clarinet in the wind section. And of course, listen to the whole piece if for no other reason than to hear that magnificent final chord.

Obviously it's a ways off from seeing it in concert, but it's so good to be able to get a second listen to a piece like this. It feels less meandering to me a second time through, and the jazz-via-Ravel highlights are stronger than I remember. Also, though the three movements share a similar surface texture and apparent tempo, I feel like I picked up more on the differences in the way they move & grow: the first movement groove-oriented, the second movement built on top of the piano's monologue, the third movement overlaying a series of regularly changing chords.

Mark Swed's concert review in the LA Times is worth reading, too—perceptive about the Concerto itself, and also attuned to the audience reaction & context of Salonen conducting the Philharmonic in the first place.

He also relates this wonderful bit from the open dress rehearsal:
Salonen began with a run-through of "Pictures at an Exhibition," which closed the evening's program. A working rehearsal, he stopped to fix a couple of small things, causing a woman behind me no end of irritation. "Picky, picky, picky," she loudly griped. "Lorin Maazel would never do that."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Stoudt's Brewery

So I have managed to rent a room in Portland, finally.

Also, in my recent habit of just sort of thinking about beer, in a general way, at random times, I think its rather interesting that Stoudt's Brewing Company seems to be building an historical village around its brewery, "Stoudtburg Village." There's antique stores, and a bakery that uses spent grains and beer from Stoudt's in its bread. Apparently they also have residential space, so you can live there. If I were ever to live there, I would treat it as a reenactment type village, and dress as what I think an ancient Sumerian probably dressed like, and make beer and bread in clay pots.

Also, I don't think I ever mentioned on the ol' blog here, that I'm very proud of my parents now that Stoudt's Double IPA is one of their house beers (like, always in the basement fridge). I think thats great. They also had a case of the Fat Dog Imperial Oatmeal stout with them when they came back from Philly the other week; that beer is nationally renowned, and they drink it. Good for them.

I really do think it would be fun to get a big clay pot and try to make a fermented-malt beverage in it. Probably wouldn't want to try and rely on the wild yeasts that are floating around this country though (not even in Pristine Oregon).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Happy Birthday, Darwin

Tomorrow, February 12th, is the 198th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. To mark the occassion, here's Richard Dawkins on Darwin's The Descent of Man and -- somewhat less safe for work -- Mrs. (formerly Mr.) Garrison teaching the children about evolution on South Park.

For a more earnestly oppositional viewpoint to Darwinian natural selection you can comb through the archives of this Christian web cartoon that Jack found a while ago. Here's a representative example, though I've modified the language to make it somewhat more precise.

Original here.

I Was In Love With the Place In My Mind, In My Mind

Another asynchronous music note from last week: Sufjan Stevens' first name is pronounced "SOOF-ee-yen". He performed a one-hour set in the Kennedy Center opera house as part of the festivities for the 10th anniversary of their free Millennium Stage performances. Actually getting ahold of one of the free tickets would have required being in town for the ticket distribution, plus apparently getting in line by about 5:30 AM for the 9:00 AM handout, but the Emerson Quartet show that night was a short one and I came downstairs in time to watch a broadcast of Stevens in the lobby. The speakers put out a crummy sound about equivalent to what you'd hear from lawn seats a quarter of a mile away from an outdoor stage but the level of excitement was still a touch higher than you get watching prerecorded material. Stevens sported a beard and sport coat and played piano and guitar, with a mostly acoustic backing ensemble drawn from the opera orchestra; highlights included an uptempo take on "Chicago" in a shimmery woodwind-heavy arrangement, a peppy and Dave Brubeck-y version of "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)" -- listening to Stevens toss off that run-on song name as though it were a casual word association is a hoot too -- and a grandiose "Majesty Snowbird" that closed things out in an atmosphere akin to overly quirky stadium rock. The only notable downside was the lack of banjos.

The Odds! The Ends!

