Friday, February 26, 2010

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sunday Mass with Frank and Alfred, plus Percussive Insanity Kagel

So, yes, Sunday was an uncommonly good day for hearing twentieth-century choral music around town. There are huge perks to living near a large university with a great school of music.

Secure agnostic that I am, something unusual is generally needed to get me to church in the morning. A service performance of an Alfred Schnittke requiem works. I had no idea Schnittke even composed a requiem till a week ago, when I saw it in the university's concert calandar. The chorus at the university chapel sang it, with intervening homilies by a Div School professor with an intense and poetic bearing. He endeavored to contextualize the piece as a stubborn religious cry from the atheist Soviet Union. I don't know Schnittke's religious temperament, and it may be that. The music points to something murkier, though, the dominant feeling being muted bleakness. Several sections break off without resolution at the end, while others mull over the same musical idea for a while before quietly letting it go. Choral dissonances usually create a flat, gray, foggy sound, so there was usually a sonic scrim of that over the altar, with angular solo-voice melodies wandering through. A small instrumental contingent relied mostly on piano and pitched percussion, creating strange luminences. The movement where the piece steps outside of itself -- and maybe validates the reading of a protest against official atheism -- is the Credo, where the chorus finally cuts loose and sings with some declamatory fire, while one of the percussionists sits down at a trap set and puts a rock-style beat behind it. The opening and closing Requiem Aeternams are lovely, by the way, quietly layered and patterned almost like a Pärt piece. Overall the piece is more intriguing than moving, and more secular than sacred, although that might just be to my particular ears.

It was music that felt out of place at the university's well-appointed and comfortable chapel, which seems remote from either Soviet drabness or a treatment of death as a cold and cryptic thing.

At the back of the church program there was a note that their former choir director, a master's student at the university, was giving her diploma recital up at the Div School later in the day, conducting a program of Byrd, Stravinsky, Mahler, Palestrina, and Martin. Well, that program is right up my alley, I figured, and a sunny Sunday is when you want to be sitting in the Div School's marvelous chapel. Also, it would be great if that turned out to be Martin's Mass for Double Choir. Which it was! I've been waiting to hear this piece live for several years now. Not bad for something you find out about by accident.

The Byrd motet was plaintive, full of spiritual sadness evoked with light major-mode consonances. Some of Stravinsky's chamber-orchestra miniatures were a set of tart little sorbets, woodwinds with a nice ruddiness, strings a bit pitchy but with good rosin. Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen were sung by a rich-voiced university vocalist with expressive eyebrows, the left moreso than the right. I was delighted, in my optimism, to hear "Ging heut Morgen übers Feld" and get Mahler 1 back in my ears again. Palestrina is, as ever, aesthetically centering.

The Martin Mass is something else entirely, and a piece I have an incredibly hard time pinning down with words. (You know those NASA photographs of nebulae, with the gas regions portrayed in wild colors? Martin's Mass for Double Choir is like a cross between a Renaissance vocal mass and one of those.) Martin wrote it in the 1920s in kind of an extended polyphonic style, melodies artfully traced, harmonies generally modal but rich with expressive inflections. The Mass is, if you can use the word, orchestrated with great care for the voices, so that the texture and body and resonance of the sound are in constant flux too. Emotionally, Martin will hang back for a while and then work up a couple of phrases that just floor you. So he'll take you some places. Everything on the program was performed admirably well, too.

Martin, incidentally, wrote the piece and then put it away for four decades, considering it a private matter between himself and God. So in that, and in its reverberating spirituality, it's a near opposite of the Schnittke Requiem.
* * * * *
Saturday night's university Percussion Group concert was the usual pleasing affair, the rhythmic precision on display inspiring a strong "OK, yeah, I will never be able to do that" kind of awe. The entire second half was given over to a pranksterish three-student inhabitation of a dadaist 1980s performance piece by Mauricio Kagel. (Titles have eluded me, sorry, as I forgot to keep a program.) Instruments were sparse, the stage given over to portraying something like a room in plywood props. Details are easier to summarize than the whole, which was a half-hour pseudo-narrative array of inexplicabilities. The best moments were at the very beginning, reaching the first mini-climax as one percussionist, playing a jaunty Spanish-sounding tune at the marimba, was threatened into silence by another, looming over her and wielding a chair held threateningly over his head.

