Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saint Paul / the Universe

Friday afternoon in sleepy St. Paul, Minnesota, it’s surprising what you run into sometimes. The Winter Carnival is in full swing and the sidewalks that crisscross Rice Park are lined with evergreens brought in especially for the occasion. Ice sculptures and concession tents are scattered everywhere.

We’d come downtown to see the Imax show about the Hubble Telescope. It’s a remarkable experience—about as close as most of us will ever come to exploring the nether reaches of the universe. More than half the show is devoted to recent attempts by astronauts to repair the Hubble, which circles the earth every ninety minutes. That’s compelling enough. But even better are the sequences that take us into the heart of distant nebulae where stars are forming. Evidently there are a hundred billion galaxies in our universe (at last count) and each one has maybe a hundred billion stars in it. Quite a few glowing balls out there, with some enormous stretches of emptiness in between—to say the least. It’s awesome to contemplate, dazzling to look at, and hard to wrap your brain around. What more can I say?

After a cheap, satisfying dinner at Rhum Mit Thai, we stopped in at the Landmark Center to watch a slightly more down-to-earth show: the Bounce Team tryouts. Contestants take a running start, then leap up onto a large round piece of canvas being held in place four feet off the ground by ten or twelve burly men. The young woman sits cross-legged as she re-establishes her balance, bobbing gently up and down as the men work the canvas. Then the head bouncer says “Here we go. One-two-three-up you go!” At that point the men pull harder and the young woman flies about fifteen feet up into the air. The better ones smile and touch their fingers to their toes while remaining upright. The other ones smile, too, as they flail wildly to keep from spinning upside down and breaking their neck when they hit the canvas again.

Our next stop was across the street at Meritage, where we nabbed two chairs at the new bar. We happened to be directly in front of the bartender’s work station, and after I’d watched the fellow make a Hatter—bourbon, vermouth, Chartreuse, and lemon peel, served straight up in a curved martini glass—I ordered one myself. The couple next to us was enjoying a large iced plate of oysters. The tiny lights from the trees across the street were twinkling in the darkness like a stray galaxy from ten billion years ago. (Or maybe the Hatter was beginning to take effect.)

Our final stop was upstairs in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s third floor concert space, where we heard concert-master Steven Copes and friends make their way through a frothy Britten oboe fantasia, Mozart’s quintet K. 515, and Brahms quintet opus 111. The Britten was a pleasant appetizer, and the Mozart was rich (though I’ve heard that piece so many times I have a hard time appreciating it fully). But the Brahms quintet was truly magnificent. Complicated, tuneful, masterfully constructed. The danger, in performing Brahms, is turgidity (is that a word?) but these musicians kept the piece lively, with various voices ringing out in ways I hadn’t heard before. It made the Mozart quintet, for all its texture and brilliance, seem like a warm-up exercise. I guess that’s saying something.

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