February has so far been a wall-to-wall festival of hat hair, which starts to bog down one's self-presentation efforts after a while. I recall deciding not to try any more around last Tuesday. Maybe I'll just start wearing one of those earflap caps all day . . . Highlights from New York last weekend that I didn't mention yet: eating an onion bagel with whitefish salad in a coffee shop while reading Richard Ford; watching the Muppet Show on DVD with Andy & Lisa; sitting in on a musicology presentation Dan did up at Columbia, on Ralph Vaughan Williams and the concurrent British vogue for John Constable & pastoralism in art; perusing the Frick Collection with Dan & Mandy on Sunday before Metro Northing it back to town. Good times! . . . Speaking of bagels, a coworker tipped me off that the coffeeshop by the office imports actual bagels from Brooklyn, which I've happily been eating for breakfast ever since. So far I'd only observed a disturbing tendency for people here to classify Bruegger's as actual bagels. I still miss Astoria Bagels, which was situated on Ditmars between my first apartment and the train station; they cooked their own bagels right there. Full, hearty, crusty: now those were bagels! . . . I guess there's not much to say about the Super Bowl (Lost Puppy Found on Field — Answers to Rex) but I thought Prince really put on a fine halftime show, which actually came across like a concert this year. When it started I joked to the folks I was watching it with that Prince would be more entertaining with a marching band, and then the marching band came out so it was all like, Yeah, I totally called that! Sweeet.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Run On

Pete, your idiosyncratic use of hyphens is starting to overwhelm the version of Firefox I'm running.

Don't, of course, change a thing.

Friday, February 09, 2007


A Slate slideshow about the notion of photographic plagiarism mentions the apparently faddish technique of tilt/ shift photography, which among other effects can make scenes look like photos of miniature models. Highly neat, often gimmicky, oddly touching in a detached sort of way when done well. There are lots of examples in Flickr's Tilt Shift pool. Highly recommended for anyone who likes staring out of airplane windows, or perhaps fans of Harry Lime's comment about dots in the Riesenrad scene in The Third Man.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Wait, is he already on the Pirates? No, that's Shawn Chacon"

The Onion's sports page sends some love the Pirates' way. Clever, though once again I'm stuck on the fact that the piece would be a lot funnier if the details were accurate: It seems unfair (granted, for the first time in approximately ever) to bust Littlefield for failing to pick up players in the offseason, given his solid trade for Adam LaRoche. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's "Stats Geek" Brian O'Neill points out that even the lowly Tony Armas Jr. is a solid acquisition, essentially on the grounds that it's hard to be worse than Victor Santos.

Also, Littlefield's name is not Doug. So how about some better fact checking in the fake news? It's like the Atony Awards all over again.

To give the Onion sports folks their due, their PNC Park story from last summer is still hilariously spot-on.

Also within the realm of Pirates bashery, though it's a week or two old, is Paul Lukas' Uni Watch blog post about the red vests featured in this year's alternate home jerseys. (Jack mentioned Lukas' column of the same name a while back; the blog reads as a more mundane, obsessive, yet oddly mesmerizing survey of the world of sports uniforms and equipment.) Lukas protests a bit too much -- it looks silly but it's not the end of attractive pro sportswear in Pittsburgh -- but I agree with his verdict that the design concept "would make a swell bowling shirt".

Coughing and Hacking

So I've been generally detached from the orchestral concert scene since my abortive attempt at a Graduate education in orchestral Horn performance, but since I've still got a full 20 minutes of internet time left at the library today, want to try and chip in a little bit:

My sense of the orchestral concert-going experience is that it inevitable involves several different cultural aspects, primarily those of the art-as-such and the rich-old-people-who-see-their-other-old-rich-friends-from-across-town-and-want-to-make-sure-those-friends-know-that-they-still-go-to-the-symphony: there's some portion of the audience that is generally excited to hear the music in question, but there's an often times larger portion that wants to hear what they like, and mostly just say "hi" to Sam & Mildred from Sewickly and sleep through anything that isn't the opening or closing of a Beethoven symphony.

Old people cough. They're gonna cough, and its better they do it between movements than any other time (especially during quiet, contemplative modern music that they have no respect for). People should clap between movements, to cover up the coughing. The people that care about music should clap enough and also, when the performance is great enough, demand a repeat performance of a movement before allowing the concert to move along. I recall once hearing a Pittsburgh performance of Beethoven's Eroica wherein I wanted nothing more, after the scherzo, than to hear the scherzo again before moving on to the end of the piece.