Elsewhere on the program: an invigorating rendition of John Cage's "Third Construction" for basically everything he could get his hands on; a solo traversal of an Indonesian-inspired setpiece by an Englishman by the name of James Wood, featuring a wonderfully humming Indonesian gong and some microtonal bells; about twelve minutes too many of Piazzolla arranged for flute and marimba; and, at the very start, a wittily choreographic three-person mid-1980s showpiece by a Dutch composer whose name I forget, performed sitting at a table, with bare hands, on flat wooden panels rigged with contact mikes. What I like about these percussion concerts is that you hear nothing like these peculiar sounds anywhere else in your life.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


The Spanish textbook chapter we're on is about the environment (as well as past participles and the present perfect tense), and Thursday we all got a handout detailing the homework for Friday, which was to write an "Ecopoema" in the style of the Chilean writer Nicanor Parra. Parra's Ecopoemas are short, undisciplined little crypto-Marxist screeds that don't much appeal to me, to say the least. The wheels in my head started turning immediately, since if high school taught me one thing, it's that the way to redeem a distasteful poetry composition assignment is to write something mildly ridiculous in singsong rhyming couplets. But could I do that in Spanish? Well, tenía un diccionario and not much to do on a Thursday night.

So here goes, just since Pete was recently sharing his poems, and just to demonstrate that I've got my poetry en Español up to about a fifth-grade level (some metrical wobbling, lack of irony). It did delight my professor, Carmen, who greeted me with a beaming "¡Jack! ¡Mi poeta!" when I showed up for class on Friday, having emailed the Ecopoema to her the night before. (Carmen, incidentally, doesn't come up with the assignments, which are set by the department for all seven or eight of the Spanish sections, and I think she's too hip to find value in undisciplined crypto-Marxist screeds. The undergrad students, to their credit, all avoided writing undisciplined crypto-Marxist screeds as well.)

Traducción aproximada follows. This includes a few of the prof's corrections, so as best I can tell it's grammatically legit.


Tiene una voz, el mar.
Quizás la va a levantar
y gritarnos: ¡Pueden escuchar!

¡Dudo, con pesar, a veces
que me dejen algunos peces!

Por pescar no hay la paz.
¿Es el humano tan voraz?

Y por la contaminación
yo pierdo la razón.

Sufre cada gran tortuga,
tiburón, delfín, beluga . . .

Y muere mi querido coral.
Es la época fatal.

. . . Pero entonces va a dejar
de hablarnos la voz del mar.
Y nada va a cambiar.

* * * * *

It has a voice, the sea.
Perhaps it will raise it
And shout to us: Can you listen!

I doubt, with regret, at times
That you are leaving me any fish!

From fishing, there is no peace.
Is the human so voracious?

And because of pollution
I am losing my mind.

Suffering is every giant tortoise,
Shark, dolphin, beluga . . .

My beloved coral are dying.
The time is horrible.

. . . But then is going to cease
Talking to us the voice of the sea.
And nothing is going to change.

* * * * *

The other Spanish-class item of aquatic interest this week was learning the delightful idiom tan aburrido como una ostra, or "as bored as an oyster." Compare, of course, to the English idiom "as happy as a clam," and appreciate how neatly the difference between the two idioms encapsulates the ambivalence inherent in living the mild-mannered life you've chosen for yourself.

