Friday, August 28, 2015

BWCA Visit

It's worth asking:

Why would anyone drive for six hours, then pile into a very small and tippy watercraft, paddle into the wind for a hour in misty  50 degree weather, then stop on some rocks and string up a tarp to block the wind and drizzle—all for the purpose of reading a book?

Why? because it's fun. It's expansive. It's challenging. It's elemental.

It's also unpredictable, which adds to the drama.

In the BWCA, you never know where you're going to camp. Campsites are sometimes spaced miles apart, and if the one you're counting on is occupied, you have no choice but to move on.

Our recent trip to the BWCA was somewhat different because we spent the first night in Superior, Wisconsin. That made it easier to move up the North Shore at an unhurried pace the next morning on our way to the Gunflint Trail. We pulled in to the outfitter at Gunflint Lodge to buy a few fire-starters. (It had been raining a lot and dry firewood might be hard to come by in the woods.)  The woman behind the counter gave me a whole bag of brown, oily, bubble-gum-like slabs...for free. That's the late-season discount, I guess.

As we continued west toward trail's end, past luscious green swamps (no moose) and huge pillows of white granitic bedrock (the Saganaga Batholith), we passed a sign pointing to a "Seagull Landing" that I'd seen many times before but never had the time to follow.  I'd seen the road on maps and  knew roughly where it came out onto the lake, however, and considering the direction and force of the wind, it occurred to me it might be a better place to embark from than the channel we usually use. At least it was worth exploring.

Thus we found ourselves a few minutes later paddling across a part of Seagull Lake we'd never seen before. Once having pulled ourselves into the protection of a cluster of islands, we spotted a campsite open , and took it.

It was 1 pm. Our paddling was over. My camp notes (in part) read as follows:

"Spent about an hour rigging up our tarp amid a grove of mid-sized cedar tees—an awkward enterprise and an awkward result, but it served us well, keeping off both the wind and the intermittent mist and drizzle. Patches of blue sky appeared three or four times during the afternoon, but they were fleeting. It was mostly gray and a little bit cold. I was happy I'd bought a sweater at the thrift shop in Grand Marais on the way up.

"We sat on our chairs reading at the edge of the woods, where the wind was less severe, then scampered down the hill to the tarp when the mist started in. (Some people wouldn't think this was much fun.) I had my stocking cap on all afternoon. At one point I went off into the woods to get some firewood and came upon a spruce grouse. Bright red eyebrow. Otherwise hard to see, though he was standing on a log ten feet in front of me."

It was a pleasant afternoon, and it got better when the wind died down and bigger patches of blue sky started to appear overhead about 6 p.m. I took down the tarp; it had been flapping all afternoon and was no longer of much use. We were enjoying the evening sun in the clouds and never got around to making a fire, though we heated water on the stove for our traditional mug of powdered Swiss mocha.

It was deadly still and quiet after the sun went down. Then the loons in the channel in front of the tent started to call loudly, maybe five birds (but maybe only two or three) exchanging their hilarity in an overlapping call and response.

"The stars last night were amazing. The crescent moon had set by the time I went out to pee and the entire sky was illuminated  by stars of great intensity and size. They  looked like holes poked in the blue-black firmament with a blunt instrument, through which blazing white light was pouring. Every part of the sky was filled, but I'd just woken up and the dimmer stars didn't register. It was a thrilling sight and I should have lingered to appreciate it more fully, but I was barefoot, the ground was wet, and it was maybe 50 degrees.

"The wind has shifted. It's now milder, coming from the south. We took a two-and-a-half hour paddle through the warren of islands out to the Palisades and then south into the wind around Three Mile Island, where most of the countryside is in wretched shape due to a forest fire that passed through in 2007.

When we got back we rigged up the tarp at the other end of the campsite. Then lunch. Then more sitting. Listening to the chatter of the kingfishers. Watching a family of six mergansers fishing together along the shoreline.

Now the water in the channel shimmers with golden sunlight muted by the haze, and everything has  a blue-green caste. I've picked up a book a Zen poems I brought along. Reading or not reading, it's largely the same.

And now I hear voices in the distance, though only one canoe has passed this way in the last 24 hours, and those voices are sometimes an illusion, a trick of the wind.

When you're in camp, you spend a lot of time doing nothing. The campsite is huge, open, and grassy. You can look to the west for at least a mile, and we sometimes see parties of distant canoes heading out from the channel we were planning to embark from.

Right now I'm staring at a clump of birch trees that's maybe five years old. 

Further down the hill, I see a solitary tree that might have taken root just last year.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Leonardo and the Leicester Codex

If you happen to go to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this August, you'll have the opportunity to see something most people never get a chance to see—some pages full of writing, with drawings in the margins, by Leonardo Da Vinci. A few years ago Bill Gates paid thirty million dollars for these eighteen sheets of paper, and since then he's allowed them to go on display from time to time.

The pages are encased in Plexiglas (or some such thing), mounted in free-standing kiosks scattered amid four low-lit exhibition rooms, and carefully illuminated to make it possible for you to see both sides. Most viewers won't be able to read anything Leonardo wrote because he wrote in Italian—and in the "wrong" direction, moving from right to left. But the drawings in the margins are interesting and the interpretive signs under each display explain the gist of what Leonardo is exploring on any given two-page spread.