The no clapping thing is an aspect of the negative side of the concert scene. Not clapping is for stuffy old people that don't give a shit, or for recording geeks that, if they really have that much of a problem with noise between movements shouldn't be at a concert in the first place. Concerts should be fun, and should be relaxed. Most of the musicians genuinely love the music and love to perform it, so for me, the stoic, dressed-up aspect of the typical concert seems greatly disconnected from what is really going on with the people that care about art pour l'art.

There's certainly some historical imperative that needs to be examined as well, in terms of the evolution of the orchestral concert, but I will hold off on that for now, except to say that everything I've ever read talks about people clapping anytime anything good happens, and demand movement-repeats happened all the time as well. And I think Adorno postulates at some point that clapping has its roots in ancient tribal rituals, but, maybe just realizing that clapping at concerts is a ritual at all is good enough.

I get the sense often times that concert-planners and concert-goers feel that there is some necessity for live music to compete with its recorded counterpart, and in trying to preserve the perfect blank aural canvas behind its performances live as exists in the studio, loses too much of what can make live performance vital, audience participation.

Also, we should be allowed to "boo" bad performances.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I'd Post More, But My Allergies Keep Me Unhomed

With only an hour everyday for public library internetting, most of which time is devoted to looking at pages of people who maybe just maybe will actually email me back about the possibly of my paying them money to sleep on the floor of an empty room on their house, I just don't have the time to read all these damn posts by the twins. I feel bad about this. But so far as I can tell, Jack likes music, Nate likes music, and that is great.

Everyone in Portland has a pet. It's crazy. Everyone. Uncalled for, really.

Also, you may think that people in Portland are like, liberal, or hippies, or eco-conscious, but all the American bourgieousie out here still want their paper bags (that's right, they don't use reusable canvas bags any more than the bourgiouse in any of America's other cities) to be doubled for no good reason.

Paper bags dry out my fingertips, causing the skin to crack and for my poor brain to constantly be distracted by the pain that those stupid nerves down there won't shut up about.

2-minute warning.

Anywho, at some point, once I have more time, or am less rushed by looking for an abode, I will be back to my usual level of blogparticipation. Or maybe a whole new level of participation.

I hear the Oregon Sympony these days is better than ever.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ice Station NoVA

I don't have a lot of commentary to add, especially on the non-musical side, except to complain self-centeredly about being scoured by stiff dry winds within the same mass of Arctic air that's engulfed everybody else within hundreds of miles; to note the partial, self-contained pleasure in spite of that of emerging from a Metro stop into a fine and dessicated snow; and to note without further speculation that the area in front of the South Lobby entrance to the Watergate has smelled unaccountably like donuts for four consecutive days as I've walked past it to the Kennedy Center, with no nearby donut vendor that I can see.

I'll continue to burn out myself and everybody else on concert descriptions once the Emerson Quartet finishes its survey of the first half of Shostakovich's string quartet output. The image up top a low-res scan from this evening's program with the kind of scribbled notes I come away with if I'm excited enough to want to reconstitute my immediate impressions later. (Click on it for the big version.) They tend to end up as visual artifacts as opposed to something readable for any practical purpose.

The one-sentence version is that this is one of the two or three best-performed concerts I've ever heard and one among maybe six or seven shows that I've found as emotionally affecting. It drives home the value of the early agricultural techniques developed tens of thousands of years ago that ultimately allowed for this absurd level of non-food-producing behavioral specialization.

So How'd That Turn Out, Anyway

[And another rerun, this one from Nate in January '05. I cannot think of a single reason these are not as fresh as brand-new blog posts.]

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Weekend so soon, and with it the AFC championship game. I've been enjoying the Post-Gazette's coverage best, since it focuses less on how good New England is and more on how many gloves Ben Roethlisberger wore in practice the previous day. I wrote these in an earlier email to someone else, but I reproduce them here, for the hell of it.

Did you know . . .

(1) Postseason sporting events offer a fine opportunity for sportscasters to pay lip service to Western Pennsylvania's shattered industrial heritage?