This Weekend! Plus, Last Weekend

I am writing this to bottle up what I did this weekend, since it turned out for no apparent reason to be one of the best weekends I've had in New Haven. I tend to remember very few "best weekends" in New Haven, largely because the best parts of New Haven life fall involve comfort and satisfaction, rather than out-and-out happiness. I've taken to interpreting satisfaction and happiness as being different in kind, not just degree. So it's exciting to have a span of time where satisfaction, built out of what's basically my usual routine, actually compounds itself enough to transmute into an unusual amount of happiness. That's an encouraging sign.

Above: Dutch-Style Still-Life with Bread, Beer, and Bowl of Fruit. 2010.
DISCLAIMER: Artist only nominally Dutch.

To wit:
Friday evening. Listen to university band concert. Go to craplulent piano bar downtown (terrible, but not terrible) to join a crowd of people for Andrea's birthday. (Weekend different, OK.)

Saturday. Spend all morning making cauliflower soup from scratch, including vegetable stock, per Mark Bittman. Play two forty-minute games of chess with Alex (also eating the soup, and Italian bread from the machine), being soundly outplayed but winning both times after Alex drops major pieces late. Drive with Emily up to North Haven to watch Avatar in digital 3D, taking the drive to dispense advice to Emily re: her academic career choices from a non-academic perspective, which I'm told is very useful. Eat a quick dinner at home, then meet Stu downtown to watch the university Percussion Group's annual concert, which is predictably a blast. (Weekend extremely satisfying.)

Sunday. Wake up early-ish and eat breakfast while reading in the living room, during the one time of the day there's legitimate direct sunlight. Walk to the university's Battell Chapel to hear an ecumenical performance of Alfred Schnittke's 1970s-vintage Requiem, then chat with former manuscript-department intern who's a student deacon. Chores and errands till 3 PM, then walk to the Div School to hear a conducting student's masters recital, which includes Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir. Get giddy enough about Mass for Double Choir to immediately change into sweatclothes and take half-hour jog around neighborhood. Reflect on current awesomeness of weekend. Shower, drink beer, stir-fry Thai chicken curry for dinner. Eat. Write about weekend to commit to memory. (Weekend happy.)

Actually, maybe the equation is more like "satisfaction + hearing obscure 20th-century choral music = happy."

This weekend hits the #2 Best Weekend in New Haven spot, after the weekend of December 14, 2008, which featured a coworker's Christmas cookie exchange party, the university Philharmonia's staggering performance of Messiaen's Turangalila, an early and thrilling Saturday night date with what's-her-name, and watching with Andrea and Stu the Steelers' 13-9 victory over the Ravens in Baltimore.

* * * * *
None of this is any knock on last weekend, when Mike visited briefly with his girlfriend Cameron. It was cool to finally meet her. Take note of Mike's awesome Valentine's Day activity of going to Connecticut to crash for a night with his brother.

We had all of about 20 hours together, Saturday evening to Sunday afternoon, which we spent in textbook New Haven style: first, getting pizza at Pepe's; then going bowling at Woodlawn Duckpin over in West Haven. This is, quite literally, the most fun you can have in New Haven on a Saturday night. Also, staying up till 1:30 AM playing Dr. Mario and drinking the bottle-fermented "Local #2" that Dad impulse-bought me when we were at the Brooklyn Brewery a couple weekends back. (Cameron, fortunately, had a party to go to with another friend while Mike and I took care of that last beer-and-Wii part.) Sunday noonish, brunch at ME-N-U over on State Street.

Which reminds me, you know what's good for brunch? A sandwich made with eggs, kielbasa, and American cheese between two pieces of French toast. I didn't really get hungry again till about lunchtime the next day. Pretty great. And pretty much a cholesterol bunker-buster too, but, look, it's Valentine's Day, you're supposed to appreciate the carnal pleasures of something that's eventually going to do terrible things to your heart.