It  would be easy to look at three or four of these pages and say, "This would be  a lot easier if I were sitting in a chair, holding a Dover reprint in my lap." It takes a bit of effort to take a step back and see the "thing"—the sheet of paper that Leonardo actually dragged his pen across five-hundred years ago. Yes, there it is, right before your eyes, albeit tucked safely behind a few thick panes of transparent protective material.

This is the "aura" that Walter Benjamin made such a big deal about with regard to original works of art as opposed to reproductions. It's a form of sympathetic magic. You see,  I never met Leonardo personally, but I have examined the very sheets of paper upon which he recorded his passing thoughts. Cool.

Leonardo crossed out some things, and he sometimes wrote additional comments above and below the lines, but the sheets are remarkable "clean," as if he usually wrote precisely what he was thinking, or was adept at modifying and qualifying his thoughts on the fly, rather than crossing them out and beginning anew.

The drawings, though invariably small, are also remarkably clean. The lines are straight, the shading delicate.

In the last room of kiosks, half-hidden by a couple of protruding walls, there are two illuminated displays with benches in front of them. They add  immeasurably to the impact of the exhibit. You can sit in front of either display and flip electronically through the pages of the codex, reading them in English with the aid of a lens that magically translates the lines into English as you drag it across the screen. This is very cool.

Is the text interesting? Not really, unless you're wondering how water eddies around obstacles or how light bounces off the moon. Leonardo was interested in a great many things, such as how spring water can issue forth from the earth high up in the mountains, and how aquatic shells reached those elevations. Is there water on the moon, and if so, why doesn't fall down to earth? It's fun to see a fertile mind at work, examining various hypotheses, rejecting this one, accepting that one, and giving us the reason why.

But we now know the answers to most of the questions Leonardo pondered. And we know that many of the answers he came up with were wrong. Sure, he got lucky every now and then, with ideas like earthshine, and plate techtonics, and helicopters. Still.

It would be pointless to deny Leonardo's remarkable industry and perhaps unparalleled curiosity. But to portray him as a "genius" of the first order seem like a publicity ploy and doesn't tell us much about him. Aristotle, to take a comparable example, wrote works on aesthetics, formal logic, ethics, and metaphysics each of which forms the bedrock of its respective discipline. I don't think anything similar could be said of Leonardo. He was basically an artist of the first rank and a speculative engineer. He observed, analyzed, and imagined things, and drew many of them with great precision, but he seldom turned any of his work along this line into genuine poetry. I, for one, find it hard to warm to him as a painter, a scientist, or a person.

What I liked best about the Leicester Codex is the note-taking effort itself. Page after page, we find ourselves in the presence of a mind in the act of uninhibited description, analysis, and speculation.  The thought is right there on the page. Leonardo tended to overwork his paintings, but when he jotted down his seemingly boundless ideas he just kept moving ahead.

A stroke of genius on the part of the exhibition curators was to cap the multi-room display of Leonardo's incomprehensible writing with a room filled with huge reproductions of coral reefs made out of colored yarn by members of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring. The pairing is irreverent and gutsy, yet it makes a certain amount of sense, in so far as the intricacy of the crocheting patterns gives the created forms a natural and organic look—just the sort of thing that might have fascinated Leonardo. And the garish colors provide a refreshing contrast to the dimly lit pages of the monotone codex.

The final room of the exhibit is even further removed from the spirit of Leonardo...but it also happens to be engaging. It exhibits a video, projected on an enormous screen, called "The Raft" by Bill Viola that runs perhaps fifteen minutes. For much of the time we watch a group of people who seem to be waiting for a bus. No one talks, no one moves. One by one, a few other individuals show up and muscle their way into the crowd without too much effort or resistance.m(The man reading a book barged his way in a few minutes ago; the woman in red and blue on the right is starting to weaver her way through the crowd.)  The only sound is an ominous off-stage rumbling.
Everything changes when enormous blasts of water appear from either side and continue to pour over the waiting people for several minutes, battering them brutally. Some fall to the floor almost immediately, others hold their own impassively as best they can.

Finally the deluge comes to an end and the individuals either try to help one another up, or don't. Viola claims to have been inspired by Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa," and in the final panel above you can see a faint resemblance.

It's a bizarre scenario, but for some reason I found it mesmerizing.  

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Perfect Combo - Zen Box and Source Song Festival

Not quite sure what to do with ourselves after a month of serious choral singing, we decided to spend some time listening to other people sing. The McPhail Center for Music happened to be hosting a week-long festival called Source Song. Many of the events were workshops and master classes designed for advanced students and professional singers, composers, and accompanists, but some of the evening recitals were free, the programs looked enticing, and best of all, they were only an hour long.

I'm a big fan of the art song, whether it be eighteen-century Italian, nineteenth-century German, or twentieth-century French. In the first place, the naked human voice is a lovely instrument, and due to that fact, even the most astringent modern compositions for voice can hardly avoid being lyrical. It also seems that the poems chosen for text often take on added depth or poignancy in a musical setting.

One added feature of these recitals was that they started at 6:15. This meant that we could park down near the river—plenty of meters available at that time of day—and check out the Happy Hour at Zen Box Izakaya, which runs from five to six.