(2) If Ben Roethlisberger attempts to play on Sunday while wearing a glove on his passing hand, he will be summarily crucified on a goalpost by enraged fans?

(3) Rooting against the New England Patriots is a rejection of the USA PATRIOT Act and all the democratic freedoms it protects?

(4) Professional football does not have a problem with performance-enhancing drugs because no staff writers for Newsweek have written a sidebar item about one?

(5) If the Steelers win the Super Bowl this year, running back Jerome Bettis could become the next mayor of Pittsburgh, without an election, simply by asking for it?

(6) My life would be way awesomer if it happened in slow motion, accompanied by a dramatic NFL Films-style soundtrack and narration?

(7) We are at war in a country called Iraq, and thousands of people are dying there?

I conclude with the following assertion, which was printed up this week and posted on the insides of the stall doors in the men's room on my office's fifth floor:


I checked. It's true.

GRE Test Practice

[Rerun post! From November 2004, when the ol' ex-girlfriend was studying for the GREs; but still useful, I think. Sharpen those pencils!]
* * * * * * *

GRE Practice Questions.

1.) If I did not see myself so close to ______ , surely I would consider myself _____ .

A. recompense . . . elated
B. vindication . . . unencumbered
C. desolation . . . parsimonious
D. dancing gnomes . . . sober

2.) As I desire to be your _____ , please take me under _____ .

A. progeny . . . consideration
B. associate . . . advisory
C. contemporary . . . tutelage
D. child’s mother . . . the dining room table

3.) The houses struck during the storm were _____ , so I believe the tornado was ____ .

A. reconstructed . . . spontaneous
B. dilapidated . . . meager
C. recondite . . . vigorous
D. not mine . . . entertaining

4.) In 1998, _____ led the American League with _____ home runs.

A. Jose Canseco . . . 46
B. Mark McGwire . . . 70
C. Rafael Palmeiro . . . 47
D. Ken Griffey Jr. . . . 56

5.) I cannot believe that the _____ president won the ______ election.

A. incumbent . . . statutory
B. former . . . penultimate
C. redoubtable . . . felicitous
D. fucking . . . fucking

1. D 2. D 3. D 4. D 5. D

Study Tip: When taking the GRE, bear in mind that the answer is always D!

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[I sent these to Nate, too, and he posted the following reply.]
* * * * * * *

Very helpful. I present my own insights into standardized-test taking below:

I embrace an "incorrectness buffer" theory of verbal question answering, which holds that selections in the middle of the answer range, e.g. B or C, are correct, since incorrectness can only penetrate as far as the "outside" answers, A and D. When present at all, E is never correct, unless it is "all of the above", in which case it is always correct.

For questions that consist of straight-up mathematical calculations, the "incorrectness buffer" theory holds: Incorrectness is absorbed by the highest and lowest answers and will not penetrate into the values in the middle. Of the middle answers, choose the highest, since larger values tend to contain more correctness. A special case is an answer of 0, which should never be selected, unless you can intuitively identify the problem as a "trick question", in which case 0 should always be selected.

Many so-called "comparison" questions present two quantities, and offer the following answer selections:

A. Quantity I is greater
B. Quantity II is greater
C. The quantities are equal
D. The information given is insufficient to determine which quantity is greater

A simple rule of thumb here is to improve your guess by ruling out one of the answers. For instance, if you can rule out Quantity I, then clearly Quantity II must be greater, and vice versa. Answer C will be correct for some number of "trick questions" which you should try to identify intuitively; be especially wary of any quantities stated in English, rather than with numbers and/or variables. Under no circumstances should you answer D: Enough information to make a judgment is always provided, whether or not you can recognize it, and your professed ignorance will be regarded with contempt by the professional mathematicians who manually score your test.

Some questions present quantitative information, then three statements related to that information, and ask which combination of those three statements are correct, for example:

A. I only
B. I and II only
C. I and III only
D. I, II, and III
E. None of the above

These questions are designed to fuck with your head and should not be answered under any circumstances.

