Saturday, March 10, 2007

Blahs, Degas, Mendelssohn, Blahs

Back in the fall I would tell people that I was reserving some of my judgment of New Haven until I'd spent a winter here, since I figured it would be a lot more claustrophobic and dull during the colder months. I remembered this sometime last week. December and January were both pretty tolerable, all things told, but that late-winter fog descended over the end of February pretty strongly. Now it's staying light out later, and a crocus-like sense of optimism is poking up out of my mind's ground, much-needed but, of course, in danger of being frozen off next time the temperature plunges.

Put in a less frilly way, I've been bored. I think part of this is that I haven't left Connecticut for more than an evening since a month ago, and of course within Connecticut I'm mostly limited to New Haven and its immediate surroundings.

Though last weekend I did get to ditch town for Farmington, up near Hartford, with a work friend & some of her people. In Farmington is a place called Hill-Stead, a colonial revival house encompassing some 13,000 square feet of interesting architectural detail and impressionist art, just up the street from the onetime finishing school (and now quaint-looking but selective girls' academy) Miss Porter's School. Hill-Stead was designed by an independent-minded woman named Theodate Pope, whose father had made it big in the Cleveland iron industry in the early part of the Gilded Age. Certain rooms were actually designed around centerpiece Monet or Degas paintings, and in general the art fits seamlessly with the general scheme of things, definitely a neat effect. The place is big enough to roam around for a while, and when we were there a docent was in each room to point out oddities and discuss "Theodate" as if she were an admired relative. Also on the premises is Theodate's beloved parrot Alfred, taxidermied several decades ago and still residing in his original cage.

Wednesday a couple of other work friends came with me to a performance of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony (a.k.a. the "Italian") put on by a small group of school-of-music orchestra members and one of the student conductors. This was extremely satisfying, not only since the symphony came off great—this piece actually picks up a beneficial rustic character when there's a bit of roughness and ruddiness around the edges, so it's well suited to a student ensemble—but also since both friends completely enjoyed it despite not being "classical" people. (One is a hard-indie-rock fan with generally broad tastes, including some quasi classical like Reich and Varese; the other doesn't profess any special musical tastes, though she's got a background in visual art and is generally switched on, culturally speaking.) This was my intent in taking people in the first place—taking advantage of a performance that was short, informal, and free of charge—so I'm glad it worked out as well as it did. We skipped the second half of the program, which was Beethoven's sleepy Second Symphony; I'd pitched the idea as a 35-minute mini-excursion.

Is it just me, or do you hear a lot less about Felix Mendelssohn than other similarly brilliant composers? Or is this just because he hasn't had an anniversary year recently? I don't think I'd heard the Italian Symphony in concert before, and the thing is perfect down to the note: great melodies, marvelous detail work. I love the minor-key finale: some nice peppery baroque-suite-style gusto there. Also, Mendelssohn is extremely good with instrumental texture—contrasts between strings and winds are deft and clear, and in some of the key outer-movement crescendos you hear him build up a thicker body in the string voicings to complement the increase in loudness, which adds just the right subtle oomph.

Anyway, that's the story of the recent late winter: attempting to chase off malaise with art appreciation until it's warm enough to start spending more time outside again. The general feeling of cabin fever should be ameliorated during the next several weeks, when I hit NYC a couple of times as well as Pittsburgh and most likely D.C. (Or I guess I should say, as Nate does, NoVA.)


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