The items we sampled at Zen Box were uniformly fresh and tasty, from the Moyashi Itame (Bean sprouts, carrots, onion stir-fry) to the Age Gyoza (crispy pot-stickers with Kamikaze sauce). I loved the Daigaku Imo (fried sweet yams) and the Chicken Kara-Age (boneless pieces of fried chicken Japanese style). The seaweed salad tasted like the salad they serve on the pier in Morro Bay, California (that is to say, very good) and the Chashu (flame-grilled pork belly) was like limp flavorful rounds of thin bacon sitting in a bowl of rice covered in citrus soy.

The wait-staff at Zen Box all wear t-shirts and headbands, as if they've just stepped in from the rice paddies, or were trying out to be extras in The Seven Samurai. The house wines and sake are served in beakers from which you can refill your little shot glass again and again.

Refreshed and invigorated by an array of bright but not overly spicy flavors, we walked a block and a half to the McPhail Center, stopping along the way to plug a few more quarters into our meter.

The McPhail's Antonello Hall is one of my favorite venues. The chairs aren't great, but the theater space is smallish while opening out to the city via an enormous window behind the stage. The wood paneling on the walls is an added pleasure.

And we were in select company—among the privileged few.  There were eleven artists set to perform (including the pianists, of course), and by my count, there were thirty people in the audience. If we add to the list of artists the four composers in the audience who stood up to receive a share of the applause as their presence was acknowledged by the singer on stage who'd just performed their work, then the ratio between artist and listener becomes more balanced yet.

We ducked into the recital hall too late to read the program, and throughout the set I was thinking that these students were very talented indeed. Only later did I learn that they'd flown in from Maryland, Philadelphia, Delaware, and North Dakota. (Maybe she drove down.) They'd come to study with the composers and vocalists involved with Source Song, including French baritone Francois Le Roux and Russian baritone Anton Belov. It was great fun listening to them sing.

The recital we attended that first night was devoted to compositions by living composers from Minnesota, but thinking back on them now, I couldn't tell you anything much about stylistic differences between composers or individual pieces. The personalities of the singers made a much stronger impression, not only though their voices by also through their choice of clothing, their postures, and their facial expressions. The next night we returned again to hear the same vocalists perform Brahms, Wolf, deFalla and other venerable composers.

Superficial impressions: One soprano had a confident bearing on stage, a warm tone, curly black hair, and great strength in the upper register, but I was troubled by the glittery collar on her black dress. Another had stout legs and bold posturing, but her voice seemed to be beaming from outer space, pure and clear, and the variety of expressions that passed across her face as she sang was extraordinary. One had a pinched and plaintive face that came to life when she sang Poulenc.  And another had the appearance of a well-heeled former soccer mom who'd taken up a new career to find fulfillment—and discovered she had the pipes to pull it off.

Whether it was me, or the hall, or the Daigaku Imo, I don't know, but I also found the pianists very pleasant to listen to. Rather than focusing intensely on their own expressive power, they were focusing on something less predictable—the vocalist's pace. And freed of the burden of relentlessly carrying the tune, they could let the textures flow.   

We ran into our friend Athena Kildegaard after the performance, and I asked her if she might, by chance, be related to the Anika Kildegaard who had just sung so beautifully.

"She's my daughter," she said proudly. "But did you happen to see the recital Wednesday night by Francois Le Roux? I don't speak French, but it was magnificent."

"I'll tell you what," I said. "I have the compete songs of Faure and Poulenc on eight CDs. How would you like I burn you a selection? "

"That would be great," she said. 

And so I did.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

On Singing in a Choir - Oratorio Society Summer Chorus

Sure, I can belt out "Blue skies, shining on me" from the stern of a canoe, and I can sing "Away, away, with rum, by gum" around a campfire with the best of them. But singing in a choir, in parts, is not something I have done or had a burning desire to do in recent years. But Hilary thought it might be fun. Perhaps a church choir—though we haven't been to church in years—or one of the many local choral societies.  

On our first foray into that realm together—a December sing-along Messiah at Central Lutheran Church downtown—I got caught up in the majesty of standing in the midst of a few hundred powerful voices, even if mine wasn't one of them.

Then we heard from our friend Debbie that the Oratorio Society Choir was sponsoring a Summer Chorus (along with the U of M's School of Music) that might fit the bill. Auditions were not required, though the promo literature made it clear that prior experience singing in a choir was essential. The commitment would consist of two-and-a-half-hour rehearsals twice a week for a month, followed by one Saturday dress rehearsal with full orchestra and a performance later that same evening. Could be done.

To my mind the crowning virtue of the program was the repertoire—opera choruses!

I hadn't sung in a choir since my teen years, so I sent the organizers what I considered to be a delicately phrased email. My question was this:  If you loved opera but hadn't sung in a choir in forty years, weren't good at sight-singing, and didn't sing very loud at any rate, would it be appropriate for you to sign up?

The reply was pleasant and to the point. Sight-singing wasn't really required because they would send you Youtube videos of the choruses and Mp3 files of your specific parts to listen to. Nor was it important that you sing loud. (Probably just the reverse!) In short, if you could read music, carry a tune, and were willing to put in the time (and send in the entry fee) you would certainly be welcome to participate.