Friday, February 19, 2010

La petite tot du tatre

When I get into work in the morning I walk up the stairs from the parking garage (at street level) to my office, and this morning the landing on the lobby level had an oily, foody smell to it, very much like a large batch of tater tots or hash browns. Was there a breakfast in the lobby for one of the other businesses in the tower? I didn't investigate. But the smell welled up an immediate reaction in me as though I were walking through a school cafeteria, and with it the characteristic feeling of being under ten years old and at school in the morning and really not wanting to be there. Funny how these emotional benchmarks from childhood never leave you.

Anyway, Happy Friday to all and sundry, although I will probably put this up when I get home from the job, once the worklier parts of the day are already past.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Window View, 7:30 AM

There's been spring in the air the past few days, but a little less so today. It's lighter out now, though. Compare it to six weeks ago and you'll see we've gone from blue to gray.

We've gotten only smallish versions of all of the legitimate blizzards to hit the East Coast this winter, and I've actually started to get a little jealous about it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Competitive Violence, That's Why I'm Here

There's a fairly large portion of me that really doesn't like the notion of self-promotion. Luckily, an even larger part of me comfortably assumes that very few people read this blog. So:

I have some poems on the internet: (here).

You'll notice that the second of the two poems features a familiar family motif, about how birds are dinosaurs (the first stanza was conceived sitting at the parents' house, drinking coffee and watching the birds peck away at the feeder).

Enjoy! (It's a really cool webpage, la fovea, of poets linking in to each other, creating a kind of web-network w/ representative poems, so I recommend, if you, like, like poetry, to click around (and I'm prideful and honorable of being linked in to the oneandonly Campbell McGrath), set up by the poet Frank Giampietro, whose at FSU and a cool poet and awesome guy.)

And, while I'm bothering with this sort of thing, if you're into print artifacts of yours truly, I've also got a poem in the latest issue of the Cream City Review. Check your local library.

Also, my fantasy football champion trophy arrived in town as well, which is awesome. Once I get access to a digital camera, I'll throw some pics up as that as well.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Avatar State, Yip Yip

Kyle and I saw Avatar last weekend, finally, figuring it would be worth seeing it in 3-D. And it was a lot of fun -- James Cameron is a fine director of action setpieces and his visual imagination is broad, if not very deep, and both of those attributes mesh well with aggressive sensory bombardment. Having watched a few episodes of BBC's Planet Earth series recently, it's clear that Cameron's amped up, false-utopian jungle moon setting, for all its bioluminescence and environmental detail, is neither as stately nor as bizarre as actual life on earth. Except for some striking, lyrical jellyfish-seed pod things, his world is mostly populated with dogs/ pumas/ horses/ pterodactyls just like their Earth counterparts, only more badass. The movie envelops you pretty easily, though, and compared with Titanic it has the great advantage of actually being a serviceable movie, in terms of dialog and character, underneath the audiovisual trappings.

What it isn't is a film concerned with building up ideas beyond those it needs to hold up its explosions, and conceptually it's a collage of familiar ideas, both in its sci-fi elements and its take on Western-style colonialism. Still (and here come spoilers) I want to quibble with the last few minutes of the movie. It doesn't fully follow through on its premise, which means it not only leaves some fertile ground unexplored -- and since it's not a thinky film that's okay by me, even if I am going to get my girlfriend's eyes rolled at me during the end credits when I declare the ending to be "a philosophical cop-out" -- but also makes the dramatic conclusion a little bit tonally off.

The plot element in question here is that the moon has on it a sort of Internet Tree that the alien natives (the Na'vi) use to upload their spirits (souls, minds, whatever) into before they die. Jake, the hero, is a paraplegic Marine vet who is running around the world via a VR-type hookup to a remote, hybrid Na'vi / human body (he can connect to it because he has the same DNA as his deceased anthropologist twin, which is a quibble of its own). He leads a rebellion of the natives, and they send all the unfriendly humans home. The moon's atmosphere is toxic to humans, but Jake has fallen in love and wants to stay behind. And it turns out the Na'vi have a ceremony, involving lots of tribal-looking swaying and humming, which they can use to upload a dying individual's mind into the tree and then download it into another body. So they connect Jake to the tree, load his consciousness into the tree, pull it down into the avatar, take the air mask off of human-body Jake and watch avatar-body Jake open his eyes. Boom! Swelling music reaches its peak. End credits. Movie over.