Figures marked "not to scale" are, in fact, usually to scale, and only labelled to the contrary to discourage you from taking full advantage of them. In the break time before the test begins you should fashion a tiny ruler and protractor out of scratch paper.

Today's GRE general tests include the composition of two short essays. Although specific guidelines and expectations are given for both each, your answers will quickly devolve into a jumbled presentation of your own knowledge of and opinions on the topic. Focus instead on writing as much as possible in the time allowed. Write exactly five paragraphs.

Remember to back up your assertions. Because you will not have access to specific texts or publications you should make reference to any of the following sources:
  • "Research"
  • "Studies"
  • "Theories"
  • "Experts"
  • "Sources"
  • George Orwell's "1984"
  • Personal experience (real or fabricated)
Many test takers complete half of an essay, only to feel an overwhelming sensation that their argument is exactly opposite to the correct one. This feeling is perfectly normal and you should not allow it to slow you down. Continue to compose your response as though you believed it to be true.

Pepper your essay liberally with connecting words such as "although", "however", and "therefore". Such words are evidence of the critical sentence-linking skills expected of today's graduate students, and the impoverished Ph.D. candidate or high school English teacher evaluating your exam on a Saturday afternoon will pounce on them as reason to give you a better-than-average score and quickly move on to the next essay in their to-do box. Note that such connecting words should be placed at the beginning of the second sentence being connected, not the end of the first.

Although creativity could arguably demonstrate your well-rounded and holistic intellectual abilities, you should refrain from answering your essay question in the form of a short story, from the point of view of an animal, or as though you were looking back on today's world from 100 years in the future.

Remember to leave enough time to go back to your opening paragraph and delete any sentences that you did not restate in your concluding paragraph.

. . . That got a little bit out of control, but deleting it at this point would be stupid. --Nate

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[A lot of our emails back and forth tended to end like that last line there.]

Monday, February 05, 2007

With the Living in a Living Language

Well, I'll have to pile on to Nate's orchestra-reviewing bandwagon with some notes of my own, since Esa-Pekka Salonen & the NY Phil absolutely blew the roof off of Avery Fisher Hall this weekend with Pictures at an Exhibition. The opening trumpet promenade was snappy and alert, heralding a performance that was vivid and always on its toes: Salonen shaded it where appropriate with subtle details and animated every movement with thrilling energy and activity. He can pull off a Ravellian colorfest as well as anyone else: the orchestra was just shining. Incredibly good playing top to bottom from the Phil, especially in the brass. This came after a fantastic & fountain-like performance of Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin; plenty to fill you up with. Somewhere deep in my ears I'm still happily resonating with Saturday night.

Salonen's own Piano Concerto got its premiere at these concerts too, Yefim Bronfman at the ivories. This is what drew me to the concert in the first place, and it's a piece worth hearing, though I've got mixed feelings about it. Three movements, about 35 minutes long—romantically proportioned and not far off in spirit.

This Concerto is always in motion, whirling through consonant but richly colored harmonies, riding grooves established by the discursive piano part or streamers of string & woodwind lines. Set off against the Ravel it felt a bit foggy—understandable since it's new, more complex, and thicker—but the colors were still appealingly translucent and often earthy too. Shiny embellishments hung off of it in the form of mallet percussion highlights or atomized fanfarish brass figures. It's a good kind of aesthetically pleasing modernism, with a bracing caffeinated kick to it.

But it's not truly a romantic-style piece: it doesn't ever reach catharsis, though it reaches for it in the particularly opulent closing part of the middle movement. What it settles into is a romantically charged atmosphere, and then the weather never really breaks; I felt like it lit me up some and then stopped surprising me. It's like a brilliantly constructed kaleidoscope: it's not going to hold your attention for incredibly long, no matter how beautifully its patterns recombine. I didn't find much of the piano part very memorable, either, though Bronfman got some exercise out of it.

The very last sound in this piece is a resplendent shard of a chord; it's that moment I want to hear again.

Speaking of which, the NY Philharmonic temporarily streams concert recordings from their website—I didn't know this till now—so in the second half of February you can listen to this yourself if you're so inclined. (It'll be worth your time, I think.)