Thus I found myself one hot summer evening sitting on a chair in a large rehearsal hall at the University of Minnesota with 150 strangers. Hilary had also signed up, and so had Debbie, along with her daughter, and Becca, another good friend, so there were a few friendly faces in the crowd. I learned via Facebook that the sister of a friend was singing across the room in the soprano section, and I went over to chat with her during break once or twice. And I soon made the acquaintance of Doug, a mild-mannered man sitting next to me in the back row.

After a few relaxing warm-up exercises that first night, we dispersed into "sectionals," where the first thing we did was divide ourselves into 1s and 2s. When asked, I reported that I was a "tenor 2." I had no previous knowledge of this concept, but figured lower was the better place to hide. In the only choir I'd ever sung in there were only two tenors—me and my dad; dividing us in two would have been easy, but it probably wouldn't have been a good idea.

That first night the tenors and basses went over a few of the pieces in the program with Alex, one of the student conductors, at the piano. We were asked to sing a crisp "pom-pom-pa-pom" rather than the words in the score— S’intrecci il loto al lauro. This made it easier to move ahead without struggling with the Italian, and also more difficult to swoop lazily up to the proper pitch. "Hear the note in your mind," Alex advised us, "so when you open your mouth, it comes out clear." Easier said than done.

Later that evening we regrouped with the altos and sopranos, and several other grad students also took a turn at the podium. I was immediately impressed with how cheerful and competent most of them were.  I believe they may have learned this from maestro Matthew Mehaffey, who had a buoyant sense of humor and a vast assortment of one-liners, always delivered in a cheerful voice. "Don't sing it like you heard it in the movies; sing it like it's written on the page." "That was fair: Now sing it with your 'pretty' voice." "I'm getting paid to do this, and when you don't sing at my tempo, it hurts my feeling." "Altos, you have a whole measure to take a deep breath; don't wait 'til the last second."

Though I'm sure Matt had used many of these lines before, he was also clearly adept at developing humorous remarks on the spot to sugar-coat the bitter pill of any and every suggestion for improvement--and there were many.    

A key element of these rehearsals was to avoid wasting time. We were advised not to ask questions among ourselves; it was a distraction to others. And we were advised not to ask questions of the conductor, either. There wasn't enough time. They'd be available during breaks to help us with whatever questions we had.  

The rehearsals invariably started slowly, but then went by in a flash, and afterward, as we walked with our friends across the pedestrian bridge from Ferguson Hall to the parking lot through the warm summer night, I was twice as alert and not nearly so tired as when we'd arrived three hours earlier.

At the second rehearsal I was distressed to find that Doug, who had been sitting beside me the first night, was down in the third row. "What are you doing down there," I lamented. "I was leaning on you all the way."

"No, I was leaning on you," he replied, and we both laughed. (At the next rehearsal Doug was gone.)

I was now sitting next to Tony and Dale, who were long-time buddies. They were cordial but mostly interested in talking to one another rather than me. Little by little I gained Tony's ear, and that was important because he was an experienced singer. In the course of later rehearsals I learned that he used to rebuild pianos for a living and was once a choir director himself. So when Lukas, the German specialist among our student conductors, would slow the music down and then say, "Put a fermata in there," I would glance over Tony's shoulder to see what he was doing. I know what it means to slow down; Tony knew what a fermata looks like.

One thing I found it hard to accept was how high Tony was singing the first few bars of Wagner's "Treulich Gefuhrt." The note was a D above middle C, eventually rising to a G. Tenors could not be expected to sing that high, could they?

Working it out on a piano when we got home that night, I discovered that he'd been right. And a little online research led to the discovery that tenors are expected to sing far higher than that. I started to wonder if perhaps, over the years, I'd become a baritone.

Practicing at home proved to be more difficult than I expected. The Mp3 for the grand finale of Aida, to take an example, started at a place where we weren't actually supposed to sing. They'd included the solo part.  The score for Pirates of Penzance had about twelve staffs, and I had no idea if I was supposed to be singing the Tenor, the tenors, or the chorus of pirates. And the two tenor lines in Tannhauser's "Pilgerchor" were both on the same Mp3 file, making it difficult to hear the lower line I was supposed to be singing. (Admittedly, it all became easier once I figured out that on the score the second tenor part was marked with staffs pointing down rather than up.)

At times it seemed we lived in a madhouse, with Hilary pounding out an alto line on the piano in the living room and me in the office, two closed doors beyond, trying to figure out how to parse "Gloria all’Egitto, ad Iside, Che il sacro suol protegge!" among fifteen notes of varying length and emphasis.

Somehow, everything became easier once we'd reassembled with the group. In part this was because we were once again focused on very small sections of a score, but it was also sometimes easier to find the correct path with confidence in the aural context of the fuller harmonies all around you. And who knows? Maybe the at-home practicing also made a difference.