This pretty precisely enacts the teleporter thought experiment that has been considered by the likes of Derek Parfit, Daniel Dennett, and Commander Riker: If you create an exact replica of your body and destroy the original, does your conscious experience flow seamlessly from the old body to the new, or do you die while an exceptionally you-like imposter lives the rest of your life? And if, due to a teleporter accident or to your commitment to applied philosophy, the original body is not destroyed, then what's going on?

I'm enough of a materialist to think that two bodies means two conscious experiences (maybe to start there's only one identity common to the two minds, but I think identity and consciousness are probably more loosely coupled than our bodily, one-brain-one-mind experience usually lets on), and if you ax the first body then you've killed one of them. Avatar, in contrast, sets up the action to look like a mind transplant: The faux spiritualism, human Jake being asleep the whole time, the camera movement among body/tree/body make it look like the essential Jake is moving from the now emptied-out human shell into the big blue guy. And again, rolling these ideas around doesn't need to be the business of a James Cameron movie (the Internet at large does a fine, redundant job on this sort of thing). But the movie shows all of this as a grandiose metamorphosis, and then it's over... And I'm left with this unresolved reaction of, "Wait. They just killed human Jake!" They don't even properly euthanize him, they just take off his mask and let him suffocate in the alien atmosphere. (Don't they have a Death with Dignity law in the future? They have one of those in Oregon right now!)

From a plot perspective, too, I would think there's some utility in leaving your human self alive. You've just led an insurrection on an alien moon against a corporate mining concern, with many lives lost. Although the other humans have been beaten back for now, to ward off future colonization attempts and to keep hostilities from escalating, it would be useful to go back to Earth to plead your case and petition for less destructive diplomatic contacts. Now, you'll probably go to prison. And you'll still be paralyzed from the waist down and permanently removed from the woman and culture you love. But surely you can make those sacrifices for the greater good, and take some cold comfort in that you-nought (who has as much a claim to you-ness as you do) is living the good version of your life. More to the point, it's probably better than being dead; by definition the human you can't be the Na'vi you-nought, so you might as well make the most of it. And if it does turn out that human life isn't worth it then, well, you can kill yourself later on.

I think it's inapt and a little bit grisly for the movie to end on a triumphant note -- the remote user finally, entirely being the avatar! -- while brushing aside its depiction of a crudely implemented assisted suicide.

Meanwhile, none of this considers that there's some third form of Jake stored in the tree, along with all of the Na'vi's ancestors (and also Sigourney Weaver, but that's incidental to my point), which is the most genuinely interesting piece of the scenario to contemplate. Who knows what happens in there -- the movie doesn't try to say -- but I'd like to imagine it as a sort of cognitive Thunderdome where each new uploadee is dissolved into a massively parallel web of consciousnesses, each with access to the contents of every former individual's mind, and individual impulses vie for connectivity and processing time in a Darwinian struggle that vaporizes any coherent sense of self-identity into a constantly shifting cloudscape of disassociated first-person experience. "Hang onto your ego," as Brian Wilson sang on an early version of one of Pet Sounds' druggier tracks, "But I know that you're going to lose the fight." Prescient? Perhaps! In a century and a half we'll know for sure.