Salonen's on his way up as a composer, and I'm looking forward to hearing a lot more. (This is the first orchestra piece I've heard live, though there are a couple of very good recordings out there. I did hear his cello & chamber orchestra concerto "Mania" a couple of years ago, which struck me similarly to the Piano Concerto.) I wonder if he'll find a way to punch up his language a bit—he's got a rare gift for these sparklers of sound, and I think some more overt drama would really start to set off fireworks.

I went to the concert with my NYC friends Andy & Lisa; then it turned out that Mandy was there with a couple of coworkers, and I also ran into Stu, who had come down from New Haven to hear it too. So we all got to enthuse together in the lobby afterwards for a few minutes. As Mandy put it, "I wish you'd run into young people like this at every orchestra concert."

If You're Happy and You Know It

Alex Ross links to this Andrew Druckenbrod article in the Post-Gazette about applause between movements or after big moments in classical concerts. The article helpfully contains links to example mp3s; one of them is the false ending at the end of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony that I referred to yesterday.
The main addition I'd make to Druckenbrod's list of examples is the first movement of Mahler's 3rd. It ends in a massive, exhilarating rush and though the audience hasn't bitten either of the times I've heard it in concert it would obviously be good for them; you get this low murmur of excitement in the hall in place of the customary coughing fit, as though the energy has to be dissipated somehow.
I'll have something substantive to say about the Kirov Opera's fine concert performance of Shostakovich's Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk under Valery Gergiev yesterday afternoon, but on this topic I'll just point out that concert performances of operas apparently confuse audiences. Most people acted as they would for a symphony concert and sat on their hands until intermission or the end, but a sizeable minority (plus some tentative folks following their lead) clapped at opportune times throughout as they would for an opera. I'd rather applaud opera-style but Gergiev didn't seem interested in slowing down to acknowledge it, so I mostly held back.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Manfred Symphony

I'm cultivating a small backlog of cultural stuff to write about, most of which will accumulate this afternoon through Wednesday with a Shostakovich-fueled concert binge at the Kennedy Center (plus of course the annual festival of communal TV-watching and consumer excess that is the Super Bowl). I still need to collect some worthy insights into Mike Judge's and Don Hertzfeldt's third go-around of their Animation Show -- the short answer is, go see this if you still can in your city, which you probably can't, if you ever could in the first place. Some more music first, though.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently announced the hiring of Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck as Music Director starting in the 2008-09 concert season. Even without the benefit of local news coverage I'd guess this hasn't captivated the city like the Steelers' roughly analogous selection of Mike Tomlin as their new head coach, though as far as the organization's prospects and direction are concerned the PSO's pick is bigger news, since they haven't had a single director since Mariss Jansons left a few years back. Jack pointed out to me late last week that Honeck is guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend, so I took him up on his suggestion to go do some recon on the hometown symphony's future director.

Honeck's interpretations were uniformly tight and effectively straightforward, favoring brisk (sometimes outright fast) tempi and sweeping, dramatic changes in dynamics. The program was a conservative but likeable assemblage of well-known Romantic works. Honeck gave a snappy reading of Verdi's La forza del destino overture, energetic and attentive to detail: He built up the flashier parts with razor-cut precision -- the phrasing in the brass sections and timpani were particularly closely clipped -- and managed some vivid, swampy atmospherics in the piece's moodier material. The orchestra's louds weren't as loud as their quiets were quiet; one of Honeck's strengths throughout this program was the warm, often inward-facing hush he brought to the soft moments of each generally extroverted piece.

The singly-named Korean violinist Chee-Yun performed Saint-Saens' third violin concerto to close the first half of the program. The composition isn't too showy or too deep and, except for some minor creakiness in the opening bars and getting a little lost rhythmically in some streaming arpeggios towards the end, she gave a charismatic performance, bringing a light tunefulness to the central Andantino movement and a defiantly proud attitude to the stern minor-key virtuoso stuff that opens up the third. Honeck kept the orchestral parts crisp and finely balanced and seemd to communicate well with the soloist (though he seemed close to outpacing her on one open stretch of the final movement).