By the end of our second rehearsal, the complexity of the task ahead had largely been revealed. We were set to learn eleven choruses. And it wasn't merely a matter of hitting the right notes. Phrasing (in German, French, or Italian), emphasis, dynamics, diction, mood—they all needed to be attended to, as well as the vocal "sound." The appropriate staffs of my score were soon highlighted in yellow. I scribbled Ks over the Italian "che"s, and "oink" above the German "euch." The pages were littered with "stop," "go to the top of 13," "breathe," "staccato," "quick page turn," "same as soprano end-note here," "dramatic volume," "sing piano, but with fortissimo consonants," and numerous other bits of advice, some of them incomprehensible to me now.    

Several of the student conductors were with us during the last part of the third rehearsal, listening, conferring. As it came to an end and I walked slowly down the risers, I had a vision of Matt, the Oratorio Society's director, pulling a few twenties out of his wallet (my entry fee) and handing them back to me.

"You did your best," he'd say in his kindliest voice, trying for once to suppress his exuberance, "But we really can't use you. It's not working out."

No such event took place, and in time things started to gel a little. Or so it seemed to me. At the next men's sectional, I had the good fortune to be joined by one of the graduate students. He strode up behind me and took the empty chair next to mine. "What section is this?" he asked quietly. "Second tenor? Do you mind if I join you? I don't really have much to do tonight." He had a beautiful voice and with his help I made my way for the first time fairly convincingly through the rich inner textures of Tannhauser's  "Pilgrim's Choir."

Had he been sent to check me out? To help me along? To blot out the singing of Brad, the eager but fidgety  baritone to my left? Maybe he was telling the truth, just killing time.

When the rehearsal was over, I said, "You can sing with us any time." He asked me if I was in the regular Oratorio Choir (I had to chuckle at that) and when I told him I hadn't sung in a choir in forty years, he asked, "Are you enjoying it?" And I found myself answering, "It's a riot."

Of course, many members of this ad hoc summer choir were seasoned singers. Quite a few were members of the regular Oratorio Society Chorus. Hilary was sitting next to a woman who sang regularly  in the Twin Cities' Women's Choir. Tony's friend Dale had sung for years with the Edina Choir. I learned by chance from the tenor sitting in front of me that seven members of his church choir had joined up. These were the people that moved the music ahead and gave it body.

Yet there were certain places where everyone sounded terrible. For example, in the finale to Act II of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, there's a lot of shouting and fascistic, march-like exclamations, with everyone blaring out "Fearless, mighty, ruthless warrior, Hail!" The "Hail" is held for three and a half bars on a dissonant triad. Then, after a two-beat rest, the tenors and basses come in with "Sing his praise,"  starting on A-sharps an octave apart. That A-sharp is somewhat out of context harmonically with what has come before, and no one seemed to know quite where it was. A few courageous voices forged boldly ahead with rough approximations while the rest of us limped along behind, but the little phrase "Sing his praise" ended up sounding hesitant and slightly pathetic rather than boisterous and celebratory, as if they were being sung, not by enthusiastic followers but by salaries apparatchiks.

However, the next day I downloaded that piece as performed by Torgny Sporsen, Neeme Järvi, and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I wanted to burn a CD of the choruses included in the program, and I owned most of them, but not the Borodin (and not the Wagner). As I listened, it occurred to me that the Gothenburg Chorus didn't sound so hot on that passage, either. Indeed, listening to the choruses on my CD from Aida and Nabucco, I came to the conclusion that many professional choirs sound like holy hell when you really stop to listen.  

I shared that theory with Tony at the next rehearsal and he politely rejected it with a shake of the head. "It's not easy to record such things," he said, "but you can tell a good chorus when you hear one."

As a sentimental aside, I ought to mention that Borodin's Polovtsian Dances holds a special place in my heart. When I was a wee lad, my parents would occasionally build a fire in the fireplace on a winter night, put that LP on the hi-fi, and turn out the lights, at which point my big brother and I would dance in front of the flames. That's one of the most peaceful and enchanting memory from my early childhood. And even today, the tuneful sections of that piece sound lovely to me.

By the time we'd entered the fourth and final week of rehearsals, I was confident that the concert would go okay, that no one was going to kick me out ... and that I still needed to work on quite a few things.

As we began to rehearse larger segments and then entire pieces, things started to sound better. (Or could it be that things sounded better as the conductor less often stopped us to fix things?) But just when all seemed to be going well, yet another complication was added. During the last Wednesday rehearsal, several of the conductors made it clear that they expected us to look at them, more than occasionally, rather than at the notes and markings in our score.

How were we supposed to follow the notes, remember the weird phrasing, and make use of all the scribbling on our score, if we were looking at them? But of course it was necessary. They were providing the tempi, signaling the crescendos and the dramatic delays. The final touches of expressiveness came from the conductor's gestures. If you weren't paying attention, you could screw things up big time.

"I would rather that you mispronounced every Italian word while looking up, projecting your voice, and sharing your enthusiasm with the audience," Matt told us, "than sing every word perfectly with your nose buried in the score." This is something you tell the choir on the last day of rehearsal, not the first.

On the Saturday morning of the performance Hil and I were back at work at our parts. A few lines of Italian were still bothering me. They appear at the start of a movement, when I should be looking at the conductor, but they still weren't matching up very well with the tune, though at our previous rehearsal, Catherine, one of the student conductors, had made it clear we should long since have memorized the passage.

I typed out the phrases, and then highlighted the points of emphasis.  