Kickle Exegesicle

Just before Christmas I bought a pair of retro NES-style USB controllers for my computer, with the idea -- actually urged on me by my girlfriend, in a non-Dodge-Charger-approved inversion of stereotypical relationship roles -- that those, along with running the laptop's output through the TV, would give emulated Nintendo games the classic, hand-cramping experience. And they've worked great! We came home from the holidays, played some Dr. Mario, beat Super Mario Bros. 3 a couple of times, etc. After a couple of weeks I decided that Kyle had to have custody of the controllers so that they wouldn't present me with massive time sinkage opportunities. But I already had the NES bug in my head, so I just wound up downloading a few old games anyway and playing them a bunch with just my keyboard and laptop screen, like before. Somewhere in here there's a failure of human decision making.

Anyway, one of the games I played through a little bit was Kickle Cubicle, as far as I can tell an undistinguished Adventures of Lolo knockoff from 1990. It made my list because it turns out that my long-fossilized gaming tastes apparently aren't merely limited to my system of choice circa 1991 (actually, it might have been more of Mom and Dad's choice, when our couple of halfhearted "Can you get us a Super Nintendo?" requests came back negatory), but limited to games I actually played at some point as a child. And Kickle satisfies that humble criterion: It was something like the fifth-awesomest Nintendo game at our older cousins' house in Rochester, after Top Gun, Jackal, Tecmo Bowl, and probably Caveman Games.

Despite having played the game long enough to finish it on a couple of family visits, and its having caught my fancy enough to come up in occasional bouts of Nintendo-flavored mental weirdness in adulthood, I'm not sure I ever liked the game as such. When I revisited it, though, the game struck a couple of notes of odd ambivalence within my first few minutes of playing it. Said ambivalence was very quickly replaced with mere boredom and casual annoyance. But let's unpack that ambivalence anyway.

First: I don't know what Kickle Cubicle's target audience was, but it looks like a game trying to appeal to girls -- Bright colors, chirpy sound design, bubbly pink hearts, cloyingly cute (though still fatal) enemies. The password entry screen is made up like a diary, another emblem of girlhood. I might think that the game was going for a younger unisex set, but being a puzzle game I doubt it was intended for younger kids of any gender, and boys with the appropriate mental acuity and fine motor control probably would have already aquired a taste for spin-kicking roided-up street fighters out of helicopters and such, rather than rescuing anthropomorphic vegetables and cakes from a wicked snowman-wizard. So I assume the game was made with an eye towards girls -- But then it has a conventionally boy-centric plot! The player controls a little man who goes around rescuing princesses. Kind of sexed-up princesses, actually, based on the first two levels. (It's sort of amazing how easily computer programmers can make recognizable cleavage out of three little dots, until you think about how male they are and how much time they spend shut up in windowless rooms.) After that you might rescue a king and then a little girl princess; I'm not sure, and there's no way I'm throwing a few more hours down the Kickle hole just to verify how affronted my gender politics should be. The point is, Kickle should have been a girl! Throw a bone to those girls playing Nintendo in 1990, give them a female video game character who isn't stuck in the perpetual kidnap/rescue cycle. And the other point is, it's weird to realize you're having a negative political reaction to Kickle Cubicle.

Further in that vein, Second: Maybe it's just because Copenhagen was in the news not so long ago, and Kyle and I heard Al Gore give an agreeably Al Gore-ish talk in Portland late last year. But -- the gameplay involves running around a bunch of ice islands that get crushed up into the ocean when you clear a stage, and the first couple of times that happened, I had a palpable, unsettling, recognizably ridiculous feeling of, "Oh, we do not need to be unfreezing any more sea ice." Similarly, when you kill the boss at the end of a level, their iced-over castles thaw out into a sickeningly verdant shade of Nintendo green, and while the princess thanked the brave young lad onscreen for unfreezing the land I was there kind of thinking, "Well, as much as you love the warmer weather, I'd worry about the impact higher average temperatures will have on your kingdom's agriculture." Not literally thinking that; inchoate wise-ass impressions in that vein drifted through my mind. Underpinning them was a small but genuinely dark reminder about atmospheric carbon, methane frozen in threatened permafrost, humans' psychological inadequacy to taking rapid large-scale preventative measures of any kind, and so on. I don't think we need your help to melt everything down, little man!

