Monday, December 17, 2007

Sick Days Are God's Way of Telling You to Work Less and Blog More

I got home from a late Saturday night in NYC (Prokofiev opera, see below) and was at about the same time (3 AM) mugged by a sudden cold, which has mostly passed by today but still made it a better idea to sleep for another four hours this morning rather than to walk to work.

I was expecting to spend the entirety of Sunday watching football from the couch anyway, so I didn't miss out on much by being sick. We were all expecting a heavy winter storm yesterday, but it never really materialized. Some sleet, that's it. On undisturbed ground there's a couple of inches of snow sealed with a layer of ice, which is strikingly smooth & shiny in the afternoon light today. On the roads & sidewalks it's all slush. The city has not done a particularly good job plowing, despite all the snow & ice being expected in advance.

So, Prokofiev's setting of War and Peace is up at the Met this week, with a huge cast (60 singing roles, huge chorus), conducted by Valery Gergiev. Including intermissions it's about 4 hours long, but it doesn't bog down. Musically it's robust and effective, in a similar but more lyrical vein as Prokofiev's 5th Symphony; dramatically it moves well enough, though the plot lines from the prewar Part I are subsumed under the war scenes in Part II. I haven't read War and Peace, so I can't really judge what was lost in translation; Prokofiev's tack was apparently to select a dozen or so scenes out of the book, setting them at a reasonable dramatic pace, rather than try to compress everything to fit.

From the nosebleed seats, at least, it's not actually that much of a spectacle to see that many singers onstage. (Oh, and a horse. Sure, why not.) The production otherwise is attractively lean, with a small number of abstracted scenery-pieces descending for each scene onto the set floor, which also features a large circular platform set in motion at key moments.

Everything sounded great, to my ears. I'm still no opera-voice connoisseur, but all of the leads sounded firm and seemed to be living in their roles well, especially Irina Mataeva, the legitimately youthful lead soprano, and renowned bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, here playing the role of Field Marshal Kutuzov. The orchestra sounded fantastic; as for Gergiev, this is exactly the sort of thing that's given him the kind of worldwide stature he's got.

There's one very large, very hard-to-ignore issue with this opera: most of Part II sounds like Soviet propaganda, with titantic choruses (composed mid-WWII, remember) extolling the strength of the Russian people and their ability to turn invaders out. This is no mistake, obviously; the Soviet cultural authorities had requested that Prokofiev highlight the "dramatic and heroic aspect" of the story (according to the Met's program notes) after he completed the first piano score. Still, it feels odd to applaud for this, and it corrupts the epic sensibility of the story and stifles any possible sense of universality.

Worth hopping back on the Metro North at 1:15 AM for, anyway. (I missed the 12:25 by a few minutes. I bought some consolation junk food and read some more.) Getting to the opera was harder, since I lost track of the time while eating dinner with a couple of NYC friends at an Indian restaurant at 76th and Columbus, and found myself jogging several blocks to Lincoln Center in the 30-degree evening to get there on time. This is not much fun when you're full of Indian food.

Earlier in the day I'd taken care of some other characteristic New York things: spending an hour in the Jewish Museum with Mandy, taking in an exhibit on New Yorker cartoonist & children's book writer William Steig; reading for a bit at a bagel shop, savoring a coffee and a toasted onion bagel with whitefish salad; impulse-buying myself a much needed new pair of work shoes at a Filene's Basement close to the Indian restaurant.

Pete stopped up in New Haven on Friday evening, so we had beers & pizza and then watched Yefim Bronfman play a fairly magnificent recital on campus: Beethoven's "Quasi una fantasia" sonata and Schumann's C-Major Fantasy, both executed with an impressionistic sense of harmonic color and textural substance; then Ravel's quietly pyrotechnic "Gaspard de la Nuit" and a naively oriental barnburner called "Islamey" by Mily Balakirev. Bronfman is staggeringly good. His unidentified second encore, a peculiarly bluesy three-minute onrush of hammering rhythms and nervous energy, turned out to be (as someone we overheard while leaving the hall knew) the last movement of Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata, which was in fact written around the same time he was finishing War and Peace. (Listen to a snippet of it from Bronfman's 1990 recording.) Now this is the kind of war-vintage Prokofiev I can get behind whole-heartedly: the kind that sounds like it's describing an out-of-control streetcar.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Pomp and Robocircumstance

This video of a Japanese violin-playing robot is awesome. It doesn't really play violin that well, but check out the totally retro-futuristic design sense! That there is your classic, blocky anthropomorphic body design, accented with a space-shuttle color scheme. This robot looks the way all robots should look: like a 60s B-movie actor in a robot costume.