The real meat of the concert was Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, and Honeck's take on it was similarly lithe and very well received by the audience. He kept up a rapid pace and an almost physical sense of momentum throughout -- in the first movement in particular he accelerated the orchestra into a couple of Tchaikovsky's dramatic crescendi, with an effect similar to a pressurized jet of superheated water. The straightforward approach worked especially well in Tchaikovsky's absurdly songful second movement, in which Honeck forcefully drew out the melodies without getting bogged down in their breadth.

Honeck again used big, sweeping dynamic changes in the brighter sections of the waltz movement, lending them a kind of hallucinatory swirl, which he backed off of in the brooding, halting contrasting sections. His most virtuosic moment of the evening was his handling of the symphony's momentum at the end of that movement, as he decelerated just slightly in its final brass outbursts before scooping out the opening phrase of the fourth movement without a pause. The orchestra's playing in the body of the fourth movement wasn't as tight as it had been earlier -- playing at high velocity for an extended time seems to shake the NSO's bolts loose -- though they maintained their earlier level of excitement. Honeck bluffed nicely on the symphony's false ending, plowing into it with apparent finality and eliciting a smattering of pent-up applause. The coda, for as clipped as Honeck's phrasing had been so far through the concert, was softer-edged and less martial than I expected: the march sounded warm and bright and he took on the final flurry of musical activity at high speed and in good cheer, bringing the finale of the symphony somehow closer in spirit to the bonhomie at the end of Mozart's The Magic Flute than I thought possible.

According to the bio in the Kennedy Center program Honeck has his musical roots in Vienna, having studied at the Academy of Music there and worked as a violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic. (I imagine the time he spent as an orchestral player has something to do with the rapport he apparently has with the Pittsburgh Symphony's musicians.) His presence on the podium is appropriately undramatic; his movement onstage mostly consists of punchy cues with his hands and flowing, elliptical arm motions which in lyrical passages elongate into vaguely hula-like gestures. At 48, he's relatively young as far as major orchestra conductors go, which seems like a plus. I'd be curious to hear how he approaches more inward-looking music than what was on last night's program -- even Tchaikovsky's Fifth, for all its fatalism, keeps most of its drama close to the surface -- since in a few places Honeck's detail work, particularly his high dynamic constrasts, seemed to buy immediate excitement at the expense of the long-term shape of a passage. I also don't know anything about his repertoire and will be disappointed if he isn't at least somewhat committed to new music (and preferably new music of the non-mid-century-continental-European-avant-garde variety at that) but as a bare minimum I would expect him to deliver one or two crackling Beethoven 7ths over the course of his initial three-year contract. The main skill he showed off last night was an ability to make familiar music sound lively and fresh, which is no small thing.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The West Coast is the Better of the Two Coasts

Hi! Haven't posted in a while, again, but this time I have an excuse, being as I've just up and moved to a new location, several time zones away. I'm at the central public library in Portland right now, using my one-hour-a-day allotment of non-member internet time. Earlier, the guy sitting at the computer next to me was on some internet personals site looking at pictures of women's breasts. I'm not sure if he found a date or not. I'm going to go wash my hands once my hour here is up (in about 10 minutes).

My sense of the city is only slowly coming together - the area of town where I'll be working/living is very much residential, but all on a generally exact grid. I'm hoping to be squaring away housing within the next 5 days or so.

It didn't rain for the first two days that I was here, but its been raining for most of today, and I left the umbrella that I got from my aunt for Christmas on the kitchen table in Pittsburgh, so am hoping to hold out on the purchasing of an umbrella until I have an address and can get that umbrella shipped to me.

Also, I find it to be rather disconcerting that Pittsburgh's Iron City Beer is one of the ironic cheap beers of choice with the hipsters out, or at least its presence at several bars makes it appear to be so. I've definitely seen some people actually drinking it, but Pabst Blue Ribbon still reigns supreme. Its pretty mind-boggling that anybody would drink Iron City just as a cultural affect, I mean, it tastes really bad (as opposed to, say, Pabst, which just tastes cheap, but perhaps has its time & place).

I've been killing time by watching Twin Peaks on VHS at my buddy's apartment. Thats a crazy TV show, can't imagine it airing in todays Television climate. Seems like if the kids out here really wanna be ironic about the beer they drink, then they should be drinking Heineken.