In conclusion, I guess I've become some sort of joyless caricature of a liberal.

If the game still has one thing going for it, it's that bizarre name: "Kickle" seems bent on making the long-dead frequentative a productive form in the English language once more, while "Cubicle" darkly foreshadows the Dilbert-esque workplace drudgery that almost all of the game's original players will have aged into by now. If you were to reimagine the game based only on the title, it would probably be about an unintelligible 13th-century Brit running amok in corporate America, assaulting its beaten-down, white-collar denizens with his feet. And that's a game I might really want to play, even if it didn't exist when I was in fifth grade.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mahler 1

The Pittsburgh Symphony finally made it out to New York with Manfred Honeck this week, so I took the Metro North down after work yesterday to catch them at Carnegie Hall. Stu, who works Tuesdays in the city, stuck around for it too, so we had another chance to enjoy our western Pennsylvanian pride together. Usually that's involved Steelers games on TV or the occasional baseball game. The symphony more than holds its own with the sports franchises, of course, most pointedly in being able to play something for sixty minutes without completely unraveling near the end. I considered bringing the Terrible Towel anyway but figured it probably wouldn't be the right context.

Honeck brought them out with Mahler's First Symphony, plus the Brahms Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter. The week's snowstorm didn't land in the city till several hours later, and Carnegie was a well-filled, appreciative hall. As Andrew Druckenbrod noted in the Post-Gazette, Honeck and the orchestra have logged a bunch of hours on Mahler 1 already (and they've recorded it, too), so the concert definitely had the air of a statement being made.

And the statement was a fantastic one, I'm happy to report. First of all, the orchestra sounded great, particularly the winds and brass, who all brought a fully stocked toolkit of tone colors and textures. (The brass can still let it rip, too, of course.) Honeck worked on his details down to a very fine level, and the instrumental layers were marvelously transparent.

But Honeck! Man, he has some powerfully interesting ideas and obviously the chops to bring them off. He didn't so much interpret the symphony as create a complete personality for it. Honeck got his fingers into everything, constantly shaping tempos and phrasing and dynamics. Dramatic gestures had an exaggerated elasticity, and dynamic contrasts were fearlessly played up. Mahler 1 is a huge smorgasbord of musical types, and Honeck heightened the character of everything. The mysterious quiet at the symphony's opening was otherworldly and almost totally static. The nature music had a little extra jaunty, naive skip in its step, while sentimental lines in the strings were lent a perfect ironic gooeyness. Mahler's folk-dance caricatures came across just so, as caricatures, with wry subtlety. And when the time came in the fourth movement for the earnest sturm und drang, and later the crowning affirmation of the conclusion (was this the last time Mahler went in for that, or what?) up opened the skies for the orchestra to play like a force of nature. It's a big, odd, world-embracing symphony, and it got a big, odd, world-embracing performance.

For all his elastic teasing and tugging of melodies, Honeck keeps a good sense of what's authentic to the piece. This is a reading where you're almost always aware of the conductor's decision making -- and Honeck, with his spirited conducting gestures, embodies those decisions visually, too -- and yet it strengthens the identity of the composition. And more to the point, he picks good tempos. When the music is supposed to dance, it dances, and when you're supposed to feel a rush, you feel a rush. The audience clearly dug it, keeping more attentive than usual and thundering out with applause right after.

So now I'm keen to hear him conduct more Mahler, and more of everything else. The PSO has their calendar out for next year, and it's the 5th and 10th that come next, Mahler-wise, neither of which would probably drag me off the coast. But the Brahms Fourth Symphony plus Emmanuel Ax playing Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, in June 2011, might be a destination concert. The PSO extended Honeck's contract through 2016 a few months ago, which sounds like a fine decision to me.