Musically speaking, the obvious flaw here is that they've designed it to play Elgar, an understandable error that even human musicians are all too familiar with. But this especially cramps a robot performer's style. Clearly the designers should have played to the robot's aesthetic strengths and programmed it to play Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto on an early-vintage Moog synthesizer. Now that would make the future exciting again.

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I was checking the Post-Gazette's online columnists page this morning to see if any of the sportswriters could explain what exactly the Steelers stopped doing in the second half yesterday, and my eyes were drawn to this other op-ed column, headlined Sudan Incident Can't Dim Teddy Bears' Charms. I checked to see if this was as stupid as that sounds, and the answer is . . . well, in closing:
I hope this incident in Sudan will pass so we can focus on teddy bears not as a symbol of brutality and oppression, but as simply sweet cuddly companions that bring most of us pleasant memories.
Taking "this incident in Sudan" to mean "entrenchment of violently intolerant Sharia law," I'd say yes, I hope that blows over for the teddy bears' sake. Also, they're totally cute! Man, I wish I had a regional media platform for saying things like that.

State of the Nate

I just got back from: Work

I am on my way out the door to: Photo class

Number of times I pressed the 'unlock' button for my car on my key fob when I got home, hoping it would let me into my apartment: Two

I am watching on DVD: Extras, The Tick, Flight of the Conchords

I am still reading: That book about how Kodak's early 20th-century marketing shaped cultural notions about photography

The above are all pretty funny, except for the book: Yeah

The Steelers make me feel: Meh

The prospect of the next Pirates season makes me feel: Go Steelers

My level of Christmas readiness is: Not

Despite blog quietude, I am still: Alive

Friday, December 07, 2007

RIP Karlheinz Stockhausen

We tend to note the passing of important 20th/21st century composers on this blog, so I figured ol' Karlheinz deserved mention too, even if neither myself nor my brothers had as much personally invested in his music as in other composers. For a thoroughly impersonal obituary in the NY Times, see here. I studied several of his electronic works in one of my music classes back in college. And actually, my 20th century music history teacher refused to teach Stockhausen because of his infamous statements about 9/11. I always thought that that was the wrong way to go about treatment of what one crazy-ass old man said about them, especially given the importance of Stockhausen to several trends of 20th century music, and the fact that the history curriculum spent so much time teaching Wagner.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Silk Nog and Christmas Nougats

Hands down, the two greatest things about the Christmas Season. I wouldn't normally claim to have that much of a sweet tooth, proud as I am of my bitter tooth, sour tooth, and spicy tooth, but somehow my tolerance for all things sugar skyrockets at even the thought of Silk Nog.

To the point where I actually prefer Silk (soymilk) Nog to Real Nog (although, that's a tough decision to make when faced with an Organic Real Nog), and even more uncharacteristically (perhaps), I prefer my Silk Nog sans brandy.

I have my last class of one of my classes tomorrow. I was gonna use some space here to complain about all the busy work, but that seems to be against the spirit of Of Mild Interest. So forgive the brevity,

but at least my gut is loaded with (Silk) Nog.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Meteoric Connecticutiana

The university-affiliated Peabody Museum sent out an email today noting the fast-approaching bicentennial date of the falling of the Weston Meteorite. You can read about that briefly on the museum's website. Apparently the first few years of the 1800s were when people were first catching on to the existence and origin of meteorites. There was a lecture about this tonight but I didn't go to it.