"sembra una vedova che al-fin si togli-e i bruni panni ond’ e-ra involta."

An even more phonetic rendering would have looked like this.

sem-broo-na vey-do-va Kal-fin-si tow-ley-ee ...

But time was getting short, the lines amounted to about five seconds in a ninety-minute performance—and I was getting a little sick to my stomach. So I decided to drop the effort and read a book for a while.

When we arrived at the theater that afternoon, whatever butterflies I'd experienced fluttered off for good. It was fun sitting in the empty seats of the theater watching Matt, Alex, Catherine, and others rearrange the kettle drums and move the music stands here and there. The performance was still six hours away but there was already a hint of electricity in the air.  

Orchestra members started to arrive, among them my friend Dave, a trombonist who performs regularly with the Minnesota Opera. We got to talking about the Borodin piece, the shouting harmonies of which I characterized as "Sythian." I was thinking less about the Sythian mode than about Prokofiev's bizarre and seldom-performed Sythian Suite. Dave is an expert at sustaining a conversation on the strength of half-truths, puns, and imaginative digressions and he asked me where the Sythians came from. I replied "central Turkey," though it occurs to me now that "central Asia" might have been a better response. Dave had just finished reading a book about the origins of the fez, and  we were on the verge of extending our conversation in new directions when the time came to take our seats for the final rehearsal.

I was relieved to find I was still seated in the back row next to Tony and Dale, with Brad the Baritone to my immediate left. (During rehearsals Brad and I had always had a chair or two in between us.) I'd gotten to like Brad during our month of singing together. All the conductors knew him because he sang in one of the university choirs, and he told me he also gave saxophone lessons to kids. I was especially pleased to note that the tie he'd chosen for the performance was much louder than mine.  

Tony had looked a little bedraggled at some of the rehearsals but he now looked well-rested and sharp. "I enjoy the rehearsals a lot more than the performance," he told me with a sigh. I also learned that he'd once taught English in Thief River Falls, though he was now in IT. When I mentioned that I edited and designed books for a living, he said, "You should talk to Dale, here. That's what his daughter does."

Leaning over I said, "Dale, what's your daughter's name?"

When he told me I said, "I've known Kelley for years. She was with Beaver's Pond, then went to Lerner, as I recall. She even brought an intern over to the house once—I'm self-employed—to introduce her to a 'designer' at work."

Small world.

Such incidental familiarities may be uninteresting to a seasoned vocalist, but to me they were important, in so far as I had no idea how I was actually doing; rehearsal time is largely spent singing or listening and responding as a group to bits of advice. Personal interactions are only likely to take place with the people you already know and the people sitting next you.

In the end, I found that I enjoyed the rehearsals, but perhaps enjoyed the performance even more. This may have been because during rehearsals, one part of your brain is removed, gathering information about what went wrong and how little things can be improved upon. During the performance that chunk of brain power is released from such tasks and can turn itself toward the job at hand—singing expressively. If you flub a line or lose track of a pitch there's nothing to be done but move on ahead, and that's a liberating feeling. Most of the things I'd learned during rehearsal seemed to be coming back to me unbidden (though all the pencil markings helped) as part of the natural flow of the music.

The addition of an orchestra didn't hurt either. The soloists and conductors in tuxedos gave the event a touch of class. And with seven hundred people in the audience, I couldn't help feeling that, aside from being a lot of fun, what was about to take place was really going to mean something, with everyone contributing freely, anonymously, to a single powerful and pleasing effect.

We met some friends in the lobby after the performance and I was pleased to see that even Sheila, who sang opera professionally in Germany for twenty years, now gives voice lessons, and refers to herself as "hypercritical," claimed to have loved the show.

"I cried all the way through Puccini's 'humming chorus,' " she said. In fact, her eyes still looked a little moist. Maybe the encore sing-along of "Va Pensiero" had also gotten to her.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age

The focus of this rambling treatise disguised as a cultural critique is the relationship between the is and the ought. Susan Nieman explores the works of Kant and Rousseau, Hegel and Hume, in her efforts to describe how our view of “real life” takes shape, how it’s challenged by cruel experience, and how we ought to respond to that challenge. Half Enlightenment philosophy and half developmental psychology, and liberally strewn with clichés about the nihilism and disillusionment of today’s youth, Neiman has a very simple piece of advice to give us—acknowledge the logic of the real, without abandoning our pursuit of the ideal.

Good idea. As a small way of putting the pursuit of the ideal into effect, let me suggest a few ways that her own book might have been improved.

1) Much tighter editing. There are long passages that introduce us to elements in a philosopher’s thought or biography that have no bearing on the issue at hand. It were as if Neiman had written a term paper about Rousseau’s Emile and decided to include the entire thing as a means of padding the book. The presentation would have been more compelling if a hundred pages had been cut.

2) Better philosophy. Neiman is a devout Kantian, and she accepts many of Kant’s odd notions uncritically. For example, the idea that space and time are categories of the human mind, rather than aspects of the world outside out heads; that causality is a necessary principle of understanding; that a categorical rule can be a foundation for ethical behavior. It might have been a better idea for her to use Kant as an example of the delusional thinking that can make it difficult for individuals to open themselves up to the adult world. Kant’s eloquent Scottish predecessor David Hume made two important observations that Kant found it impossible to accept: that life is inherently unpredictable and morality is based on feeling more than on logic.