Oh, speaking of Brahms, yes, the Brahms Violin Concerto. It was best in its quiet moments, with exquisite correspondences between Mutter and the orchestra. Mutter's most exciting in the quiet moments, too, or something -- I heard her do Mendelssohn's concerto with the NY Phil last year and thought the same thing. Stu and I agreed that we've been ruined for the Brahms Violin Concerto by listening to recorded classical music, where you put the volume up so it's less delicate and distant-sounding. (We were far back in the third balcony at Carnegie.) Honeck put in a good amount of detail work, but you're still listening to a standard-rep violin concerto, so it's not unusually surprising. Also -- and you'll know this if you've ever listened to the Brahms Violin Concerto -- the first movement is incredibly long and doesn't have any good tunes in it. The miniature wind serenade that starts the slow movement was lovely, though, particularly the oboe solo.

You know what's wild, is that Mahler started writing his First Symphony only eight years after Brahms finished his violin concerto. World of difference!

After the concert, Stu and I skipped the ovations (with regrets) to catch a cab down to Grand Central, but we missed the 10:22 train anyway. So we got a couple bottles of Rolling Rock from the beer vendor by the Metro North trains, sat down on one of the great-hall staircases right by the "SITTING ON STAIRCASE IS PROHIBITED" signs (there's always a little crowd of people sitting there), and chatted and admired the painted-on night sky for a while. Home again at 1:15 in the morning! And I've had Mahler 1 playing in my head all day, accompanying the halfhearted blizzard outside.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Hey Fellas, Seething with Unvoiced Sexual Hatred? Well Then Have We Got the Consumer Product for You!

Seth Stevenson, in Slate, on last night's Super Bowl ads:
"Is it me, or was this year's dose of casual misogyny a little rawer and angrier than usual? Are men feeling especially threatened by the fragile economy and by the fact that the vast majority of job losses have afflicted traditionally male, working-class strongholds like manufacturing and construction?"
I think that hits the nail right on the head! We'd agreed on the same theory last night in front of the TV, in fact (over at Kate's place in Branford, with several folks). Years past, you've got the cheerful physical objectification (Simpsons reference!), but the grim-faced fear of emasculation seems new. Definitely "in" this year. I mean, that one Dodge ad was pretty much a parade of undisguised loathing. Chilling!

But, taking a wider view, isn't this exactly what advertising is intended to do? Provide water cooler talk for one day following the Super Bowl? Distort America's inchoate class anxiety into anti-female resentment that's less threatening to the sociopolitical status quo?

I thought most of the other ads were pretty unremarkable, although the series of spots where Denny's pitched their free Grand Slam breakfasts -- in which chickens, vested with a grotesque minimum of consciousness, react to the looming horror of industrial egg production with unhinged, shrieking terror -- were pleasantly diverting enough.

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Hey, the actual Super Bowl was really good, though! That Tracy Porter interception was totally electrifying, and the whole game had an exciting arc to it. Props to Saints kicker Garrett Hartley and his three 44+ yard field goals, too. That's just got to be unimaginably frightening.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hog Day Afternoon

"I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life." --Bill Murray, Groundhog Day

Sure, six more weeks of winter! Why not! I had a glimmer of optimism earlier today, since there was sunlight and a hint of spring in the morning air, but then it got overcast and the workday kept grinding along. So at the moment I'm sharing the groundhog's assessment. February is one long slog. Already.

I learned last year that the key to enjoying February is to fall in love and then for the Steelers to win the Super Bowl. So that leaves a couple of projects for the offseason.

I wouldn't call this "seasonal affective disorder," for what that's worth. It's a perfectly rational affective response to the season.
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Oh hey, you know what we all have plenty of now, though, is Best Picture nominations. Ten this year! Ten Best Picture nominations means nine Best Picture nominations that I haven't managed to see in the theater, although I would highly recommend An Education, which is also up for Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby, and a snappy job he did of it too). But I've heard good things about everything else. I'm sure they're all perfectly fine movies! Everybody gets a trophy!