The museum had not, however, sent out an email in November about the 25-year-anniversary of a meteorite fall in Wethersfield, Connecticut, which you can also read about on the museum website. That meteorite smashed through the roof of a house, interrupting the evening of a married couple who were watching television at the time. No one was harmed; the offending rock was discovered beneath the dining room table. I'll be happy enough if this never happens to me.

If you look for other information about meteorites on the Internet, you will primarily learn that most of them appear to be for sale.

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Turning to nonmeteoric Connecticutiana, the New Yorker's cartoon issue included a charming spread from Aline and R. Crumb relating their attachment to a mechanical packing-tape dispenser, manufactured in nearby Shelton, CT. The cartoon isn't online, unfortunately. Keep an eye out for it, though. Zany gadget-oriented whimsy is all too rare to come by.

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On the more trivial topic of nonmeteoric non-Connecticutiana, one of the department editors forwarded around a link to this blog devoted to inappropriate use of quotation marks. Mostly it evokes a kind of kooky, pointless obsessiveness, but some funny examples of unintended insincerity pop up. Or things that are just weird.

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"Connecticutiana" should be pronounced lightly as "CON-net-i-kew-SHEEAH-na," with the second stress greater than the first, and "SHEEAH" whisking into the space of one syllable. Setting aside its nonexistence I think it's a pretty elegant word.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like December through March

Signs of winter doldrums:
● Biggest plan for day = playing Scrabble in evening
● Scrabble plan = cancelled due to icy roads and sidewalks
Didn't end up going to that hockey game the other night, either, due to general exhaustion among me & the couple workfriends who were considering going.

There's an offchance Stu will make it over tonight to watch the Steelers/Bengals slogfest (sodfest? sobfest? time will tell) but I'm guessing this won't happen due to said road conditions.

Only another 3 or 4 months of this!

* * * * *

It's hard to evaluate whether you're reading a good science blog or not, but RealClimate seems like a pretty legit one about global warming. Posts tend to start out accessibly & then gradually go over your head (my head, at least) but it seems well-reasoned and direct. This post about drying in the Mediterranean region is fairly disturbing, if nothing else for the generic point that regional weather patterns are vulnerable to change in a matter of a couple of decades.

Hey Kids, Up on the Facebook Redux

Making a Facebook profile is moderately preferable to doing whatever the hell else it is I'm supposed to be doing this morning.

Earlier this weekend I also got around to buying a printer that plugs into my "new" (e.g. from 2005) laptop. So now I am really cooking with gas, techmologically speaking.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Gnats that Bite

Here in beautiful-weathered Miami, despite December having waddled in like a fat tourist in a Hawaiian shirt, my only encounters with the climate phenomenon commonly known as "winter" occur when I remove myself from my apartment to the more focused-work inducing environs of the library on Florida International University's Biscayne Bay Campus. Although the nearly cloudless sky and warm-verging-on-hot temperatures of the outdoors call for dressing in shorts, a t-shirt, and no socks (boat shoes!), it really isn't hot (like August & September were hot). Somehow, unfortunately, the library has failed to note this and continues to cool itself to some ungodly low temperature.

I can safely say that I would have never put on socks today if I hadn't been headed to the library for the bulk of the day (between online tutoring and the large amount of end-of-semester work I need to accomplish (despite this being a Saturday (a weekend day (a not-work day))) I require library). Despite my socks, and having also brought a long-sleeve shirt along, after my first three hours indoors at the library I was cold to the point where I claim here that my bones themselves were cold. This perhaps foreshadows little more than a future of arthritis and pain for me (hopefully Armageddon will arrive before I become too enpained), but it has also driven me back outside.

It's warmer out here, although, it being almost winter, the sun is on its way out of the sky. Unfortunately, there are bugs out here. Little tiny bugs. And they bite. I'm actually going to go back into the library as soon as I finish this post, because these bites actually sting. Stupid Florida.

Luckily, my winter break looms less than two weeks away now, and I'll be heading back into the Northeast corridor. Too cold for any biting bugs up there. There of course won't be any options for laptopping outdoors in the icy winds of New York, Boston, D.C. or Pittsburgh, but I think losing a layer or two of my face to that same wind will be a welcome change of pace.