Heineken? Fuck that shit! PABST BLUE RIBBON!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

I Enjoy All the Meats of Our Cultural Stew

Recent cultural highlights:

A couple of weeks ago I finally went inside the Yale Art Gallery, instead of admiring it from a distance — though I think I ducked in there briefly last spring, but they were largely closed for renovations — and it is indeed a fine museum, though I think most of the interior architectural & technical facets to its reputation are beyond my easy observation. Displays are small-scale and well laid out. I found myself in an unusual African-and-Asian art mood when I went in, and spent a lot of time admiring pots and other ceramic wares from China and Japan: the simple designs that could belong to a 300- or a 2000-year-old vase, or the intricate blue-on-white Chinese style that the Dutch ripped off for their celebrated Delftware.

I also enjoyed overhearing a father with two young kids (twins maybe? they both seemed about 3) showing a Jackson Pollack painting to them; one of them declared that it looked "like gas" and then "like snowflakes." Next to the Pollack was one of those minimalist black-and-white-panel numbers, which was quickly determined to be "silly."

Aside from Little Miss Sunshine I haven't seen any of the Best Picture nominees, but I can't understand why Notes on a Scandal didn't make the cut: I haven't watched a movie this riveting for a long time. Judi Dench does an amazing job with the creepy, manipulative character at the center of the story, keeping the proceedings as believable as they are disturbing. Cate Blanchett's fine too. Go see it. Philip Glass's score is quite good too — occasionally a bit heavily applied, but effective, propelling especially well a crucial flashback scene.

There's a powerful, cold undertow to this film that I didn't realize in full till it ended; then I felt how much it had taken me. It really leaches away your belief in human goodness and friendship.

This was, um, possibly not the best choice for a date movie.

Last week I got some of my similarly aged coworkers to come to a university Philharmonia concert last Friday, the Philharmonia being the school of music's orchestra. Bartok's 2nd Violin Concerto, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony: get some twentieth-century music going on too. Dramatic pieces, if long.

Having really enjoyed the two concerts I've seen from the university's undergraduate orchestra (including an impressive Mahler 6), I figured the Philharmonia would set off even more fireworks, but no!! Gosh, this was a sleeper of a concert. The student playing the Bartok concerto hit all the notes, but one after the other, with none of the folk-musical verve that lights that music on fire; the Prokofiev was better but still lacked the spark or sparkle I was expecting.

Part of the problem is that they play in a hall with terrible acoustics, giving a dull waxy sound to everything except the loudest passages, nakedly laying out intonation problems, and muffling those marvelous Bartokian brass dissonances into radio drama–grade blurts & burps. Maybe it was an off-night, but still, I have the feeling that whatever they're teaching them in that music program is turning them into a bunch of drones. (This is probably not really true.) The guest conductor was entertaining, at least, an arm-flappy Russian specimen.

I'm kind of glum that this had to be the concert I dragged some coworkers to; they didn't mind it, but if I'm going to introduce people to classical music I'd like it to be as un-boring as possible, of course. Undergrad orchestra it will be, next time. Specifically, Faure's Requiem with the university's excellent Glee Club & the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony in a few weeks. I'll try to wrangle up more people: I think that one's going to be a legitimately fine occasion.

Car Culture

One thing that stands out to me about family anecdotes on our dad's side is how often stories from their teenage & college years have to do with cars, especially the old or halfway broken-down cars that were worked on, rehabilitated, had their mufflers blown off, were ultimately sold for 50 bucks to pay a phone bill . . . We just don't have the same relationship with cars in our generation, huh? In large part, I guess, since cars are more complex & computerized and can't just be banged into workable shape as easily any more. But also this seems remote for personality reasons: I don't feel like I could work on a car any more than I could up and fly a helicopter.

Would I trade an automotive proclivity for the trademark hobby of our generational family cohort, the musical interest? No, not in a million years.

Still, all the car anecdotes make me feel like I'm missing something, not fully engaging with part of life, not using my hands enough. The feeling will pass because it's ridiculous: I'm perfectly happy not to own a car, much less to tinker with one.