In light of Neiman’s affection for Kant, it comes as no surprise to find that she misrepresents the theories of his successor Hegel entirely. This is singularly unfortunate, because Hegel’s description of what he calls “the phenomenology of spirit” dovetails nicely with Neiman’s own theories concerning how the developing consciousness comes to grip with “the real.”

Neiman describes the contrast between the two positions in one place as follows:
Hegel, like Leibniz, has the curious effect of bringing us back to the place where we accept the given as given, not because we have followed the Stoic’s advice to detach ourselves from it, but because we have understood something about the nature and necessity of the given itself. For Kant, by contrast, philosophy’s role in helping us grow up is precisely the opposite. It will not console or sooth you; it is practically guaranteed to make your life harder. For the real is not rational, and reason’s task is to make sure we never forget it.
Neiman’s basic mistake here is to imagine that when Hegel refers to “the real” he’s talking about our day-to-day understanding of the life going on all around us. Not so. For Hegel there is only one “reality” and it’s a dynamic one: spirit. Spirit moves though history, and wherever we come upon it—in a noble act or a stunning work of art—we make contact with “the real.” Similarly, our own actions become “real’ only when they’re inspired.

Hegel recognized that we’re seldom entirely satisfied with the things we do, and rightly so. Our actions never fully achieve the desired effect. Thus his philosophy describes the workings of “reality” as a restless and energetic dialectic between thinking and doing fueled by “spirit.” Hegel’s message is the same as Neiman’s, except that it focuses less on glib abstractions and more on genuine historical manifestations of the ideal becoming real. For Hegel, as for Neiman, "growing up" entails participating, forging ahead, strengthening our affections and advancing our ideals, mindful of our failures and inadequacies and reshaping our efforts in light of them.

3) Broader range of reference. Neiman fails to duly appreciate that from the aesthetic (rather than the ethical) point of view, the world can appear quite lovely just as it is. Children appreciate things, of course. Learning to deepen our appreciation as life as it becomes more troublesome and complex is another important aspect of “growing up.”

Neiman does advise us to read Middlemarch, limit our time on the Internet, and consider travel a part of our education. Such platitudinous recommendations are spread throughout the book—so much so that they begin to sound like the lectures we received at the kitchen table from Aunt Betty, who dropped out of grad school to raise a family but doesn’t mind sharing a word of advice from time to time. The only thing missing is the cherry pie.

A book so heavily laden with errors, blindspots, and truisms would not have been worth mentioning, except that Neiman’s pursuit is basically a noble one. At one point I pulled my copy of Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics off the shelf to double-check one of her references and was led to a useful passage exemplifying Kant’s failure to come to grips with Hume’s attack on induction.

To give Neiman credit, she’s trying hard to make some important ideas intelligible, ignoring the quibbles of her academic colleagues in an effort to enrich the lives of common readers like me.

The single worst element of the book is the cover, over which the author perhaps had no control. It shows a cluster of colorful but faded balloons, as if from a child’s birthday party. It’s easy to imagine a bevy of twenty-somethings in a New York marketing department discussing how to make what is essentially an erudite exercise in intellectual history look like a critique of societal ills on the order of David Brooks’s recent forays into that realm. Words in the title such as “subversive” and “infantile” are likewise designed to pull us in.

For myself, I don’t believe we live in an infantile age. On the contrary, I’m often flabbergasted by the depth of insight on display in a wide range of print and online publications and also by the weight of moral concern evident in even the most casual Facebooks posts. “Spirit,” Hegelian or otherwise, continues to percolate through events, and young people continue to surprise their elders by the freshness of their perspectives and the wisdom of the choices they make.

Would young people be better off if they read Kant and Hegel? I doubt it. Would they be better off after reading Neiman's book? Perhaps.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

About Elly - Country Weekend Goes Bad

One of my favorite film genres doesn't even have a name, but we can call it the "country weekend" genre. In such films, family members or friends of long standing go on a short vacation together, share some meals, wine, and conversation, along with perhaps some shocking revelation or illicit encounter, and return home, their lives changed in ways they never could have anticipated.

The classics in the genre include Betrand Tavernier's A Sunday in the Country, Mikhail Mikhalkov's Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, Claude Sautet's Paul, Vincent, Francois and the Others, and Renoir's seminal Rules of the Game. American attempts would include The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus Seven, and Kenneth Bragnaugh's Peter's Friends might also qualify, though I haven't seen it.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi explores these themes in About Elly, during which three married couples make their way to the Caspian Sea from Tehran for a holiday weekend.

The film starts out with a flurry of activity as the group, traveling in several vehicles, stops for a picnic, and it remains confusing as they arrive at the resort only to find that due to a reservation mix-up, they must accept accommodations in a spacious but seriously rundown seaside villa rather than a more comfortable and secure unit.

Several of the women are virtually indistinguishable to the foreign eye, and it took me quite a while to sort everyone out, but it eventually becomes clear that along with three married couples and several children, another woman has been invited. This is Elly, the kindergarten teacher of Sepideh's daughter. Sepideh is eager to introduce Elly to Ahmad, a recently-divorced friend who's also been invited. 

And therein lies the crux of the drama. To circumvent Iranian legal restrictions on unmarried couples traveling together, Sepideh tells the proprietor of the resort that Elly and Ahmad are newly-weds. As the day progresses, Elly and Ahmad become the butt of numerous wisecracks and knowing smirks and glances. The married couples think this is all in good fun. (Of course, the men will be sleeping in one room, the women in another.) And Ahmad, who finds Elly appealing, is also quick to join in the humor, but Elly finds such over-familiarity embarrassing.

As the group tidies up the villa and prepares the evening meal, there's plenty of dancing and raillery, and even a lively game of charades, though tensions are building below the surface. Why did Sepideh invite this woman, if she's going to be so shy? And why did Sepideh do such a bad job of booking the reservation?

Shohreh is not happy about being so close to the water, which her children find irresistible: They'll have to be watched continually. One of the vehicles gets stuck in the sand. And to top it all off, the next morning Elly decides she wants to go back to Tehran. Sepideh insists that she stay.

By this time, in the midst of all the swimming, the meals, and the volleyball, several marital spats have developed, and the ugly patriarchic underpinnings of Iranian culture have begun to strip the weekend of its remaining vestiges of fun.

And then, Elly disappears.

I don't mean to give away the second half of the film, but Sepideh is eventually forced to admit she knows more about this mysterious Elly than she's let on. The police, the owners of the resort, and a few new characters become involved in a quest to determine what happened to Elly, and who she really is. A good deal of tension develops and recriminations start flying in every direction before things finally get sorted out. Along the way director Farhedi raises a host of troubling questions about honor, lying, and social solidarity.

Unfortunately, they're the kind of questions we can't discuss without giving away too much of the plot.

About Elly makes a good companion piece to Farhedi's subsequent film, A Separation, which deservedly won the 2012 Oscar for best foreign film. It's equally intricate, well-acted, and unpredictable, but slightly less brutal.    

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bastille Day Meditations

At a time when the Eurozone is fraught with stress, Iran has cut a nuclear deal with the West, China's markets are tanking, a Serb has defended his Wimbledon title with force and his character with a healthy dose of small-town charm, a new pentaquark particle has been discovered, and the Americans are sending a spacecraft alongside a planet so far away that it only circles the sun once every 250 years, Bastille Day arrives—and none too soon.

Unlike the slightly frantic and explosion-centered Fourth of July, Bastille Day has become a more broadly international, non-religious, open-ended celebration of personal liberty, artistic expression, social indulgence, and community values—all the things that make civilized living worthwhile.

Though their political clout has diminished considerably since the nineteenth century, the French maintain a certain cachet as a culture in which nature, life, and work sit in easy harmony with one another.

At the warehouse where I used to work,  members of the receiving department used to celebrate Bastille Day with strong, fresh-roasted coffee, croissants, and marmalade. Year in and year out, we would invite someone from another department—invariably a woman who could speak French—to recite a poem by Apollinaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, or some other deranged poet. Those days are long gone, but I can nevertheless offer a reading of my own, chosen less for substance (I don't know French) than for brevity.

Le Dromadaire
Avec ses quatre dromadaires
Don Pedro d' Alfaroubeira
Courut le monde et 'ladmira.
Il fit ce que je voudrais faire
Si j'avais quatre dromadaires.

We missed the Bastille Day parties in town this year, but on Sunday evening we wandered down with friends to the Dakota on Nicollet Mall to listen to the South Side Aces play the sprightly tunes of Creole jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet.

Tonight will be a quiet celebration: lamb chops on the grill along with grilled red peppers, carrots, and onions, and maybe a bottle of cheap Cote du Rhone. On the turntable? Accordionist Richard Galliano's new duo album, La Vie en Rose, with guitarist Sylvain Luc.

It's a nice album, but if it starts to sound a little too French, we can turn to a CD I picked up today at the library for a dollar—Art of Love: the Music of Machaut. The artist, Robert Sadin, was unfamiliar to me but the CD had been shelved in the "jazz" category. Listening to it on the way home from the library, it struck me as neither jazz nor Machaut, but some sort of African hodgepodge. Yet I suspect a lot of thought went into the arrangements. Glancing at the liner notes Sadin is quoted as saying: "Recent studies suggest that the performing style of the late fourteenth century was not as pristine or as 'classical' as once was believed. In any case, we were looking for a far-reaching, free-form approach to the music." Should be interesting.

I had gone to the library to pick up a book I'd requested, Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet. The introduction was by James Salter, who died recently, and as I read it I came upon a wonderful, and typically Salter-esque phrase. He's describing what it's like to visit Bonnet's 40,000-volume library:

"You recognize, with a kind of terrible joy, all that you haven't read and that you would like to read. Titles and names strike what can only be called chords of desire."

You can probably tell that I'm not getting much done today. But as a woman in Arles once told me, "aujourd'hui personne travail." I think it's the only French sentence I ever understood, and there's a story behind it, but I don't have time to tell it now.

The chipmunks are enjoying the ripening berries on the dogwood outside the bedroom window. And four full-grown turkeys continue to pass by regularly out on the front lawn. Today they remind me of Porthos, Athos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan.